Lontar, Our Ancient Books. Introducing Palm Leaf Manuscripts. Communication through the written word is quite profound. Words connect us not only to each other in our every day actions, but they have the ability of being messengers to places and people unknown. We record knowledge and we inscribe our knowledge to share it. To pass it on to others. The written word carries this innate desire to form connections. The written word exists with the purpose of being read.
In itself, words are already carriers of so many of our secrets. Human social behaviours and evolution is directly reflected in our relationship with our language, written and spoken. The Lontar Manuscripts are an important part of our culture and history. We’d like to share a little about the general history as well as preparation process of the Lontar, palm leaf manuscripts.
It is a fascinating part of our heritage that is still alive today, even if in a smaller capacity. Its remarkable to ponder on these differences. Comparing our relationship to writing today (with the technological tools we have available) and the relationship to writing and communication that our Ancestors had with the tools that they had.
Lontar Manuscripts, Historical Outline
A little history for some context. In Java and Bali Lontar are manuscripts made out of dried palm leaves. These materials were used for writing, in the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asia from as far back as 5th century BC. This in itself is astounding when you think about it. There is evidence of palm leaf manuscripts that date back this far.
One of the oldest surviving palm leaf manuscripts of a complete treatise is a Sanskrit Shaivism text from the 9th-century, discovered in Nepal, now preserved at the Cambridge University Library.The Spitzer Manuscript is a collection of palm leaf fragments found in Kizil Caves, China. They are dated to about the 2nd-century CE and are the oldest known philosophical manuscript in Sanskrit.
The process of making a palm leaf manuscript is time consuming. There is an involved process of preparation of selection, boiling, drying and pressing.
A palm leaf text that has gone through the proper preparation can last anywhere from 20 years to 600 years. Depending on the environmental conditions and in which the document is stored. Humidity and parasites are the main causes of deterioration. Due to this, many important documents need to be copied onto new sets of dried palm leaves. The oldest surviving palm leaf manuscripts have been found in colder, drier climates such as in parts of Nepal, Tibet and central Asia.
Where are they found?
One of the most common places where ancient manuscripts were used for learning were in Hindu Temples. They were used regularly as reference texts and would be worn and damaged from handling. They would then be copied out to a new set of pressed leaves. In south India, temples often served a custodial role in the preservation of Hindu philosophy, poetry and grammar amongst other subjects. Libraries were discovered in archaeological sites, known as Saraswati-bhandara that date back as far as the 12th century. Palm leaf manuscripts were also found preserved inside Jain temples and inside Buddhist monasteries.
In Indonesia, we have large collections of Lontar manuscripts, in Hindu temples and associated places of learning. This is similar across Southeast Asia. As a result of the spread of Indian Hindu culture from India that merged with local belief systems.
With the introduction of printing presses throughout Asia, the cycle of copying from palm leaves mostly came to an end. Many governments are making efforts to preserve what is left of their palm leaf documents. In Bali, one such effort is the Lontar Museum in Karangasem. A place dedicated to the education and preservation of Lontar manuscript history and preservation.
Lontar Library Museum
We visited the Lontar Library Museum (Museum Pustaka Lontar) in Dukuh Karangasem Bali. Myself and Kaprus Jaya enjoyed a late morning visit where we were fortunate to come at a quiet time. We were able to sit down and ask a lot more questions and share with you here our experience. We sat with Museum assistant Kadek Candra (pictured right) and thank her for her assistance.
The leaves are made from the Palmyra Palm or Borassus flabellifer. A type of palm tree that is valued as a resource from many parts of it.
The word ‘lontar’ is the normal Malay/Indonesian name for the plant, and it comes from Javanese “ron tal”, meaning ‘leaf of the tal palm’. The tal palm is the lontar palm — so this palm is named after its own leaf.Alex West- Twitter
The Palmyra Palm is a pretty amazing tree. Learn more about its uses and many resourceful uses.
As referenced in wikipedia as a general outline for the function of this museum: The Lontar Library Museum has thousands of collections of notes written on dry palm leaves. The contents of these manuscripts are customary guidelines for Balinese people in different areas of life. All records are guarded by Jero Mangku, the priests who are obliged to maintain these records. Jero Mangku also the responsibility of writing and rewriting notes that have started to disintegrate.
Preparation of Lontar Manuscripts
Leaves of suitable size, shape, texture, and maturity were chosen. These are leaves that are neither old nor young. The leaves are then soaked in water for up to three weeks. The water will continue to be rinsed until the water is clear. When the water is clear it means the leaves are then ready to be boiled.
Boiling, can take up to 8 hours. The leaves are boiled with cloves, candle nut, white pepper and black pepper, salt, and the bark of coconut and Pule trees. The mixture that goes in this stage of preparation may vary slightly in different areas. They serve the same purpose, for preservation. The leaves are boiled in this mixture for approximately 8 hours. After which they are sun dried.
There are several stages of pressing the leaves. After the leaves are boiled and dried they are pressed by a mechanism called a ‘Pemlagbag’ for 6 months. Once they are flattened enough they will released and holes are incised into each piece by a tool called ‘Pirit’ an ancient hole cutter. This is so that each leaves can be be bound together to make the manuscript. An ancient method of bookbinding.
After each piece has been incised with the holes they are pressed again with the ‘pemlagbag’. A slightly different variation of the press with pins to align the pieces. When they are in this press, the edges are smoothed with a tool ‘serutan’. For a smooth edge. Then pressed again for the third and final time.
In this last pressing, the edges are painted the colour red, an aesthetic augmentation for those that prefer this additional decoration. This process can take up to 6-12 months.
‘Nyepat’ Formatting the Pages
Each pressed sheet is then prepared for writing by imprinting four lines. Using ‘Benang Sipat’ a white coarse string that is dipped with a mixture made of forest eggplant ( ‘terong hutan’) and leftover oil lamp soot. The process of stamping the lines on the leaves is called ‘nyepat’.
Each lontar page typically measures anywhere between 20cm to 60cm long and between 3cm – 4 cm wide. After this the leaves are ready to be written on.
Different Types of Lontar Manuscripts
To give an idea of the wide range of knowledge that were recorded, below are some of the categories recognised in Lontar Literature. Hopefully we will be able to learn more about each of these categories and share with you the beauty and value of our Lontar Palm Leaf Manuscripts further in future articles.
Genres in Lontar Literature
- Lontar Usada, are writings that are specifically related to medicine and traditional healing.
- Prasi, are illustrations.
- Asta Kosala Kosali, writings and guidelines referencing traditional architecture.
- Babad, historical, Ancestral records.
- Satua, stories that have moral and ethical teachings, like ‘Tantri’.
- Tatwa, lontar containing the teachings of higher spiritual and moral knowledge. Subjects such as the formation of the universe and its contents as well as the ethics of self-control.
- Kidung, sacred songs. Songs used in ritual and ceremonies.
- Kepemangkuan, theological and spiritual teachings for holy men and women.
- Sasana, teaches ethics.
- Aweg-Aweg, village and community law.
Lontar manuscripts refers to the books of our history. Before there was paper. The writings of our forefathers are found prolifically and with great dedication on these palm leaves.The knowledge that we are fortunate to still have with us today, the ancient teachings of our Ancestors have been passed down to us through the strength and beauty of Lontar, our Ancient Books.
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