13 December 2021
Khmer manuscripts at the British Library (Part 2)
The previous blog post on Khmer manuscripts at the British Library focused on traditional Khmer manuscripts - palm leaves (sleuk rith) and folding books (kraing). In addition to these, the British Library holds documents containing text in Khmer script that were made by foreigners who travelled or lived for some time in Cambodia and Thailand, or who exchanged written correspondences with Cambodia.
Of special interest is a small collection of epigraphic notes by Henri Mouhot, dated 1860-61, together with Mouhot’s visas issued by the Siamese authorities that permitted him to travel in the country. These documents were initially given to the British Museum in 1894 by Mrs Mouhot, over 30 years after her husband’s death, and were transferred to the British Library after 1973 (Or 4736). They contain a “sacred Khmer alphabet” for Pali texts together with a short text sample, an “ordinary Khmer alphabet” with two text samples, copies of ancient Khmer stone inscriptions, together with Lao alphabets and text samples.
The copies of Khmer inscriptions that Mouhot produced are particularly interesting as some of the original stones may not exist anymore. They include copies of inscriptions at Angkor Wat, at Phanom Wan near Korat, at a temple ruin near Phimai, at Khamphaeng Phet, Battambang, Chaiyaphum, and Angkor Thom.
Henri Mouhot’s copy of a stone inscription found on an unspecified terrace at Angkor Thom. From the collection of epigraphic notes of Henri Mouhot; date of the copy 1860-61. British Library, Or 4736, f. 14
Another interesting manuscript is a European-style bound book with the title “Dictionary of the Kameh language with the English translation to every word”. It contains thirty folios of handwritten Khmer text with English translations, and it is not actually a dictionary, but a glossary. The Khmer text is written below the line, following South and Southeast Asian writing traditions, whereas the English translations were added above the Khmer text. An introductory note says that “This dictionary wants the insertion of about 4000 words and a fuller explanation in English, which will be done, if the work is to be printed.” However, it does not seem as if the work was ever completed or printed since the last nine folios were left blank. Nonetheless, this is an outstanding work which was compiled in 1830 by two persons: a learned Khmer speaker known as Chaou Bun, resident in Siam, and the German missionary Karl Gützlaff who lived in Bangkok from 1828-31. Gützlaff’s first wife, Maria Newell Gützlaff, an English missionary, teacher and translator of Chinese, may have assisted in some way with this collaborative work after she joined her husband in Bangkok in 1830. Together, they were also working on Bible translations into Thai, Khmer and Lao languages. The sudden death of Maria following the birth of twins and Gützlaff’s departure to Macau in 1831 was probably the reason why the glossary was never finished.
The most remarkable manuscript containing Khmer text is a nearly 15 m long paper scroll from Japan. It contains a mid-19th century copy of a transcript made in 1818 of ten official documents and trade letters written in Japanese from the Gaiban Shokan (Foreign Correspondence) between the Japanese government (shogunate) and various foreign rulers or officials between the years 1604 and 1675. Among Dutch, Italian and Luzon letters are six Cambodian documents with translations dated to 1605-6. Whereas the Sino-Japanese script is immaculate, the translations of the six letters in Khmer script are almost illegible and are thought to have been copied by a Japanese scribe who was not familiar with Khmer.
19th-century copy of a letter in Khmer language dating back to 1605, in a Japanese scroll containing trade documents from 1604-75. British Library, Or 12979
Thanks to the digitisation of several Khmer manuscripts with funding from the Legacy of Henry Ginsburg, it was possible to work with scholars across the globe to identify the age and texts contained in some of these manuscripts. The scroll from Japan (above) is one such example: Mr Bora Touch kindly provided a transcript of nine lines of almost illegible text in Khmer language, dated 1605, seen in the image above:
 សារ នោ ឧកញា ឝ្រីអគ្គរាជ នុឧកញា ធម្មតេជោយេងខ្ញុមទាង២ ថ្វាយបំគម្ម មោកស្តេចញីបុ៎ន កុ
 កជូ ឫ យេងនោស្រុកកុម្វុជ្ជាធិបតី បានយលស្តេចញីបុ៎នសាបុរ្សប្រសេថ្ឋពៀកទេព
 ឲយតេងសំពោវខ្មេរ១ឲយចោ សពោវឈ្មោះស្សយីមុនកានោក
 ទោះស្តេចយីបុ៎នកុកចូ ស្រលេងយេងខ្ញុំទាង២ពិតឲយស្តេចកុកចូវ
 ឲយទំនេរចោសំពោវចេញទោវឆាបកុំប្បីឲយនោវអាយលេយ ឥតអិយៗនុថ្វាយ
មោកស្តេចលេយ សោមមោកថ្វាយចៀម៥ ក្រមួនហាប១ ខាន់សាកករ ហា
 ប១ សាកកសរ ហាប១ កន្ទុុយកងោក១០ ស្បេកខលាតម្បោង
Mr Bora Touch and another Cambodian scholar, Mr Suon Sopheaktra, helped to identify a French translation of the letter (no. 2, p. 130), saying it was sent to the emperor of Japan by two Cambodian envoys, Okna Srei Akkarac and Okna Thommadecho. It documents the gift of textiles, beeswax, candy sugar, white sugar, peacock tail feathers and leopard skins to the emperor of Japan. The letter was sealed with a red lotus flower seal.
This kind of information is not only extremely useful for the description of the manuscript in the Library’s online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts, but also for historians, archaeologists, palaeographers and linguists who rely on these rare primary sources for their research.
It is hoped that through digitisation more facts about Khmer manuscripts will come to light, for example about a rather mysterious book bound in European style. It contains 203 drawings of scenes mainly from the Ramayana and the Vessantara Jataka. Short Khmer captions written on each folio with pencil accompany the drawings. 157 pages are illustrated with scenes from the Ramayana in black ink and grey water-colour shades; pages 158-203 contain coloured drawings of scenes from the Vessantara Jataka and other Jatakas. The illustrations are in the style of the Thai Rattanakosin period and resemble reliefs of the Ramakien (Thai version of the Ramayana) at Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok which were created during the reign of King Rama III (r. 1824-51). However, similar scenes from the Reamker (the Khmer Ramayana) can be found in murals at Vat Po in Siem Reap as well as on 12th-century bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat. Unusual for both Thai and Khmer painting styles is the sketching of the drawings with pencil before they were drawn with ink, as well as the shading of the black ink drawings with grey water colour. On the inside of the first unfoliated page, the word "Couronne" is written in pencil, which may be a French name. Judging from the acidity of the paper the creation period of the drawings is estimated to around 1880 to 1900. The glossy endpapers were decorated with a design called “Spanish wave” made in marbling technique which became increasingly popular in Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Unfortunately, nothing else about the book is known, except that it was acquired from Sam Fogg, London, in 1994.
Rama reveals himself as an incarnation of Narayana. Illustration of a scene from the Ramayana in black ink and grey water colour on European paper, ca. 1880-1900. British Library, Or 14859, ff. 54-5
All Khmer manuscripts at the British Library have now been catalogued and can be searched in the Library’s online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts which also links to manuscripts that have been digitised.
Current status of manuscript collections in Cambodia’s monasteries. Fonds pour l'Édition des Manuscrits du Cambodge, École française d'Extrême-Orient (retrieved 16/10/2021)
Mouhot, Henri. Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos during the Years 1858, 1859, and 1860 (Vol. 1 of 2). London, 1864.
Niyada Laosunthon. Silā čhamlak rư̄ang Rāmmakīan : Wat Phrachēttuphonwimonmangkhalārām. Bangkok, 1996
Péri, N. Essai sur les relations du Japon et de l'Indochine aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles. Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient. 1923, 23, pp. 1-136
Roveda, Vittorio: Wat Bo: Conclusion. (2017)