Ancient ‘lontar’ manuscripts
go digital

Rare skill: A man strings lontar palm leaves together.

The strong smell of tinkih traditional Balinese herbal oil fills a room in the Bali Cultural Agency’s office in Denpasar, where a team of dedicated experts repair centuries-old lontar palm leaf manuscripts containing precious literary assets.

The repaired lontar manuscripts, totaling 3,000 pieces stored at the agency’s library, are to be scanned and uploaded into a digital library, making them accessible to any reader across the world when the project is complete.

Led by Ron Jenkins, a theater professor at Wesleyan University in the US, the team involves Balinese scholars I Nyoman Catra, Dewa Made Dharmawan, both lecturers at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (ISI) Denpasar, Elizabeth Ridolfo from the Internet Archive Foundation and a number of staff from the agency.

“It will be quite difficult work since many of the lontar are in poor condition because of humidity and other factors,” Jenkins told The Jakarta Post early last week.

Bali has a rich tradition of literature that dates back several hundreds years. Balinese writings encompass the ancient literary texts composed in the old Javanese language of Kawi and Sanskrit; many based on the famous Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The island’s literary works were mostly recorded on dried and treated palm leaves.

The writings were incised in both sides of the leaf with a sharp knife and the script is then blackened with soot. The leaves are held and linked together by a string that passes through the central holes and knotted at the outer ends.

The lontar manuscripts range from ordinary texts to Bali’s most sacred writings. They include texts on religion, holy formulae, rituals, family genealogies, law codes, treaties on medicine (usadha), arts and architecture, calendars, prose, poems and even magic.

“I have been working with I Nyoman Catra in studying Balinese culture,” Jenkins noted.

Together they wrote a book Invisible Mirror, which contains Siwaratri Kalpa — a lontar of Siwaratri, the night of God Siva. They also worked on various art projects. To fully understand Balinese literature and theater, Jenkins felt that he needed to learn more about lontar.

When he did so, from respected Hindu high priest Ida Pedanda Ketut Kencana Singarsa, he discovered many valuable lessons and values contained in each lontar text. Unfortunately, only very few people including Balinese understand and have been willing to study lontar. To make it worse, many lontar have been damaged by insects and humidity.

“The idea to preserve lontar emerged last year [2010]. It might be good to make a project to save and preserve lontar and to make them accessible and readable for anyone who wants to study it,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins and Catra found support from the San Francisco-based Internet Archive Foundation, which dedicates its works to putting all books in the world on the Internet (digital library) for free.

“We hope the project will be a good way for all scholars like me who want to make any translation of lontar, or students anywhere in Indonesia and in the world to get easy access to the once precious lontar,” Jenkins said.

Catra adds that the project will become an important milestone in the development of Balinese literature.

“This is a new type of preservation of the island’s precious literary heritage that should become a major reference in the lives of Balinese people,” Catra said.

The project is set to upload 3,000 lontar stored in the agency’s library and some from Gedong Kirtya lontar library in Singaraja.

“Contents in those lontar are already on their way to becoming public domains and it would be no problem to disseminate them widely.”

“There are an estimated 50,000 lontar kept by members of Puri [palace] families, high priests and ordinary families. Some of them are kept carefully as family heritages, the others are scattered in the dirty and dusty corners of houses,” Catra said.

Many Balinese families keep lontar as sacred objects and only open and clean them once a year during a special ritual on Saraswati Day, which observes the goddess of wisdom and knowledge Saraswati’s role of guardian of manuscripts.

He said the majority of Balinese have never read any lontar because of language obstacles as well as tradition which perceived them as sacrilege.

It is true that some contain holy texts and formulae not meant to be read by ordinary folk. But, many lontar manuscripts contain information on certain important issues such as medicines and village regulations that could be used as daily guidance, Catra added.

“It’s high time for the Balinese to open, to read and to understand the contents of lontar and to practice them in their real lives,” Catra said.

Reading and understanding lontar manuscripts requires self-discipline, patience and resilience.

Last Sunday, despite his poor health, Priest Ida Pedanda Ketut Kencana Singarsa, who has been working very hard to pass on the wisdom of lontar to younger generation, local and international scholars for the last five years, spared some time to speak with the Post.

Every Sunday evening, the priest recites lontar scripts containing religious teachings, poems and other subjects and translates them into Balinese.

“Lontar scripts are rich in philosophy and wisdom, which guide people to understand  good and bad deeds,” said the soft-spoken voice.

According to the priest, as written in the introduction of the Invisible Mirror, the lessons contained in lontar can help people neutralize invisible enemies, such as greed, lust and anger, which dwell inside all humans.

The project to make lontar accessible, readable and understandable to a wider audience, and the young generation of Balinese in particular is of utmost importance to maintain the island’s balance and harmony.

— Photos by JP/Ni Komang Erviani

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