Manuscript tradition in Cambodia

The presence in Cambodia of manuscripts etched on latania palm tree leaves (corypha lecomtei) undoubtedly goes back as far as the influence of Indian civilization in the region. It is no doubt contemporaneous with the introduction of Buddhism and other religions of Indian origin into the Khmer space. This form of books, that indeed existed throughout southern India, in Burma, Siam and Laos, is attested to with certainty in Cambodia since at least the 12th century in a remarkable bas-relief in Angkor Wat depicting an apsara holding a book. Further, Chinese visitor Zhou Daguan, who toured the Khmer capital in 1292, relates in his travelogue that monks would recite daily prayers that they read from books made of “very evenly stacked palm leaves. The monks wrote black lettering on these leaves, but since they used neither a brush nor ink, I don’t know what they wrote with.” (Pelliot, 1915:15) This is an obvious reference to the ollas made of palm leaves on which the sacred texts were actually etched using the dry tip of a stylus and not outlined using a paintbrush.

La tradition des manuscrits au CambodgeThe making of books of ollas, a tradition that certainly dates back more than a thousand years in Cambodia, starts with picking off the last leaf of a latania palm, when it “looks like a stag’s tail” (pèk kanduy prös), i.e. when it is fully developed but not yet fully opened out at the top of its stalk. The harvester saws off the leaf, then lops off the ends that are unusable, keeping only the central third of the leaf that is then dried out in the sun for a week. He next carefully stacks 50 or 100 leaves in a little “press” (ghnāp) made of two upright members of wood that slide along two axes. He trims off the sides of the leaves as they are held in the press and eliminates the veins to keep only the flat parts. At that point, several small press lots are put into a “big press” (cpos) that is tightly squeezed. After some weeks of drying, the latania leaves, of a soft green color at the time they were picked, are now an ivory yellow. Depending on the degree of finishing that is wanted for the manuscript, they are then sanded down with plant fiber and rubbed with palm oil.

Often but not always, prior to etching his text, the copyist would use a “ruling device” (praṭap' ṭịk pandāt'), which is a long wood frame in which five cotton threads are stretched lengthwise and coated with India ink or soot black, . When this device is applied to the leaves, it rules out even lines under which the lettering is etched.

For writing, the copyist uses a fire-hardened wood stylus in which a metal tip is inserted, the “engraving iron” (ṭèk cār). He then slides the leaf gently under the straps of a small “holder” (snāp'), a sort of small, light wooden tablet of the same width of the ollas that he wants to etch, which he holds firmly with his left hand.

All the time he spent copying a text, the copyist could only see what he had written by causing light to reflect off the surface of the leaflets. In fact, it was only after a text has been completely etched that the manuscript was “inked” using a pad soaked in India ink or oil mixed with soot. The pad was rubbed in succession over the surface of each leaf of the manuscript. It was then wiped off with a dry cloth to take away the blacking substance except that lodged in the incisions made by the etcher.

In some cases completed manuscripts were given a second pressing so that “red lacquer” (hiṅgul) or in other cases gilding could be applied to the sheet edges.