Eternal Knowledge

Precious Javanese manuscripts are being restored and digitised through the combined efforts of a team of German and Indonesian scholars to ensure their preservation for future generations. By Anett Keller

Bilingual collection of hadiths from 1856 (photo: Anett Keller)
Tolerance between the religions, revealed in Java's historic manuscripts: a bilingual collection of hadiths, in Arabic and Javanese, from 1856

​​Muhammad Wildan is sitting with a book on his knee, its pages crumpled and yellowed with age. Slowly, the Arabic lecturer from the State Islamic University of Yogyakarta (UIN) traces the script with his finger, first the Arabic, then, below it, the Javanese. The book, a bilingual collection of hadiths, dates from 1856. Its pages are worm-eaten and tattered, some of them almost falling from their binding.

The Sonobudoyo Museum, located at the northern end of the Sultan's Palace in Yogyakarta in Indonesia, is home to more than 1000 historical manuscripts. Rather inconspicuous in appearance and stacked on old wooden shelves, they are a priceless cultural treasure. "Many researchers come here," says Wildan, "people interested in studying Javanese history. To do this, they need to have a look at the original manuscripts."

But this high demand from scholars as well as the great age of some of the manuscripts takes its toll. "Restoration is a major problem," Wildan explains. "We simply don't have the experts in this field and nowhere near enough technical equipment."

Symbiotic relationship between religions

Wildan is standing next to a huge scanner sporting a "University of Leipzig" sticker. Since 2009, the German university has been supporting the restoration, cataloguing and digitisation of old manuscripts from the Sonobudoyo Museum, and two sultanate palaces – the neighbouring Yogyakarta Palace and the Surakarta Palace. The Oriental Institute of the University of Leipzig (OIL) is one of the oldest established Arab studies institutes in Europe.

photo: Anett Keller
Herculean task: Muhammad Wildan, Arabic lecturer from the State Islamic University of Yogyakarta

​​"Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, but Muslims remain very much under-represented in Western media," says Thoralf Hanstein, OIL project coordinator, by way of explanation for his institute's interest in the project.

The spread of Islam through Indonesia from the 14th century was a largely peaceful phenomenon, one that took place via the trade routes and through the influence of Sufi teachers such as the celebrated Wali Songo (Nine Saints). They also employed the art of woodcarving and the Javanese shadow theatre (Wayang Kulit) to put across their message.

A strong symbiotic relationship still exists today between the Islamic faith, to which 85 per cent of Indonesians belong, and local animistic traditions as well as with the heritage of the former Hindu-Buddhist ruling dynasties. The tolerance between the religions that we find revealed in the old manuscripts from the sultanate period is something many other religions in the world could learn from according to Hanstein of OIL.

Catastrophic storage and handling

The project will see the most important collections in central Java examined for the purposes of restoration and conservation. Backup copies of these will then be created by means of full digitization. Finally, the catalogued manuscripts will be made accessible on the Internet with the help of an online database. This will also be the first time that original old Javanese manuscripts have been entered into a database.

photo source: Wikipedia
Peaceful spread of Islam: Muslim sufi missionaries employed the art Wayang Kulit</i>, the Javanese shadow theatre, to put across their message. Pictured: A Wayang Kulit performance in Java, circa 1890

​​"The storage and handling of original manuscripts in Indonesia is, unfortunately, often quite catastrophic," says Hanstein. Storage rooms usually have no air-conditioning, are sometimes insect-infested, and library staff are given too little training in the handling and conservation of the fragile material. "Training in restoration just doesn't exist in Indonesia," Hanstein says. "With the exception of a few colleagues who have experience in other countries, most people here are self-taught and sometimes, unfortunately, do more harm than good."

As a result of this situation, the project has not been restricted to the training of the conservators alone, library staff, too, have been included.

Digitisation against natural disasters

A similar cooperation has already taken place in Aceh in Sumatra. The devastating tsunami in 2004 provided a dramatic reminder of just how urgent the need to permanently preserve these ancient writings is, with countless manuscripts being irretrievably lost in that disaster.

Mosque standing after the 2004 tsunami (photo: AP)
A cultural heritage forever lost in the tsunami's angry floods: The natural catastrophe of 2004 provided a dramatic reminder of just how urgent the need to permanently preserve these ancient writings is

​​The manuscripts in the collections of the sultans of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, too, have as yet no duplicates or modern digital backup copies.

For the collectors and scholars the worry is that a natural disaster such as an earthquake, hurricane, fire or even an eruption of the nearby Mount Merapi volcano might occur and destroy the manuscripts.

Human error

Through their work on cataloguing and presentation on the Internet, those involved in the project are endeavouring to lay the foundation for the next generation of researchers. The sultans' collections are, after all, testimony to the spread of Islam in Indonesia as well as to its coexistence with other religions. "There are very many traditional heroic epics in the collections at the Kraton Palace in Yogyakarta which have their origins in the pre-Islamic period," says project coordinator Hanstein.

For the history and culture of the sultans' courts, too, the manuscripts represent a priceless treasure house for scholary research. Pardiyono, a slim man with glasses has worked in the museum for 20 years.

He is very enthusiastic about the knowledge hidden away in the books on everything from astronomy to literature. He is happy that digitisation will mean an end to him having to hand over "his treasures" to strangers.

The greatest enemies these books have are people, explains project coordinator Muhammad Wildan of the UIN, referring to some of the rough treatment often meted out to the old works in the museum's reading room. A glance around the shelves makes one thing clear: the keepers of this cultural heritage are going to have their work cut out for them for quite some time to come. Along the stairs towards the museum's exit lie stacks of thousands of yellowing newspapers, languishing in the humid tropical air.

Anett Keller

© 2011

Editors: Nimet Seker, Lewis Gropp/

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