Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Niccolo de' Conti (and others) on the Lontar Palm

      Yesterday I put up a post about Niccolo de' Conti, one of the more interesting Europeans to visit Indonesia before the sixteenth century. His account is useful because he wrote about things no one else noticed, and so we know he wasn't copying any other European travellers. Unlike Odoric of Pordenone and even Antonio Pigafetta, he doesn't seem to have been influenced much by Marco Polo (except in a few details). 

      De' Conti seems to be - I may be wrong - the first European to talk about lontar and durian, two of the more famous botanical products of Indonesia. He talks about lontar in the context of southern India, and calls it tal, but the plant was also used for many purposes in Indonesia, including most of the same uses to which it was put in India. Durian is more explicitly Indonesian in Bracciolini's text, but I'll talk about that another time.

      Lontar is Borassus flabellifer, a sugar-palm with a reasonably thick trunk and foliage that bursts out from the top like a firework. They tend to be prominent trees, growing where other trees wouldn't on parched ground, and their sheer utility means that they're often deliberately planted. Their timber is used in construction; the leaves can be made into buckets, ritual objects, even clothing; and the sugar can be collected on a regular basis (often in a leaf bucket), being used to accompany meals, to ferment into alcoholic drinks, and to thicken into a nutritious syrup which can in turn be used to feed pigs. Gula jawa, or 'Java sugar', is sugar/jaggery derived from the lontar, and it's important in a lot of modern Indonesian dishes. This is a plant with a large cultural impact.
Lontar trees (Borassus flabellifer) in Sri Lanka. h/t AntanO
      So important is the lontar in parts of eastern Indonesia that the anthropologist James Fox wrote a classic book, Harvest of the Palm (1977), wholly about palm economies and the role of the lontar in food production and cultural life on Roti, Sawu, and Timor. On Roti (and now on Timor, which has a large Rotinese population), a musical instrument called a sesandu/sasando is made from lontar leaves (see below). In addition:
After a Rotinese has died, a lontar leaf is split, folded, and knotted to form a three-pronged fork-like object called a maik or ola. This lontar leaf represents his spirit and is added to a cluster of similar leaves inside the house. (Fox 1977:26)
        Many Rotinese were once (I don't think it's the case anymore) almost wholly reliant for sustenance on the products of the lontar and the gewang, another similar palm. Tapped lontar trees were hugely important in food production, to the extent that foreign observers (notably mentioned in Multatuli's Max Havelaar) believed Rotinese people to drink rather than eat their meals. They built houses and constructed coffins from the wood and leaves, wore woven lontar-leaf clothing, and made tools for collecting sugar or herding animals from their trees. Importantly, lontars could be converted into protein by feeding the dry sugar to pigs. Fox sums it up: can literally be said of the Rotinese and Savunese that they are fed, equipped, attired, buried, and remembered after their decease by the products of their palms. (Fox 1977:27)
A sasando from the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam. h/t Collectie Tropenmuseum
        One important use to which the lontar wasn't put in Roti and eastern Indonesia in general was writing. Most of the manuscripts of pre-1500 works from (western) Indonesia, and many from India, were written on palm leaves, and one of the reasons we have so few of these manuscripts is that the leaves can be damaged quite easily when dry. It also means that we know the surviving texts were considered to be valuable and important because they would have had to be copied on a regular basis.

      Writing is one of the uses of the lontar mentioned by de' Conti. In Bracciolini's text:
...arbor quoque tal nomine, folus permagnis, in quibus scribunt: nam papiri usus per uniuersam Indiam abest, excepta Combaita civitate...
     Paraphrase: 'There's a tree called tal with big leaves that are used for writing; this paper is used throughout India [probably meaning Greater India], with the exception of the city of Khambat.'
A Balinese version of the Arjunawiwaha, an eleventh-century kakawin composed at the court of Airlangga. It was written on lontar leaves. h/t Meursault2004

       Helen Creese talks about lontar writing in her superb 2004 book, Women of the Kakawin World, probably the best work on gender in ancient Indonesia that we're ever likely to get, and also one of the best recent-ish books on ancient Indonesian culture overall. The subject of the book is how women and sex are portrayed in kakawin literature, a style of Old Javanese poetry in which many of the most popular works were composed, but it touches on a number of other areas of ancient Javanese and Balinese cultural life. This section is worth quoting in full:
      It is probable that palm leaf manuscripts, which were commonly used throughout India and Southeast Asia for writing before paper became available, were known in Java and Bali throughout the history of kakawin literature. There are references to palm leaves (ron) in inscriptions from the late Central Javanese period, and to palm leaves or boards (ripta) in East Javanese inscriptions from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Orthographically, the scripts found in Javanese and Balinese inscriptions from the mid-eighth century display a cursive style that may have developed for ease of writing on a palm leaf surface. There are also lontar-shaped books and single lontar leaves for brief messages depicted in a number of temple reliefs in Central and East Java between the ninth and fourteenth centuries. Although paper was introducted in Java and other parts of the Indonesian archipelago from the sixteenth century onward, in Bali and Lombok paper was not used widely until colonialism had made a direct impact in the late nineteenth century. Palm leaves continued to be used for letters and notes, for charms, and for memoranda, censuses, and aspects of village administration until the end of the nineteenth century. Curiously enough, there is no mention of lontar as a writing surface in kakawin texts themselves. Instead, kakawin poets are most frequently depicted using a wooden writing board (karas) and a pencil of soft stone (tanah), which could be sharpened and then blunted again in the quest for perfect poetic form. Courtiers most frequently communicate their feelings of love by scratching with a fingernail on a pudak - the petal sheath of the pandanus (pandan) flower. (Creese 2004:13,15)
      Finally, just to clarify: the Central Javanese period is the 'classical' period of Java, when Borobudur, Prambanan, and other candi were built in Central Java. This period is considered to have ended in the 10th century with the rise of Kediri and later Singasari and Majapahit near the Brantas River in East Java, hence the division between Central and East Javanese periods. West Java, home of the Sundanese language and its speakers (and also significant enclaves of Javanese and Malay speakers), is normally treated separately from this classification.

More from De' Conti next time - the durian.
Creese, H. 2004. Women of the kakawin world. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe.
Fox, J. J. 1977. Harvest of the palm. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


  1. Amazing information about the uses of Lontar in Indonesia in earlier times. Good to know about the concept of a palm economy. We think that Lontar is the Talipot palm or Corypha umbraculifera, Can you please share with us information about manuscript writing in Indonesia and also the system of medicine practiced by the people of Indonesia. Please reply to
    Thank you very much.

    1. Lontar isn't Corypha, it's Borassus - wrong genus. I'm not sure about any medical uses of the plant, so I've got nothing for you there. If you want the best up-to-date information on manuscript writing in Indonesia, then there's a lovely book you can buy called Illuminations: manuscript traditions of Indonesia by Ann Kumar and John McGlynn. That's probably your best shot. Otherwise, any of the texts I've used in this blogpost are good.


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