Lontar is the most iconic and unique manifestations of tangible and intangible cultural heritage preserved on Bali from the past through to the present day. The literature and religious lore of Balinese and ancient Javanese traditions have been reproduced through the centuries via a learned tradition of writing and reading texts on lontar.
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.
Traditionally, lontar have been handled by the Brahmanical or aristocratic elites, religious and ritual specialists, folk healers known as balian, and even cultured commoners. The largest collections of such manuscripts have been found in Brahmanical compounds and royal palaces, but many common households, especially in the northern and eastern provinces, often hold a few lontar. According to one estimate, there may be tens of thousands of them in Bali alone.
Lontar are inscribed with a special tool called pengerupak. It is made of iron, with its tip sharpened in a trangular shape so it can make both thick and thin inscriptions. There are two types of pengerupak, one for writing and one for drawing.
The subjects that are dealt with in the lontar cover a variety of aspects of human life. These can be classified as follows:
1. Weda lontar (Holy Books), written in Sanskrit, Old Javanese and Balinese
o Mantra, incantations originating from Java and Bali
o Kalpasastra, lontar dealing with religious rituals
2. Agama lontar – religious rules, laws, regulations, ethics and morals
o Palakerta, dealing with rules and regulations. These can also be found in the books of Dharmasastra, Kerta Sima, and Awig-awig (written and unwritten customary village laws)
o Sasana, guidelines for ethics and morals
o Niti, dealing with juridical systems
3. Wariga lontar (astronomy and astrology)
o Wariga, dealing with astronomy and astrology
o Tutur and Upasdesa, dealing with spiritual science of the universe
o Kanda, dealing with language, mythology, architecture, and other special subjects
4. Usada lontar (homeopathy and healing)
o Usada deals with homeopathy and healing, such as Bodhakcapi, Dalem, Kuda, and others
5. Itahasa lontar (epics)
o Parwa, epics in prose form
o Kakawin, epics based on old Indian rhythms
o Kindung, literature in Balinese, composed with a macepat rhythm, e.g. Sinom and Pangkur
6. Babad lontar (history and genealogy)
o Pamancangah, dealing with genealogy
o Stories with a historical aspect, such as Panji Wijaya Krama and Rangga-Lawe, covering the period of the Majapahit Kingdom up to the rebellion of Rangga-Lawe
o Stories of the falling of the Kingdoms in song form, such as Rusak Buleleng
7. Tantri lontar (stories and notes)
o Tantra Kamandala, stories from ancient Indian literature, written in Sanskrit
o Satua Pengatihan Bali, stories containing Tantric influences or indigenuous Balinese.
o Surat Pengeling-eling, notes written by Royalty and scholars.
8. Lelampahan lontar (performing arts)
o Stories from the performing arts, such as Gambuh, Arja, etc.
9. Prasi lontar (illustrated lontar)
The illustrations on these lontar are deried from wayang (shadow puppet plays). The wayang drawings on these lontars can be classified into five groups, based on the stories they tell:
1. Kekawin, Ramayana, Bharata Yuddha, Bomakawya, Arjunawiwawa, a.o.
Stories from ‘Kekawin’ take the classical form, which is called Wayang Purba in Northern Bali, stories derived from ‘Kidung’ take the Wayang Panji form, and stories from ‘Parwa’ take the Wayang Parba form.
2. Kidung, Jayendria, Damputi-Lelangan, Tantri, Brama Pasangupati, a.o.
3. Parwa-parwa, such as Adiparwa
4. Cerita Tantri, telling the story of King Asmaryadapala’s experiences with Dyah Tantri.
5. Animal Fables
Bali has museum of lontar which called Gedung Kertya Museum. Gedong Kirtya Museum located in veteran street Singaraja, or 10 km from Lovina Beach. Gedong Kirtya Museum collected the copies and preserves thousands of lontar (manuscripts made of palm leaf), “prasati” (transcriptions on metal plates) and books which contain various 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.