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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

manuscript  of the month

Made for a Prince, Given to a Princess:

An Illustrated Javanese Manuscript of the Dewa Ruci

In 1927, J.C.F. von Mühlen, the private secretary of Prince Hendrik, the husband of Queen Wilhelmina, donated a beautiful manuscript of the Dewa Ruci to their daughter, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, now preserved in the Royal Collections, The Hague. The manuscript was written in Yogyakarta, one of the four principalities in colonial central Java, in the Javanese year 1834, corresponding to AD 1904. According to the information given at the beginning of the manuscript, it was not made for Princess Juliana but rather for Crown-Prince Kangjeng Gusti Pangeran Adipati Anom Mengkunegara Sudibya (1879-1913), son of Hamengkubuwana VII, the Sultan of Yogyakarta. The prince unfortunately died in 1913 and thus never ascended to the throne. We do not know how this particular manuscript of the Dewa Ruci, which was and remains a popular story in Java, ended in Mr. von Mühlen’s hands, nor why he opted to give it to Princess Juliana rather than Queen Wilhelmina.

Fig. 1. The front cover > Enlarge

The manuscript is a striking example of an illustrated Javanese manuscript, which comes in all sorts of sizes and whose illustrations vary from mere black and white drawings to elaborately gilded pictures in a wide spectrum of colours, such as here. Measuring 30 cm by 23.2 cm, the manuscript is bound in leather with gilded embossed patterns on the covers (fig. 1), also found in manuscripts of the Qur’an and other texts from the Central Javanese region. The text is written in Javanese in the kind of script used in the Central Javanese palaces at the time. Employing the typical Javanese poetic form of tembang macapat, the story is told through a series of cantos employing different poetic metres.

Fig. 2. Opening and closing pages > Enlarge

But pictures, rather than text, seem to take centre stage in the manuscript. That the illustrations are the most important part of the book is clear from the fact that many pages within it contain only one line of text or indeed no text at all. Compared to 81 fully illustrated pages in the manuscript, only 24 pages contain text without illustrations. There are, additionally, two beautifully illuminated pages at the beginning of the book, where the dedication to the prince is inscribed and the story is introduced. Two similarly illuminated pages close the book and the story (fig. 2).

The Dewa Ruci tells the tale of Bima, who is ordered by the sage Drona to procure the holy water of life. This is in fact a ploy by the sage to get rid of Bima who, he feared, is too powerful and will thus become a formidable adversary of the sage’s royal patron, King Duryadana of Ngastina, in the final Bharatayuddha battle, the Great War in the famous Indian Mahabharata (the epic had found its way to Java probably sometime in the 10th century). In order to obtain the water, Bima has to travel wide and far and indeed has to plunge deep into the ocean until he finally meets his mystical self in the form of Dewa Ruci, who instructs him in the meaning of life and many other philosophical, moral and ethical matters.

The book opens and closes with two facing illuminated pages with beautiful polychrome gilded patterns (fig. 2). Many manuscripts in the Javanese tradition of the courts open and end with such pages, which have an astonishing variation of patterns, colours and formats. Typically the two illuminations at beginning of the book are the same, as are those at the end, while the two sets of illuminations differ from each other. Illuminations are usually made after the text is written (and usually by a different person). While the pages in this manuscript are fully illuminated, in many other manuscripts, the text is written in blocks much smaller than the page but the illuminations are for some reason never made. The illuminations are perhaps in some cases optional.

Fig. 3. Meeting scene in the Kingdom of Ngastina. Bima (the
figure on the left with the large black face) and his party make
an appearance at the court of King Duryadana (top figure on the
right), who is attended by his retainers. Note the single line of
text above the illustration. Pages 14-15, according to the
pagination given in the manuscript. > Enlarge

After the opening pages, the manuscript continues with the exploits of Bima. Most figures in the illustrations are recognizable as characters from the typical Javanese shadow-play (wayang). While making for spectacular performances, wayang puppets are in fact quite rigid and allow for limited movements, as their legs are incapable of bending or otherwise adjusting to the action. Many illustrations in this manuscript depict scenes from real wayang performances. This is especially so with scenes showing meetings at the royal courts, such as the scene where Bima and his party make their appearance at the court of King Duryadana in the Kingdom of Ngastina (fig. 3).

In other scenes, the illustrator added more drama to the action by depicting Bima in more or less realistic body poses. In the scene where Bima swims in freestyle towards the aquatic serpent he is to defeat in his quest (fig. 4), his body movements are much more natural than any wayang puppet would allow.

Fig. 4. Pages 66-67. Bima swimming towards the serpent. Note
the mere two lines of text above. > Enlarge

In the manuscript, most of the illustrations are finished but, as happens in Javanese manuscripts, some appear intriguingly unfinished. Take the example of a page where only a tiny Bima is depicted (fig. 5). We may think it is unfinished, but the illustrator may have deliberately chosen to use empty space to emphasise the central role of Bima, setting his small figure against an empty background (note that even the facing page is left empty). In another scene towards the end of the story, where Bima meets his mystical self in the form of Dewa Ruci, the two figures are depicted in discussion against a very simple background, perhaps also deliberately (see fig. 6).

It is a pity we do not know who the illustrator of this manuscript was. We have equally little idea of how manuscripts such as this one were actually produced. Did the copyist and the illustrator collaborate throughout the process of its making? In other words, how did the copyist know where to start and where to stop, or how many lines he could use on pages that were also to contain pictures? Did the artist who made the illuminations at the beginning and end of the book also produce the illustrations? These are elements of Javanese manuscript production that still await exploration.

Fig. 5. Pages 86-87. Bima, a small figure surrounded by empty
space. > Enlarge

Fig. 6. Pages 90-91. Bima in discussion with Dewa Ruci (depicted
as a tiny representation of Bima himself) > Enlarge


KUMAR, Ann and John H. MCGLYNN (eds.) (1996): Illuminations: The Writing Traditions of Indonesia. Jakarta: The Lontar Foundation / New York and Toronto: Weatherhill.

PIGEAUD, Theodore G. Th. (1968): Literature of Java. Catalogue Raisonné of Javanese Manuscripts in the Library of the University of Leiden and Other Public Collections in the Netherlands. Volume II: Descriptive Lists of Javanese Manuscripts. Leiden: In Bibliotheca Universitatis Lugduni Batavorum. [Codices Manuscripti X.]

VAN DER MEIJ, Dick (2017): Indonesian Manuscripts from the Islands of Java, Madura, Bali and Lombok. Leiden: Brill.

WASSING-VISSER, Rita (1995): Koninklijke geschenken uit Indonesië: historische banden met het Huis Oranje-Nassau (1600-1938). Zwolle: Waanders.

Royal Collections of the Netherlands, The Hague
Shelfmark: Go13-09 (KHA O 4)
Material: paper, paint, gold leaf, ink; leather covers
Dimensions: 30 x 23.2 x 2.3 cm
Provenance: Central Java, 1904

Manuscript of the Month 06/2017
Text by Dick van der Meij
© for all pictures: Royal Collections of the Netherlands
Reference note:
Dick van der Meij, “Made for a Prince, Given to a Princess”
In: Wiebke Beyer, Zhenzhen Lu (Eds.): Manuscript of the Month 2017.06, SFB 950: Hamburg,