The leaf-books of Khmer monks

The art of inscribing text on leaves used by monks in Cambodia is in danger of being lost as the sole monk with the skill takes a two-year break without finding any successor. The Cambodian version of the art is not old – only about 100 years old – but similar ancient traditions are found elsewhere in the region, for instance by the Cham in South Vietnam (see related story at the end of the post). I wonder if there’s a regional tradition of writing texts on leaves.Further south in Bali and Java there are copies of king-lists written on palm leaves. It occurs to me that the Malay word “buku” is a corruption of the English word “book”, but ancient texts surely existed before European contact. Today, virtually all textual sources of ancient Southeast Asia is based on carved inscriptions on stone. However, I would not be surprised if this region had a rich textual culture based on leaf-books such as the ones mentioned here.

23 September 2007 (Vietnam News, courtesy of chlim01) – The art of inscribing text on leaves used by monks in Cambodia is in danger of being lost as the sole monk with the skill takes a two-year break without finding any successor. The Cambodian version of the art is not old – only about 100 years old – but similar ancient traditions are found elsewhere in the region, for instance by the Cham in South Vietnam (see related story at the end of the post). I wonder if there’s a regional tradition of writing texts on leaves. Further south in Bali and Java there are copies of king-lists written on palm leaves. It occurs to me that the Malay word “buku” is a corruption of the English word “book”, but ancient texts surely existed before European contact. Today, virtually all textual sources of ancient Southeast Asia is based on carved inscriptions on stone. However, I would not be surprised if this region had a rich textual culture based on leaf-books such as the ones mentioned here.

Monks await next in line to record history [Link no longer active]
by Trung Hieu – Vien Du

On a quiet, peaceful afternoon, in a large, airy chamber of an ancient Khmer pagoda, two yellow-robed monks – one wrinkled, one fresh-faced – study a large Buddhist prayer book.

They must turn each page carefully, for the book doesn’t contain ordinary paper. Rather, its pale yellow pages are made of a special type of dried leaf, on which prayers and descriptions of historical events are etched in delicate Khmer script.

Xa Ton Pagoda (or Xvayton, in Khmer) in the southern province of Soc Trang preserves over 100 such Buddhist prayer books made of buong leaves, or Sa-tra, as they are known in Khmer.

According to its oldest monks, it was in this pagoda in Tri Ton District that a monk created the method to carve prayers on leaves over 100 years ago, and the technique caught on as a way to preserve prayers.

Ethnic Khmer monks had previously used bamboo planks as canvases for recording prayers and stories, but the leaf idea proved superior: many have survived more than a century without suffering damage from termites or other wood-eating pests.

Not just anyone could learn the art of creating the books, however. The pagoda’s chief monks only taught the skills to a few gifted monks who proved virtuous.

Now, in the town of Tri Ton in An Giang Province, only one monk, 62-year-old Chau Ty of Svay So Pagoda, knows how to inscribe the holy writings onto dried leaves. Exhausted after 40 years of writing such books, he opted to take a two-year break.

“Writing prayers on leaves is not an easy job. We have to clean ourselves then burn incense to the Buddha, and our minds must be very tranquil – only then can we start the work,” he says.

Finding an appropriate successor to train, however, has proved trying.

“I wish to find a follower to whom I can transfer my skills, but so far I have not found anyone suitable,” the old monk says with a sigh.

Xa Ton Pagoda’s Chief Monk Chau Phuol agrees that the process of constructing the books is a lengthy one. First, the maker must find the buong trees, a rare plant located only in isolated mountainous areas. Then, the young leaves must be cut down and allowed to dry in the sun before being cut into 60X6cm pieces.

The maker then uses a pointed iron tool to carve each letter on the leaf canvas, then rubs the surface with ink. He cleans the surface and lets the leaves dry under the sun once again. Each leaf can contain five vertical lines of sparkling script, with 20 characters in each column.

“It could take all day for a skilful maker to complete one leaf,” he says.

Once the pages are bound with string or human hair, the result is a smooth, shiny book, often weighing about 1kg.

The contents of these books are diverse, ranging from stories about the Buddha to daily prayers, lessons in virtue and Khmer folk tales and legends. To monks at the pagoda, the books beckon from another time in Xa Ton’s 200-year history, to the era when the pagoda was surrounded by dense forest inhabited by monkeys – which gave the pagoda its Khmer name meaning “troops of monkeys coming”.

More than 1,000 such leaf books are also preserved in the nearby province of Kien Giang, home to 73 Khmer pagodas. Famous pagodas Phat Lon, Lang Cat, Soc Xoai and Ta Pet harbour a large collection of the books, but the numbers of those able to read them are dwindling.

Danh Duc, principal of the province’s Ethnic Minority Boarding School, fears that the books may have outlasted their readership: only a few elders remain in the province who are able to read the ancient Khmer scripts written in such books.

“Most of them are very old and weak now,” he says. “I am afraid that a part of the treasure of folk knowledge and valuable information on history, culture and society may be lost, as we lack people who can read and translate these ancient documents for future generations.”

Taking a leaf from the Cham

The idea of making prayer books out of buong leaves also caught on among the Cham people: in the central province of Binh Thuan’s Bac Binh District, 13 such books remain as relics of Cham cultural heritage.

The ancient tracts are kept safe in the home of chief monk Mai Tiem in Binh Tien Village, Phan Hiep Commune, where the local Cham practise Brahminism.

When the Cham gather for rituals, they bring out the books, but not for reading. The 40X5cm books are displayed in places of honour, considered sacred items.

“Perhaps our ancestors wrote these books with the belief that when they read them they would be helped to avoid wild beasts or failed crops,” Mai Tiem says. “Some books contain prayers for organising sacred ceremonies and annual festivals. Some are simply testaments for the descendants.”

Mai Tiem’s youngest son Mai Huu Xuan says his family often cleans each page of the books carefully and hangs them in a dry, clean place to ensure that their legacy will last for future generations.

Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

4 thoughts on “The leaf-books of Khmer monks”

  1. Any idea what species of plant “buong” actually is? I’d be very curious to learn!

    The practice of writing on palm leaves is very common in ancient India, too, but as you’re focusing on Southeast Asia here, that might be out of your area of concern.

    As for “buku”: it might be worthwhile to also think of the Sanskrit term “pustaka” (for “manuscript”, also “book”, but what a “book” actually is of course depends on the cultural context and historical period).

  2. heh, unfortunately, i don’t know what a buong plant is. maybe my Khmer phrasebook will have a translation for “sa tra”. Judging from the picture, the leaves look a lot wider than palm leaves.

    Any idea how long pustakas have been in use? I haven’t heard of any palm-leaf manuscripts dating older than the 14th or 15th century in this region.

  3. The oldest palm leaf manuscript you can probably find in Cambodia would date to only the last hundred years due to the humid tropical climate, but the practice of writing on palm leaves predates that by a while. In Khmer, it is also known as sleuk rith, deriving from the word for the plants commonly used for writing on.

  4. I have a sach tra leaf prayer-book that I purchased at a Laotian Antique store. I would like to know what it says. Does any one have any ideas how I could get it translated in the USA? You can reply to my email: jimsouers@hotmail.com.

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