Writing Traditions of Indonesia

Items in the collection Indonesian Illuminated Manuscripts originated in the book Illuminations: the Writing Traditions of Indonesia. Remarkably enough this is the first ever book to bring together in one volume Indonesia's aesthetically and intellectually rich writing traditions and it is intended to be several things. First and most obvious, a source of visual delight, in which the aesthetic sensitivity and ingenuity displayed in the interplay of medium (whether stone, copper, lontar,bark, or paper), writing, and decoration enchant the eye of the reader. But it is also more than another art book, however beautiful: it is a revolutionary transformation of the accepted picture of Indonesia's past and of what are usually referred to as the traditional societies of Indonesia's many islands. These societies are often seen as static, somewhat isolated societies where the oral rather than the written was the dominant means of communication, literature, and transmission of learning: societies which were suddenly awakened from rustic somnolence by the arrival of the dynamic West. Yet the contributions to this book reveal written communication going back two millennia, constantly evolving, revealing and giving rise to major social and intellectual transformations. The geographical spread of these traditions is an exemplification of the national motto, Unity in Diversity. There is diversity in plenty.... Yet if we survey the whole scene rather than looking at one particular region, there is also a unity that is not due, as often claimed, to the imposition of a harsh colonial yoke, a unity which also springs from gentler yet stronger bonds than the conquests of indigenous kings. This unity springs from the role of great indigenous centers of learning, that not only spread their light to the rest of the archipelago but also far beyond it. 

Indonesia's writing traditions have a spread in time that is as deep as their geographical spread is wide: in fact, the use of writing in Indonesia may have begun much earlier than has previously been recognized. As Thomas M. Hunter Jr. writes, scholars have long suspected that an international trading network linking China and Southeast Asia with India and the Near East had developed by the beginning of the first millennium A.D., and hard evidence has now come to light with recent discoveries on the north coast of Bali. Here, in addition to pottery shards carrying evidence of the Brahmi script common in Southern India ca. 100-400 A.D., pieces of rouletted pottery nearly identical to samples from southeast India and datable to the period 150- B.C. to 200 A.D. have been unearthed. Another important find at the same site is a fragment of a clay mold used in the manufacture of bronze Dongson drums originating in northern Vietnam and traded widely throughout the archipelago from at least ca. 500 B.C. Though the pottery finds reveal only the presence of an Indian script, it is highly likely that Indonesians too had learnt the skill of writing, perhaps before the Christian era, in order to participate in this network. 

However, the earliest dated evidence of the use of writing in Indonesia is still the Yupa inscriptions from Kutei, West Kalimantan, of c. 400 A.D. They are related to inscriptions of the south Indian Pallava dynasty and to inscriptions in modern Vietnam dated c. 350 A.D, indicating that Indonesia had extensive connections to the north and to the West by this date.

The use of Sanskrit in these inscriptions is one piece of evidence among many of the overwhelming attraction of Indian civilizations and religions — Hinduism and Buddhism — for the aristocracies of Southeast Asia. This led among other things to the adoption of Indic scripts for the writing of the indigenous languages of the region. In Java, the script that developed is generally called Kawi. This script also became the mother script for many other societies of present-day Indonesia.  In its Javanese homeland it underwent a long and inventive evolution, and many different styles were produced, ranging from the simple, elegant, and clear to the highly elaborated.

With the first emergence of Indonesia's history from the mists of unrecorded time — unrecorded, that is, in any surviving writings — we find the Indonesian centers of learning referred to above already in existence. As Supomo Suryohudoyo writes, by the seventh century some of these had gained such a high reputation as centers to study Indic religion that even people from overseas were attracted to visit and study there. The Chinese pilgrim I-tsing, for instance, tells us in his memoirs that the Buddhist priests in Srivijaya studied the whole Indic curriculum. He himself stopped in Srivijaya to study grammar while on his way to India in A.D. 671 and later returned and stayed for another four years to complete a new translation of the scriptures into Chinese. Another Chinese pilgrim, Hui-ning, went to Walaing in Central Java in 664 and translated the Sanskrit texts of the Theravada into Chinese under the guidance of a Javanese monk.

As the spread of literacy reached wider circles of the community, the use of Sanskrit as the language of the inscriptions was gradually replaced by indigenous languages. By the time of I-tsing's visit to Srivijaya, the use of Old Malay must have been more common than the use of Sanskrit, since the inscriptions found in southern Sumatra from this period are all written in Malay. In Java, Old Javanese inscriptions began to appear in the early ninth century and in Bali the Old Balinese language began to be used in the late ninth century. Much of the unifying dynamic referred to above springs from the roles and interaction of these two great written traditions, the Javanese and the Malay, that did so much to draw together the island world into a many-stranded yet somehow enduringly interwoven pattern of civilization, religion, and learning.

We see the central role of Java in two waves or diffusions of the Kawi script developed there. In the first of these, later forms of Kawi were influential outside Java, particularly in Bali, where a large number of copperplate inscriptions reveal both Javanese influence and local characteristics. The Sundanese script and the Malay script of the central Sumatran king Adityavarman (1365-1375 A.D.) also evolved from forms of Kawi script. The second diffusion of Kawi led to the evolution of simpler core sets of characters in the so-called "ka-ga-nga” syllabaries, found in Bali and other parts of insular Southeast Asia, particularly Sumatra, southern Sulawesi and the Philippines.

From Inscriptions to Literature

The first piece of extant evidence of the existence of an indigenous literary tradition is an Old Javanese inscription dated 856 A.D. Like most Javanese inscriptions, it is a legal document — confirming the granting of a freehold by a king to a village official; unlike the others, however, it is written in verse. It is a short poem of 29 stanzas written in a Sanskrit poetical form called kakawin in Old Javanese — a derivative of the Sanskrit-derived word kawi "poet". Within these just 29 stanzas the poet demonstrates his ability to use no less than six different meters, as well as his mastery of difficult literary devices from the Indian tradition.

Turning to major literary works, the Ramayana kakawin is the only surviving Old Javanese work datable from the Central Javanese period. It is now generally accepted that this poem must have been written before the transfer of the seat of power from Central to East Java, probably in the middle of the ninth century, thus at approximately the same period as the metrical inscription. Its choice of model — a notoriously difficult Sanskrit text intended to illustrate the rules of Sanskrit grammar and poetical embellishments — is testimony to the advanced abilities and ambitions of its author, who succeeded in writing what was without doubt a masterpiece, and has been honored as such throughout the centuries.

The writing of the Ramayana based on such a difficult text and the building of the magnificent temples of Borobudur and Prambanan with their thousands of bas-relief sculptures, based on Buddhist texts and a version of the Rama story are clear testimony to a continued vigorous study of literary texts which had begun at least by the seventh century. This is corroborated by a ninth century inscription from the mainland kingdom of Champa which tells us that a high official went on a pilgrimage to Java "to acquire magical science", a reference to Java's reputation for possessing esoteric knowledge. 

The Javanization of the Indian Heritage

It is clear that Javanese versions of the Indian classics are not simple translations but have been re-written in accordance with local norms.  One of the most common changes we find is an elaboration of a character who in the original plays only a minor or an inconspicuous role. In other cases wholly new characters are invented: for instance, the heroic Suwandha in the Javanese Arjunawijaya, who became famous among Javanese through the centuries as an exemplary hero, and whose courage and loyalty is held up as a model for those who aspire to enter a ruler's service.  Wives are a popular choice when new characters are added, reflecting a typically Indonesian desire to give prominence to women. In the Bharatayuddha, for instance, we find Bhanumati, Ksitisundari and Satyawati as the wives of Duryodhana, Abhimanyu and Salya respectively; and in the Arjunawijaya there is Citrawati, the wife of Arjuna. 

Another change is the transposition of what are basically Indian narratives into a Javanese setting. Especially when the narrative moves from the capital city to the countryside there is little doubt that the poets are describing a Javanese panorama, depicted in a way that springs from the Javanese cult of beauty. It was a landscape with which the poets were familiar, as it was through such scenery that they wandered in search of secluded spots where they could be united with the god of beauty. The scenery is definitely Javanese, complete with all manner of typical Javanese fruits and flowers, birds and fishes which are still found in Java even today.

In these and other ways Indic materials were thoroughly made Indonesia's own. At this juncture, a second great influence from even further West brought the religion, intellectual, and aesthetic enrichment of one of the world’s greatest writing traditions.

The Beginnings of the Islamic Manuscript Tradition

How and when did the Islamic writing tradition take root in the Malay world? A.H. Johns writes that it is not possible to document it further back than the late 17th century though these earliest extant Malay works extant already show evidence of a remarkable symbiosis between Malay and Arabic which bespeaks an interaction between the two languages over centuries. The absorption of a rich Arabic vocabulary into Malay, and the adoption of the Arabic script, may have sprung from the establishment of Muslim quarters in already existing port cities, or the founding of new ones by Muslim traders. We may assume the presence here of Islamic scholars and perhaps also of an educational curriculum that included tafsir (Quranic exegesis), hadith (prophetic tradition), tawhid (dogmatics), fiqh (jurisprudence) kalam (scholastic theology), tasawwuf (mysticism) and nahu (grammar). Astronomy, mathematics, history, lexicography, poetry and rhetoric were presumably also taught.

Basic to the curriculum is a mastery of Arabic, the language of revelation, the language of the Prophet, and the language of the great disciplines which are at the core of training in madrasa and pesantren and are essential to the functioning of an Islamic community, foremost among them jurisprudence.

The section on the Acehnese Quran school of Tanoh Abeé gives us some idea of how such institutions functioned as centers of Islamic literacy and learning. Every Muslim is required to be able to read correctly the fully vowelled Arabic script of the Quran. A fundamental rite of passage for boys and girls all over Indonesia in schools such as Tanoh Abeé is tammat Quran, completion of study of the Book. Every Muslim should have a copy of it to be kept with love and reverence. As late as the 19th century, Malay scribes were earning money by copying Qurans for East India Company sepoys. Yet the practice is a very old one, and increasing numbers of Qurans would have been needed as soon as there were Muslim communities in the region. A number of beautifully written Qurans from different places in Indonesia are among the highlights of this volume.

The need to make copies of the Quran stimulated general skills in calligraphy. Once these had been acquired they could be put to a variety of other uses such as copying collections of hadith, of credal statements, and other Arabic works on disciplines such as exegesis, devotion, theology, and grammar. From this it was only a short step to use of Arabic script for the writing of Malay as for many other languages, as far west as Spain.

Writing in Malay: Developing a New Tradition of Unity

By the period of the Malay manuscript the historical evidence is somewhat fuller than the tantalizingly patchy records of very early history; and thus we can form some picture of the diverse social world that produced this writing tradition. As Proudfoot and Hooker note in their chapter, Malay manuscripts come from Sumatra, peninsular Malaya, southern Thailand, Brunei, coastal Sarawak and Kalimantan, the Javanese coastal area, Lombok, Makassar, Bima, Ambon and other areas of eastern Indonesia. Malay was used along the shipping routes as a lingua franca for people who spoke quite different languages at home. The work-a-day Malay of sailors and traders prepared the ground for other uses of the language in intra-regional and international networks, and the language was also used in the very different social circle of the court, for literary and for religious works. From the courts come also the elaborate and beautiful royal letters presented in this volume, letters that usually bore the royal seals described and illustrated here.

Another important role of court Malay was for the composition of dynastic histories centering on the ruling house: these first trace the history of the dynasty, then set the constitution of the state. They provide us with interesting insights into political issues of the time and place. The Sejarah Melayu, for instance, deals with problems of distinguishing authority and executive power, in particular of reconciling the Sultan's remit with that of his chief minister; Pasai and Aceh histories lament fratricidal conflict within the state; and those of Pattani and Aceh deal with the problematic nature of female rule for Muslims.

The romance was a very popular genre in both court and village circles, and many Malay romances deal with the rise of a lowly hero, typically a prince abandoned at birth and raised as commoner. Some, like the Hang Tuah, not only deal with the hero's worldly and spiritual advancement but also express a distinctive Malay political ethos, and contain episodes meant to demonstrate Malay guile against the might of the Chinese or Javanese. Other Malay texts of Islamic origin reflect the military aspect of Islam and its enthusiastic reception by local elites, as for instance the epics dealing with Muhammad Hanafiah, Raja Handak, and Amir Hamzah.

Malay interacted over a long period with the other great seminal language of Indonesia, Javanese. It shows much influence from Javanese Panji stories as well as of Hindu-Javanese legends such as that of Rama, and of wayang stories. From the Islamic heritage, the Malay Hikayat Syaikh Abdul Kadir Jilani, hagiographies of the founders of the Kadiriah, is a translation from Banten Javanese. Conversely, the stories of Islamic heroes were translated from Malay into Javanese, and were popular on the coast. It seems that the two languages developed complementary areas: Malay was the main language of Muslim discourse, while Javanese has a rich devotional and mystical literature. On the other hand Malay was the language generally preferred for translations of Arabic dogmatic texts, and a greater range of commentaries, manuals of law, and orthodox theological works was also available in Malay. So even in Java Malay was a language of the pesantren, especially on the cosmopolitan north coast.

A common genre of manuscript in Malay (as in Javanese) was the primbon, a sort of personal or family mini-encyclopedia containing notes and diagrams on everything from numerology to aphrodisiacs, once again reflecting the spread of literacy beyond elite circles.

Malay ballads show a fascination with the fluctuations of fortune, hidden identities, the crossing of class boundaries, and the quest. Just as we have seen how Javanese adaptations of Indian works give greater prominence to female characters, so Malay ballads more often than not give a woman the leading role: the eponymous syairs Ken Tambuhan, Bidasari, Puteri Akal, Saudagar Budiman, Siti Zaiwah, Selindung Delima and others bear the names of their leading ladies. Most are women of spirit, and several don disguises to rescue wimpish husbands.

Other ballads relate contemporary events, mostly single events of current interest. The syair style was used as an effective means of giving public exposure to the issues of the day as well as to social events, gossip and even scandal: in other words, we see here the beginning of the journalistic tradition that Malay would later carry forward in print. Subjects range from wars, particularly victories and defeats in engagements with Europeans, to descriptions of receptions, marriages and deaths. In this connection mention may be made of the gorgeously decorated manuscript of the Syair Perkawinan Kapitan Tik Sing, the wealthy head of the Chinese community in Riau. Like his glittering wedding, the manuscript is lavish and designed to impress.

The great significance of the role of the Malay language in developing an intellectual tradition that drew in many different regions of Indonesia goes back much further in time than is generally appreciated. In Bima, for instance, Islamization also meant Malayization. The Bimanese had both a native tongue (basa Mbojo) and used Malay as the language of politics and culture. To what extent the Bima (Mbojo) language had been used previously in written form is still a matter of debate, but a local historical text states that in 1645 the second sultan ordered that from then on every official document would be written down "in Malay, in the script prescribed by Allah".

As a result Bima became one of many active centers in a wide network of Malay culture. Malay texts produced in far-away centers were known in Bima, and new original texts were produced locally. Copies of famous texts like the Taj us-Salatin, Qisas al-Anbiya or Hikayat Indra Jayakusuma survive to this day. Inner evidence from other texts proves that the most important works of Malay literature, whether historical, literary, or religious, were familiar to the educated Bimanese. In Sulawesi too, Malay-Islamic texts were extremely important: the Lukman al-Hakim, for instance, and adaptations from Malay of the Bustan and Taj as-Salatin.

In Aceh, Malay was the language of written communication and scholarship by the 17th century, and the political ascendancy of Aceh in the 1600s meant that it was a major literary center for Malay. A number of important early Malay manuscripts originate from Aceh. Religious textbooks, letters, and other documents such as passports, laws, contracts and seals of authority were traditionally produced in Malay written in Arabic script, though only a minority of people would probably have been proficient in this written Malay. And in South Sumatra, we find that Malay with Javanese influence was used as the high or literary language, while in the Batak area we see again the enormous influence of Kawi as mother script. Kozok notes an interesting anti-colonial text written in 1915 and dealing with the Karo Batak rajo of Batukaran, who in 1904 tried unsuccessfully to prevent the annexation of the Karo highlands by the colonial army, something of a parallel to the Acehnese Hikayat Prang Sabil, which played such an important role in the Aceh War.

Regional Riches and Inter-regional Links

Within the larger currents and commonalties described above, there was room for much local invention, intellectual, aesthetic, and technical, as the sections on the different regional writing traditions show. In the section on Sulawesi, we see this in the technical sphere in the ingenious roll manuscripts, based on the same principles as audio or visual cassettes; and in the literary sphere in the la Galigo epic, perhaps the most voluminous work in world literature. Set in a meter of five and in some cases four syllables, it is set in pre-Islamic Luwuq, regarded as the cradle of Bugis culture.

Yet despite these and many other regional achievements, one should not regard these regional writing traditions as hermetically sealed compartments. The Javanese tradition, for instance, shares with Malay the use of primbon, the largest group of popular texts, often compiled by individuals over many years, or by families over the space of several generations. Forming the core of this group of texts are the guides to the complex systems for measuring time — the sacral or semantic time of the pawukon system — and for dealing with its consequences. In other genres too, the Javanese manuscript tradition overlaps with Malay, for instance in the epics and romances dealing with heroes and heroines, whether indigenous (Panji), Indic (Arjuna, Sembadra) or Islamic (Amir Hamzah, Iskandar, Yusup). There is also some common ground in the chronicles, centering around royal genealogies, wars, and court events, though the political ethos of the Javanese courts differs somewhat from that of the Malay world. The section on Sunda provides a strikingly impressive illustration of a society where these inter-regional linkages led to the development of a multi-lingual literacy utilizing the vernacular language, Javanese, and Malay.

The Manuscript as Art Form

The manuscripts presented in this book exhibit an extraordinary variety in medium and in script and illustration, ranging from the visually stunning Batak bast manuscripts through the wonderful detail of the Balinese lontar to the illuminated book-form manuscripts in the Islamic tradition.  Perhaps the most highly developed aesthetic tradition over a long period is that of the Javanese manuscript. This often reveals a strong link between the written text and the wayang theatrical tradition; there are 18th century manuscripts with illustrations in wayang beber style, and others in wayang kulit style. In a small number of manuscripts a hybrid, three-dimensional style appeared. Here it is not the flat exemplars provided by wayang kulit puppets, but the round, wooden wayang golek puppets that form the illustrator's models.

Later Javanese manuscripts show some Western aesthetic influence, but Behrend argues convincingly that the wayang tradition appears to have placed limits on the extent to which naturalism could be adopted via Western influence. In this tradition, representational naturalism can be used for ogres, as for flora and fauna. But humans possess culture, behavioral norms, and spiritual wisdom that set them apart from nature. The more refined an individual becomes, the more civilized, the wiser, the more removed that person becomes from the world of nature. Thus in wayang iconography the less formally human a character appears the more fully human he actually is in moral terms. This aesthetic seems to be at work as well in manuscript illustration, inhibiting the development of human realism. Yet, should we regret this? Surely the wayang style, like the Japanese print, should not be regarded as a failure to achieve Western norms but rather as a whole alternative aesthetic.

Other aesthetic features of Javanese manuscripts include illumination and the use of enframing and textual gateways. At times page frames would be elaborated on the opening and closing pages of a manuscript, becoming ornamental frontispieces, called wadana, that acted as monumental gateways giving access to the inner pages of the text, then leading out of that sacred textual space at the end. It is in these ornamental gates that Javanese illumination reached its most spectacular heights.

Pictorial calligraphy, where decorative devices or animal figures are created by manipulating and contorting the lettering of a selected text in either Arabic or Javanese script, is relatively rare. In Cirebon, in the early through mid-nineteenth century, there was a full-blown tradition of true figural calligraphy. This is attested not only in a small number of manuscripts, but in numerous ornamental wood carvings and wall panels in the kraton of the city.

The Living Manuscript Tradition

The section on Bali provides the fullest picture of a living manuscript tradition. Here we see the complicated technical business of production of lontar, with its many successive procedures. We also see in Bali the multiple social and learned uses of lontar manuscripts: for personal records, village records (membership of village councils, and members' duties), regulations about cock fighting, rice cultivation, irrigation; contracts between kings; letters; esoteric specialist lore, such as the vocational manuals of high priests, temple caretakers, Sudra exorcists, metaphysical treatises on wayang, artists' guides, guides for healers. There were also texts not belonging to one group like the Tutur Aji Saraswati, which deals with the philosophical foundations of alphabet mysticism; as well as the pangayam-ayaman, which deal with the characteristics of roosters and were consulted when betting at cock-fights. Lontar texts were thus used for everything from record keeping to ritual occasions and religious instruction. They were also used for genealogical and historical writing and belles lettres, preserving a pre-Islamic heritage composed of Balinese, Javanese, and Indic contributions.

The End of the Manuscript Tradition

The section From Manuscripts to Print deals with a revolution in Indonesian communication as transformative as the first introduction of writing two millennia before: the consequences of the mid-nineteenth-century print revolution. From this time, European and Chinese printers printed Malay newspapers and new books in the Dutch script, while Muslims used lithography to multiply faithful copies of Arabic-script manuscripts. In present-day Sulawesi, the art of the manuscript partly survives through the use of lithography in the more Islamic-oriented sections of society.

This revolution is a new story, and owes much to the role of itinerant Muslim religious figures bringing books and literacy from urban to rural areas. It is a story that cannot be fully told here, though it should be noted that the implications of print superseding manuscripts were enormous for literacy, and for the spread both of Western-style education and of Islamic reform.

We cannot regret that in Indonesia as elsewhere the efficiencies of print over manuscript have been appreciated; or ask that Indonesians, who have always been so inventive themselves and so appreciative of the inventions of others, should remain in a time-warp, however picturesque, for the delectation of tourists from the industrial wastelands of the world. But the last and perhaps most important purpose of this book is to emphasize that Indonesia's manuscript heritage is non-renewable, and that every instance of loss or damage is a permanent diminution of that heritage. Feinstein’s contribution sends a message that is crucial to the purpose of this book. It clearly reveals the difficult choices that have to be made under funding constraints, and the necessity for stimulating an increased awareness of the role that people generally, not just librarians, can play in conserving, or unwittingly destroying, these regional and national treasures. I hope that we contributors, in paying tribute to the work of the artists, poets, scholars and scribes who produced these wonderful manuscripts, have shown how important this heritage is: in aesthetic terms, in intellectual terms, for our understanding of Indonesia's history in its own terms, and for our understanding of human civilization as a whole.

Ann Kumar

This essay was adapted from Kumar’s introduction to Illuminations and republished with permission of the editor and co-founder of the Lontar Foundation, John McGlynn.