Can a script be in healthy use in one community and endangered in another? Certainly. The two communities will likely have very different histories and cultures, and the influences that may foster the use of a script in one may hamper it in the other, with the possibility of very real loss.
Consider the case of the Aksara Sasak script of the island of Lombok in Indonesia. It is almost identical to the script of neighboring Bali, and its writing traditions, especially using the dried leaves of the lontar palm, have clearly been influenced by nearby Java. But traditional scripts have fared very differently throughout Indonesia since independence after World War II, and likewise revival efforts today vary widely from island to island. The Balinese script on Bali is in the early stages of a revival supported by the province’s government; the situation on Lombok is very different, even if the script is not.
It may be a sign of the script’s fragile state that it has been very little researched. For this profile, we’ll be relying almost entirely on Peter Austin’s article “Aksara Sasak, an endangered script and scribal practice,” prepared for the International Workshop on Endangered Scripts of Island Southeast Asia, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 27th February to 1st March 2014.
Perhaps 3 million people, roughly 85% of the population of the island, speak Sasak in its several varieties. There is little documentation of the early history of the island of Lombok, but its several discordant kingdoms seem to have been ruled by the Javanese Majapahit empire (1294-1478), and around this time probably adopted various Javanese cultural traditions, including a caste system, an aristocracy (modelled on the Javanese court), and Hindu-Buddhist cultural concepts and practices, including literacy.
The Islamic Makassarese empire established relations with the Selaparang Kingdom of east Lombok in 1637, introducing Islam and writing in Arabic script, though its use was probably restricted to Koranic texts and to Malay materials. In 1678 the Southern Balinese Gelgel kingdom drove the Makassarese out of east Lombok; in 1740 the Gelgel Balinese of west Lombok were in turn conquered by Gusti Wayahan Tegeh, son of the Karangasem Balinese King, who took control of much of the island.
This became, in many ways, the defining period of Sasak culture. For over a century, close dynastic ties linked Karangasem-Bali with the Lombok court, and in many ways Western Lombok became an extension of the Balinese cultural and political world. “In the Lombok courts too, new literary centres sprang up,” Austin writes. “Through their ongoing association with the Balinese courts, or perhaps independently, literary activity flourished in this new setting – old works were preserved, copied and studied, and new works were written,” using the newly-borrowed Aksara Sasak, which is likewise an extension of the Balinese script.
Over the following decades, separate Balinese states developed in West Lombok, the strongest being the Karangasem-Lombok Kingdom, which collected the greatest works of the Balinese and Javanese literary tradition in a bid to rival even the Kingdoms in Bali. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, though, a virtual civil war broke out in Lombok, and the Dutch sent in troops, destroyed the Balinese Mataram kingdom, and occupyied the whole of the island by the end of 1895.
The Dutch colonialists, of course, introduced writing of Sasak in the Latin script. For a while the lontar tradition continued, even during the period of Japanese occupation from 1942 until 1946, but in 1949 Lombok became part of the Republic of Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia became the national language and Latin the national script. Increasingly, the Sasak language became restricted to family and home domains, and the use of Aksara Sasak dwindled steadily.
“Today there are very few Sasak speakers who have any facility in it,” Austin concludes. “To the best of my knowledge, production of inscribed lontar has ended on Lombok, but it is not clear when this occurred.”
The tradition of public readings in traditional language and script also seems to have ended. “At a reading event which I witnessed in 2013 in Lenek village the participants used copies of transcriptions that were in Latin-based script only, without Aksara Sasak at all.”
Aksara Sasak is still being taught, but in a limited, uninspired and uninspiring way, Austin reports.
“Some Sasaks I have interviewed were exposed to the script at school but none of them, apart from individuals who are interested in reading lontar, have a functional knowledge of the script and are able to read and write it…. [The] approach to teaching Aksara Sasak is rather unengaging and rushes through the principles of the script in very few pages … the Latin-based transcription does not align with other spelling for Sasak. Also, the materials are hypertraditional with images of traditional Sasak dress and rural activities, along with schooling, being the only ones presented. This surely creates an association in the minds of children, especially those in urbanised village and town settings, between Aksara Sasak and a way of life that is long gone on Lombok as a daily lived experience.”
In Bali, traditional script is widely used in public and private signage, but not so on Lombok. “This is strikingly different from Arabic script which is widely seen throughout the island (and also limited use of Chinese characters in Ampenan and the Chinese cemetery). I suspect that this may be at least partly because Aksara Sasak is associated with Balinese and with non-Islamic religious traditions … that are negatively evaluated by mainstream spokespersons, especially those supporters of more conservative approaches to Islam.
“Knowledge of Aksara Sasak and the scribal tradition within which it was developed and functioned for several centuries,” Austin concludes, “has severely diminished on Lombok, and today both the script and its functions are endangered and likely to disappear in the foreseeable future.”
We are well aware of the dangers of relying on a single source, even if that source is such a distinguished scholar as Peter Austin. We’d love to hear from anyone who has first-hand information from Lombok about the current state of the Sasak script and its usage.
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