Thursday, February 14, 2013

Serat Damar Wulan

Serat Damar Wulan (MSS Jav 89) one of the most celebrated Javanese manuscripts, has now been fully digitised by the British Library, and is freely available for view at It is one of a number of Southeast Asian manuscripts that have been digitised with funding from the Estate of Henry Ginsburg, former curator of Thai at the British Library. Others   are the Serat Selaras (MSS Jav 28), a few Burmese and Vietnamese mansuscripts, and a Malay Qur'an, probably from Kelantan or Patani.

The Damar Wulan manuscript is fully illustrated, with 153 colour illustrations, showing courtly life, pageantry, warfare and the everyday life of Javanese. Some of the images are en profile in the manner of wayang kulit, but there is also much realistic detail.

The manuscript was collected in Cirebon in 1815 by Lt.-Col. Raban, former Resident of Cirebon, but an English language inscription at the manuscript's end reports that it was already 200 years old when collected. This might be a bit exaggerated, but it is well-thumbed and shows many signs of repeated reading.

Serat Damar Wulan is well known to scholars already. Its illustrations were the subject of an article in BKI published in 1953 (available online at and a number of its images, including the wonderful illustration of a topeng performance above, were published in 1991 in Annabel Teh Gallop and Bernard Arps, Golden Letters, and subsequently widely reproduced. (One of these images, showing a text being read, was included in Nancy Florida's monograph Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future).

The tale the manuscript tells, the story of Damar Wulan, has been described in the only English language edition of the story to date, a telling for children by Lim Yoe Djin, as 'the most popular legend of Indonesia'. It is a story that has been told and retold in many theatrical forms - wayang krucil, langendriya, kentrung etc. But so far very little work has been done on it by scholars. 

The scanning of the manuscript has been done at a very high level of resolution (90 MB per page!) which allows incredible capacity to zoom in. I am talking now with Annabel Teh Gallop about what to do with the manuscript now that it has been digitised? Should a scholarly edition be produced, with a transliteration of the Javanese original and possibly translation into English and/or Indonesia? Might something more innovative be produced out of it, in the style of a motion comic? 

It is tempting to build a big research project around this manuscript, one of the crown jewels of Javanese visual culture in my estimation. 

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