Lontar: From Palm Leaf to Manuscript

Two weeks ago, in the small reading room for manuscripts from the special collections at Leiden University, a researcher explored scripture on narrow long brown leaves. Both these leaves from a palm tree (Palmyra, Borassus flabellifer) and the manuscript they constitute go by the name of lontar. The technique was characteristic of the literary cultures on Java and Bali especially:

“[…] the library in the sense of a collection of authoritative written texts cared for and consulted by specialists was well known in the precolonial Indies. Manuscripts written on lontar (processed palm leaves) had been produced in the region for many centuries. The fragile medium required careful stewardship. […] More than 19,000 Javanese lontar manuscripts survive today in libraries and museums.” (E. B. Fitzpatrick, The Public Library as Instrument of Colonialism. The Case of the Netherlands East-Indies, in: Libraries & the Cultural Record 43, 2008, here p. 276)

From 2011 onwards, lontars from Bali have been made accessible via “The Balinese Digital Library” hosted by the Internet Archive in San Francisco (https://archive.org/details/Bali&tab=about). Lontar is also part of the cultural parcel that Indonesia will present to the general reading audience at the Frankfurt Book Fair in mid-October 2015.

In his late 17th-century Ambonese Herbal, G. E. Rumpf uses the term lontar for a kind of palm tree under the heading “Jager Tree, or the First Vinous Palm Tree” (in his Dutch original “Jager-Boom: of de eerste Wyngevende Palm-Boom”, in the Latin translation from the 1740s “Lontarus Domestica, Palma Vinaria Prima, Sive Jagarifera. Lontar”), which he then differentiates into “a domesticall and a wild Lontar”. After the products made of the domesticated tree such as beer and sugar (jaggery) he also describes the use of its leaves as carrier medium:

“The Javanese, Macassarese and other Malay, make paper from the young, whitish leaves of this tree, writing daily letters on it with a stylus, then they fold it along its natural fold lines, lace a thread through it so they can tie it together, just as other nations, where the Lontar does not grow, do with the Calappus tree. This way of writing on leaves was far more common in the olden days, because, with the arrival of and trade with foreigners other paper was introduced, and these tree leaves gradually went out of fashion and are no longer used, so that these days hardly anyone still writes letters on olas and leaves except in Malabar and its surrounding regions.” (English Translation E. Beekman, The Ambonese Herbal, Vol. I, p. 260)

300 years later, an anthropological film about life on the Indonesian island of Roti centered on this palm tree and was titled “The Water of Words: A Cultural Ecology of a Small Island in Eastern Indonesia”, the water referring to lontar gin (1983, by James J. Fox, Timothy Asch and Patsy Asch, Documentary Educational Resources).

Today, the post-colonial focus is placed on the preservation of lontar as a specific cultural heritage. Rumpf, with the eye of a VOC-merchant turned ethnographer and naturalist, highlighted a seemingly universal process of replacement by market forces at the start of a colonial regime in the late 1600s.

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