I recently read a fabulous article by Alexis Sanderson, entitled “The Śaiva Religion among the Khmers (Part I)” in the Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient 90-91 (2003): 349-462.

In this article, Sanderson examines Sanskrit inscriptions from Cambodia to talk about the presence of Śaivism among the Khmer ruling elite up to the fourteenth century. While this article is filled with interesting insights, one thing that it made me realize is how problematic the Sanskrit inscriptions are.

It is the French who “discovered” many of the Sanskrit inscriptions in Cambodia and who made them known to the world through their publications in journals like the Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient.

Here the scholar who clearly did the most was the late Georges Coedès. Coedès transcribed Sanskrit inscriptions into Romanized script, translated the texts into French, and then published these transcriptions and translations in journals and in a series of volumes entitled the Inscriptions du Cambodge.

Subsequent scholars have relied heavily on the work of Coedès. In the case of his Inscriptions du Cambodge, images of the inscriptions are included, and in some cases they are quite clear, but in others they are not. At other times, Coedès (and other scholars) published their transliterations and translations without an image of the original inscription, so that all subsequent scholars have had to rely on what Coedès (or other scholars) wrote.

With this in mind, it was interesting to see Sanderson “rip apart” some of the things Coedès wrote (see the example from page 354 below). Sanderson may have based some of his corrections on his reading of the actual inscription from an image provided by Coedès, but in some cases it appears obvious that Sanderson was merely correcting Coedès from a superior knowledge of Sanskrit and was able to readily see from the transcription that Coedès made places where Coedès had misread the original.

I have read other works in which scholars with solid knowledge of Sanskrit have questioned and corrected what Coedès earlier wrote. However, such scholars have been far and few between. On the other hand, many scholars have made use of the work of Coedès with a good deal of trust.

This relates to points I’ve posted about recently (here and here). Our knowledge of premodern Southeast Asian history is built on a fragile, and in many cases flawed, foundation. There is a desperate need for people to really go back and look again at the sources that members of the earlier generations of scholars, people like Coedès, employed to build that foundation.

In the case of Sanskrit inscriptions, it struck me that a good first step would be to create some kind of digital archive of images of the inscriptions and whatever scholarship has been done on them to date.

I don’t know where all of the inscriptions that Coedès and others wrote about actually are today. I think that there are rubbings in Paris. Either the actual inscriptions, or the rubbings, or both should be photographed and placed in a database with the existing scholarship.

If the material was there for scholars to easily engage, perhaps that would inspire more skilled people like Sanderson to do so.