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.

A defiction of the nagadina (seven day snake) and explanations of the directions in which it lurks. Central Java early twentieth century.
Dinoyo Stone
The Dinoyo stone inscription, an example of standard early Kawi script.
Doa Chatam Koeran
Doa Chatam Koer'an containing prayers to follow Koranic lessons.
One page of Malay mystical text. This manuscript contains Acehnese religious poetry.
Donga Paningkah Kawin
A lontar manuscript incised with a peso pangot a kind of knife.
Dutch Malay Dictionary
Malay, being the lingua franca of Southeast Asia, was the chosen language for travelers and entrepreneurs in the region. A good dictionary was a must thisone Dictionarium of the woord ende spraeck boeck in de duytsche ende Maleysche tale. A dutch malay dictionary was first published in Amsterdam in 1673 but reprinted in Batavia in 1707.
Fathu r-Rahman li-Syarhi l-Waliyyi Ruslan
A page from bearded text, Fathu r-Rahman li-Syarhi l-Waliyyi Ruslan.
Gambar Dhapuripun (Keris drawings)
Drawing of a kris blade from the collection of the Sultan of Yogyakarta. Copied at the Kraton Yogyakarta, undated.
Gambar Songsong (open & Closed umbrellas)
Reproductions of the sonsong style assigned to a high Yogyakarta official. No others were authorized to bear this particular pattern or combination of colors. Copied at the kraton Yogyakarta c. 1930.