Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Sastra Lama dan Aksara Batak

Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Published for the History Department, National University of Singapore
Volume 32 - Issue 02 - June 2001

Warisan Leluhur: Sastra Lama dan Aksara Batak
[The Heritage of the Ancestors: Ancient Batak Literature and Scripts]
Jakarta: École Française d'Extrême-Orient and Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, 1999. Pp. 158. Maps, Tables, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index [In Indonesian].


In this work Uli Kozok presents a practical guide for researchers hoping to read and translate Batak texts, as well as to make it possible for more to be written (by hand or word processor) using Batak scripts. Given the amount of graphic variation, the lack of adequate existing guides to the language and the simple fact that the scripts are used rarely now, Kozok faces a difficult task.

Like many writing systems in the archipelago, the Batak scripts ultimately derive from the Indian Pallava script. By examining the variations in Batak scripts, Kozok confirms earlier suggestions that in general writing among the Batak began in the south and spread north. The five main Batak subgroups (Karo, Toba, Simalungun, Angkola-Mandailing and Pakpak) share a common linguistic heritage and in practice significant borrowing of terms takes place, but each is distinct. So too there are five main variations of the Batak script, but as with the spoken language clear boundaries between them are not always readily apparent. A substantial part of Warisan Leluhur is devoted to describing and displaying the many variations in how Batak letters have been written and printed in different periods, places, and publications. For this it is particularly valuable and will surely save future students of Batak texts from spending enormous amounts of time puzzling through existing variations. Kozok’s analysis is based on careful examination of some 400 Batak texts inscribed on bark, bamboo, bone, or paper, half of which are Karo Batak, and the remainder Simalungun, Toba and Angkola-Mandailing Batak (only a handful of Pakpak-Dairi texts have been located). Three-quarters of extant Batak texts are concerned with magic, spells, and the spirit world (hadatuon) and were written and preserved by dukun (traditional healers), typically on bark. A second set of texts includes letters written by or for rulers, most commonly spelling out the dire consequences of stealing from or otherwise offending the issuer. Third, among the Karo, Simalungun and Angkola-Mandailing in particular, are found lamentations that record the writer’s grief at exile, the death of loved ones or unrequited love. Additional sections of this short book describe the physical characteristics of bark, bone, and bamboo texts, the processes of making them, and the main genres most common to each medium. Brief segments introduce readers to writing Batak letters and using diacritical marks properly, as well as transliterating and translating short Batak language passages. These few pages and exercises cannot function as a true primer, but they do convey the demanding work facing a student of Batak texts. Interestingly, Kozok has created a set of Batak computer fonts for typing Karo, Pakpak, Simalungun, Toba, and Mandailing. They are available for purchase (and can be viewed at Kozok’s website: and may well have a greater impact on the survivability of Batak than Warisan Leluhur itself. The fate of Batak texts is a familiar one. Like many other literary traditions throughout the archipelago, significant numbers of Batak texts collected by missionaries, colonial civil servants and others lie unused in European archives, perhaps as many as 2000 in total. Some texts are incomplete, damaged, and poorly preserved. Catalogues from many of these European collections are available, while descriptions of collections in Sumatra or Java are becoming available only gradually. With over 90% of Batak texts located overseas and thus inaccessible to most Indonesians, often these collections have only been examined in depth by one or two Dutch language specialists (taalambtenaar), to whom we owe a heavy debt for a lifetime of work. Even so, in many European archives and museums Batak manuscripts sit uncatalogued and even uncounted. The fate of Batak texts and writing in the wake of modernization, colonialism, and state advocacy of Bahasa Indonesia highlight the different social world that these texts originally inhabited. Readers interested in this world gain only titbits from this book. Questions such as, what cultural force did Batak attribute to writing?; what was the relationship between literacy and social power among the Batak?; did this literary heritage shape Batak reactions to such processes as modernity, religious conversion, and nationalism?; will find no answers here. This is regrettable, for despite Kozok’s clear intent to offer a practical guide for those hoping to read and produce Batak texts, practical considerations cannot easily be separated from the social and cultural world of the Batak. Nevertheless, Warisan Leluhur fills an important gap for which students of Batak will be grateful.

William Cummings University of South Florida

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