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.

Lampung manuscript Gelumpai
Gold seal rings
Three gold seal rings with Old Javanese inscriptions, 7th to 10th centuries AD.
Hadits Daka
Suluk Daka a manuscript showing the influence of Arabic and Javanese on Sundanese culture.
Hijrah Nabi
Islamic Text manuscript hijrah nabi
Hik. Du’a Jusan Hik
Within the covers of this one manuscript are three Acehnese texts : Hikayat Nubuet Nabi, Hikayat Meucuko, and a fragment of the Hikayat Hayake Tujuob. The mixed status of the languages in this manuscript is characteristic of Acehnese literacy.
Hikayat Bakawali
Hikayat Putroe Baka'uli, a romance also known in Malay, Persian and Hindustani versions.
Hikayat Malim Diwa
Describes the activities of mythical figure in North Aceh, who is now known under the Islamic title of Teungku Malem.
Hikayat Merpati Emas dan Merpati Perak
one of the manuscripts from the lending library of muhammad bakri. Chambert Loir comments that the insertion of illustrations was a striking idiosyncrasy of muhammad bakir as a scribe.
Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah
A reply from Sultan Cakradiningrat of Madura to Hendrik Markus de Cock concerning the arrival of a delegation to oversee the area under his control dated A.H. 1243 (1827).
Hikayat Nabi Bercukur
A Manuscript containing stories of prophet's life. The shaving of the prophet.