UNESCO designates 8 September as International Literacy Day. This International Day is celebrated annually around the world with a variety of agendas, directly or indirectly related to literacy. The existence of letters is a proof of an advanced civilization.
Indonesia is rich in various scripts. Southern Sumatra, which includes four provinces of Lampung, South Sumatra, Bengkulu, and Jambi, is an area that still preserves old scripts. Mainly, three regions in Sumatra, namely Batak, Rejang, and Lampung, are still familiar with the scripts. However, the actual usage of old scripts was almost evenly distributed in Sumatra.
Before the Arabic-Malay script and Latin script entered Indonesia through traders and invaders, in the southern part of Sumatra the Ka-ga-nga script was used. The name refers to the first three characters in the system of letters. Other than that, there are other names such as the Incung script and the Ulu manuscript or Ulu script because the scripts are widely used in the upper reaches of the river or hulu in the interior of Sumatra. Whereas the script in Lampung is known as Had Lampung which is considered similar to that of Batak and Bugis.
Referring to a number of studies by linguistic experts, the culture of writing using the Ka-ga-nga script in southern Sumatra existed long before the era of the Srivijaya empire. According to James T. Collins, a professor and literary researcher, the use of Palawa characters in Sumatra, dates back to 600s until around 14th century.
The origin of the Ka-ga-nga script is from the Palawa script, the name of an area in South India. In the archipelago these characters have been through developments; Not exactly the same as the original scripts, the shapes have been modified. The script developed and reached its peak circa the 12th century. This proves that, in the past, the civilization of southern Sumatra was already advanced. The people of southern Sumatra at that time were able to read and write.
There are quite a number of old manuscripts which have been found today. The manuscripts are generally written on bark, bamboo blades, buffalo horns, rattan, paper, with stamps or chop. A tombstone with the Ka-ga-nga script written on it has been found on the Lampung-Bengkulu border. The tombstone is gone now. Luckily, a Dutchman managed to copy the script by writing it on paper.
Manuscripts written in Ka-ga-nga scripts are book-liked folded bark. To read it, the folds must be stretched lengthwise. The length of the bark varies. Some even reach almost two meters. When we look at it, the shape of the script is pointed, some are curved, inclined to the right at a 45-degree angle. The tool used to write it is made of palm wood in the form of a sharp knife or stick. These manuscripts are unique in the sense that the ink used for writing can withstand the test of time as they are hundreds of years old.
The contents of the text vary. They are literary poems, advice, incantations, herbal remedies, farming procedures, social ethics, to religion. A number of symbols in some manuscripts have not been closely studied by their functions and meanings. Over time and because of the growing need, letters and punctuations were added in some areas of Sumatra.
So far there has not been a lot of research, documentation, and studies conducted on literary texts. P. Voorhoeve is one of the Dutch researchers who researches and documents the Ka-ga-nga script. His studies often become references to the manuscripts and scripts of Ka-ga-nga in southern Sumatra. In addition, the first study of Lampung script was carried out by Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk and published in Les Manuscrits Lampong (1868). Until now there has been no study on Lampung script in the form of book.
The Ka-ga-nga script is proof of past intellectualism. For a long time, in several municipalities and districts in southern Sumatra, the local governments have issued regulations in an effort to conserve Ka-ga-nga script as part of the local cultural heritage. One such effort, for example, is requiring street signs to use the Ka-ga-nga characters under Latin script. To date, some regions have also made writing of the Ka-ga script as local content requirement in schools.
Besides being kept in private homes and local museums, manuscripts of southern Sumatra are also stored in a number of museums and libraries overseas such as in the Netherlands, the United States, Denmark, England, Ireland, Germany and France. From the results of digging for information data, it was found that the oldest manuscript in Ka-ga-nga script from Lampung is now stored in the British Library.
Even in southern Sumatra, we can find many people, mainly the traditional adat and noble leaders, have these old manuscripts in their treasured possessions as inheritance from their ancestors. Unfortunately, not many can see them as the manuscripts are considered sacred that only a handful of people can see. As a result, many of these manuscripts have not been transliterated and their contents are not known. Further more, only very few people today are able to read the Ka-ga-nga script. The majority of people who can still read the script are the elderly. Two of the most well-known of these few is Rapanie Igama in Palembang and Suwandi in Lubuklinggau.
Fortunately, a number of parties today have begun to take concrete and strategic steps to save the Ka-ga-nga script from disappearing. Efforts to document manuscripts written in Ka-ga-nga script continue to be carried out, either by the government or independent institutions, with the goal to prevent the Ka-ga-nga manuscripts from disappearing.
Moreover, in the past decade, there has been a movement of cultural and historical enthusiasts in southern Sumatra to explore, preserve, and revive the use of the Ka-ga-nga scripts. Supported by technology, some even created Ka-ga-nga script application that can be accessed on computers or mobile devices. Thus, the heritage script and folk literature becomes up-to-date – adapting to the new progress.
Author: Arman AZ