Current status of manuscript collections in Cambodia’s monasteries

When weighing the impact of the terrible havoc suffered by Cambodia’s literary heritage, a number of factors must be taken into consideration. It is assumed that the destruction of manuscripts in monasteries, as massive as it might have been, was blind, in other words, no particular text was destroyed for what it was. Thus, the most common texts suffered the greatest destruction, but such writings are also those of which the largest number of traces remains. On the other hand, certain rare texts were totally lost, but not necessarily because of any special determination to destroy them.

On a very broad scale, it would be expected that investigation of the remains of many sites would enable the reconstitution of a rather plausible theoretical image of what Cambodia’s literature, notably religious, amounted to before the disaster. Yet, the way the manuscripts were produced made each of them a unique object, the qualities of which were a reflection of the copyist’s skill. The copies would therefore have contained variants and paleographic riches now lost for good, although one monastery might still contain one or more copies of a work that had been destroyed in other monasteries.

However, it must be observed that among the three main types of documents, (1) the very long bundles of ollas, the satras (sāstrā), (2) the shorter ones, vien (vān), and (3) the kraing (krāṃṅ), i.e. books written with ink on traditional paper folded as a screen (or large folio), the latter seem to have stood up much less well physically to the vicissitudes of the times.

Moreover, many of these kraing may have been the private property of a monastery achar or of a kru, which, in a period where this status was out of favor with the governing class, was a further danger for the conservation of such documents. This observation is meaningful to the extent that in the presentation of Khmer books, there generally exists a close relationship between the form and content, between the text that is transcribed and its physical presentation: one text may be found rather in the form of 12 thin bundles, while another, of the same length, will usually be etched on one thick bundle; one text will be more often inscribed on the folded paper of a kraing, while another will almost invariably be etched on a vien.

This relationship is sometimes determined by the use that was made of the text: kraing were often easy to make because they were written rather than etched; they had broad enough surfaces to allow for the inclusion of sketches, figurations or mantra, that sometimes extended over several folds of the screen, which was not possible on the narrow palm-leaf ollas. Also, because of their size and pattern, and because it was possible to write texts on them in large lettering, they were traditionally used for the transcription of texts intended to be read simultaneously by several persons at a time during a ceremony, without having to be held by hand. The literature traditionally handed down on kraing, and that suffered serious losses, thus largely involved two categories of texts: those that were read regularly in a group, such as “Monk’s Discipline” (bhikkhu pātimokkh), or at ceremonies for the “Consecration of a Buddhist Image” (buddhābhisek). These texts are fortunately encountered elsewhere, etched on satra. On the other hand, the contents of a great many kraing seems to have been composed of collections of disparate texts put together according to the personal considerations and order of associations of a master, to modes of representation and sometimes to a particular mnemotechnical process, each one thus being a unique book that has been lost forever. These are essentially the “Books of Recognition of Criteria” (ākāravatā), “Treatises on Prediction” (kpuon ṭassan dāy), “Meditation” (kammaṭṭhān) texts, compendia of “Traditional Doctrines” (krāṃṅ dhaṛm purāṇ), etc.

It is also observed that to make up for the terrible effects of the destruction of Buddhist texts in virtually all monasteries of Cambodia, some individuals, monks or laypersons, undertook the recopying of a certain book needed perhaps for recitation in connection with a certain ritual or for which they may have had a particular devotion. In some instances, urgency or destitution may have meant recopying these texts on simple European-style school notebooks, and generally the new copyist would try to reproduce the material form of a traditional satra or vien using strips of paperboard cut out and bound into bundles, or even with modern paper folded into a screen, a krāṃṅ, in order to reproduce as closely as possible the medium traditionally used for the book containing the etched text that he wished to recopy. Not only the form and volume numbering of the original were imitated, but passages etched on the model in round lettering (mūl) would be retranscribed in ballpoint pen in round lettering on the copy, while those that were etched in inclined lettering (jrīeṅ) would be rewritten in inclined lettering.

In recent years, we are even seeing an upsurge in the production of texts imprinted on latania leaves, which had started prior to the outbreak of the war.