A theatre professor from Wesleyan University in New York, Ron Jenkins, is leading a team of workers in transcribing ancient Balinese scripts written on lontar palm leaves at the library of Bali Cultural office in Denpasar on Thursday.
Page by page, the lontar scripts were recorded using a DSLR camera and a computer.
“We will digitalize the entire lontar script collection and translate the contents of the scripts into three languages, Balinese, Indonesian and English, and enable people to read them from the Internet,” Jenkins said.
The dried and treated leaf of the lontar palm (Borassus flabellifer) was widely used for centuries in Java, Lombok and Bali and is still in use in Bali.
Inscriptions were mostly in the old Javanese language of Kawi and ancient Balinese. The lontar inscriptions contain old works including the famous Ramayana and Mahabharata Hindu epics, kakawin (ancient poetry) and ushada (traditional Balinese medicine).
Jenkins, who has studied Balinese culture for 35 years and written several books on it, said that the digital lontar project was made possible by the support of the Internet Archive Foundation based in the United States.
The foundation works to digitize ancient inscriptions and cultural activities from around the world.
There are around 3,000 ancient lontar inscriptions at Denpasar’s library, from 50-years-old to centuries-old.
Jenkins is working with two members of the Internet Archive Foundation and two from the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI) Denpasar.
“After the project is completed, all of the lontar inscriptions will be uploaded onto the foundation’s websites at www.archive.org and available to the public — especially professors and students who study Balinese culture,” said Jenkins who speaks fluent Indonesian.
The team will also work to digitize 7,000 other lontar inscriptions stored at Gedong Kirtya Library, home of the largest lontar collection, in Singaraja, Buleleng in North Bali.
“We have set a target to complete the project within one year,” the professor said.
Digitizing lontar inscriptions is crucial to preserving the island’s precious cultural heritage, he said.
“This cultural wealth must be passed on to younger generations.”
He added that many young people could not read lontar inscriptions. “I am so worried that the knowledge and wisdom contained in lontar inscriptions will go nowhere. Therefore it is very important to preserve this heritage.”
Jenkins elaborated that the lontar inscriptions contain valuable knowledge and information.
The Hindu concept of Tri Hita Karana, for instance, teaches how to develop a harmonious relation among the creator, mankind and nature. Rwa Bineda teaches how to distinguish good and bad deeds.
Ketut Suastika, head of the cultural office, said that the project aimed at both preserving and delivering messages written in the many ancient inscriptions.
“The project will enable common people to learn, read and understand the contents of the inscriptions,” Suastika said.
He called on people to inform the office if they had ancestral heritage pieces at their homes.
“Many people have lontar inscriptions inherited from their old men. If they cannot keep these lontar leaves in proper ways, they can keep them in our library,” Suastika said.