The meticulous job of identification

The inventory of handwritten texts found in Cambodia’s pagodas rests first and foremost upon their identification. But the identification work is fraught with hands-on difficulties. Although this is not something specific to manuscripts in Cambodia, the problem here seems to be accentuated to the extreme:

i) No text is ever signed, and the notion of author is totally glossed over. In some very exceptional cases, a text might be ascribed to a prince, such as certain moral codes (cpāp') of the 17th century or poems from the 19th century attributed to King Ang Duong. The same is true of these attributions as those of great works of Thai literature, attributed to such-and-such a king of Siam that, until a more indicative clue is found, it is wise to consider as something akin to a commissioner of work, or even a work implementer, rather than a personal author.

Exceptionally, some minor technical works in one field or another were attributed by their custodians to a “master” (grū) whose name appears on the olla flyleaf. However, comparison of several manuscripts of the same type, attributed to several different masters, shows that their content is analogous, even identical, except for certain details: the only change is the order and presentation of the different sections of the work. It must be concluded that the person named, if other than simply the copyist, is the master under whose authority the copyist may have personally studied the field dealt with in the manuscript in question. This person, about whom nothing is generally known, is not, in any event, the author of the text strictly speaking.

Although a proper name may be encountered on the olla flyleaf or on a book’s colophon, it is usually that of the copyist, although in some cases that of the donor. This relative importance that the Khmers gave to the making of books is evidently linked to the notion of “merits” (kusala) or “benefits” (ānisaṅs) acquired by the person reproducing an uplifting book, even to the person that might have provided for the needs of the copyist. Such an indication is of no genuine value as far as the history of the texts themselves is concerned.

ii) Just as Cambodia’s manuscripts cannot be assigned to an author, they are likewise not dated. Whenever a date does appear on the olla flyleaf or in the colophon, it is always the date of the etching of the copy in hand. In the vast majority of cases it is recent, going back to the late 19th century and, more frequently still, the first half of the 20th. Ultimately, the dating of the object does not reveal a thing about the date of composition of the text because extant manuscripts are virtually always the fruit of long successions of recopying, there being no notion of “original.”

Incidentally, although the dates on manuscripts are sometimes astonishingly precise, giving the month, phase of the moon, day of the week and sometimes even the hour of the day, they very often overlook any indication of the year.

iii) The origin of the text is scrupulously never mentioned on the manuscripts, and where a translation is involved, the source language is not given, except for some cases of Pāli, nor the name of the translator and even less so the circumstances in which the translation was made. In rare cases, and only on very recent manuscripts, usually later than the mid-20th century, the name of the monastery where the work used as a model for the new copy is indicated.

iv) Issues relating to the title of books are, in the final analysis, problematical in many respects. Much of Cambodia’s religious literature is comprised of untitled works per se. This is true for instance of a great many manuals of meditation that, regardless of the diversity of their content, are uniformly entitled mūl braḥ kammaṭṭhān (“Basis for Meditation”), or even of a considerable variety of distinct works on monastic order, of which the olla flyleaf bears indifferently the title vinăy (“Discipline”).

On the other hand, other perfectly identifiable works have several titles depending on the manuscripts. This is true of the Khmer rendering of Anurutta’s Singhalese work abhidham¬mattha¬¬saṅgaha, also entitled abhidhamm 9 paricched or abhidhamm saṅgroḥ, or of that of milindappañhā, also called nāgasen or kruṇ milind.

To these overall difficulties in identifying texts were added—at least during the early years of the EFEO-FEMC’s mission in Cambodia—the special difficulties resulting from the destruction of libraries and the rarity of the manuscripts. Indeed, nearly 65 percent of the texts that were located and restored by our team between 1991 and 1996 in the 393 monasteries in Phnom Penh and Kandal province were only found in one copy, generally incomplete. During those years, that seemed very long in this respect, we seemed to be moving forward in our work only amidst uncertainties. Identifying texts, most often fragments of discovered texts, could not but be negative: it was only possible to indicate that the text of such-and-such a manuscript was different from all the others. It was only when our reference corpus was enriched, when our work was extended beyond the boundaries of Kandal province and into Kompong Cham and Siem Reap provinces among others, that it became possible to compare analogous texts or fragments of text with one another and identify them positively through a process of cross-correlation.