Anett Keller, WEEKENDER | Thu, 06/23/2011 1:01 PM |
Precious Javanese manuscripts are being restored, digitized and thus preserved by a team of German and Indonesian scholars
Muhammad Wildan sits with a book on his knee, its pages crumpled and yellowed with age. Slowly, the lecturer in Arabic from the State Islamic University of Yogyakarta (UIN) traces the script with his finger, first the Arabic, then, below it, the Javanese.
The book, a bilingual collection of hadiths, dates from 1856. Its pages are worm eaten and tattered, some of them almost falling from their bindings.
The Sonobudoyo Museum, located at the northern end of the Sultan’s Palace in Yogyakarta, is home to more than 1,000 historical manuscripts. Although rather inconspicuous in appearance and stacked simply on old wooden shelves, they are a priceless cultural treasure.
“Many researchers come here,” says Wildan. “Most of them are interested in studying Javanese history. To do this, they need to have a look at the original manuscripts.”
But this high demand from scholars, combined with the great age of some of the manuscripts, takes its toll.
“Restoration is a major problem,” Wildan explains. “We simply don’t have the experts in this field and nowhere near enough technical equipment.”
Wildan stands next to a huge scanner sporting a “University of Leipzig” sticker. Since 2009, the German university has been supporting the restoration, cataloguing and digitization of old manuscripts from the Sonobudoyo Museum, and two sultanate palaces – the neighboring Yogyakarta Palace and the Surakarta Palace. The Oriental Institute of the University of Leipzig (OIL) is one of the oldest established Arabic studies institutes in Europe.
“Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, but Islam in Indonesia remains very much under-represented in the Western media,” says Thoralf Hanstein, OIL’s project coordinator, by way of explanation for his institute’s interest in the project.
The project is financially supported by the German Federal Foreign Office and carried out as a collaborative initiative between the OIL, the UIN, Gadjah Mada University and the Indonesian Association for Nusantara Manuscripts (Manassa).
Spreading the Word
The spread of Islam through Indonesia from the 14th century was a largely peaceful phenomenon, one that took place via trade routes and through the influence of Sufi teachers such as the celebrated Wali Songo (Nine Proselytizers). These teachers also employed the arts of woodcarving and Javanese shadow theater to put across their message.
A strong symbiotic relationship still exists today between the Islamic faith, to which 85 percent of Indonesians belong, and local animistic traditions, as well as with the heritage of the former Hindu–Buddhist ruling dynasties. The tolerance between religions that we find revealed in the old manuscripts is something many other religions in the world could learn from, according to Hanstein.
The project will see the most important collections in central Java examined for the purposes of restoration and conservation. Copies of these will then be created by means of full digitization. Finally, the catalogued manuscripts will be accessible on the Internet with the help of an online database (www.manuscripts-java.org). This will also be the first time that original old Javanese manuscripts have been entered into a database.
“The storage and handling of original manuscripts in Indonesia is, unfortunately, often quite catastrophic,” says Hanstein.
Storage rooms usually have no air-conditioning, and are sometimes infested with insects, and library staff are given too little training in the handling and conservation of the fragile materials.
“Training in restoration just doesn’t exist in Indonesia,” Hanstein says. “With the exception of a few colleagues who have experience in other countries, most people here are self-taught and sometimes, unfortunately, do more harm than good.”
As a result, the project has not been restricted to the training of the conservators alone; library staff, too, have been included.
A similar initiative has already been undertaken in Aceh. The devastating tsunami in December 2004, in which countless manuscripts were irretrievably lost, provided a dramatic reminder of the urgent need to permanently preserve these ancient writings.
For collectors and scholars interested in the collections of the sultanates of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, the worry is that a natural disaster such as an earthquake, hurricane, fire or even an eruption of the nearby Mount Merapi volcano might occur and destroy the original manuscripts. The collections did not have digital copies until the project started.
Through their work on cataloguing and presentation on the Internet, those involved in the project are endeavoring to lay the foundation for the next generation of researchers. The sultanates’ collections are, after all, testimony to the spread of Islam in Indonesia as well as to its coexistence with other religions.
“There are very many traditional heroic epics in the collections at the Kraton Palace in Yogyakarta which have their origins in the pre-Islamic period,” says Hanstein.
To preserve the history and culture of the sultans’ courts, too, the manuscripts represent a priceless treasure house for scholarly research.
Pardiyono, a slim, bespectacled 54-year-old, has worked in the museum for 20 years. In an open book beside his computer, the visitor gets a glimpse of drawings of a variety of multicolored umbrellas.
“Those were the umbrellas of the palace employees,” explains Pardiyono. “Each official had his own unique colors and patterns, so those opposite knew immediately whom he or she faced.”
Pardiyono is very enthusiastic about the knowledge hidden in the books, which covers all sorts of topics, ranging from astronomy to literature. He is happy that digitization will mean he will no longer have to hand over “his treasures” to strangers.
The greatest threat to these books are people, explains Muhammad Wildan, referring to the rough treatment often meted out to the old works in the museum’s reading room.
A glance around the shelves makes one thing clear: The keepers of this cultural heritage have their work cut out for them for quite some time to come. Along the stairs toward the museum’s exit lie stacks of thousands of yellowing newspapers, languishing in the humid tropical air.