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Balinese Traditional Literature: Forgotten Jewel of Bali  

by on Tuesday, 13 February 2007One Comment | 3,672 views

Balinese dance, music, painting, sculpture, and drama are well known around the globe. Unfortunately, Balinese traditional literature does not enjoy so much attention and admiration, known only to cultural researchers and of course by the Balinese.


Bali possesses a rich and diverse literary heritage. Balinese traditional literature covers a wide variety of genres, ranging from folk tales and mythical stories in prose to epic poetry in different styles, from histories to dictionaries, from specialist manual to astronomical text, from magic formulae to moral treatises, from divination to agricultural practices from religious doctrine and philosophy to medicine.

The letters on lontar are carved with a sharp knife called pangrupak.

Balinese traditional literature is written in various languages such as Sanskrit, Old Javanese, Middle Javanese, and Literary Balinese. It is usually written on specially dried and treated palm leaves (lontar), the letters are carved with a sharp knife (pangrupak), and then rubbed with a charcoal dye to make them stand out against the leaves. Until now Balinese tend to use palm leaves (lontar) rather than papers as a medium to preserve the traditional literature. The palm leaves (lontar) give a sense of sacredness and Balinese tend to value highly what is inscribed on a palm leaves rather than written on a piece of paper.


Many Balinese traditional literatures especially the one that inscribe in palm leaves (lontar) are considered to be sacred and have magical power that can harm the owner if improperly or carelessly handled. A special ceremony is held for all lontar manuscripts on the anniversary (odalan) of the goddess of learning, Saraswati held once in each Balinese year of 210 days, in which all lontar manuscripts are taken out and blessed.

Balinese traditional literatures that are considered to be sacred are magic formulae (Kawisesan: guidance for achieving magical power and kaputusan: magic formulae), medicine (usadha), specialist manual (Dharma Pewayangan: manual for puppet master and Dharma Pemaculan: manual for farmer), Astronomical text and divination (Wariga), Genealogical and historical record (Babad). Although the genealogical and historical record (Babad) do not have any magical power but they are still considered to be sacred due to their importance in legitimizing the point of origin of a Balinese.


The Balinese traditional literature is perfectly woven into the Balinese artistic, ritual, and everyday life, and become an indispensable part that construct Balinese identity. The themes of various dances and music, endless paintings and sculptures, are taken from Balinese traditional folk tales, mythical stories, epic poetry or other Balinese traditional literatures. The sweet and elegant voice of pesantian (traditional vocal group) rehearsal, singing an excerpt from Balinese epic poetry (kakawin) is a daily evening entertainment all over Bali. and a religious ceremony will not be complete without the presence of this pesantian, singing a mesmerizing poetry to satisfy God and mortal.

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