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រាមកេរ្តិ៍ Reamker (Rāmakerti) on Leporello paper, [late 19th century-early 20th century]. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

From The Library of Suzanne Karpelès: Jewels of Early Cambodian Buddhist Printing and Modernist Khmer and Pali Manuscripts

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Suzanne Karpelès lived a fascinating life of a scholar of Pali, Khmer, Thai, Tibetan, and Sanskrit, at a time when being an Indologist was a male dominated field, making a major impact on academic knowledge of Cambodian Buddhism, among other subjects. Her personal library is full of wonderful treasures from the early days of Western printing of Cambodian Buddhist works and rare Khmer manuscripts like the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the epic Hindu tale, the Ramayana. One can still access her unique library at the Library of Congress where it has found a home with the Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection in the Asian Reading Room.

You may ask, who was Suzanne Karpelès? She was a French scholar who studied Buddhism and Asian studies at l’École Pratique des Haute Étude with Sylvain Levi, Alfred Foucher and Louis Finot (see further her obituary by Jean Filliozat). She then translated and published a difficult Tibetan and Sanskrit text, the Lokeçvaraçataka or “One Hundred Stanzas in Honor of the Lord of the World by Vajradatta” in 1919 before going to Vietnam and Cambodia in 1923 as a member of l’École française d’Extrême-Orient. In Cambodia, she is credited with founding both the Royal Khmer Library in 1925 and the Buddhist Institute of Phnom Penh in 1930. She served as director of both until 1941 as well as in a role as chief publications officer at l’École Supérieur d’Pali. In these important roles she encouraged the early usage of printing for Buddhist texts and was known for interacting with influential Khmer Buddhist reformers like Huot Tath, Oum Som, Lvi Em and Chuon Nath, the future Supreme Patriarch of the Cambodian Buddhist Sangha (order of monks).

Her story did have some tragic experiences too. Her official duties kept her so busy she had little time for personal research. And, in 1941, she was fired for being Jewish by the Vichy French fascist government (this was reversed in 1946). She retired to Pondicherry, India in 1955 where she lived at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram teaching French language and literature. Her scrapbook gives some idea of this time, however fleeting.

Left – portrait of Suzanne Karpelès. Right – cover of Suzanne’s scrapbook, [1955-1968?]. South Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.
While I read Thai and Lao, I do not know Khmer, so I enlisted aid from other scholars to properly identify the Khmer works from Karpelès’ library. Thankfully there were two excellent authorities willing and able to assist. For Khmer manuscripts, I solicited help from Trent Walker, an assistant professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Michigan, who expertly identified rare manuscripts for which the Library of Congress has no staff knowledgeable in the language: 16 Khmer and Pali-in-Khmer script manuscripts (in 42 volumes). As Walker explains, especially rare and unique items among the collection include many versions of the Cambodian version of the Ramayana, the Reamker (Rāmakerti), which is very rare in Cambodian manuscript collections, including one text on Leporello paper. Other highlights of Buddhist works include a nearly complete version of the Suttajātakanidānānisaṅsa and a complete version of the Pātimokkhagaṇṭhidīpanī as well as Khmer script texts more commonly available in Thai. Intriguingly, Walker noticed the colophon of a 1932 Khmer translation (in a modernist mode) of the Visuddhimagga, in which 20-30 lay people were listed as sponsors of the text (far more than usual), suggesting the new discoveries possible with these unique and understudied works.

រាមកេរ្តិ៍ Reamker (Rāmakerti) on Leporello paper, [late 19th century-early 20th century]. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.
For Khmer colonial era works, I could turn to none other than Anne Hansen, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She helped me understand the significance of the early printed texts from Karpelès’ library. According to Hansen these were some of the earliest Western printings she had seen of seminal works of modern Cambodian Buddhism. The earliest is a Khmer language version of Louis Finot’s “L’Origine d’Angkor” printed in 1927. The Library also has a 1928 copy (2nd edition) of the Samanera-Vinaya by Chuon Nath, Huot Tath, and Oum Som; a 1928 copy of Huot Tath’s “Quelque Monuments D’Angkor”; and a 1929 copy of the Dasadharmasutra by Buddhavamsa Mey; as well as a printing of stories from the Pannasa Jataka (the Samuddaghosa and Sudhana Jatakas) by Lvi Em from 1929. For those who are unfamiliar, Jataka tales are stories of past lives of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.

Top left – 1927 Khmer translation of Louis Finot’s “L’Origine d’Angkor.” Top right – 1928 version of the Samanera-Vinaya by Chuon Nath, Huot Tath and Oum Som. Middle left – 1928 “Quelques Monuments D’Angkor” by Huot Tath. Mid-right – 1929 Khmer translation of the Dasadharmasutra by Buddhavamsa Mey with detail of an inscription noting donation of a copy of the work to Suzanne Karpelès. Bottom—1929 Khmer translation of the “Pannasa Jataka vol. 1 Samuddaghosa Jataka et Sudhana Jataka” by Lvi Em. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

Other donated texts include a volume of the Tripitaka in Khmer script from 1931; and a 1931 translation of the Anumodanavidhi into Khmer from Pali by Chuon Nath.

Top – 1931 vol. of Khmer script Tripitaka. Bottom left – 1931 Khmer translation of the Anumodanavidhi by Sok. Bottom right – cover of 1931 Khmer script Tripitaka. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

Illustrated works like a Temiya Jataka (from the 1930s?) made use of the new medium of printing to popularize Buddhism in new, highly visual ways. “Life of Buddha” (1934), written by Chap Pin, a Cambodian monk, was also a very popular text, as was an undated bilingual Khmer-Lao illustrated version of the Vessantara Jataka.

Collage of an undated (1930s?) work entitled: “La vie du Bouddha: 10 images représentant un des épisodes de la vie antérieure de Bouddha Temiya Jataka.” Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.


Chap Bin, “[Life of the Buddha],” 1934. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.
[Vessantarajātaka],” [1947?] Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.
[Vessantarajātaka],” [1947?] Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.
Not only that, but there were also unique Lao colonial-era texts among Karpelès’ donations as well. This is no surprise given that when Karpelès founded the Buddhist Institute of Phnom Penh she also founded Buddhist Institutes in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. As such, the Library of Congress has an early draft of a major colonial-era historical study of Lao history, “Histoire du Laos Français” written by Paul Le Boulanger, a French colonial administrator in Laos. Uniquely, this copy has extensive marginalia throughout the text (intriguingly raising the question of who might have made the notations). There are also pamphlets from the opening of the Buddhist Institute in Vientiane and a tour to Cambodia made by a young prince (aged 28) of Luang Prabang (who later became the last king of Laos), Savang Vatthana, in 1935. Le Boulanger’s draft version, entitled “Essai d’une étude historique du Laos Français : premiere partie (des origines à 1836 AD)” was printed in 1928, which is quite early in the history of Lao printing, which did not come into its own until the 1940s-50s, although there were missionary presses in southern Laos from 1912 and in neighboring Northern Thailand from 1893 (by way of Chiang Mai).

Paul Le Boulanger, “Essai d’une étude historique du Laos Français : premiere partie (des origines à 1836 AD)” (with marginalia), 1928. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.
Collage of pamphlets documenting Prince of Luang Prabang Savang Vatthana’s May 1935 tours of the Buddhist Institute of Phnom Penh, the opening of a Pali school in Kompong-Chhnang province and Triton in Cambodia. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

How did these works get to the Library of Congress in the first place? Some manuscripts and texts contain a note stating they are gifts of Laurence Mus Rimer (Paul Mus’ daughter) and J. Thomas Rimer (a former Asian Division chief), from the library of Paul Mus, incorporating the library of Suzanne Karpelès. There is a memo from January 2004 written by Allen Thrasher (a former South Asian librarian) noting Karpelès gave Paul Mus “much of her library when she retired to an ashram in Pondicherry in 1955.” Apparently, Mus had left the materials in France when he moved to the US to teach at Yale University in 1960. (I would be remiss not to mention that the Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection also holds the Paul Mus papers covering the first half (1945-1949) of the First Indochina War (1945-1954)). An internal memo from 2003 adds

“The heirs of the great Southeast Asianist Paul Mus donated to the Library over a thousand books and manuscripts from his library, greatly expanding its significantly limited coverage of colonial French Indochina and including many titles…”

In August 2022, Thrasher clarified the history of this donation to me via email. He recalled during an acquisitions meeting with a former Librarian of Congress, Dr. James H. Billington, that Dr. Billington was concerned the Library’s Asian collections did not have more recent “treasures”; and wondered aloud what had happened to the libraries of several great scholars, mentioning Paul Mus by name. Thrasher then contacted the Rimers. Years later, when dealing with the Mus estate, the Rimers invited Thrasher to come to France to select items for donation to the Asian Division of the Library of Congress.

All of these materials and more are open and available to researchers and the public. The texts described in this post are not yet catalogued or digitized, but please contact a Southeast Asian reference librarian using the Ask a Librarian service (which functions similar to email) to request access. You may also review the Asian Reading Room’s Rare Book Policy.


Further Reading:

Penny Edward, Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860-1945 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007).

Jean Filliozat, “Suzanne Karpelès,” Bulletin de l’école française d’Extrême-Orient, Vol. 56 (1969): 1-3. (open access here).

Anne Hansen, How to Behave: Buddhism and Modernity in Colonial Cambodia, 1860-1930 (Honolulu: University of Hawi’i Press, 2007).

Ian Harris, Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 2005).

Trent Walker, “Southeast Asian Manuscripts,” Across the Archives lecture series, Cornell University, November 7, 2023.

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