Early Indonesian Scripts — Some Basics

Most of the writing systems used in Indonesia before the sixteenth century were derived from a script called Brahmi that was developed in South Asia c.300 BCE. The first inscriptions in Brahmi-type (or ‘Brahmic’) scripts appeared in Indonesia in the fourth century, and scripts related to or derived from this early script are still in use for certain purposes in Indonesia today. The Roman alphabet has taken over nearly everywhere and the Brahmic scripts are principally decorative, but the Balinese, Javanese, Sundanese, and Bugis scripts, at least, are still living writing systems. Scripts derived from the same Brahmi source are still used in South Asia, of course, including the Devanagari script used for Hindi and Sanskrit, as well as the Kannada, Bengali, and Tamil scripts (among plenty of others). The Thai, Burmese, and Khmer scripts are also Brahmic, although as Thai and Burmese (and other languages in mainland Southeast Asia) are tonal languages they differ significantly from the Indian and Indonesian scripts in having to incorporate tones.

In this post I’m going to outline in very general terms how Brahmic scripts worked in ancient and medieval Indonesia by looking at a late-medieval Javanese example.

A street sign in Bogor, Indonesia. The text is Indonesian; the script underneath is a modern form of Sundanese script developed in the 1990s but based on the Old Sundanese script used between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. The man whose name appears on the sign, Saleh Danasasmita, was a scholar of Old Sundanese. ‘Jalan’ just means ‘road’ (or ‘walk, ‘street’, etc.). Photo credit: https://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berkas:Street_name_sign_in_Bogor_uses_Roman_and_Sundanese_script.jpg

Brahmic scripts aren’t alphabets. The basic unit of the Brahmic scripts is actually a combination of a consonant and an inherent vowel /a/: there is no single sign for the sound /k/; there is instead a single sign for the sound /ka/. This means that Brahmic scripts are abugidas: syllabic writing systems that use diacritics to modify an inherent vowel instead of using separate vowel signs (like an alphabet) or ignoring vowels entirely in most words (like an abjad).

The basic sign — a combination of a consonant and an inherent vowel — is called an aksara in an Indonesian context. (Aksara means ‘letter’ in Indonesian, but when describing Indo-Malaysian Brahmic scripts it’s used a little differently.) These aksaras are modified by additional diacritics conventionally called sandhangan. Sandhangan characters take the form of smaller marks placed in various ways around the aksara — on top, underneath, to the left, or to the right of the main sign. In most Javanese and some Sumatran scripts there are additional signs called pasangan: these are mini versions of the aksaras, and they go underneath (or occasionally to the right of) an aksara to make a consonant cluster like /sw/ or /kt/. I won’t be looking at them here, but in any case they add an extra layer of complexity to Indonesian palaeography.

It’s confusing for novices — and it actually gets more complicated if you want to read the scholarly literature on these scripts as the traditional Javanese names for the sandhangan characters are used throughout (wulu, suku, tarung, wignyan, etc. — see e.g. the Wiki article on Javanese script for a complete set). But these scripts aren’t too tricky to read once you get used to them, and I’ll show you how they work a bit here, using an example from a script I’ve been learning from a fifteenth-century site in Central Java known as Candi Sukuh.

I refer to Sukuh fairly frequently because I’m fascinated by it. It’s not a typical medieval Indonesian site by any means. The script is suitable for a demonstration like this because all the characters are chunky and easy to make out. The characters protrude from the rock — they’re not just scratches in the rock. There are no pasangan characters. It’s a simple and weird; this script is found at only two sites now known as Sukuh and Ceto, both around Mount Lawu in Central Java. All images below are taken from the Leiden University Digital Collections with a few modifications.

I’m taking my examples from this section of inscribed rock on the back of a now-headless andesite statue of Garuḍa. This is the longest inscription at Sukuh, and it describes an attack by the ‘people of Medang’ on a town called Rajěg Wěsi (‘iron fence’).

In the next image you can see an aksara from the end of line 5 (highlighted). This aksara is <na>. It’s a peculiar shape for that syllable in an Indonesian script but I’m not teaching the writing system here, just illustrating principles, so don’t worry about that for now: just remember that this helmet-looking blob is an aksara pronounced /na/.


This aksara is actually part of the word kacaritané ‘a story is told’. You’ll notice that <na> doesn’t appear in the word, only <né>. Why? That little crooked mark before the <na> — a sandhangan character or diacritic — changes the quality of the inherent vowel from [a] to [e]:


This mark is conventionally called a taling. In all Indic scripts in Indonesia the taling appears before the aksara it modifies and it causes a change of <a →e>. You can see the same combination of (taling + <na>) here as well:

The next word along, however, uses the same diacritic in combination with two others. The word is woṅ ‘person, people’. Here’s how we get that reading.

First, this is the aksara <wa> — a syllabic character that the diacritics modify:

And surrounding this aksara <wa> is a sandhangan combination called taling tarung. The diacritic on the left is the taling that would normally give the sound [e] — the same one attached to the <na> aksara above. On the right is another sandhangan character called tarung which serves to lengthen the inherent vowel. When used on its own with an aksara it is read [a:]. Together, though, the taling and tarung represent <o>, which is counter-intuitive but, well, you get used to it:


Finally, the sandhangan character above the aksara <wa> is called the cecak, and it represents a velar nasal stop [ŋ] — the ‘ng’ sound in ‘sing’. The cecak is normally written <ṅ> in standard transcriptions of Old Javanese texts:

Put it all together and you’ve got the Old Javanese word woṅ ‘person, people’:

There are a lot more sandhangan characters in this and other Indo-Malaysian Brahmic writing systems, including one that cancels the inherent vowel (known in Javanese as the paten) and one that adds a final <h> to the syllable (the wignyan). But the basic principle of this script and most of the others in Indo-Malaysia before ~1600 is the same: the main characters are syllables (aksaras), most consisting of a consonant and an inherent vowel, that are modified by diacritics (sandhangan characters) that surround the main characters in various ways.

Nowadays the Roman alphabet is king in Indonesia as it is in most of the rest of the world — every major and regional language in Indonesia, Malaysia, New Guinea, Timor Leste, Brunei, and Singapore has a standard Roman transliteration system if it has any writing system at all. Javanese is written in the Roman script, as is Indonesian/Malay, and as are nearly all the languages of Indonesia these days. From the twelfth century the Perso-Arabic script was also used in writing Malay, Javanese, and Sundanese manuscripts and inscriptions, but only with Malay did the use of Jawi — as the Perso-Arabic variant for Malay is called — actually result in the decline and loss of the Brahmic writing systems that had been in use beforehand.

There’s a lot more to say about Indonesian Brahmic writing systems because they were extremely varied. The script I used as an example above was used at only two sites in total — it’s not known from anywhere else, and its shapes are peculiar and idiosyncratic. Contemporary inscriptions from elsewhere in Java used radically different scripts, and because these scripts were in use for over a thousand years before Perso-Arabic and Roman letters came into use, there’s enormous variety in the shapes of the aksaras and sandhangan characters. Nobody in the world knows all of the different varieties, and the mirror-handle script in particular is known by very few people. Nearly all of these scripts, however, work the way as I have outlined here, and if you internalise the principles then making sense of inscriptions in new scripts and idiosyncratic inscriptions is much easier.