Asian and African studies blog

11 February 2019

Javanese poetics and canto indicators: Jaya Lengkara Wulang (MSS Jav 24)

Today’s guest blog, highlighting one of the most important Javanese manuscripts from Yogyakarta which has just been digitised, is by Dr Dick van der Meij from Hamburg University's DREAMSEA project which digitises endangered manuscripts in Southeast Asia.

Javanese texts are generally written in a non-rhyming poetic form called tembang macapat. Within each metre, verses consist of stanzas with a fixed number of lines, a fixed number of syllables per line, and a fixed vowel in the last syllable of each line. There are about 30 different metres, some of which are short and have only four lines per stanza, while others are substantially longer and have as many as ten lines per stanza. Each metre has its own name, with some used more often than others, while some are rarely encountered. [For further information on tembang macapat see Arps 1992 and Van der Meij 2017, Chapter 4 and Appendix 3.]

Most Javanese texts consist of more than one canto in any number of different metres. Canto changes are usually indicated by small intricate indicators called pepadan, which are often very beautifully illuminated in colours and gold, and thus stand out on the page, as in the illustration below from Jaya Lengkara Wulang (MSS Jav 24).

An illuminated canto indicator, pepadan, standing out on the left-hand page, in Jaya Lengkara Wulang, Yogyakarta, 1803. British Library, MSS Jav 24, ff. 46v-47r   noc

Other manuscripts do not have clear canto change indications, and the places where new cantos start are virtually invisible on the written page, and only become apparent when the canto change has been reached while reading or singing the text. Experienced singers are able to identify immediately the metre of the next canto from the use of certain key words in the final lines of the current canto, or in the first lines of the next. For instance, the name of the metre dhangdhanggula contains the word dhandhang which is a bird, and gula which means sugar. Dhandhanggula is thus indicated by words that also mean 'bird' or 'sugar', or by extension ‘sweet’, or contain the syllable dhang. A small bird or wings may even be depicted pictorially in the pepadan. However, readers should be aware that this is not a golden rule, and some scribes play tricks to confuse the singer.

Detail of a pepadan with wings, and with the word manis, ‘sweet’, in the preceding line, both indicating dhandhanggula as the new metre.  British Library, MSS Jav 24, f. 46v  noc

Jatikusuma, copied in Yogyakarta, 1766. A little bird is put in the pepadan to indicate that the metre that follows is dhandhanggula, while the words gula drawa before the pepadan mean ‘melted sugar’ and thus also point to the same metre. British Library, MSS Jav 27, f. 50v  noc

In Javanese poetic theory, each metre evokes a certain emotion, and are thus used for parts of text that suggest that particular state of mind. Below, we will have a look at how some of these canto changes have been indicated in MSS Jav 24 in the British Library. The text is a story called Jaya Lengkara Wulang, and the book was written in 1803 at the palace of Yogyakarta in central Java.  The text has 434 pages and consists of no fewer than 92 cantos. It has beautifully ornamented opening pages and also other illuminations that enhance the beauty of the manuscript. Interestingly, in this manuscript, with one exception, these ornaments all coincide with canto changes in the text.

Opening pages of Jaya Lengkara Wulang; at the start of the text on the left-hand page the metre is clearly stated to be Dhandhanggula. British Library, MSS Jav 24, ff. 2v-3r  noc

The manuscript has 25 illuminated pages, of which four have been left unfinished. On two other pages, space was left empty to allow for illuminations to be added, but these were evidently never made for one reason or another. Thus although the text seems to be complete, the manuscript itself is unfinished. All punctuation marks in the text have red signs above them up to folio 168r (except for f. 57v) after which the addition of these marks is discontinued, and the pepadan are coloured only in yellow or not at all. Also, no gold leaf was applied after this page.

The scribe of the manuscript and the illuminator were probably not the same person but worked closely together. Remarkably, elaborate illumination at the top of a page always coincides with the start of a new canto. This means that the scribe knew exactly how many cantos a page could contain, and worked to ensure that the final canto always ended precisely at the end of the last line of the page. Folios 30v and 31r have full-page illuminations reminiscent of those at the start of the manuscript, but in this case the new canto starts at the end of the text within the illuminated frames, rather than at the beginning.

The second set of full page illuminations. British Library, MSS Jav 24, ff. 30v-31r  noc

The relation between the illuminations that start cantos is not easy to establish. Often the illuminated elements actually illustrate the start of a new episode in the text, but for outsiders and people not truly versed in Javanese texts and illuminative iconography this is often very hard to understand. In some cases the symbolism is quite clear, for instance, the lion and the crocodile in the illuminated panel shown below may suggest the names of the kings of Pringgabaya and Singasari, as baya points to a crocodile and singa a lion.

Mss_jav_24_f129r  Mss_jav_24_f129v
 On f. 129r, shown on the left, the text in metre durma ends at the end of the page. On the next page, f. 129v, the new metre kinanthi is the first word in the illuminated panel. Note the red marks above the punctuation signs. British Library, MSS Jav 34, f. 129r and f. 129v  noc

Because of the characters of the various metres we can sometimes decide what the relationship between the illuminated pepadan and the text is, although I believe that these characters are not fixed. For instance, the metre durma is used, among others, for scenes of war but in my view pangkur can also be used for this. Thus the word ‘dur’ indicative of durma in manuscripts is sometimes used for pangkur too. In this manuscript of Jaya Lengkara Wulang, the fiery character of both durma and pangkur is indicated by the same elaborate illustrations of war equipment like cannon and flags, as in folio 139v below where a canto in durma starts.

Battle standards and guns indicating the metre durma. British Library, MSS Jav 24, f. 139r  noc

However, in the next illustration the canto starts with the metre pangkur but the illustration is very similar to the one above.

The text starts in the metre pangkur, suggested by the war-like assemblage. Note the absence of red marks above the punctuation signs. British Library, MSS Jav 24, f. 57v   noc

Some idea of the production process of the manuscript can perhaps be deduced from the fact that the text is finished but the illuminations are not. Occasionally the change in canto between one page and the next is not accompanied by any illumination, and the pepadan is divided in two, with one half on the first page and the other on the next. In the half of the pepadan at the bottom of folio 167v colour was added but the second part on the next folio not, and also not in pepadan after this page. Apparently, the scribe wrote the text and probably also made the black and white pepadan, while someone else applied the colours and the gold leaf to the pepadan and was responsible for the illuminated panels. One might even wonder if a third person was involved for the illuminations, but at present we have no way of knowing. Perhaps the artist who made the illuminations and the scribe worked closely together to decide what the illuminations should look like and where they should be put but this too is conjecture. We need to study many more illuminated and illustrated Javanese manuscripts in order to work out how they were actually produced.

Mss_jav_24_f167v-det    Mss_jav_24_f168r-det
The first half of the pepadan at the bottom of f. 167v marking the new canto is illuminated with gold and colours, while at the top of the next page, the only colour added to the second half of the pepadan is yellow (indicating elements to be gilded with gold leaf). British Library, MSS Jav 24, f. 167v and f. 168r  noc

Arps, Ben (1992). Tembang in two traditions: performance and interpretation of Javanese literature. London: School of Oriental and African Studies.
Ricklefs, M.C., P. Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop (2014). Indonesian Manuscripts in Great Britain. A catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: École Française d’Extrême Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia.
Van der Meij, Dick (2017). Indonesian manuscripts from the islands of Java, Madura, Bali and Lombok. Leiden: Brill.

Dick van der Meij, Hamburg  ccownwork