The Oldest Malay Manuscript Ever Discovered

Uli Kozok, assistant professor of Indonesian language at the University of Hawai‘i, is studying the oldest Malay manuscript ever discovered. It appears to date from before the advent of Islam.

In 2001 I received a Research Relation grant to study the Kerinci script of central Sumatran as part of my work on the palaeography of Southeast Asia. The grant was used for the mapping of existent variants of the central Sumatran scripts that provided us with new insights into the internal relationship between the two closely related scripts. [See map.]

In 2002 I received a second Research Relation grant that resulted in the spectacular discovery of what I believed was the oldest extant Malay manuscripts. This manuscript, a legal code of 34 pages that I found in the village of Tanjung Tanah, contains two texts, one in the old Malayu script, and one in an ancient form of the Kerinci script, which is very likely the missing link in the development of the Kerinci and other South Sumatran scripts from an earlier version of the Sumatran version of the kawi script [Indic-derived and used to write Old Javanese].

The research was continued in 2003, again supported by a Research Relation grant. In the meanwhile my assertion that the Tanjung Tanah manuscript is the oldest extant Malay manuscript came under attack by scholars of Javanese palaeography who argued that, on palaeographic grounds, the manuscript is not older than 200 years. As an expert in Sumatran script I immediately knew that such a late age was impossible, and also the textual evidence (e.g. the absence of any Arabic loanwords) ruled out a date as recent as the 18th century. Since I was unable to challenge their conclusion (I am not in expert of the Javanese script to which the Sumatran Malayu script is closely related), I decided to support my claim with scientific evidence and asked the owner to provide me with a small sample of the manuscript that I sent to the Rafter laboratory in Wellington, New Zealand. The result corroborated my hypothesis which was based on philological and historical evidence unanimously.

This manuscript is now beyond any doubt the oldest Malay manuscript in the world (most likely 2nd half of the 14th century) predating the hitherto oldest manuscript by nearly 200 years! …

My research on the Tanjung Tanah manuscript (which is the only Malay manuscript in a pre-Islamic script) is significant in that it makes a number of theories on early Malay literacy obsolete, and forces us to entirely rethink the intellectual history of the pre-Islamic Malay world.

If it can be established that the Tanjung Tanah manuscript is palaeographically related to the 13th century Adityawarman inscriptions, we will not [only] have convincing proof that the manuscript dates to the 14th century, but it is also very likely that the manuscript will force us to entirely rethink Sumatran palaeography that hitherto had been closely linked to Java with its abundance of stone inscriptions and (from the 14th century onwards) manuscripts [in Arabic-derived Jawi script].

The translation of the manuscript, and the analysis of the language it is written in will give us new insights into the early Malay legal system, the political relationship between the coastal Malay maritime kingdoms with the upriver communities in the Bukit Barisan mountain range, but also into the development of the Malay language since this is the oldest existing substantial body of text in the Malay language.

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