Indonesian Illuminated Manuscripts

Straddling the equator and bridging the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the Indonesian archipelago has been a crossroads for millennia, a place where not only West met East, but where indigenous societies traded as freely in knowledge as they did in pepper and cloves.

The richness of the archipelago's land and seas is mirrored in its linguistic wealth. Hundreds of distinct languages are to be found in Indonesia, and many ethnic groups have their own scripts and writing traditions, as well as distinctive writing materials and media. Yet Indonesian manuscripts are virtually unknown outside of Indonesia. Even scholars have only limited access to the tens of thousands of manuscripts in public and private collections in Indonesia and abroad. This is one reason why the SEADL project is so important.

In 1995, the Lontar Foundation of Jakarta published Illuminations: The Writing Traditions of Indonesia, the first comprehensive treatment in any language on the subject. All of the images in SEADL trace their origin to this publication which focuses on the development of the art of writing in Indonesia, beginning with the diffusion of Indic scripts and the creation of indigenous scripts as seen in early stone and copperplate inscriptions; classical Javanese writings and the Javanese manuscript tradition; the spread and influence of Arabic script and calligraphy and the illuminated book-form manuscripts of the Islamic tradition; the elaborate letters and seals of the Malay writing tradition; manuscripts from Aceh; the lontar, or palm-leaf manuscripts of Bali, Lombok and Sunda; Chinese manuscript literature in Indonesia; the diaries and cassette-like manuscripts of South Sulawesi; and the Batak traditions of Sumatra, including writings on bark, bone, and bamboo.

Although as elsewhere in the world, the print revolution brought about a decline in the manuscript tradition. In Indonesia it remained alive long after it had died in the West. In fact illuminated manuscripts were being produced in Indonesia well into the twentieth century and in Bali, even today, the production of lontar palm-leaf manuscripts continues.

John McGlynn

To read more about Indonesian manuscripts, read our essay, Writing Traditions of Indonesia, by Ann Kumar, Professor and Historian.

Seal matrix of Sultan Alauddin Muhammad Daud Syah of Aceh
Seal matrix of Sultan Alauddin Muhammad Daud Syah of Aceh AH. 1296 (1878).
Sejarah melayu
A manuscript of Sejarah Melayu, which recorded the history of the Malacca dynasty from which the Riau princes claimed descent was kept in the Riau palace wrapped in golden silk.
Serat Ajisaka
Cerita legenda sejarah bercampur mythos, mulai dari kerajaan Jawa Budha di Galuh di bawah Prabu Sindula, kemudian Dewatacengkar dari Medhang Kamulan melawan ayahnya sendiri (Prabu Sindula). Disusul cerita Ajisaka dari Mekah datang di Jawa.
Serat Ambiya (Collpohone)
Frontispiece of a Serat Ambiya containing a verse history of the Islamic prophets from Adam to Muhammad. Copied in 1844 by Ki Ahmad Ngali.
Serat Arjunawijaya
Collection of the Kraton Yogyakarta.
Serat Bratayudha
The Pandawa forces arrayed for battle on the field of Kurusetra, from a sumptuously illustrated Serat Bratayudha produced in the palace of the Yogyakarta Sultan Hamengku Buwana VII. Kraton kesultanan Yogyakarta copied in Yogyakarta 1902-1903.
Serat Catur Bumi
A nipah palm manuscript written with pen and ink . Serat Catur Bumi.
Serat Menak Yasadipuran
Frontispiece of a Serat Menak Yasadipuran manuscript authored by the eighteenth century Surakarta court poet, Yasadipura I.
Serat Pawukon
A Yogyakarta manuscript and a kartasura manuscript. Stamped figure of an angel from a Serat Pawukon a treatise on Javanese calendars, copied in Yogyakarta c. 1810.
Serat Rama
Martial audience scene from a madurese adaption of part of the Ramayana called serat rama, copied in Madura possibly in the mid 1700s.