In Cambodia, where a majority of people are Buddhist, it is rare to find a household without religious memorabilia. A token with a picture of Buddha is believed to bring peace and happiness to its keeper.
The belief in positive energy from religious symbols has kept one local couple busy making souvenirs by printing Buddha pictures accompanied by Khmer Pali script on skeleton Bo leaves.
Bo trees, known as Bodhi or Pippala trees in India and Nepal, represent spiritual awakening in Buddhism. It was under a Bo tree that Siddhartha Gautama, who later became known as Buddha, attained enlightenment.
The idea to make souvenirs from the leaves was hatched two months ago when Sin Kunthea took a break from her work and found a YouTube video about how to make skeleton leaves from plants.
The former human resource officer and her husband tried making skeleton leaves from Bo trees with pictures of Buddha.
The 26-year-old Kunthea says: “Initially, I brought some green leaves from a Bo tree after I had watched a few YouTube videos posted by YouTubers from other countries.
“Seeing the result of the picture on the skeleton leaf, my neighbours were interested and requested that I make 10 or 20 more Buddha-picture printings on skeleton leaves so that they can share them with their relatives.”
It turned out to have a ripple effect as more and more people started asking her for the leaves.
“I got a lot of inquiries. People really like and respect the religious printings on the leaves. Then my husband and I decided that we should focus on selling them,” she says.
Kunthea, who is from Svay Rieng province now prints the leaves at her house in Meanchey commune in Phnom Penh.
She began by collecting fresh green Bo leaves measuring 8cm by 10cm.
“We only use the right-sized leaves that are naturally heart-shaped and in good condition,” she says.
While other people spend a few weeks to make skeleton leaves by soaking them in water until the pulp of the leaves falls out by itself, Kunthea adopted a technique to make them quicker.
“They are left to dry under the sun for a few days before the leaf’s lamina is gently removed. The process requires skill and patience so that leaves will have complete midribs and veins,” Kunthea says.
Out of 100 leaves, about 30 to 40 of them create perfect full skeletons after the lamina removal.
“Sadly, we have to let go of about 60 to 70 per cent of the leaves during this process. Some of them are torn or broken even though we try to work gently to remove the leaf lamina,” Kunthea says.
At Kunthea’s workshop, she offers three designs of Buddha pictures along with Khmer Pali script. The designs are available in a gold or silver shade.
“After we print the dried leaves, we put them in thermal laminator pouches to protect them from breaking. The leaves are used as religious protective charms or decoration.
“People who keep them can be sure that the leaves are unbreakable in the protective thermal laminator pouches,” she says.
They started their online business in Phnom Penh and soon after, expanded by selling through wholesalers in Battambang and Siem Reap provinces.
Kunthea says: “Now I no longer sell the artistic leaves in retail shops. I only accept large orders from wholesalers. They have to inform us at least 10 days in advance to give us enough time to prepare the leaves for printing.”
“People who buy the Buddha-printed leaves from me believe they bring them happiness, calmness, tranquillity and harmony.
“Some people even take the leaves to pagodas for monks to bless before they hang them in their cars, tuk-tuks, houses or put them in their handbags. Some people buy them as gifts for their relatives, especially elderly ones.”
Within two months, Kunthea made more than 1,000 skeleton leaves with Buddha pictures. “I have sold around 1,300 leaves and received a lot of good feedback from my clients, she says.
“As more people got to know about the leaves I make, I didn’t have to sell them one by one. I sold them in large quantities to dealers in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang [provinces].”
Because everything is handmade, Kunthea admitted that she cannot mass-produce the skeleton leaves for the religious souvenir market. With the help of her family, one hundred Buddha-printed leaves take about three to four days to make.
“I also need help from a few people to make it on time. The final product has a wholesale price starting at $2.50 each,” she says.
People have asked her to design different pictures on the skeleton leaves so they will have a wider range to choose from. However, Kunthea says she needs time to study religious printings because she doesn’t come from a religious arts discipline.
She says she wants to keep her style to reflect traditional Khmer art forms. If just anyone makes religious tokens however they like, they will likely be criticised.
Kunthea says: “Some people have even suggested that I make something bigger, like a big painting on a leaf. My husband and I are spending time learning more about new designs on skeleton leaves. Hopefully, we’ll soon be able to provide more options for our customers.”
Those who are interested in the art of Buddha printings on Bo skeleton leaves can contact Sin Kunthea by phone: 096 712 80 90 and 071 593 1417.