French-Sponsored Project Aims to Restore Pagoda Libraries

First came the US bombers, demolishing pagodas in Cambodian villages believed to be harboring Viet Cong soldiers. Then came the Khmer Rouge, who turned pagodas into pig sties and rice silos as part of their campaign to eliminate Cambodian culture, history and religion.

There wasn’t much left after they had left, and other armies came and went over years of civil war. Most of the painstaking, hand-written palm-leaf manuscripts—on which generations of monks had inscribed Cambodian religious stories and cultural practices—had been destroyed. Many of the surviving texts were literally reshuffled, with damaged and moldy pages stuffed randomly into corners of reopened pagodas.

Less than five percent of what was probably tens of thousands of manuscripts are believed to have escaped harm. Perhaps the most tragic loss has been portions of the Reamke, the sprawling epic that serves as Cambodia’s variation of India’s Ramayana, said Ritarac Sisowath, a library expert with the National Library.

Over the last decade, a small staff from the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient (French School of the Far East) has dedicated themselves to restoring that heritage. They have toured about 850 of the country’s 3,500 pagodas seeking to preserve and restore any scrap of manuscript they find. They have struggled to arrange the pages and translate them from an earlier form of Khmer—which lacks punctuation, paragraphs, titles or pagination—into a modern, readable form.

It is an obscure, intricate task, but the stakes are high. For a culture in which religion has been paramount, the pagoda libraries are the best repository available for understanding Cambodian history after the Angkor era in the 15th century, an Ecole expert says.

“Cambodia has the rare peculiarity of being better documented on its antiquity than on periods prior to modern times, with a wealth of artistic and architectural testimonies of the 7th or 8th centuries, while nothing is left from the 17th and 18th centuries,” said Olivier de Bernon, who heads the Ecole’s restoration program, titled Fonds pour l’Edition des Manu­scrits du Cambodge (Fund for the Publication of Cambodian Manuscripts).

“The few documents left in libraries,” he said, “therefore con­stitute the only indications of a continuous intellectual, religious and artistic life, in fact of an active and productive life in this country, in the centuries that followed the economic ruin of Angkor.”

“These manuscripts reflect the morality, social justice and social reality [of Cambodia],” added Khun Samen, Department of Museums director at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. “They are very important, not only for Cambodians, but for the whole world.”

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The first time he visited Wat Saravoan in Phnom Penh, de Bernon was told there weren’t any manuscripts at the pagoda. The second time he visited, in 1994, he and his team were escorted to a room in a building that had probably been built in the 1960s. It had been a library, later used by squatters and, by then, was full of washbasins, kettles, and emp­ty bottles.

On a built-in cabinet in a corner, recalled de Bernon, “nearly blocking the window, there was a huge pile of palm-leaf pages covered with monk’s robes.” The pages had been gathered by Supreme Patri­arch Khen Vong, of the Ma­hanikay sect, in an attempt to recover lost manuscripts. There were about 50,000 loose pages.

“[At first] I got really de­pressed,” de Bernon says. “We were sitting on the floor [surrounded by the pages] and I didn’t know how to handle this.”

They began by sorting pages by physical characteristic—length, texture, state of preservation, even the shape of holes and indentations caused by insects or weather conditions.

Then they attempted to match pages. Finally, they read texts to make sure pages belonged together.

After more than a year, they had produced 1,772 manuscripts in Khmer and 1,746 in Pali, the classic language of Buddhism, amounting to 3,528 manuscripts containing 612 different texts.

The Wat Saravoan’s collection now is the largest in the country. The Fonds is turning its management and the management of another collection it restored at Wat Phum Thmei Serey Mongkol in Kompong Cham province to the Buddhist Institute.

Because of the Ecole’s policy of not removing manuscripts from pagodas, the Fonds staff of about 10 has microfilmed every palm-leaf bundle they have ever restored in addition to these two collections’ documents, creating a central inventory of 260,000 frames.

With the loss of documents has come the loss of awareness of the heritage they represent. “Even university students don’t know these texts,” said Ros Sok Sambo of the Fonds. “In manuscripts are old texts that cannot be found in schoolbooks. In the past, students would go to school at the pagoda [and study these texts].” But not anymore, he said.

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The palm-leaf bundles have much to say about post-Angkor Cambodia, not only because of what they say, but because of how they were made, and by whom.

Long before modern technology made printing a very ordinary task, the engraving of these palm-leaf manuscripts was a spiritual ritual.

If a Cambodian decided to donate books to a pagoda and commission an engraver to make bundles, the engraver as well as the donor became involved in the making of a unique object that both wanted to be flawless. The project would get them merit points that, according to Buddhist beliefs, would help them in their future lives, said Rujaya Abhakorn, a historian from the Chiang Mai University in Thailand who has worked on a similar preservation project in Thailand.

Monks would engrave the text with a style—a pen-shaped tool with a metal point—apply diluted black lacquer to fill the grooves, and wipe away the excess. They would then bind them with thread, put the sheets between thick pieces of varnished wood for cover, and wrap them in cloth or silk envelopes.

It is often impossible for restorers to gauge when the bundles were engraved, or who engraved them. Their authors apparently did not see the need to sign or date texts since they were rooted in tradition and used for worship.

“In Asia, [dating] has no meaning,” said de Bernon. “Here, hardly anything is dated, and works are not signed.”

Besides, bundles were utilitarian objects. Whenever melted wax, insects, humidity or rain had rendered a bundle unusable, monks would engrave its text on new palm leaves and store the old version. One would not just toss out Bud­dhism’s sacred texts, explained de Bernon.

So even though most manuscripts in existence were engraved between 1850 and 1950, the texts themselves may be centuries old, with no way of tracing them back in time. “Literary creativity does exist,” de Bernon said. “But texts often are copies of an original text.”

Most of the texts are religious in content—such as copies of the Sutta (Buddha’s discourses), the Abhidhamma (philosophy and doctrine behind the discourses) and Vinaya (discipline). “There was no other life than religious life,” in Cambodia’s society, de Bernon said. “Monaster­ies were the center of life, not just of the village.”

Only one biography has been found. It relates to the life of Nil Tieng, Phnom Penh’s first Buddhist supreme patriarch, who died in 1913. A few texts refer to traditional medicine and are being studied by the Ministry of Health in cooperation with the Fonds.

Occasionally, manuscripts talked of fortune telling, others of house-building, said Nguon Van Chanti, director of the Buddhist Institute. Some give instructions for weddings, which Cam­bodians might wish to consult—today’s weddings tend to show Thai influences, he said.

No one copies texts by hand anymore, but de Bernon has heard rumors that a few people in the country still know how to engrave them. “Let’s hope they are teaching their craft to young people so that the technique does not get lost.”

 

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With an estimated 85 percent or pagodas damaged over the decades of war and conflicts, no one can be sure what has been lost forever. The biggest known loss has been portions of the Cambodian Ramayana, known as the Reamke.

The Indian Ramayana is very different from the Cambodian Ramayana said Ritarac Sisowath, library expert with the National Library. In the Indian version, Rama is a god, an incarnation of Vishnu, whereas in the Cambodian version of the epic odyssey, Rama is a human being.

The Cambodian odyssey had been published in a series of 117 volumes prior to the 1970s, Ritarac Sisowath said. By 1975, most had disappeared, and the majority of the volumes have not resurfaced. Their permanent loss would mean a permanent gap in Cambodia’s literary heritage.

Some of the manuscripts that did survive were preserved against desperate odds. When the Khmer Rouge fled Phnom Penh in 1979, leaving the city in shambles, finding the means to survive became the only goal for people drifting back into town. And yet, a group of former museum employees went through buildings and fields to gather abandoned sculptures and manuscripts, said Khun Samen, the Department of Museums director.

“Some would say to them, ‘Try eating sastra’ [a manuscript],” added de Bernon. These former employees brought statues and bundles to the museum for safekeeping, said Khun Samen.

Other manuscripts were spared because they were outside the borders of today’s Cambodia. For instance, some Khmer manuscripts now are at the National Library in Bangkok, said Rujaya Abhakorn.

“Bangkok used to have control over Western Cambodia before the French. So that is probably how they got to be kept in Bangkok,” said Rujaya Abhakorn.

“In the border areas along Cambodia, there are several monasteries with Khmer manuscripts. In fact, in the whole of mainland Southeast Asia, manuscripts were copied and moved about so much that every country would have its neighbors’ manuscripts,” he said.

The Ecole, which has taken on the task of preserving the manuscripts, was established by the French government a century ago to study Indochina’s culture. It was driven out of the country by the Khmer Rouge, and when it returned to Cambodia in 1990, the Fonds became the Ecole’s first program.

In restoration, de Bernon explains, “the big idea is that the work must be reversible, that what we do can be undone.” The idea is not to permanently change the object so that restoration work can be modified if need be.

With manuscripts, this amounts to cleaning them; re-inking if the writing is so pale that it cannot be microfilmed; replacing the binding thread; replacing damaged or missing covers; repairing cloth envelopes of bundles found with envelopes; and finally labeling and coding them for cataloging.

Products used for cleaning the red-latan palm-leaf pages “depend on what’s on them,” de Bernon said. If it’s pigeon droppings, soap and water will do. Otherwise, it may be camphor oil. For re-inking, de Bernon and his team use charcoal crushed into a fine powder.

Once restored, “The palm-leaf manuscript could last forever as long as they are kept away from water and extreme heat,” said Rujaya Abhakorn. “Air conditioning is fine as long as it is kept functioning all the time. Otherwise, there is no need for it—we have found manuscripts that are over 500 years old in northern Thailand.”

 

In addition to finding and preserving the bundles themselves, the Fonds studies manuscripts written in Khmer in order to analyze the evolution of the language.

Manuscripts are in Middle Khmer, which developed between the mid-15th century—after Angkor had been abandoned—and the 1800s.

Texts are written, said de Bernon, “with no punctuation, no paragraphs, no titles and no pagination.” In addition, copiers used the same alphabet for Khmer, Pali and Thai, he said.

The first step in de Bernon’s study is to copy manuscripts as they appear on palm leaves, the only addition in the text being line numbers.

Comparing texts word for word, he puts in footnotes indicating whether the current text is the same or differs from texts on other manuscripts, and whether some excerpts are unique to this text.

Next comes what de Bernon describes as the “real work.” This consists of formatting texts—titles, punctuation, paragraphs and pagination—using the Thai alphabet and Pali special characters for those languages, and translating the Khmer text into modern Khmer.

“Sometimes we argue for hours and hours,” said de Bernon. “Is this the last word of a sentence or the beginning of the next one, and this can change the meaning.” In addition to the difficulty of figuring out texts, pages that have been exposed to the elements or nibbled by insects may be quite difficult to read.

Finally, de Bernon writes a version of the manuscript with the Roman alphabet so that Buddhist experts in Southeast Asia who may have limited knowledge of Khmer can use the texts.

For all the challenges, the Fonds scholars have at least one element working in their favor: unlike other historical treasures such as sculptures, ancient manuscripts are not a target for pillaging by thieves or souvenir-seeking tourists.

“Let’s face it,” de Bernon said, “these objects are neither pretty nor decorative.”

 

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Aesthetics aside, the Fonds team hopes that the restoration of the bundles will help to re-ignite an interest in their heritage and the roles of bundles themselves. “All of us believe that we must work in this field so that we introduce [these manuscripts] to the new generation—because now, they don’t know anything about them,” Ros Sok Sambo said.

Even as work on the bundles progresses, they have become the basis of traditional tales created by the television network TVK, including the story of Neang Vimean Chan, the girl who wants to become the wife of the moon. “They teach people to be kind and helpful, not to be stingy, telling them that if they do good, they will be rewarded in this life or in the next,” said TVK deputy director Chan Ti.

These manuscripts are very important for maintaining Cambodia’s culture and preserving the distinctions from its neighbors, said Chan Ti. “Many people who watch Thai traditional films said that our production of ‘Tum Tiev’ followed Thai clothes and hair styles,” she said. In fact they were ancient Cambodian styles, she said.

The manuscripts ensure that the stories are historically authentic, Chan Ti said. Some tales written on manuscripts have been published in book form, but in a number of cases, they were summarized, she said. So going back to the manuscript is the only way to get the whole tale. “I don’t want to lose the original story,” she said.

Chan Ti said that she plans to put many more stories on the air and to broadcast them as part of the weekly television series “Smiling for Khmer National Pride.”

 

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