Discovery of in situ manuscripts and creation of research tools

La découverte des manuscrits in situ et la constitution d’outils de recherche.The venerables and achars have unceasingly displayed interest and consideration with regard to the work done by the EFEO-FEMC team.

On every site it visited, the EFEO-FEMC team undertook the locating, physical restoration, microfilming, identifi¬cation and inventory of the extant manuscripts. For ethical reasons—because, even though the pagoda venerables had not taken good care of these works, they would not be willing to let us take them out—and despite the technical constraints that this situation imposed, no manuscripts were ever removed from the monasteries in which they were found and all phases of the work were done in situ. This both logical and orderly operation enabled the constitution of a photographic collection of some 130,000 negatives—duplicated so as to provide a set for the Cambodian authorities—and a computer-based inventory.

In the course of some 20 years of work in the field, the EFEO-FEMC team visited over a thousand monasteries, mainly in the provinces of Kandal, Kompong Cham and Siem Reap. Just over a hundred of these monasteries still had a manuscript collection. Most frequently, the extant texts had been summarily put together in bundles of ollas wrapped tightly in orange cloth, now covered with dust and all manner of insect dirt, testifying to their long abandonment. Times had changed since George Cœdès said that “the monks of Cambodia generally take rather good care of their manuscripts.”—Cœdès 1912, 178.

It sometimes happened that such documents were discovered in the recesses of the most improbable hiding places that the current occupants of the venue knew nothing about, such as in the false ceiling of certain vihāra. While we are on this subject, tribute must be paid to the memory of the few nameless faithful who, during the American War or under the Democratic Kampuchea regime, took the risk of protecting the manuscripts so precious in their eyes, but who did not survive the horror of the times to personally put them back in their pagoda sanctuaries.

The restoration work therefore firstly involved dusting off one by one each of the thin sheets found, cleaning them off with soft water where necessary before rubbing them with palm oil and drying them. The leaves were then set in order to recompose the bundles, after which the bundles were put back together to make up the various works.

search1At times, when the engraved characters were too blurred to be photographable, it was necessary to re-ink the ollas by wiping them with a pad dipped in palm oil and ivory black. After photographing the flattened out sheets, the bundles were retied with new strings. This required the EFEO-FEMC to set up workshops of elderly women (yāy) who used the most traditional techniques to make multicolored strings, combining silk and cotton. Elsewhere, elderly men (tā) made woven bamboo lathe cases sewn with colored fabric.

Where necessary, the EFEO-FEMC provided the monasteries with glass cabinets to contain and conserve the manuscripts. This gift was always received with much appreciation during simple but conspicuous ceremonies, bon praken (puṇy pragen), that usually drew large crowds of participants.

The work done in the monasteries of Phnom Penh and Kandal province alone between 1991 and 1996 made it possible to physically restore, identify, record on microfilm and protect nearly 2,000 books, accounting for over 400 separate texts, over two-thirds of which were composed or transcribed in the Khmer language, the rest being recopied in Pāli.

search2With security restored throughout the country starting in 1998, it was possible to continue the same work at a more sustained pace in Kompong Cham province, which is by far the richest in monasteries and library remains in all of Cambodia. However, the work done by the EFEO-FEMC in that province was periodically slowed down by a number of factors, some fortunate when a major collection required the team to stay in one monastery for several months in order to complete the restoration and inventory work of its library, but less fortunate when floods or security issues prevented access to the villages, sometimes for several weeks at a time.

In November 1996, the EFEO-FEMC team was pleasantly surprised to discover in Wat Phum Thmei Serey Monkgol (bhūmi thmī sirī maṅgal) in Kompong Cham province, the only library in Cambodia that had not been destroyed by the war or vandalized by the Khmer Rouge. Some 50,000 scattered thin leaflets found in situ made it possible to re-form 2,510 olla bundles—whereas the 393 monasteries in Phnom Penh and Kandal only had 3,305 all together—making up 1,210 books, including 200 texts in the Khmer language and some 70 texts in Pāli. Two thirds of this remarkable collection was complete, so the Wat Phum Thmei Serey Monkgol library, which was not fully restored until 1998, is now our key tool for text reconnaissance and identification.