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20-year labour to preserve Khmer history

Each bundle of restored scripts is now preserved in glass bookcases at pagodas throughout Cambodia. Photo by: PHA LINA

CAREFUL and painstaking work by conservationists has preserved about 1,000 bundles of traditional palm-leaf scriptures by photographing them and posting them online as a treasure trove for future scholars.

Researchers from Fonds pour l’Edition des Manuscripts du Cambodge (FEMC, or Fund for Manuscript Publication in Cambodia) have tracked down Buddhist manuscripts written on latania leaves from monasteries over the past 20 years.

FEMC’s project leader, Leng Kok An, explains that people have written scriptures on latania leaves called trang for hundreds of years.

“According to the record of a Chinese man, Chi Takwan, who came to Cambodia in 1296, Cambodians were using leaves for writing at that time. So scriptural palm leaves have been used since the era of King Jayavarman VII,” he says of the king who ruled from 1181 to 1215.

Latania palms were traditionally grown in Kratie province, where people cut them to sell to Buddhist monks.

First, the leaves were left to dry for three days, before being weighted to make thin, soft and pliable paper.

After the Pali scripts were written, they were brushed over with ink made of charcoal mixed with palm oil. Some scribes even mixed their ink with honey to make their scriptures appear golden, says Leng Kok An.

Many Cambodian scriptures were stored in pagodas, museums or libraries, but were lost during the upheavals of war. Most date to the late 19th century or early 20th century.

“I found some leaves inside stupas, in the roofs of buildings inside Buddhist pagodas, or in the kitchens,” he says. “Most of the scriptures were lying all messed up on the floor and were covered in dust. Many of the bundles had already lost some pages, so I didn’t just clean them but also had to put each page in order.”

Each page was photographed before each bundle was retied and placed in a bookshelf in the pagoda or library where it was found, says Leng Kok An.

Many texts were discovered when researchers visited more than 1,000 monasteries over the course of the past two decades, mainly in Kandal, Kampong Cham and Siem Reap provinces. Fewer than 100 monasteries still had manuscripts, the FEMC team found.

Because the scripts could not leave each pagoda, every restoration was carried out on the spot, often over many months of painstaking work.

At times, floods or security issues prevented the researchers from entering the villages.

One lucky find was the discovery of the only library in Cambodia not destroyed or vandalised by the Khmer Rouge, in Wat Phum Thmei Serey Monkgol in Kampong Cham.

Some 50,000 thin leaflets were found, which were together reformed into 2,500 bundles that made up 1,210 books, including 200 texts in the Khmer language.

Now the entire collection has been filmed and preserved on CD and in digital form, though the originals remain in custody of the monks, now stored in glass cases.

About 1,000 of the scripts can be seen online at www.khmermanuscripts.org, which has French, English and Khmer versions detailing the work of FEMC.

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