In collaboration with the École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO), the British Library is currently digitising its complete collection of 70 palmleaf manuscripts from Java and Bali, written in Old Javanese, Javanese and Balinese. For a full list of manuscripts being digitised click here.
Ramayana in Old/Middle Javanese, from Bali, early 19th c. British Library, Add MS 12278
For centuries palm leaf was the standard writing medium throughout India and Southeast Asia. The leaves, usually of the palmyra or talipot palms, were cut, treated and dried. Text was incised on the leaf with a sharp stylus or knife and then rubbed with ink, which settled in the grooves of the letters. Completed books were usually provided with hard covers made from either bamboo or wood, cut to the same size as the palm leaves, and a cord fed through the holes made in the leaves either at the centre or the ends, and wrapped around the bundle. Single leaves could also be used for letters, notes and other short documents.
In Java and Bali it is the palmyra that is used for palm leaf (lontar) manuscripts, which usually have four lines of text on each page. However, probably the oldest palm leaf manuscript in the British Library from Indonesia is a copy of Sang Hyang Hayu (MSS Jav 105) written in Old Javanese not on palmyra but on gebang (Corypha gebanga, Corypha utan Lam.), the use of which is associated with very old manuscripts from west Java. Until recently only 29 manuscripts on gebang were known to exist, mostly dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, with the oldest dated 1334 (Aditia Gunawan 2015); the British Library manuscript MSS Jav 105 brings the number of this small corpus up to 30. Although many leaves are intact, there are countless small fragments which have been grouped together on small strips of laminate, as shown below.
The most intriguing and potentially significant collection of palm leaf manuscripts from Java in the British Library is grouped together under shelfmark MSS Jav 53, acquired by Col. Colin Mackenzie during his stay in Java from 1811 to 1813. Mackenzie himself described them thus: “Twenty-four MSS. written on Cadjan [i.e. kajang] leaves in the Hindoo manner, most of them in the Javanese character, and some in a character yet undeciphered. From explanations of the titles of some they appear to belong to the ancient (or Dewa) religion of these islands; but though a native of superior intelligence was found capable of reading them, the prejudices of religion prevented any further information of the contents of books supposed to be adverse to the Muhammedan tenets. This difficulty might, however, have been got over. These MSS. are apparently ancient, and brought by the civility of a regent from a long deserted house in the distant forests, where they had lain neglected for years.” (Blagden 1916: xxix).
Ricklefs & Voorhoeve (1977: 65) identified the regent in question as Kyahi Tumenggeng Puger, and suggested that the manuscripts probably constituted a single collection from the vicinity of Puger on the south coast of East Java. MSS Jav 53 in fact consists of 35 separate manuscripts now numbered MSS Jav 53 a to MSS Jav 53 ii. Many of the manuscripts are damaged with leaves out of order, and some contain multiple texts, and so the discrepancy with Mackenzie’s own figure may be due to a miscount or result from manuscripts being separated into more than one bundle over the years.
John Crawfurd served alongside Colin Mackenzie in the British administration of Java (1811-1816). Crawfurd formed a large collection of some 80 Javanese manuscripts which he sold to the British Museum in 1842 and are now in the British Library, of which however only six are written on palm leaf. They include two manuscripts in Old (or Middle) Javanese – a law book, Kutara Manawa, and a copy of the Ramayana – presented by the Rajah of Buleleng, on the north coast of Bali, on the occasion of Crawfurd’s visit in 1814. Unusually, both manuscripts are of the type called embat-embatan, consisting of palm leaves folded along the ridged centre of the leaf, yielding double thickness folios (van der Meij 2017: 193).
The Raja of Buleleng, shown with a piece of palm leaf in his left hand and knife for writing in his right hand. 'Raja of Bliling, in the Island of Bali, with a Female attendant', engraving by W.H. Lizars from a drawing by Capt. Delafosse, probably done in 1814 when Crawfurd visited Bali. From John Crawfurd, History of the Indian Archipelago (Edinburgh, 1820), frontispiece to Vol. 3. British Library, T 11071
Inscribed: ‘Ramayana, according to the Javanese paraphrase, in the Kawi or ancient character. This MS. was given to J. Crawfurd Esq. by the Rajah of Bliling, in the island of Bali.’ British Library, Add MS 12278, f. 1r.
First page of the Ramayana in Old (or Middle) Javanese, showing the start of canto 19. British Library, Add MS 12278, f. 2v
There is a rich tradition of illustrated palm leaf manuscripts in Bali called prasi, containing images ranging from depictions of narrative scenes from literary epics, to magical diagrams and calendars. From the early 20th century onwards, many examples were made for the tourist market, usually with illustrations on one side of the leaf and very brief captions on the reverse.
Usada, medical texts in Balinese, before 1938. British Library, Or 16801, f. 56v
Illustrated scenes from Adiparwa; unusually red pigment is also used in the drawings in addition to black ink. Bali, before 1938. British Library, Or 16802, f. 4v
Illustrated scenes from Bharatayuddha, with the names of the characters in roman script. Bali, 20th c. British Library, Or 13379, f. 6r
One of the most commonly-found Javanese texts in palm leaf manuscripts is the Carita Yusup, the tale of the Prophet Joseph, the Nabi Yusuf of the Qur’an. There are eight palmleaf Javanese manuscripts of this story in the British Library collection, as well as other copies of this text on paper, with versions also found in Malay. Although Javanese palm leaf manuscripts are rarely decorated, several copies of the Carita Yusup and other Islamic texts have decorative frames on the first page enclosing just two lines of text, as shown in the two manuscripts below.
Carita Yusup, in Javanese, with an ornamental border; the first leaf is of double thickness and has been sewn together through the holes with thread. British Library, Or 9809, f. 123r
Carita Yusup, in Javanese, with an elegantly decorated frontispiece. British Library, Or. 13329, f. 1r
Over half the palm leaf manuscripts from Java and Bali held in the British Library to be digitised through this project are now already online, and the project will be completed within 2023. There have been many challenges in digitising this collection of palm leaf manuscripts. Some of the manuscripts are in poor condition, with edges of leaves damaged by insects or by careless handling over the years. Sometimes the main issue is unsympathetic repairs with materials and methods which would nowadays be avoided, such as synthetic laminate across the whole leaf, which has lessened legibility of the text (as can be noted in the gebang manuscript above). Often the manuscripts are unstrung with leaves out of order, with new incorrect foliation or numbering (added by library staff in pencil) exacerbating the problems, meaning that the digitised images are often not in correct order. One common problem is that when original Javanese foliation is present, in the digitised version the leaves are presented with the side bearing the folio number first (as is the norm for most British Library manuscripts), although this is in most cases actually the second page of the leaf.
Nonetheless, we hope that the advantages of having the manuscripts fully accessible digitally in their entirety, all with IIIF manifests, on the British Library's Universal Viewer from where images can be downloaded, will compensate for the inconveniences noted above. All the digital copies can be accessed directly via the British Library's online manuscripts catalogue, and as more manuscripts become available online, the direct links will be added to the catalogue records.
C.O. Blagden, Catalogue of manuscripts in European languages belonging to the Library of the India Office. Vol.I. The Mackenzie Collections. Part I. The 1822 Collection & the Private Collection. London: Oxford University Press, 1916.
Aditia Gunawan, Nipah or gebang? a philological and codicological study based on sources from West Java. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 2015, 171: 249-290.
Jana Igunma, The beauty of palm leaf manuscripts: (1) Central Thailand (Blog, 20 November 2014)
Jana Igunma, The beauty of palm leaf manuscripts: (2) Northern Thai, Lao and Shan traditions (Blog, 23 January 2015)
Dick van der Meij, Indonesian manuscripts from the islands of Java, Madura, Bali and Lombok. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
Julia Wiland, Rick Brown, Lizzie Fuller, Lea Havelock, Jackie Johnson, Dorothy Kenn, Paulina Kralka, Marya Muzart, Jessica Pollard & Jenny Snowdon, (2022) A literature review of palm leaf manuscript conservation—Part 1: a historic overview, leaf preparation, materials and media, palm leaf manuscripts at the British Library and the common types of damage, Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 45:3, 236-259; (2023) A literature review of palm leaf manuscript conservation—Part 2: historic and current conservation treatments, boxing and storage, religious and ethical issues, recommendations for best practice, Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 46:1, 64-91.
[Updated with Blagden reference on 3.7.2023.]