Sastra sleuk rith, or palm tree leaf manuscripts, were a traditional means for Cambodians to keep records and preserve knowledge. Sleuk rith are leaves from the talipot palm tree, called the traeng tree in Khmer. The calligraphy used on the sastra sleuk rith is an ancient form of art that has generally been practised by Buddhist monks.
A woman in Siem Reap province has mastered this art form and earned the applause of officials from the Ministry of Cults and Religion, which is charged with preserving this tradition for future generations.
Phoeun Phavy, resident of Siem Reap’s Puok district and commune, inherited the traditional manuscript skills and knowledge from her father. Phavy told The Post that she was the fourth of six siblings and she now lives with her elderly mother.
Phavy recalled that her father was once a monk for over 10 years and that’s where he learned to be a very skillful calligrapher of sastra sleuk rith. After monkhood when he started a family, her father used this skill as a career to support his children until his death, but among the six siblings it was only Phavy who learned the necessary skills from her father to carry on the tradition.
Phavy said that she began learning the art form when she was only 13 years old and she gradually received an education and encouragement from her father. Because of her passion for calligraphy, she always tried to observe and listen to her father’s explanations carefully until she had mastered the skill and could do it professionally.
At the age of 18, she started making sastra sleuk rith by herself and was able to find buyers for her work, particularly monks at various pagodas in Siem Reap and other provinces.
She said that in 2012 she got married and her husband asked her to stop the work because it took up so much of her time. However, when her husband was at his job she continued making sastra sleuk rith regardless. Unfortunately, her husband died in a traffic accident leaving her in a difficult situation having to raise a 10-year-old daughter alone.
“After my husband died, I was left with no money to raise a child. I got a job, but I could not stand it, so I returned home. At that time, I did not know what to do, so I started my sastra sleuk rith career again,” Phavy said
Phavy added that after she continued her career for a while people began posting about her work on Facebook and covering her story in various media outlets. Then she heard from Samdech Preah Udom Panha Daung Phang, chief monk of Wat Prek Prang in Kampong Luong commune in Kandal’s Ponhea Leu district.
He asked her to come and stay at the pagoda to make sastra sleuk rith for him for almost two years before she returned to her hometown.
According to Phavy, the leaves used as stationary for the manuscripts are from the traeng tree, but now it’s very difficult for her to find traeng leaves because the place where they were grown locally has been cleared for development.
The traeng trees that can be used for the sastra sleuk rith are typically between 50 and 70 years old and the spear leaves or leaf tips are the only part that is used, but they are often eaten by insects. The traeng leaves can only be cut once per year, in the season when there is moisture but before the rainy season.
She said that she can only take 10 to 20 leaves per spear, and currently to get traeng leaves she has to go and cut them in the forest on Phnom Dangrek. Once cut from the tree, traeng leaves must be dried during the day time and exposed to the dew at night so the leaves can stand up straight.
The stalks are then removed and the traeng leaves are cleaned and then placed in a wooden clamp to straighten and harden them for two to three months before being wiped and cleaned again. Then they cut them into equal size at a length of 56 cm and mark the lines, drill holes and start writing on them.
Phavy said that to mark the lines they use soot mixed with petroleum because doing this will make it stick to the leaves and make them easy to etch and erase.
For inscribing the sastra sleuk rith, she said the length depends on the story and some stories from start to finish take from 100 up to 400 leaves. Sastra sleuk rith can be etched on both sides and each side has 10 rows.
To do the calligraphy, the inscriber needs to pay close attention both mentally and physically concentrate to get it right. Depending on the story it can take from one month to almost a year to complete and the cost is 15,000 riel per leaf.
“Now, for me, the money I earn from sastra sleuk rith work, I can only feed my 10 inscribers and be able to feed myself and my daughter. I got this income from Samdech Hun Sen, he helped us. Without Samdech’s help, it would be very difficult for us because this job does not have sales every day. Occasionally, there is one order, and it takes months to finish,” she said.
Seng Somony, spokesman for the Ministry of Cults and Religions, told The Post that the manuscripts are like books from the past, created by the Khmer ancestors to record various rules or laws and that it reflects the value placed by the Khmer ancestors on preserving knowledge.
He added that sastra sleuk rith also describe the traditions and customs of the past, including those of Buddhism and other ancient Khmer traditions as well as educational methods and the sastra sleuk rith allowed for the preservation of the national literature, history, culture and traditions before modern times when more advanced technological methods became available.
“Because of the Khmer Rouge regime, many sastra sleuk rith were lost and there was still a lack of protection for those that remained after for a long time,” he said.
Phavy stressed that she is open to training students for free because she wants to preserve these skills that are inherited from her ancestors. Also, she wants to work with the government and get more support from them in the preservation of this art form.
“I want this craft to be included in some educational curriculum, but this is just my idea, or at least it could be a subject for art students to learn,” Phavy said.