Manuscript Conservation in Cambodia—Dealing With a Crisis Situation

La conservation des manuscrits du Cambodge : une situation d’urgence absolueTo say that Cambodia’s traditional manuscript literary heritage was devastated by the mass destruction of books and documents that occurred in the later decades of the 20th century is somewhat of an understatement.

It is difficult to make a comparison of the current state of libraries with the situation that prevailed prior to what is commonly referred to as the “events,” because no systematic inventory had ever been made and because people’s nostalgic recollection of the bygone libraries goes beyond reality in terms of their size and the resources they contained. Yet, it can be safely estimated, by extrapolating the number of monastery libraries entirely destroyed and that of partially lost texts, that between the outbreak of the war in 1970 and commencement of the inventory work in late 1990, some 98 percent of the literary heritage etched on latania leaves or written down on traditional paper was destroyed in Cambodia.

In over 80 percent of the some 1,200 monasteries that the Fonds pour l'Édition des Manuscrits du Cambodge (Fund for Manuscript Publication in Cambodia), under the aegis of the École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO-FEMC), has visited to date, the libraries had been entirely destroyed. As a matter of fact, 358 of the 433 monasteries in Phnom Penh and Kandal province are totally bereft of a single manuscript. In the remains of those wherein some manuscripts escaped disaster, over two thirds of the documents are incomplete. One-off surveys made in eight other provinces show that these proportions unfortunately have a strong statistical probability for Cambodia as a whole. And a rather singular feature of Cambodia is that the documentary record of its ancient history is more abundant than that of the periods preceding its modernity. It has a far richer record of architectural and artistic achievements dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries than from the 17th or 18th century, of which practically nothing remains. In this regard, the monastic libraries contain virtually the only tangible traces of the permanency of the country’s intellectual, religious and artistic life, in short, of an active, fertile social life in this country during the centuries that followed the economic ruin of Angkor.

Even today, widespread neglect still prevails in most monasteries with regard to ancient writings, and in some instances the devotion of certain village congregations to the old tradition of putting the handwritten books of a prominent pagoda leader on the funeral pyre at his cremation, means that the destruction of traditional manuscripts is a daily occurrence. Thus, the rescue and inventorying of Cambodia’s manuscripts is a matter of crisis proportions.