Nipah or Gebang? A Philological and Codicological Study Based on Sources from West Java

Aditia Gunawan


This article takes up the question of writing supports, the physical media on which texts were recorded on the island of Java before paper and printing were introduced, with special focus on the western region and the Old Sundanese tradition. In the past, two types of indigenous writing materials prepared from the leaves of palm trees were identified, one known among scholars in the Dutch tradition as ‘nipah’, the other as ‘lontar’. While lontar is a common, widely used designation for the type of palm-leaf writing material used in the vast majority of surviving manuscripts, the nipah is rare and not commonly thought of as a writing material outside of scholarly circles. In an effort to understand the place of nipah in the tradition, the author turns to descriptions of writing materials in old written as well as oral sources and concludes that the terminology used there is at odds with the accepted idea that the second, rare type of leaf used in the palm leaf manuscript tradition came from the nipah palm. Instead, it was prepared from another palm species called gebang. At the same time, the author provides new insight into indigenous conceptualizations that differentiate the types of texts recorded on lontar and gebang materials.

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