The word ‘lontar‘ is derived from two Old Javanese words, being ‘ron‘ (leaf) and ‘tal‘ (rontal tree). The word ‘rontal’ therefore means ‘leaf of the rontal tree’. The rontal tree belongs to the family of palm trees (Borassus fabellifer). Due to the shape of its leaves, which are spread like a fan, these trees are also known as ‘fan trees’. The leaves of the rontal tree have always been used for many purposes, such as for the making of plaited mats, palm sugar wrappers, water scoops, ornaments, ritual tools, and writing material.
Gedong Kirtya is a manuscript museum in Singaraja, north Bali, which houses a vast collection of thousands of old Balinese manuscripts inscribed on lontar palm-leaves. These lontar books cover subjects of literature, mythology, history and religious works and are some of the oldest written works on the island.
The manuscripts record ancient knowledge and wisdom of older Balinese generations and are historical references of all Balinese daily activities, rituals and art. Singaraja houses this only lontar museum in the world. Formerly it was referred to as the Liefrinck van der Tuuk library, named after its Dutch founders.
The lontar derives its name from the local word for the Asian Palmyra palm, or Borassus flabellifer, which grows in dry regions. The leaves are further dried and used as pages upon which writings are carved into by the aid of a special sharp-tipped blade called a temutik.
The pages are bound by woven strands between two pieces of wood into an order known collectively as a lontar book. These ‘books’ have long been used as references among the Balinese people for knowledge and local wisdom, encompassing religion, rites of passage, and traditional shamanism or medicine.
The forms of lontar are found throughout the islands of Indonesia, from Java, Lombok to other parts of Indonesia. Most of the lontar date back to the 13th century and are mainly written in the ‘Kawi’ script in old Balinese, old Javanese and Sanskrit.
Gedong Kirtya was built in 1928 as a repository of these manuscripts with collections coming from various islands other than from Bali itself. The volumes are kept in special wooden boxes and sorted under different categories, from Vedic renditions and mantra hymns, religion, wariga or Balinese astronomy, itihasa or epic tales and poems, babad or Balinese genealogy, to tantri or folklore.
Some are authentic and original pieces, sourced from the royal courts throughout Bali. Others are copies and even feature prasi art or accompanying illustrations.
The unique Gedung Kirtya lontar library annex museum in Singaraja collects, copies and preserves thousands of lontar, and also “prasati” (transcriptions on metal plates) and books which deal with a variety of aspects of human life, such as religion, architecture, philosophy, genealogy, homeopathy, “usada” (medical manuscripts), black magic, and so on, in the Balinese, Kawi (old Javanese) and the Dutch, English and German language.