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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

03/2014 manuscript  of the month

The Oldest Dated Sundanese Manuscript:

An Encyclopedia from West Java, Indonesia

No more than a hundred documents from the pre-Islamic manuscript culture of the Sundanese-speaking area of West Java are preserved today. The manuscript described here is written in black ink on leaves of the Gebang palm (Corypha gebanga) using the ornate type of script that is characteristic in this tradition for sacred texts, generally texts written in Old Javanese. It contains the ‘Holy Precepts for the Environment, from the Hermit Class’ (Saṅ Hyaṅ Siksa Kandaṅ Karəsian) and is one of the most important documents in Old Sundanese. It is one of only six manuscripts in this language that do not use Sundanese characters. Copied in 1518 CE, it is the only Old Sundanese manuscript that is dated internally. Its physical features shed some light on the tradition of manuscript production in pre-colonial West Java. Its contents give us some interesting insights about social life at the time of writing. What exactly makes this particular manuscript so interesting?

For one thing, the preferred writing medium employed in pre-Islamic Indonesia was palm leaf. In those parts of the archipelago where forms of Hinduism and Buddhism used to thrive, but which converted to Islam in later centuries, very few manuscripts from the pre-Islamic period have been preserved. For the Sundanese-speaking region of West Java, only about a hundred manuscripts of this kind have managed to survive the ravages of time. This particular specimen is part of a collection of manuscripts donated to the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences by the famous Indonesian painter Raden Saleh (1811–80). There is no reliable information on where he obtained these manuscripts, but it is presumed they came from the Galuh region, i.e. the eastern part of West Java. From those cases where we have information on the provenance of such documents, we know that after Islamisation these old manuscripts were preserved in hermitages in mountainous locations. It is due to the ability of generations of West Javanese Muslims to venerate heirlooms from their heathen ancestors that we can learn something about the region's pre-Islamic manuscript culture, of which this manuscript is a product.

Fig. 1: NLI L 630, peti 16 inside its container; side view > Enlarge

The manuscript is kept in a low wooden box, precisely fitted to the size of the palm leaves. The recto of the first leaf is blank. The remaining leaves all bear four lines of text on both sides, a string hole at the centre of each leaf separating the text into two oblong blocks of writing. The wooden container itself is also perforated at the corresponding places. The string to hold the leaves together and connect them to the box no longer exists. There are some additional small holes at the extremity of each folio side, between lines 2 and 3. These may have been punched into the leaves by some kind of pressing device that was used when the leaves were being processed as writing material.

After the first folio, which is unnumbered, the remaining ones are numbered using the local ‘Arabic’-style numerals, with each folio number placed in the left-hand margin of the verso of the leaf, aligned with the left-hand margin rather than with the lines of the text. The numbering ranges from 1 to 39, although there are actually only 29 folios now; numbers 21–31 are absent, probably not because several folios are missing, but because of a scribal error as there is no textual break between folios 20 and 32.

Fig. 2: NLI L 630, peti 16 inside its container, with one side opened > Enlarge

The title of the text is ‘Holy Precepts for the Environment, from the Hermit Class’ (Saṅ Hyaṅ Siksa Kandaṅ Karəsian). The meaning of this title is hard to grasp, unfortunately, especially in the light of the contents, which do not, in fact, focus on the lifestyle of hermits. The text opens as follows: “This is what the adept teaches, the way of one who strives for good”, and it goes on to teach how anyone who follows these precepts may come to have a long life, enjoy lasting prosperity, be successful at animal husbandry and agriculture and be victorious in battle. For the most part, the text describes various aspects of daily life in West Java around the 15th century. Among its many interesting passages, there is a list of foreign countries and their languages, which is evidence of the long-distance contacts entertained by Sundanese people at the time, including contacts with Egypt and the Islamic holy land (particularly Mecca). Their links also extended to Persia, India (Bengal, Vijayanagara) and China. Another interesting aspect of this West Javanese text is its syncretism between (Śaiva) Hinduism and Buddhism, which is also a characteristic of late pre-Islamic religious culture in other parts of Java. Poignantly, the Buddha is secondary to the Hindu deity Śiva in both relevant passages.

Fig. 3: The recto side of a folio of NLI L 630, peti 16 inside its container > Enlarge

A substantial number of the manuscripts preserved from the pre-Islamic past of Sundanese-speaking West Java are not written in the local language, but in Old Javanese. Besides being a venue for the use of two different — although related — Austronesian languages, this manuscript culture was also duplicitous with regard to the scripts used to write these languages. Both of them could be and have been written either in aksara sunda (‘Sundanese characters’), which have never been used outside the Sundanese-speaking region as far as we are aware, or in aksara buda (‘Buddhist characters’), also known as aksara gunung (‘mountain characters’). Aksara sunda were carved into leaves of the Lontar palm with a stylus and then inked afterwards. Aksara buda/gunung, on the other hand, were written on leaves of the Gebang palm with a kind of pen. Generally, the former types of manuscripts were used to write in Sundanese, while the latter were used for Old Javanese. The present manuscript, which is in Old Sundanese, in aksara buda/gunung and on Gebang leaf, is a very rare exception to these patterns.

Fig. 4: Verso sides of six folios (nos. 32–37) of NLI L 630, peti 16
> Enlarge

Only about thirty Gebang manuscripts are known to exist today. This particular manuscript is not just an example of a rare category, but it is actually unique because it is the only Old Sundanese manuscript that bears an absolute date. This date is expressed in the final colophon to the text, on a folio that is missing at the moment, unfortunately, but that was still available at least until the year 1867, when K. F. Holle reported on the manuscript and counted 31 leaves. Only 29 of them are left today, and it is most regrettable that the one bearing the colophon is among the leaves now lost. Holle’s report informs us that the colophon ends with a dating formula typical for Indonesia, viz. with a chronogram symbolically expressing a year by a sequence of words, each having a literal as well as a symbolic numerical value and arranged in ascending order to reflect their place in the date: ‘nought’ (0) ‘four’ (4) ‘oceans’ (4) ‘moon’ (1), i.e. the year 1440 of the Śaka era, which corresponds to 1518 CE.


• Two modern copies of the manuscript using roman script are available at the NLI (cod. Plt. 131, peti 119; No. 263, peti 89).
• One other pre-modern copy of the same text is preserved in a Lontar manuscript (NLI: cod. L 624 peti 69).

ADITIA GUNAWAN (2009): Sanghyang Sasana Maha Guru dan Kala Purbaka; suntingan dan terjemahan. Jakarta: Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia.

ADITIA GUNAWAN (forthcoming): “Nipah or Gebang? A philological and codicological study based on sources from West Java”. In: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde.

ATJA & SALEH DANASASMITA (1981): Sanghyang Siksakanda ng Karesian (naskah Sunda Kuno tahun 1518 Masehi) . [Bandung:] Proyek Pengembangan Permuseuman Jawa Barat.

HOLLE, Karel Frederik (1867): “Vlugtig berigt omtrent eenige lontar-handschriften, afkomstig uit de Soenda-landen, door Raden Saleh aan het Bataviaasch Genootschap van K. en W. ten geschenke gegeven, met toepassing op de inscriptiën van Kwali”. In: Tijdschrift voor Indische Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 16, 450–70.

KUNTARA WIRYAMARTANA, Ignatius (1993): “The scriptoria in the Merbabu-Merapi area”. In: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 149, no. 3 (Manuscripts of Indonesia), 503–509.

NOORDUYN, Jacobus. (1971): “Traces of old Sundanese Ramayana tradition.” In: Indonesia 12,151–58.

National Library of the Republic of Indonesia (NLI)
Shelfmark: L 630 Peti 16
Material: leaves of the Gebang palm (Corypha Gebanga)
Dimensions: 29 folios, 35×3.5 cm, with four lines of text on both sides
Place of origin: West Java, Indonesia, dated to month three of year 1440 in the Śaka era (i.e. 1518 CE)

Text by Aditia Gunawan (National Library of Indonesia, Jakarta) &
Arlo Griffiths (École française d’Extrême-Orient, Jakarta)