In Kampong Cham province, a small enclave perpetuates the generational art of crafting indigo-coloured dye from the indigo plant. Cultural aficionados and experts alike have been captivated by this traditional practice, owing to its unique ability to yield a distinct blue hue that no other dye can emulate.

At the forefront of this effort is Pheng Sophal, president of Kei Khmer Community, a collective of textile artisans and weavers devoted to the preservation and promotion of the indigo dyeing technique and its integral role in Cambodian heritage.

“What separates indigo from other naturally derived colours is its ability to produce a unique blue hue, a quality exclusive to this plant,” Sophal asserts.

Sophal’s love for the art of dyeing stems from his grandmother in Kampong Cham province, who practised indigo dye production long before the genocidal Pol Pot era. It was under her tutelage that Sophal mastered the intricate process of dyeing yarn, silk and various textile weaving fibres. This generational transmission of knowledge, according to Sophal, lies at the heart of safeguarding Cambodia’s cultural heritage.

The significance of indigo dyeing reaches far beyond textiles. Chhim Sothy, director of the department of visual arts at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, and an accomplished artist himself, underscores the importance of using natural colours in his artwork. Drawing comparisons between traditional weaving and painting, Sothy says the timeless classic hues seen in ancient paintings, notably those illustrating the sky and earth, owe their splendour to natural dyes like indigo.

“In both painting and sculpture, I harness natural colours derived from the indigo plant, mirroring traditional weaving techniques. We can utilise all the classic hues found in ancient artwork, especially those depicting the sky and earth, accentuating their beauty,” Sothy explains.

However, the tradition of creating this sought-after blue dye from the indigo plant is becoming increasingly rare, practised by only a few families in the Angkor Ban community within Kampong Cham province.

Siyonn Sophearith, head of the General Department of Techniques for Cultural Affairs at the culture ministry, acknowledges the dwindling presence of this craft and the necessity of support for its perpetuation.

“In Angkor Ban commune of Kang Meas district, merely two or three families still cultivate indigo plants and produce this unique blue dye for use in weaving and painting,” Sophearith shares.

Although the community is uplifted by the ministry’s interest and backing, they acknowledge that without continuous preservation efforts, their ancestral customs may gradually recede.

“To counter this, the culture ministry has been actively involved in promoting and supporting the indigo dyeing tradition,” Sophearith told The Post.

“Government engagement encompasses exhibiting the community’s products in exhibitions, workshops and marketing platforms”.

A family is applying natural dyeing. KEI KHMER

The Kei Khmer textile group, backed by their unwavering dedication and ministry support, is resolute in ensuring the indigo dyeing tradition stays vibrant. Their pledge to preserving this unique craft stands as a testament to Cambodia’s rich cultural heritage and the steadfast spirit of the people.

Kei Khmer Community comprises committed artisans and weavers striving to uphold the tradition of fabric production and dyeing. Specialising in handcrafted products, they play a crucial role in urging village weavers to perpetuate this cultural practice.

Serving as a beacon of knowledge and expertise, Kei Khmer Community places a strong emphasis on tradition and preservation. They inspire and empower village weavers to carry on this valuable tradition by sharing their skills and passion for production and dyeing.

Their collective efforts not only ensure the continuity of these techniques but also foster a sense of pride and appreciation for Cambodia’s artistic legacy.

By creating a platform for weavers to display their handcrafted products, they contribute to the sustainable growth and recognition of these age-old practices.

Nonetheless, Sophal acknowledges the challenges facing the tradition of producing and dyeing indigo hues in an era when chemical dyes dominate the textile industry. He details the process of obtaining the colour, beginning with planting the indigo plants during the rainy season and harvesting them after six months in the dry season.

“The leaves and small branches are then soaked in water and converted into a paste, which includes additional ingredients like wine and sugar. In some instances, honey is used as an alternative. From the initial preparation of the mixture, it takes nearly a fortnight for it to ferment and produce bubbles,” Sophal told The Post.

These factors contribute to the hesitance among Cambodian artisans to adopt this ancient method of production and dyeing. The process demands a high level of skill and expertise due to its complexity and time-consuming stages, causing many to opt for the convenience of chemical substitutes.

Sophal voices his concerns regarding the widespread use of chemical dyes over natural dyes, underlining the high cost of natural dyes and a lack of appreciation for natural alternatives.

“Many people lack understanding and awareness of the different qualities between natural and chemical colours. Many fail to recognise the potential health and environmental hazards associated with chemical dyes,” he warns.

Although some communities have revived the production of natural dyes, they face the challenge of sourcing raw materials due to the growing preference for chemical substitutes, Sophal adds.

He further mentions that “plaeh umpel tek”, commonly known as Madras thorn peel, and jackfruit heartwood can be utilised as dyeing materials. Drawing on his own experience, he emphasises that the tradition of making and dyeing textiles is currently limited to regions within Takeo and Kampong Cham provinces.

Regrettably, he said, the tradition of producing natural dyes has slowly diminished over the years, coinciding with the rise of chemical dyes.

“This tradition has experienced a steady decline since the aftermath of the Pol Pot regime, with only a few remnants remaining,” Sophal observes.

“By the time UNESCO commissioned a profile of natural dyeing and traditional silk weaving techniques in Cambodia in 2007, weavers in Prek Changkran, once a prominent area for natural dye production in Kandal province, had already diminished significantly in number and productivity,” he adds.

Sophearith believes that preserving various art forms and traditions is essential not just for cultural heritage but also for sustaining communities. Without support, these traditions are at risk of being forgotten by future generations.