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Sastras from before the Khmer Rouge are currently preserved in the National Library.
Sastras from before the Khmer Rouge are currently preserved in the National Library. Charlotte Pert

Palm leaves preserving history

From a small temple inside Angkor Wat, Phoeun Phavy is on a one-woman crusade to keep the ancient art of sastra writing alive

Twenty-eight-year-old Phoeun Phavy has dedicated her life to pursuing an unusual passion.

Since she was 13, she has spent her days crouched over fragile palm leaves, inking them with the teachings and the history of Buddha.

Once covered in ornate calligraphy – a process that can take months – the strips of leafs are bound together like a ladder to create sastras: holy scriptures that are traditionally kept in pagodas.

Sat outside the An Battak Bori temple inside Angkor Wat where she currently lives as a nun, Phavy explained that her father – one of the country’s few experts in the ancient art of crafting sastras on leaves – had never intended for his daughter to take up his mantle.

“It was not my father’s wish,” she recalled. “When I was young, my father only taught my brothers to continue this job.” Traditionally, inking palm leaves is an exclusively male profession, and mainly undertaken by monks.

But Phavy’s brothers had no aptitude for their father’s craft, whereas Phavy felt that she had found her calling: “I loved it, so I started to learn,” she explained.

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Each manuscript can take Phavy several months to complete. Thik Kaliyann

Having practised the technique by herself, she showed her father her skill. “I told my father that I loved it and then my father told me that it’s a good job – you can get money, honour and merit at the same time.

After hearing this, I started to love it more and more,” she said, smiling.

Growing up, Phavy has learned that being a palm leaf engraver in modern Cambodia is not a recipe for fame or fortune.

Phavy can sell her completed manuscripts to temples for up to $250, but each one takes several months, and the work requires utter concentration; if there is even the smallest error in the calligraphy, the whole leaf is ruined.

Phavy admits that she finds the work taxing. “When I focus on writing the palm leaf manuscript, I have to sit for long hours, and then I get a headache and my eyes and my back hurt,” she said.

“Now my eyes can’t see things well.“It isn’t an easy job, and if I am in a bad mood, I can’t do it well.”But she has her reasons for persevering.

Firstly, she sees it as a way of honouring and remembering the men in her family after her grandfather, husband and father all died over the past few years.

Phavy also believes she is playing an important part in keeping an otherwise dying art alive. Under the Khmer Rouge, when 80 per cent of pagodas had their library collections destroyed, a huge number of old sastras were lost.

Today, resources are still put into preserving the texts that remain from before 1975, but few people are actively making new sastras.

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Phavy sees her work as a way of honouring her late father. Thik Kaliyann

“I have wished for a long time to have a museum to show all the things to do with palm leaf manuscripts,” she said.

“However, I am not sure if this dream will come true or not, as now I haven’t got any other source of income aside from making palm leaf manuscripts. I need help from the government and the authorities.”

Neak Rattana, director of the Sastra Sleuk Rith Centre, which works on the preservation of old sastras, emphasised the significance of Phavy’s work.

“According to my research, today almost all Khmer manuscripts have been lost. There are only a few of us trying to conserve it, because no young people focus on it,” he said.

He added that the fact that Phavy was a woman made her achievement particularly rare. “There are a few men and monks who can do this,” he said, “but she is the only woman who can do it and who loves it.”

Phavy’s mother, 65-year-old Sim Naroth, said that she was proud that her daughter had persisted with her preservation work, despite the hardship of the profession.

“She was able to learn from her father when my sons could not do it and did not like it,” she said.

“If we die, our name will not die because we do this activity for the conservation of Khmer culture.”



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