When does a script die–and how does it die?
These are questions of vital importance to anyone interested in script revitalization and cultural preservation, but the Khom script offers some highly unusual answers. It even offers the possibility, in a sense, of script life after death.
Like many indigenously-created scripts, the Khom script was created out of a spirit of resistance–in this case, resistance against the French forces occupying what was then called Indo-China. It was the brainchild, in a very unusual and somewhat literal sense, of Ong Kommadam, a Lao resistance leader and one of perhaps a hundred self-styled messiahs who led rebellions against the French colonial state in the early twentieth century. According to its own narrative, Kommadam would go into trances during which would repeat a sound and again and again until its corresponding symbol manifested itself on the bare skin of his chest—at which point a scribe would copy it down and wait for the next one.
According to Pascale Jacq, the script was not intended for mass literacy or general use; only a minority of the Jruq, Alak and other peoples knew it. “They were sent as correspondents and spies to places as far away as Vietnam, Cambodia and possibly even northern Thailand.”
This breadth of use was a sign of the script’s remarkable versatility. Even though it was initially created for the Lao Thenh people, Kommadam established study classes among his own and allied tribes, and the script enabled him to forge alliances with other racial groups who spoke different languages. This so alarmed the French that at one point they mobilized the majority of their forces in Indo-China against him, massing everything from elephants to fighter and bomber planes.
Kommadam developed an aura of invulnerability, especially after he survived an assassination attempt when a French official, claiming to have been sent for peaceful negotiations, shot him in the chest with a pistol hidden in his pith helmet.
On September 23rd, 1936, Kommadam was shot dead, the French authorities collected and destroyed every document in his script they could find, and his rebellion and his script effectively died with him, though the script, at least, had two curious (so to speak) postscripts.
Conducting field research in the Bolaven Plateau as recently as 1998-1999, Jacq and his colleagues met the last surviving member of Kommadam’s leadership, Mr. Bounnhong, who wrote out the characters of the script and pronounced them. Sadly, Mr. Bounnhong died only a month later, but the researchers were contacted by Kommadam’s great-niece, Mrs. Thongsuk, who showed them a number of Kommadam’s notebooks that had been kept under lock and key.
But the script was said to have lived on in a less tangible, more mysterious way, like the legends of King Arthur and his promised eventual return. According to one narrative, his sons transcribed the characters from his tattooed back before he was buried; in another version a man who may have been the immortal Kommadam had himself tattooed with the script, escaped to the Wat Phu temple, and still lives there as a monk.
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