Preserving the ancient craft of making palm leaf manuscripts

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Lorth Loeng also accepts customised requests to inscribe modern texts and phrases including birthday wishes and greetings. Photo supplied

Vowing to preserve Khmer culture and tradition, a former monk who mastered the skill of inscribing palm leaf manuscripts uses the craft to earn a living.

At the young age of 15, Lorth Loeng, who is now 36, entered monkhood. In 2001 – a year after he first started wearing the yellow robe – he began mastering the trade of inking palm leaves in a pagoda in Siem Reap province.

After leaving monkhood, Loeng married and now has three daughters. He lives in Siem Reap’s Samrong village in Leang Dai commune, Angkor Thom district.

His childhood fascination for the ancient art of inscribing manuscripts has now turned into a venture that supports his family’s daily living.

“My wife sells brooms made from grass and wild fruits while I work on palm leaf manuscripts. My three daughters, through practice and my guidance, are now picking up the skill little by little. One of them is among one of my 10 students.

“I can inscribe five to six sheets of palm leaves which contain about five rows of text. The sheets come in three different sizes cut in rectangular strips.

“Each sheet is sold at 15,000 riel but is sometimes sold less because most of the buyers are not rich. They buy it because of their love for Khmer art, culture, and literature,” says Loeng.­­­

Most of Loeng’s buyers are monks, seniors who strictly practice Buddhism, and people who used to be monks. While some people need it to make an offering to pagodas, others buy the manuscripts for sheer respect for the craft.

“Most of the time, I am asked to make a whole set of palm leaf manuscripts of a specific story chosen by the client. This takes me about two to three months to finish, with around 400 sheets in total,” he says.

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Dried palm leafs are smoke-treated for a few days before they are durable enough to be used for making the manuscripts. Photo supplied

Being a palm leaf inscriber comes with different challenges. For one, it isn’t exactly a recipe for fame or fortune. For another, it’s a complicated process that requires a great amount of skill and patience. It takes about a month and several steps before the leaves are dry and hard enough to be written on.

“A type of palm leaf called Sloek Rith has to be freshly cut. The trees can be found in abundance in the Chhaeb district in the province of Preah Vihear. The leaves need to be cut into pieces of the same size and then dried for a whole month.

They also need to be smoke-treated for a few days before they become durable enough to go under the blade,” Loeng says.

Believed to have begun in India and Southeast Asia around the 5th century BCE, palm leaf manuscripts in Cambodia were made for inscribing “Tripitaka” – also called as Preah Trai Bekdok in Khmer – which are sacred Buddhist scriptures that contain the teachings of Buddha.

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Lorth Loeng (picture)

Loeng also accepts customised requests to inscribe modern texts and phrases including birthday wishes and greetings.

Despite his efforts to modernise palm leaf manuscripts and expand its market, Loeng worries that he might be one of the few remaining inscribers who are struggling to continue the craft.

“From what I know, nowadays in Angkor Thom district, there are only three or four people including me who are equipped with the skills of crafting palm leaf manuscripts.

“In my commune [Leang Dai], hardly anyone makes palm leaf manuscripts. Only my family still practices the tradition,” Loeng says.

Because of this, he wishes to seek the help of the government to preserve the Khmer culture and encourage skilled workers to continue this traditional profession.

“I request support from the relevant ministries and departments so that together, we can find the most encouraging way to preserve our legacy, culture and literature. Hopefully, this intangible heritage will live on,” he adds.

There are about 4,000 sets of palm leaf manuscripts at the Saravoan Techo pagoda, another 2,000 in the National Museum and 2,500 in the National Library. Many more are found in the Royal University of Phnom Penh and multiple pagodas around the country.

Mech Khoeun, a representative of an ancient document preservation group in one of the local libraries, also expressed concern over the loss of Khmer palm leaf manuscripts, especially those containing historical and educational records.

“I think it is very important for our country’s development not to forget the past. Palm leaf manuscripts hold a lot of interesting information about our ancestors, like how they lived and how they learned. They are a great reference to our literature,” Khoeun says.

Knowing the importance of palm leaf inscription, Loeng is adamant to pass on the trade to his children.

“Besides making a living from it, I also spend my spare time passing on the skill to children who are passionate about making Khmer palm leaf manuscripts. Now, I teach about 10 of them for free. Among them is my 11-year-old daughter and only girl in the class,” Loeng says.