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.

Naskah Lampung 3
Polychromatic drawings of goddesses in kunjarakarna an old javanese primbon.
Naskah Lampung 4
Lampung manuscript. The folding bark books, made from the bark of the bunut (calophyllum spp. Malay : bintangor) are mostly magic or religious in nature.
Naskah Mystiek
Hikayat Abeuko Karim, a text for instruction, describing the principal truths of Islamic faith together with laws of purification and prayer. In some versions the author is named teungku seumatang.
Naskah Rencong
Rencong manuscript from Lampung.
Naskah Sunda Kuna
Leaves from an old Lontar manuscript originating from the Kabuyutan in Ciburuy.
Nawaruci manuscript.
Pakem Wirama
Musical annotation for gamelan detail from Pakem Wirama.
Panji Dewakusuma Kembar
Semar gives advice to prabu tunjung mirah kumalawati in Dewakusuma kembar, copied near semarang by bagus sarodin c. 1850.
Panji Jayalengkara Wulang
figures of birds in javanese zoomorphic calligraphy from a copy of the serat selarasa, copied in cireubon 1835.