Asian and African studies blog

04 September 2023

Javanese palm leaf manuscripts written in Buda script in the British Library

Through the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project, a team from the National Library of Indonesia spent a week at the British Library in June 2023. The aim of the visit was to strengthen collaboration between the two national libraries, and to enhance knowledge exchanges especially relating to Javanese manuscripts. This guest blog post is by Agung Kriswanto, librarian of the manuscripts section at the National Library of Indonesia.

The team from the National Library of Indonesia visiting the Royal Asiatic Society
During their visit to the British Library, the team from the National Library of Indonesia also visited other important collections of Indonesian manuscripts in London, and are shown here in the Royal Asiatic Society, looking at Javanese manuscripts from the Raffles collection. From left to right: Agung Kriswanto, Ade Riri Riyani, Didik Purwanto and Agus Sutoyo (Head of the Center for Library Services and Manuscripts Management), with Annabel Gallop.

One of the oldest yet barely explored collections of Javanese palm leaf manuscripts in the British Library is MSS Jav 53, which consists of dozens of manuscripts obtained in Java by Colonel Colin Mackenzie during his stay on the island from 1811 to 1813. This collection is amongst those being digitised by the British Library in collaboration with the École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO), and will shortly be online. 

At present MSS Jav 53 consists of 35 manuscripts, numbered MSS Jav 53 a to MSS Jav 53 ii (Ricklefs, Voorhoeve & Gallop 2014). In Mackenzie’s notes (Blagden, 1916: xxix) MSS Jav 53 is said to contain 24 manuscripts written on leaves, in the ‘Hindu’ style, mostly in Javanese script, while Ricklefs & Voorhoeve (1977: 65-67) identified 29 manuscripts, numbered MSS Jav 53 a to MSS Jav 53 cc. The increase in number over the years probably reflects mistakes in counting or through the subdivision of bundles.

One of the manuscripts written in Javanese in Buda script
One of the manuscripts written in Javanese in Buda script, comprising an unstrung bundle, with many damaged leaves. British Library, MSS Jav 53 ii Noc

Mackenzie obtained the manuscripts from a regent (Blagden, 1916: xxix). Ricklefs and Voorhoeve (1977, 2014: 65) identified this regent as Kyahi Tumenggung Puger. The source of this identification is a damaged incised leaf found in MSS Jav 53 z, which reads: layaṁ kunna, sakiṁ kyahi tuməṁguṁ pugər, katur ḍatəṁ tu... haṁṅris· 1 buṁkus hisi 18 hiji 17-2-39, ‘Old writings. From Kyahi Tumenggung Puger, given to Tu... English, 1 packet consisting of 18 leaves. 17-2-39’, with the date ‘39’ probably referring to the Javanese year 1739, equivalent to 1812 AD. Ricklefs and Voorhoeve thus noted further, ‘These MSS thus appear to be a single collection, probably from the area of Puger (the 'East Hook'), which would explain the variety of languages.’ 

Incised uninked note naming Kyahi Tumenggung Puger as the source of this manuscript, and the date ’17-2-39’
Incised uninked note naming Kyahi Tumenggung Puger as the source of this manuscript, dated 1812. British Library, MSS Jav 53 z, f. 38v  Noc

In the collection MSS Jav 53 there are a few Javanese manuscripts written not in (modern coastal) Javanese script, but in characters known as Buda or Gunung script. The term Buda (‘Buddha’) script evokes the pre-Islamic era in Java, while Gunung or ‘mountain’ refers to the mountainous regions with which most of the known examples are associated (Cohen Stuart, 1872: III; Pigeaud, 1970: 22-23; Kuntara Wiryamartana & van der Molen, 2001: 51). The forms of Buda script found in MSS Jav 53 are in fact similar to those found in palm-leaf manuscripts from Central Java.

The largest number of manuscripts in Buda script are found in the Merapi-Merbabu collection held in the National Library of Indonesia in Jakarta. This collection was acquired from the slopes of the Merapi and Merbabu volcanoes in Central Java, which in the 15th and 16th centuries was a centre for the study of Hindu-Buddhist literature and religion (Noorduyn, 1982: 413–422; Kartika Setyawati et al, 2002; Kuntara Wiryamartana & van der Molen, 2001: 55). These manuscripts were first mentioned in a report of 12 August 1823 by the Dutch Resident of Kedu to Governor-General Van der Capellen, stating that there were many notes written on leaves stored in a bamboo hut near the cremation ground of Panembahan Windusana. Some of these writings were handed over to government officials, and were sent to Batavia along with the report (van der Molen, 1983: 111-112).

These notes on the origin of the Merapi-Merbabu manuscripts recalls Mackenzie’s own notes on MSS Jav 53, mentioning that the manuscripts were found in a dilapidated building in the forest in a remote area, and had evidently been abandoned for many years (Blagden, 1916: xxix). The two collections thus both originate from remote sites. Such places were most likely mandalas, religious settlements for retreats and meditation (Supomo, 1977: 66-67). The environs of a mandala are usually described as being located in the middle of a verdant forest, with groves of well-tended trees. Each dwelling would have a verandah where literary readings could be held, and a garden full of flowering plants (Agus Aris Munandar, 2001: 102).

Apart from the collection in Jakarta, there are also a few manuscripts in Buda script held in the Netherlands (in Leiden), in Germany (Berlin) and in France (Paris). Most of these can be linked with the Merapi-Merbabu region because they all originate from officials who had been based in Batavia, such as Friedrich and Schoemann (cf. Pigeaud 1970; Groot 2009 and Acri 2011). 

An unidentified text written in Javanese in Buda script
An unidentified text written in Javanese in Buda script, from the manuscript bundle shown above. British Library, MSS Jav 53 ii, f. 2v  Noc

According to Ricklefs & Voorhoeve (1977, 2014), within the collection MSS Jav 53 a-ii there are eight manuscripts in Buda script. Unfortunately one, MSS Jav 53 m, has been missing for a number of years, while another, MSS Jav 53 c, was found to be written not in Buda script. This leaves six Buda-script manuscripts, namely MSS Jav 53 k, n, o, t, dd and ii, which mostly have basic descriptions but no titles in the published catalogues.

MSS Jav 53 k can now be classified as a tutur (didactic doctrinal work) as it contains explanations on mantras and religious doctrines.  The term tutur covers texts of a general nature, in contrast to the more specific term tatwa. According to Andrea Acri (2011: 10), tutur can be understood as heterogenous compilations from various sources, while tatwa are characterised as single texts with a more coherent textual structure.

A broken leaf from a manuscript containing tutur and aji texts, written in Javanese in Buda script
A broken leaf from a manuscript containing tutur and aji texts, written in Javanese in Buda script. British Library, MSS Jav 53 k, f. 5r  Noc

Apart from the tutur, MSS Jav 53 k also contains a number of aji texts, relating to magical and amuletic formulae (Zoetmulder, 1995: 17), including Aji Kakalangan, Kaprajuritan and Mahapadma Pagesengan. These three texts are also found in the Merapi-Merbabu collection at the National Library in Jakarta, showing that despite originating from different regions, there are still connections between MSS Jav 53 manuscripts and the Merapi-Merbabu corpus. 

Another manuscript in Buda script, MSS Jav 53 o, is also a tutur that contains two texts. The first, Rasayajña, contains an explanation of how to reach heaven. The second text, Darma Kamulaning Dadi, expounds on the process of the creation of life in the universe. An especially valuable aspect of MSS Jav 53 o is that it has a colophon, giving the date of writing of this manuscript as Thursday Kaliwon, 1550 Śaka or 1628 AD.

Rasayajña text, with a colophon dated 1628
text, with a colophon dated 1628. British Library, MSS Jav 53 o Noc

A subsequent blog post will discuss probably the most significant manuscript in Buda script in the collection, MSS Jav 53 t, which contains a copy of Sang Hyang Hayu with a colophon dated 1493, making it by far the oldest Indonesian manuscript held in the British Library.

Agung Kriswanto, Librarian, National Library of Indonesia Ccownwork

[This blog post was translated by Annabel Gallop from the Indonesian original, which can be downloaded here

Acri, Andrea (2011). Dharma Pātañjala: A Śaiva Scripture from Ancient Java : Studied in the Light of Related Old Javanese and Sanskrit Texts. Groningen: Forsten.
Agus Aris Munandar (2001). ‘Pusat-pusat Kegamaan Masa Jawa Kuna’ in Sastra Jawa: Suatu Tinjauan Umum (Edi Sedyawati, ed.). Jakarta: Pusat Bahasa dan Balai Pustaka.
Blagden, C.O. (1916). 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.
Cohen Stuart, A. B. (1872). Eerste vervolg catalogus der bibliotheek en catalogus der Maleische, Javaansche en Kawi handschriften van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen. Batavia & ’s Hage: Bruining & Wijt & Nijhoff.
Groot, Hans. (2009). Van Batavia naar Weltevreden: Het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen 1778-1867. Leiden: KITLV.
Kartika Setyawati, Kuntara Wiryamartana & Willem van der Molen. (2002). Katalog Naskah Merapi-Merbabu Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia. Yogyakarta: Universitas Sanata Dharma.
Kuntara Wiryamartana & Molen, Willem van der (2001). The Merapi-Merbabu manuscripts A Neglected Collection. Bijdragen Tot de Taal-, Land-En Volkenkunde, 157(1), 51–64.
Molen, W. van der. (1983). Javaanse Tekstkritiek Een Overzicht en een nieuwe Benadering Geilllustreerd aan de Kunjarakarna. Dordrecht/ Cinnaminson: Foris Publications.
Noorduyn, J. (1982). Bujangga Manik’s journeys through Java: topographical data from an Old Sundanese source. Bijdragen Tot de Taal-, Land-En Volkenkunde, 138, 413–442.
Pigeaud, T. G. (1970). Literature of Java: Catalogue raisonnè of Javanese manuscripts in the library of the University of Leiden and other public collections in the Netherlands Vol. 3. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Ricklefs, M,C. and P. Voorhoeve (1977). Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia.
Supomo, S. (1977). Arjunawijaya: A kakawin of Mpu Tantular (2 vols.). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Zoetmulder, P. J. (1995). Kamus Jawa Kuna - Indonesia. Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama.