Indonesian Palaeography, A History of writing in Indonesia from the beginnings to 1500 AD

JG de Casparis, Indonesian Palaeography, A History of writing in Indonesia from the beginnings to c. AD 1500, Handbuch der Orientalistik, dritte Abteilung, vierter Band, erste Lieferung, Brill, Leiden-Kôln, 1975; 96 p., 10 plates.

In ’60s and ’70s, several orientalists, mostly from Germanic countries, have undertaken, led by the senior leadership of Professor B. Spuler under the auspices of editors at Brill, the vast project of writing a “manual”. The result is the publication of Handbuch der Orienialislik, which in several issues has taken stock of Western knowledge about Asia. The responsibility for the third section (dritte Abteilung), devoted to “Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines” was entrusted to Prof. H. Kâhler from Hamburg. After a first booklet, published in 1972, devoted to Indonesian and Filipino music discussingthe works of Dr. Mantle Hood and Dr. Jose Maceda (42 pages), comes this synthesis of Dr. J.G. de Casparis on the ancient writings of the Archipelagic Southeast Asia.

Lost in the bushy and inconvenient thicket of publications relating to the ancient inscriptions of Insulindia—fragmentary and difficult to access articles—interested researchers previously had to have recourse to the old “table” of KF Holle (Tabel van Oud- en Nieuw- Indische Alphabetten, Batavia, 1882) or in the brilliant, but too brief article by L.G. Damais (“The Writings of Indian Origin in Indonesia and Continental Southeast Asia” BSEI, new series, XXX, 1955, pp. 365-382). Researchers since the publication of the Handbuch will now be able to begin their explorations with this concise and clear, carefully documented presentation, accompanied and enriched by a copious bibliography (pp. 74-82. “Materials for the Study of Indonesian palaeography and bibliography proper”). As the title indicates, the study is most concerned with questions of “paleography” and not of “epigraphy” in the broad sense. The author is interested in the form of the writings, in their possible origins, in the influences which they could exert one on the other. There is an extensive discussion of the influence that cursive writing had on the lontar—with the early use of stylus and then later, with a brush—may have had on the writings engraved on stone or on metal, which are the only artifacts that have been preserved today for examination.

The presentation is not arranged based on the languages ​​used, the styles, the systems of dating or the actual content of the inscriptions. Following a five-step chronological arrangement, the author first tells us about the oldest scriptures, dating from before the mid-18th century, which can all be closely or remotely attached to a Pallava model: inscriptions from Kutai which appear to be the oldest (c. 400), from Purnawarma (a little more recent) and from Bukit Meriam (in Kedah, in the Peninsula) which are all qualified as “early Pallava script”; more recent (later Pallava): the inscription of Tuk Mas (central Java), the inscriptions of Srïwijaya and the Sanskrit inscription of Canggal (732).

Then the author proceeds to the oldest phase (c. 750-925) of the writing that Dr. de Casparis calls Kawi (others have preferred to call it “ancient Javanese”). Using the distinct term Kawi poses a problem in tracing its origin because it is seen appearing on the Plumpungan stele (near Salatiga) around 750, that is to say only eighteen years after the inscription of Canggal. The discussion proceeds to the the inscriptions of Plumpungan, of Dinoyo (760, in East Java), the famous stele of Ligor (775, in the Malay Peninsula), the inscriptions of Borobudur and Plaosan Lor, as well as a fairly large number of inscriptions on stone or copper from central Java. Another group (Standard form of early Kawi) brackers the very numerous inscriptions on stone and copper from the reigns of Kayuwangi (856-882) and Balitung (899-910), which comprise more than a third of all the inscriptions found in Java.

In the appendix to this second chapter (pp. 35-37), the author raises the problem posed by the inscriptions in “nâgarï” (Louis Damais much preferred to use the name of siddham for them); few in number but for the most part of Buddhist inspired texts (the famous Kalasan inscription, 778, is written in this script), it seems that they can be related with the activities of the Mahayana monks, in particular those of Nâlandâ.

Chapter III deals with the later Kawi script (925-1250); although the inscriptions now emanate from rulers reigning over East Java (Sindok 929-947, Airlangga 1019-1042), the writing remains in the extension of that of the previous period. The Kawi script changed slightly during the time of Kadiri, at the same time as the development of so-called “square” writing; essentially decorative and used in a few brief inscriptions (not only in Java, on stone and on bronze, but in Bali, where we found on the rock tombs of Tampaksiring). From this period have been preserved numerous inscriptions on copper originating from Bali, some extremely rare inscriptions from Sunda and South Sumatra, as well as from North Sumatra (in Malay) and Jaiya (South of Thailand) ), which reveal several archaic features and pose more problems than they solve.

Chapter IV deals with the writing during the Majapahit period and raises the question of regional writings; indeed far from witnessing a “unification” of the writings, we see the affirmation in particular in Sunda country (Batutulis and Kawali, 14th century) and in Minangkabau country (inscriptions of Àdityavarman с 1356-1375), divergent tendencies which can only be explained by a parallel evolution (on lontar) of which nothing has been preserved. Finally, the oldest manuscripts (on nipah sheets) date from this period, notably Codex Leidensis 2266, which tells the story of Kuňjarakarna and whose writing could not be more recent. The last chapter deals with the end of epigraphic writings (inscriptions from Sukuh) and “foreign” alphabets (inscriptions in Tamil and first inscriptions in Arabic characters). After reading some hundred pages, we can clearly see the main stages of evolution of writing scripts and identify the problems that may arise for the epigraphist and for the historian.

The author may be be criticized for having omitted all handwritten figures and for having limited his illustration to twenty-two photographic reproductions; with a prudence befitting him. The paucity of illustrations can be debilitating but he explains it thus (p. 10): “I have refrained from giving charts of aksara forms copied by hand which may contain inevitable inaccuracies but also implying an element of arbitrary choice between a number of variants”. This is a good point, but with the lack of graphic examples, some of the technical explanations lose clarity: p. 21 for example, concerning the evolution of the character na in the late Pallava script, the corresponding photos (inscriptions of Tuk Mas and Talang Tuwo) do not include this type of character. Without detailed illustrations, the work loses the function of a “practical manual” for researchers other than specialists.

Translated from the original French review by Denys Lombard in the Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient, Année 1976 63 pp. 484-486

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