Asian and African studies blog


09 November 2021


Digital access to Batak manuscripts

The British Library holds a small collection of 37 Batak manuscripts from north Sumatra in Indonesia. The Batak peoples are associated with a distinctive writing culture, with manuscripts written on a range of organic materials, primarily tree bark, bamboo and bone. Most characteristic are the bark books known as pustaha, written on strips of bark of the alim (Aquilaria malaccensis) tree, folded concertina-fashion. These pustaha were the private notebooks of datu or shaman, and contained illustrated notes on divination and magical formulae. The Batak script is of Indic origin and is written and read from left to right, and the manuscripts are written in a range of regional Batak languages and scripts, including Mandailing, Toba, Karo and Simalungun.

Detail from a Batak pustaha containing divination for war.
Detail from a Batak pustaha containing divination for war. British Library, Add 19378, f. 32r 

In collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg, the complete collection of Batak manuscripts in the British Library has now been digitised, and is being made accessible through the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts portal. The digitization was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under Germany´s Excellence Strategy – EXC 2176 ‘Understanding Written Artefacts: Material, Interaction and Transmission in Manuscript Cultures’, project no. 390893796. The research was conducted within the scope of the CSMC at Universität Hamburg.

A full list of the 37 digitised Batak manuscripts is given below. Most of the manuscripts were first described by the Batak expert Petrus Voorhoeve in the catalogue by M.C. Ricklefs and P. Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1977; new edition published in 2014), while recent acquisitions were catalogued with the assistance of Uli Kozok, Roberta Zollo and Giuseppina Monaco. Full details of each manuscript can also be found on the British Library’s online catalogue, Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

List of digitised Batak manuscripts

Add 4726 Pustaha, in Toba Batak script
Add 11546 Pustaha
Add 15678 Pustaha, in Toba Batak script
Add 19378 Pustaha
Add 19379 Pustaha
Add 19380 Pustaha
Add 19381 Pustaha, in Mandailing Batak script
Add 19382 Pustaha, in Mandailing Batak script, see also Or 2445
Add 19383 Pustaha, in Mandailing Batak script
Add 19384 Pustaha, in Toba Batak script
Add 19385 Pustaha, in Toba Batak script
MSS Batak 1 Bamboo letter
MSS Batak 2 Pustaha
MSS Batak 3 Pustaha
MSS Batak 4 Pustaha
MSS Batak 5 Pustaha
MSS Batak 6 Pustaha
MSS Batak 7 Pustaha
MSS Batak 8 Pustaha
MSS Batak 9 Pustaha
MSS Batak 10 Pustaha, in Simalungun Batak script
Or 2445 Pustaha, in Mandailing Batak script, part of Add MS 19382
Or 5309 Bamboo
Or 6898 Pustaha, in Karo Batak script
Or 8196 Pustaha, in Toba Batak script
Or 11761 Pustaha, in Simalungun Batak script
Or 11762 Pustaha, in Simalungun Batak script
Or 12587 Pustaha
Or 13330 Bone amulets
Or 13957 Pustaha, in Toba Batak script
Or 14808 Pustaha, in Simalungun/Toba script
Or 16736 Bamboo container, in Kato Batak script
Or 16995 Pustaha
Or 16996 Pustaha
Or 16997 Pustaha
Or 16998 Pustaha
Or 16999 Pustaha

Technical note: image filenames
In catalogues of Batak manuscripts, the two sides of a pustaha are generally referred to as side A and side B. For technical reasons it was not possible to assign image filenames commencing A or B in the British Library Digitised Manuscripts portal. Therefore for this project filenames of side A pages have the ending ‘r’ (i.e. recto), while filenames for pages on side B continue the consecutive numbering but with the ending ‘v’ (i.e. verso). This means image filenames are not easily correlated with the contents information in the online catalogue.

Blog posts on Batak manuscripts
28 Nov 2016 Batak manuscripts in the British Library
27 Nov 2019  The Ring of Solomon in Southeast Asia
18 Feb 2022  Batak manuscripts in the British Library digitised in collaboration with Hamburg University
22 Feb 2022 Technical challenges of digitising Batak manuscripts
28 Feb 2022 Covers of Batak pustaha manuscripts
14 Mar 2022 Lost and refound: a Batak note on bamboo to John Anderson
18 Apr 2022 The provenance histories of Batak manuscripts in the British Library (1): The British Museum collection to 1900

Further reading
Uli Kozok, Surat Batak: sejarah perkembangan tulisan Batak. Jakarta: Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient; KPG, 2009. (Naskah dan dokumen Nusantara; Seri XVII).
Jan van der Putten and Roberta Zollo, ‘The power of writing: the manuscript culture of the Toba Batak from North Sumatra / Die Macht der Schrift: die Manuskriptkultur der Toba-Batak aus Nord-Sumatra.’ Manuscript cultures, 14, 2020.
M.C. Ricklefs, P. Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop. 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, 2014. [Includes a facsimile of the 1977 edition.]

Batak online resources
Aksara Batak - an online course for learning the Batak script.
IDENK - Online Inventory of Ancient Nusantara Epigrahy/Inventaris Daring Epigrafi Nusantara Kuna, which includes all known Batak inscriptions.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia, 18 Feb. 2022

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