Monday, April 6, 2009

Death of an icon - the Sweeper of Ta Prohm

Choun Nhiem in 1998, a year after I first met him in Ta Prohm
I report with sadness the passing of Choun Nhiem, or Ta Nhiem for those who knew him. Choun Nhiem was the iconic stooping figure who swept leaves at Ta Prohm and appeared in thousands of photos taken by tourists to this popular temple. And of course he graced the cover of the 4th edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook for Cambodia in 2002. He has been missing from the corridors of Ta Prohm for a year or so now as he has been suffering from health deterioration due to his advanced years, and it was old age that finally caught up with him nearly three months ago. He died peacefully at home, aged 87, in the village of Rohal, watched over by his family.

By way of remembering Choun Nhiem, I repost here, a blog report from September 2006:
Do you recognise this living icon of Angkor? His name is Choun Nhiem, he's eighty-four years old and features in the photos of thousands of tourists that have visited the Angkorean temple of Ta Prohm. Many will recognise his face, his hunched stature, and like the white-robed nuns who tend the statues at Bayon and the sweet little girls who sell trinkets and souvenirs amongst the temples, he's become one of Angkor's living icons. A widow and nearly blind, Choun Nhiem spends his days sweeping leaves from the courtyards and corridors of Ta Prohm and is recognised by many from his appearance on the cover of the Lonely Planet guidebook. For the past fifteen years he's been as much a part of Ta Prohm as the roots and trees that clasp the temple walls in their vice-like grip. Choun Nhiem was a labourer at the Angkor site before the Khmer Rouge years, during which he lost two sons. He lives in a small village near the temple, has three surviving children and returns to Ta Prohm every day to carry out his duties, and to sell the occasional trinket to tourists - he offered me a small cowbell when I first met him in 1997. I've seen Choun Nhiem every time I've returned to the temple on my visits to Angkor, and I hope to see him for many years to come, Ta Prohm wouldn't be the same without him.

The latest LP Cambodia, published August 2008, focuses on him in their Angkor section.
Nhiem Chun by Nick Ray
Nhiem Chun is as much an icon of Angkor as the tangled roots that slowly choke the ancient stones of Ta Prohm. He will be forever known as the ‘sweeper of Ta Prohm,’ as Nhiem Chun has dedicated his life to stemming the tide of nature, bent double, stooping low over the stones to sweep away the falling leaves each day. I first met Nhiem back in 1995 when exploring Ta Prohm. He was more sprightly then, nimbly gliding over fallen pillars, tumbled stones and moss-clad lintels in search of his quarry, those ever-falling leaves. Nhiem’s face was every bit as chiselled and characterful as the beautiful devadas that still lined the galleries. Years later he was immortalised by Lonely Planet when his iconic image was selected as the cover shot for the fourth edition of this Cambodia guidebook. It is a definitive shot, Nhiem standing in front of the ‘Tomb Raider tree’. Nhiem soon became an A-list Angkor celebrity and crowds thronged around him wanting a photograph. At 86, Nhiem Chun is about the same age as King Sihanouk, although their lives could hardly be more different. He grew up tending buffalo and helping with the harvest, but thanks to a chance meeting with Angkor curator Henri Marchal in 1941 he began work as a labourer, helping with temple restoration at Angkor. It was the start of a lifelong love affair with the temples and Nhiem was destined to spend the next 65 years of his life working amid the sacred stones. Nhiem’s world crumbled around him when the Khmer Rouge came to power. ‘In the 1970s, our lives were turned upside down. I could not do my job, I had to work the land,’ says Nhiem. ‘You had no choice. You would be killed.’ More precious than his beloved temples, his two sons disappeared during the Khmer Rouge regime. ‘When the fighting was over, my two sons were still missing,’ he recalls. ‘I was told they had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, their throats slit with sharpened sugar palm fronds.’

In 2006 the BBC came to Cambodia to film for the documentary series Imagine….Who Cares About Art? And Nhiem Chun, the ever-loyal guardian of Ta Prohm, was our subject. We spent several days with him, learning about his life, his loves, and his loss. ‘The older I get the more I love this place. These temples are the spirit of the Cambodian nation,’ muses Nhiem, wandering about Ta Prohm. ‘I could have built this temple in a past life. If I did not have any connection, I would not be here to take care of it today.’ Nhiem is not getting any younger and frets about the future. ‘I am old now. I can’t take care of these temples any more,’ he opines wistfully. ‘But when I am gone, these stones will still be here. These temples are symbols of our soul. We will not survive if we don’t look after our temples.’ Like the ancient stones of Ta Prohm, like his beloved monarch Sihanouk, Nhiem Chun has experienced light and dark. A life lived among beauty and brilliance, he has also experienced the ugly side of mankind. But life goes on and the leaves continue to fall. ‘If I don’t sweep, the leaves will cover the temple. I must sweep,’ he mutters. Nhiem Chun is a man for all seasons. Nhiem Chun has finally hung up his brush to enjoy a well-earned retirement and lives with his grandchildren in a village near Ta Prohm. Some quotes taken from BBC film Imagine…Who cares About Art?

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Blogger Chiranjit said...

hi friend can u give me his address , any idea....its look like you have met him

May 12, 2009 3:23 PM  

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