A post by Grace Neveu and Jake Johnson at Archive.org reports on a project to digitize all of Balinese literature (as this brief notice says, “They are in the running for being the first culture to have their entire literature go online, even current writings and lectures”):

The documents are centuries-old lontar palm leaves incised on both sides with a sharp knife and then blackened with soot…. The writings consist of ordinary texts to sacred documents on religion, holy formulas, rituals, family genealogies, law codes, treaties on medicine (usadha), arts and architecture, calendars, prose, poems and even magic. The estimated 50,000 lontars are kept by members of the Puri (palace) family and high priests to ordinary families. Some are carefully kept as family heritages while others are left in dirty and dusty corners of houses. Digitizing the lontars makes them available to scholars and students and salvages the documents from getting destroyed by insects or humidity, as many already have.

At the link you can see images of lontars, watch a video of a performance, and follow further links. Thanks, Yoram!


  1. They are made of leaves of a species of palm. You strip the leaflets off the larger branch and trim them. You get a “leaf” that is long and narrow. Then you start writing your text onto the leaf, while it is still green, with a stylus. It cuts just barely into the surface and that cut darkens. You continue onto the reverse sied. Then you rub both sides with soot to make the letters stand out. Then you bundle the leaves into packets – you can string them together to keep them in order, or just number them. The leaves dry well and hold up even in a humid climate. This style of book was the norm in India (and spread to Indonesia), which is why even in Tibet where they use paper for their books, the pages are long and narrow.
    Maybe content is magical but the process of making the book isn’t.

  2. marie-lucie says

    That technique must be reflected in the legend of the origin of the Korean alphabet (the hangul): having created this alphabet, the king had the characters written in honey on the leaves of a tree, in order to attract caterpillars which would eat both the honey and the leaf surface underneath, so that the gullible people would think that the characters had appeared on the leaves by magic.

  3. M-L, that chimes with the myth of how Chinese characters came into being, that they are derived from the lines in blocks of raw jade.
    The difference between the techniques is that there was never any mystery to anyone how the palm leaf books were written and made.
    I think writing carries a lot more weight in China than in India. The spoken form of language is what matters in India, as in making a prayer effectual or whatever. In China people tend to think of the written form as the essence of the word and the pronunication as provisional and secondary, except maybe in personal names.

  4. marie-lucie says

    The difference between the [Balinese and Korean] techniques is that there was never any mystery to anyone how the palm leaf books were written and made.
    The Korean legend is about the origin of the hangul, not the origin of books.
    The Korean king (or the people responsible for the legend) was familiar with (Chinese) writing, found on sheets of paper but also on largish flat natural objects – the earliest Chinese writing is found on the ventral parts of tortoise shells, used for divination. The birch bark manuscripts of (I think) medieval Ukraine are another example of writing on thin flat objects (perhaps in imitation of Chinese paper, which may have been known even though the technique for making it was not).
    In China people tend to think of the written form as the essence of the word
    The fact that the same written form can have several pronunciations depending on the “dialect” would encourage this interpretation. English or French speakers also tend to share this view in their own languages since the sound-to-spelling correspondences are often not obvious.

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