A word about the age of Cambodia’s manuscripts

While the oldest extant Indian manuscripts on latania leaves may date back to the 12th century, Khmer manuscripts are never very old. In a few exceptional cases, some have been found that go back to the late 18th century, but in most cases, although they are very rarely dated, it can be estimated, based on the condition of the ollas, using records and comparing them with those that have been dated, that they were etched in the late 19th century or during the 20th century.

It is fair to say that the vast majority of what remains of the manuscripts dates from after not only the establishment of the Protectorate, and in some cases much later, but more significantly long after the beginning of the reform that, inspired by the dhammayutikanikay, extolled and still extols, to the extent that this reform is still actively at work, a rational effort to comprehend the scriptures and a drastic normative erudition. The interest motivating the Protectorate authorities to limit Siam’s influence on Cambodia, and the genuinely altruistic commitment to promote the development of an intellectual elite in this country, worked together, at the turn of this century, with the commitment of Cambodia’s monks, to enhance the general level of their education. This had the effect of introducing into Cambodian monastery libraries a considerable number of Pāli reviews of canonical or postcanonical texts that did not previously exist in Cambodia and that up to that time required travel to Siam for consultation when the need arose.

The French administration assigned George Cœdès to the Royal Vajirañāna Library in Bangkok from 1916 to 1918, and this had a remarkable impact on Cambodia in this field. George Cœdès had an exceptionally rich library at his disposal as well as the collection made by the dhammayutikanikay founders themselves, King Mongkut and Supreme Patriarch Vajirañāṇavarorasa. With that, he had many copies made of rare texts in Cambodia or of texts that were only known to Khmer monks up to then by means of reviews deemed irrelevant.

A third level of manuscripts was added to the two already existing ones, those being the collection formerly handed down in Cambodia along with the new revisions from Siam, in Phnom Penh. This was a later one, made up of the second generation of Pāli manuscripts recopied in and for libraries. These manuscripts etched out of the director’s concern to make texts available to researchers rather than for the religious prospect of gaining merit, were therefore produced by civil servants hired for this purpose. In general, their work was of rather poor quality. The numerous errors in the Pāli texts, for example, reveal that the copyists were selected more for the elegant quality and style of their handwriting than for their mastery of the language.