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Lontar Manuscript: Where the Balinese Turn to for Wisdom

Foreword from Listen to the World

On July 4, our Balinese brothers and sisters celebrated Saraswati Day, the Day of Knowledge.

Knowledge is a sacred and beautiful phenomenon to the Balinese. It is represented by Saraswati, who is a charming Goddess with four arms that hold (and play) a zither, scriptures and rosary beads. The word Saraswati means “the one that flows”; a never-ending, flowing river that distributes knowledge across the lands. This “flowing” knowledge is an integral aspect of Balinese tradition, and found in numerous guises: from nature, holy books and manuscripts, to folklore, traditional arts and games. The holistic nature of knowledge makes it more than just the mere acquisition of information (cleverness), but also to that of wisdom (intelligence). It is due to these foundations that the Balinese pay earnest respect towards their ancestral knowledge.

In this day and age, where modernization and technological advancement could potentially threaten local knowledge and wisdom, I Wayan Sapta Wigunadika – with full awareness of such issues – takes a step in preserving and cultivating ancestral legacies by writing articles targeting the young generation in Bali, the Indonesian government, and eventually the citizens of world.

Happy reading!


Lontar Manuscript: Where the Balinese Turn to for Wisdom

By I Wayan Sapta Wigunadika

Studying the content of *Lontar manuscripts is time travelling without a time machine! For hundreds of years, Lontar manuscripts have become the medium of choice to preserve the Balinese people’s thoughts and ideas. Today, they serve as evidence of the long history of Balinese literature that is rich, witty and full of wisdom.

Photography: I Wayan Sapta Wigunadika

Numerous studies on the manuscripts have revealed the unique, fascinating look into a wide array of traditional knowledge, from architecture, medicine, agriculture, farming, laws, religious and economic systems, culinary practices, cosmology, astronomy, environmental matters, arts, letters, language, and literature. They all serve as a guidance to conduct one’s life, and as a tool for cleansing the mind. Alongside guiding humanity to connect with itself, the wisdom written in the manuscript also leads those who learn it to become mindful and, eventually, connect to their very self. Many of the knowledge systems written in those manuscripts were gained through making a close connection with nature.

The Balinese people view Lontar manuscripts as sacred, possessing supranatural powers. Anyone who works with the manuscript must possess proper spiritual and religious knowledge and must be purified physically and spiritually and they, at least, must perform the simplest form of a ceremony called pawinten alit. This ceremony is performed because the Balinese see their traditional alphabets as the manifestation of Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge. Additionally, they also have to have a sense of self-control and refrain themselves from eating and drinking certain food or beverages.

Lontar manuscripts bear two different conceptions (traditionally called rwa bhineda): purusa and pradana. Purusa is the word for male, while pradana is for female. In manuscripts, purusa is on the left side of the leave and is heavier in weight, while pradana is on the right and is lighter. The reader of the Lontar manuscripts must understand this concept well to avoid the mistakes of writing it upside down or misplacing the leaves (right or left). Additionally, the position of the holed coin determines the placement of the leaves (top or bottom). The coin is tied on to the leaf threefold, symbolising the sacred number in Balinese culture. The part where the coin is placed becomes the top of the manuscript.

In each leaf, a rakawi (honoured poet) would begin the creation of his prose and poems, accompanied with a prayer called “Om Awighnamastu” to help him strengthen his beliefs as a rakawi. This means that a submitted Dharma always seeks for a prosperous, peaceful, and safe world.

Considering these manuscripts were created by the hands of the sacred rakawi, the person who reads it must chant an incantation, called Japa Mula Stawa, and say the meaning of the incantation in his head, which reads ‘O God and the holy ancestors, may we be spared from all perils’. Once this step is completed, the manuscript reading may begin.

Of all manuscripts that are found across Indonesia (particularly Bali, Lombok and Java), it was discovered that most were written in the Balinese alphabet. This may indicate that the Balinese people have higher levels of commitment to the preservation and inheritance of their heritage. They consider the alphabets as the means by which to learn the literature that is rich in the teaching of both divinity and worldliness, allowing humankind to achieve true happiness. The sense of pride of having ancestral literatures, combined with the effort to learn and, eventually, believing the virtues can help people achieve wholeness. One interesting fact to know is that, unlike the normal books, the words written in these manuscripts are not spaced. That is why one needs to have strong skills and grounded knowledge on the Balinese alphabet to be able to read it properly.

Lontar manuscripts are not your regular reading materials; they are considered sacred items in the point of view of Hinduism, brought to humans by Goddess Saraswati and God Ganesha as a symbol of knowledge. That is the very reason why they must receive special treatment, and anyone treating them must adhere to a set of prescribed conducts, which is laid down in the manuscript in great detail, from the way it is picked up, opened, read, maintained, written on, and even erased when necessary. All of these acts must be done after chanting the incantation to gain a clear heart and mind.

English Translation by Riri Rafiani

*Lontar is a Balinese sacred manuscript written on a palm-leaf.



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