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Research Institute Taps Deep Traditions in its Name

The Sleuk Rith Institute will be a major genocidal research center, museum and library based in Cambodia.
The Sleuk Rith Institute will be a major genocidal research center, museum and library based in Cambodia.

The Sleuk Rith Institute will be a major genocidal research center, museum and library based in Cambodia. It takes its name from a type of plant, and leaf, traditionally used by Cambodian scribes. These days, though, few people may remember that. Here’s a look at where the name comes from.

Sleuk rith is the Khmer word for the leaves of the traeng tree, or Corypha umbraculifera, called in English the talipot palm.

The tree grows predominantly in eastern and northern India, as well as in Sri Lanka, and Cambodia, Burma, and Thailand. In Cambodia, talipot palm are self-seeding and seen mostly in Kratie and Kompong Thom provinces. The talipot palm is one of the tallest trees in the world. It can grow as tall as 25 meters. The life span of the tree can be longer than humans. But once it blossoms and bears mature fruits, it naturally dies.

“Traeng is a species of palm, like palm tree, areca and coconut,” Soeung Phors, a retired literature professor of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said. “The species has pith that is located on the outside of the trees. In Khmer, it’s called ‘ta cha sara prik,’ referring to a group of plants that provide useful bark or rind.”

Sleuk rith is the word used when this material is gathered to make other things, like the roof or walls of a house, or hats, or mats, after it is dried and tied together.

These were also used to record the manuscripts of monks, Chhang Youk, director of the Sleuk Rith Institute, said. More specifically, this material was called sastra sleuk rith, and it was used, like paper, to record knowledge of science, religion, law, education and other matters.

Ly Sorvy, a professor of literature, tracked down the historical origins of sastra sleuk rith. He said it was predominant in the Angkorian period. “Presumably, it existed before the Angkorian era,” he said.

In fact, says Suon Orsoth, another literature professor, the material existed in the early 9th century, when the Mon-Khmer built diplomatic relations in what is today Myanmar, or Burma.

“Burma inscribed a collection of Buddhist sacred texts in Pali and Sanskrit,” he said. “The Pali language was widespread across the Khmer empire when Burma took the emerald Buddhist statue from Sri Lanka by boat to the Khmer empire. That was when the Khmer people started to inscribe on sastra sleuk rith. ”

The use of the material took over stone inscription. But that doesn’t mean it was easy to do. Inscriptions on the material required the use of a delicate metal tool called the dek cha. It could take more than an hour to write a passage. Black ink was applied over the top of inscriptions to enhance the shape of the writing.

Sastra sleuk rith thus became an essential part of Cambodia’s religion and culture, holding sacred Buddhist texts, myths, records of kings, folk stories, traditions, architecture, codes of conduct and astrology.

During French colonization, it also became a symbol of resistance. There is a story of the layman Pho Kambour climbing a talipot palm to inscribe writings on its leaves, calling for Cambodians to preserve their language in the face of French influence.

These days, though, its use has diminished. The Khmer Rouge burned down Buddhist temples and killed monks. The use of the material has decreased with the rise of modern technology.

Literature professor Chan Somnoble says the tradition remains alive at Buddhist temples, despite the use of paper and computers. Ly Sorvy and other scholars say the tradition should be kept. “We can continue the culture of sastra sleuk rith inscription, because its life span is very long and lasting,” he said.

Chhang Youk said he named his research institute after the material in an effort to promote better understanding of Cambodia’s identity, culture and history. “The Sleuk Rith Institute is unique and simple,” he said. “And even though the institute will deal with finding justice after the Khmer Rouge genocide, the institute also works to frame the future of Cambodia, knowing that we can’t escape the past, but that we shouldn’t be enslaved by it.”