Little-Known Historical Texts Become Available on Website

Rare documents on Cambodia that so far had hardly been accessible to researchers are about to be put on the Internet.

A selection of 8,000 manuscripts written on palm leaves by generations of Buddhist monks and kept in pagodas’ libraries around the country will be progressively posted at www.khmermanuscripts.org, which goes online Thursday.

Designed by Khmer Dev and Around Design in Phnom Penh, the site will be in French, English and Khmer. The documents are in Pali or Middle Khmer, which developed between the mid-15th century and the 1800s, according to researcher Olivier de Bernon of the Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient.

As Leng Kok An, one of his associates, will explain at a conference tonight at the French cultural center, the website is part of an EFEO project that Mr de Bernon launched about 20 years ago to rescue and preserve palm-leaf manuscripts in the country.

Fragile to start with, it is believed that tens of thousands of manuscripts were destroyed in bombardments during the civil war of the early 1970s or damaged beyond re­pair during the Khmer Rouge era, when pagodas were used for anything from pigsties to prisons.

Estimates are that only 2 percent of the manuscripts in pagodas’ collections prior to the 1970s remain today, and over 80 percent of the nearly 1,200 pagodas that the EFEO has visited saw their libraries destroyed.

In the early 1990s, Mr de Bernon and his team went about repairing man­uscripts they could find and ensuring their conservation in pagodas. They also copied them on microfilm.

Those microfilms, however, could only be viewed at specific locations, said Blaise Kilian, program coordinator for Unesco.

So in 2009, Mr de Bernon’s team embarked on the project of digitizing manuscripts that had been photographed on microfilm with funding provided by Singapore through Unesco, he said.

Among documents archived, 8,000 were selected for the website. Their topics ranging from religious themes, traditional art, history, literature and tales, to medical information, morality and codes of conduct.

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