2004.10.27 Cambodians prepare for King Sihamoni's coronation

Cambodians were preparing for three days of rituals and glittering celebrations beginning on Thursday to mark the coronation of their first new monarch in more than 60 years, King Norodom Sihamoni.

The 51-year-old Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer and cultural diplomat, officially took the title of king when he was selected by a throne council on October 14, a week after the shock abdication of his father Norodom Sihanouk. The coronation however is a crucial religious and symbolic event for Cambodians, comprised of three days of complex ancient Buddhist and Brahmin rituals aimed at securing divine blessings for the new monarch.

Celebrations will be more low-key than some of the lavish coronations held during the history of Cambodia's monarchy, which stretches back centuries to the period that saw the construction of the famed Angkor Wat temple complex.

Sihanouk's return to the throne in 1993 -- he abdicated in 1955 -- was also marked by a similarly quiet ascension as unrest was ongoing in the wake of the murderous 1970s Khmer Rouge regime which left up to two million dead. "The coronation day represents the start of a new historical era for the monarchy," Min Khin, secretary general of Cambodia's national and international festivals committee, told AFP.

The rituals begin at sunrise on Thursday, when four white-robed Brahmin priests resident at the sprawling royal palace will fan out on the grounds to the four compass points, a Buddhist priest at the palace told AFP. They will hold a ceremony -- behind the palace's high yellow walls -- making offerings of fruit, coconuts and colourful banana-leaf and flower arrangements while chanting in the ancient Pali language.

The priests will bless the royal regalia, to be later handed over to the king, with lustral water poured from conch shells, as they announce to the heavens that they are preparing for the new king, the priest said. These items have traditionally included the throne itself, a cone-shaped crown encrusted with diamonds, a sacred sword, fan and slippers, the priest said. However many priceless royal items, such as the crown and sword, disappeared after Sihanouk was toppled in 1970 by the pro-US Lon Nol regime. Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the half-brother of Sihamoni, said on Tuesday that a replica sword and crown have been cast which will hold equal symbolic value, although the crown will not be placed on his head. Fireworks will be let off on Thursday night and for the next two evenings along the Tonle Sap river with traditional Khmer dances also planned.

On Friday high-ranking government officials and family members will converge at a ceremonial temple where the new king will ask for a blessing from a sacred Buddha statue. After praying he will be blessed by the kingdom's two top monks -- each representing different Buddhist sects -- with lustral water.

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