Sleuk Rith Manuscripts: Maintaining the Tradition of These Fragile Documents

Sastra sleuk rith, or manuscripts written on palm leaves, have been used for recordkeeping and to preserve knowledge and words of wisdom for centuries in Cambodia. Photo by Long Ton

The art of writing documents on sleuk rith leaves goes back a very long time in Cambodia

SIEM REAP—Sastra sleuk rith, or manuscripts written on palm leaves, have been used for recordkeeping and to preserve knowledge and words of wisdom for centuries in Cambodia. Sleuk rith is a type of leaf that comes from the traeng tree, also known as talipot palm and by its scientific name of corypha umbraculifera.

Only the upper tip of the leaves can be used to write on. Each sleuk rith leaf undergoes a tedious process of drying, heating, and binding before reaching the final paper-like state. In Cambodia of centuries past, a manuscript of poems, literature, folktales or specialized knowledge written on those leaves was referred to as “sastra sleuk rith” regardless of the content.  

As mentioned, sleuk rith pages are made of traeng tree leaves. The tree itself is indistinguishable from the Cambodian conventional palm tree with which it shares all the same characteristics.  Today, traeng trees can be seen growing in large numbers in Kratie and Preah Vihear provinces. Moreover, due to its durability as traeng trees can stand for hundreds of years, it is no coincidence that traeng leaves were chosen to write manuscripts.

Loat Leung, who practices the art of writing sleuk rith manuscripts, lives in Siem Reap Province in the village of Samraong in Angkor Thom District’s Leang Dai Commune. As he explained, it is very difficult to find traeng tree leaves to make sleuk rith pages as there are hardly any traeng trees growing in Siem Reap Province anymore. Therefore, each year, Leung has to set aside one week to travel to Preah Vihear Province to buy the leaves that he will transform into manuscripts over the following months.

The leaves obtained, the overall process takes a considerable amount of time to achieve the quality of sleuk rith pages Leung uses. First, he heats the leaves, bind them together and then straightens them out. Then, the leaves have to be set aside for two to three months or possibly longer before the leaves can be used for manuscripts.

Loat Leung practices the art of writing sleuk rith manuscripts in Siem Reap Province in the village of Samraong in Angkor Thom District’s Leang Dai Commune. Photo by Long Ton

Then, what is even more complex is the inscription process as it must be done according to traditional techniques. When copying a document written on sleuk rith pages onto new sleuk rith pages, the transcriber must copy the text word for word and in the same font size as the original text. However, when it comes to writing an ordinary text, this can be done in present-day handwriting styles according to the customer’s request.

After writing the text, a scribe will embark on the “erasing” phase. Erasing here does not mean to discard or eliminate. For scribes, this means filling the calligraphy imprints, which were made with sharp imprinting tools, with resin so that the letters will clearly be visible. In other words, the resin is comparable to printing ink that we use in everyday life.

That resin is actually not black. It is a clear liquid with light consistency extracted from a type of resin tree called chher teal or Dipterocarpus alatus. To obtain the black and dark ink, Loat Leung must mix the clear liquid with soot to make the letters apppear.

After inking the letters, the cleaning process must be done immediately by using fine sand or bran to wipe the excess of ink. Beginner scribes must have their teachers check for errors after the cleaning process. If mistakes are found, scribes must redo that page before rearranging the order of sleuk rith pages and finally bind them together.

This committed sastra sleuk rith scribe shares his skills and knowledge with fellow students who tend to come from diverse places and backgrounds. Loat Leung notices that, even though his teaching is open to the public, few students attend as sastra sleuk rith is not a business through which one can get rich. Consequently, some study for a short period of time while others move on to other occupations, Leung said.  

Although this occupation only enables him to handle his immediate expenses, Loat Leung is determined to continue safeguarding this tradition as he has done for nearly 20 years. Fortunately, his sastra sleuk rith work has been recognized and supported by Buddhist monks and Buddhist followers. Moreover, wealthy people who are eager to preserve Cambodia’s heritage show their support for Loat Leung as well. They usually buy sastra sleuk rith documents to decorate their homes or show to their children. If this trend continues, the sastra sleuk rith tradition will be maintained and preserved for the future through this support and encouragement. However, the fate of sastra sleuk rith is still precarious as this passionate scribe said. He remains concerned about the scarcity of traeng tree leaves and maintaining the traditional art of sastra sleuk rith in the years  to come.

Long Ton is a Cambodian with a passion for Angkor and that era. A university graduate who speaks several languages, he has conducted tours at Angkor.

The text was translated by Song Daphea

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