When a traditional script falls farther and farther out of use, it often survives, like a plant surviving in a single patch of soil, in one particular usage. For the Lota script for the Ende language of south central Flores in Indonesia, that very specific usage was, or perhaps is, in circumcision ritual.
Let’s let Maria Matildis Banda of the Faculty of Letters, Udayana University, Denpasar, Bali, take up the tale in her article “Lota Characters in Ende, Flores.”
In 1993 she conducted a study in Flores to find Lota Ende manuscripts, which had traditionally been written on wunu koli, or palm leaf. (The word lota is related to lontara, just as the lota script is related to the lontara script of the Bugis.) Now, however, they were written on paper. She found twenty-one such manuscripts, which dealt with kinship relations, marriage, letters addressed to children, earthquakes, and circumcision.
Almost all were in the form of poems called woi, or mourning poems. Each manuscript was made up of a single sheet, written on one side without margins. She reports:
“In general, the Ende manuscript is used when the ritual of circumcision is performed. First, those who perform the ritual ask the writer and reader [that is, someone who recites the poem] to write down the biography and the family situation of the boy who will be circumcised in the form of what is referred to as woi, the mourning narrative poem. The woi is always written in the Ende lota characters. It is read before a Moslem ceremony is performed.
“Second, the relatives who take part in making the ritual successful come to the house of the boy whom will be circumcised bringing rice, sugar and the other things needed for the ritual. Before what they bring is given, the woi is recited. It generally contains the information why the relatives come, why the two families are related, the prayers that the ritual will be well performed, and the sadness they have ever had. The woi is always recited in such a sad tone that those who listen to it will cry. When such a ritual is performed, not only one family comes with their woi but more than one. In this opportunity, the listeners may evaluate which woi and reader are the best. The best reader may raise his family in such a ritual and their socio-cultural environment.
“The woi manuscript they bring is usually rolled up and inserted in the beak of [a] bird made of woven palm leaves. The beak is made open so that the manuscript can be inserted in it. Such a bird is put on rice or another thing brought for the ritual….
“Such a [process] happened until the end of 1950s. Based on what was stated by Shoria and Musa Arif Abdullah, the manuscripts used in every ritual of circumcision were not necessarily documented. The ritual would be performed even if no manuscript was available. This fact shows that the tradition of the lota manuscript has not been developed in the socio-cultural activities of the Ende ethnic group.
“Nowadays, the woi tradition in the ritual of circumcision and other rituals is still maintained. Those who can read the woi are referred to as ata mbeo lota (those who are able to read the lota).”
Sadly, fewer and fewer people can read the lota. A subsequent research team in 2007/2008 found it “highly difficult” to find anyone who was able to recite the woi; a further investi9gation in 2013 found only one person.
The local government of Ende in general and the related institutions in particular have not paid any attention to the existence of the Ende characters and manuscripts since 1991, she concludes, and “It can be stated that now the lota Ende characters and manuscripts are ‘getting extinct’ if not ‘having been extinct.’”
Ridwan Maulana has created two Lota Ende fonts.
He reports: “Lota Ende script is now exclusively used for ceremonial purposes only. A professional folk poet would write a special text on a piece of paper using Lota Ende containing a poem of (or related to) the requested one who invites/hires them to chant in a ceremony (usually a party after boys’ circumcision). However, some stakeholders didn’t keep the text, so the manuscripts are not preserved. As long as I can say, until now there’s no other use of this script. Some local activists use it in activities for reintroducing their heritage.”
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