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July 04, 2011

Lontar Palm and Javanese Literature



Lontar palm or fan palm is a palm tree that can endure long dry periods and grows very slowly. This tree flowers twice a year, once at the beginning of the dry season and once at the beginning of the wet. It's only climbed in the dry because the trunk is too slippery otherwise. Once it produces a juice, it remains productive for 70-100 years, producing an average of 600 liters of juice a year. Besides palm juice (tuak) and syrup (gula aren) for alcoholic drinks and sweetening, this palm also provides raw materials for making many everyday articles. Its large fan-shaped leaves are used in roofing, to make baskets, water buckets, sleeping mats, hats, footwear, musical instruments (Sasando Rote), bags and cases for sirih. Leaf stalks 1-1,5 m long are used to make fences and leaf stalk fibers are utilized to make harnesses and strings. Trunks are used for house and bridge building, horse stalls, cowsheds and pig sties. 
Lontar Literature
Java has a rich literature mostly in the form of old legends incribed on lontar (palm leaf) documents, themselves small master pieces of the engraver's art. These little books record old Indonesian myths, history, and hindu epics of Rama and Sita. They have been made out of this palm leaf for centuries, the text and illustrations engraved with a fine stylus and then darkened by rubbing the soot of burned palm-leaf spines into the groves. Then the individual palm leaves are cut into strips and sandwiched between pieces of ornamental wood. These inch wide "book" fit neatly into narrow wooden boxes carved and decorated with animal head or made completely in the shape of animals. Each box hold several books, a 'volume'. This whole procedure is still used by lontar copyists today. It's thought that the curlique appearance of many ancient Asian scripts came about because scribes were forced to inscribe straight lines on the ribbed surface of lontar palm strips so as not to split them. 

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