History-Writing in Premodern Nusantara

History-Writing in Premodern Nusantara

Premodern peoples of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago wrote history. Their historical methods and the resources at their disposal were significantly different to what modern professional historians are used to, which is why historical texts from the region are often treated with suspicion. We tend to ask: ‘are they reliable sources?’, ‘are they genuinely historical?’, and ‘are they mythological or legendary?’. I argue that we can better understand the region’s historical traditions by investigating the distinctive historical practices that shaped them.

I will make three main points in this essay. First, premodern peoples of the archipelago had an understanding of history as a series of events occurring in temporal sequence with causal relationships between them. They wrote down reports about past events with the express intention that those reports would be consulted in the future. Second, the region’s premodern historians were severely constrained by a lack of access to primary sources; for example, original archival records and personal correspondence. This is because documents written on organic materials such as palm leaf and paper were extremely difficult to preserve in the region’s tropical climate. Third, the transmission of historical knowledge was therefore much more dependent on processes of manuscript copying and oral recitation than on the analysis of primary sources. These three factors go a long way towards explaining the distinctive character of the archipelago’s historical texts, and why they seem to defy expectations of what historical texts should be according to the modern historical profession.

We have evidence of historical writing in the archipelago from around the fifth century CE. Several inscriptions issued between the fifth and eleventh centuries take the form of chronicles. In the fifth-century Tugu inscription found in near Jakarta, we find a dated record of a construction project ordered by a king called Pūrṇavarman. The Kedukan Bukit inscription, written in Old Malay and found near Palembang, reports on a military expedition led by a certain Dapunta Hiyang in April–June 682 CE. The Wanua Tĕngah III inscription, written in Old Javanese and found in central Java, gives a 150-year historical account of administrative changes to a Buddhist monastery’s agricultural estate, spanning the period 746–908 CE. The Pucangan inscription found near Surabaya includes an elaborate chronicle of the career of Airlangga, who waged many wars to become a powerful king in east Java in the 1020s and 1030s CE. Each of these inscriptions gives an account of its own historical context in the form of an ordered chronological list of events.

We can see in these inscriptions an intimate relationship between the writing of historical chronicles and the state’s administration of land and resources. These historical-legal documents were copied onto durable materials such as stone and metal to ensure the rights and privileges of their beneficiaries could be guaranteed in the future. The Truñan inscription, issued in north Bali in 1050 CE, states that the elders of the village requested ‘that the original charter be made permanent, immediately being set on copperplate, because the leaves are rotten’. 1 In this example, we see the importance of historical precedent in establishing and protecting legal claims, and also an awareness of the physical vulnerability of documents written on organic materials.

In this period, chronicles were probably written on non-durable materials such as palm leaf and bark paper, but very few have survived to the present day. Only two such dated chronicles survive from before the seventeenth century: the Deśavarṇana (composed in 1365 CE) and the Pararaton (compiled in the early 1500s CE). Both are chronicles of the Majapahit court that ruled east Java in the period 1293–1527 CE. But even these texts have not survived in their original physical form; they exist only in nineteenth- and twentieth-century manuscripts that are products of repeated copying over the centuries. In normal tropical conditions, palm-leaf and paper manuscripts are vulnerable to destruction within a few centuries. 2 This means that when premodern historians were composing their chronicles, they were much more likely to be working with copies of documents rather than with original primary sources. The processes of manuscript compilation and copying greatly magnified the potential for variation to emerge in the resulting text. 3

Chronicles are the earliest attested genre of historical writing in the archipelago, but two other genres became prominent from the fourteenth century onwards: the heroic biography and the dynastic genealogy. The heroic biography texts focus on one or two key protagonists who are characterised in idealised terms. This genre has clear precursors in older literature. The heroic biographies of the Majapahit kings of Java are modelled on the Old Javanese epic genres called kakawin and parwa, which draw on stories from the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata. The heroic biographies of Malay historical figures, such as the Hikayat Raja Pasai and the Hikayat Hang Tuah, show the influence of Islamic Persian literature. 4 Such use of literary models for writing historical biographies does not mean that these texts are necessarily unhistorical. This because all historical texts, accurate or not, exhibit mythic tropes simply by virtue of being expressed in narrative form. 5

The dynastic genealogy genre, in which historical anecdotes are linked together through kinship networks, seems to have emerged after the appearance of Islamic kingdoms in the archipelago. These genealogies (called silsilah in Malay, babad in Javanese, and patturioloang in Makassarese) became the most prominent genre of history-writing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They drew on local customs of kinship commemoration, as well as Islamic genres of genealogy, to produce a ‘social map’ of a particular community (often a leadership class), into which historical narratives were inserted. Several important dynastic genealogies were later incorporated into nationalist historiographies, such as the Babad Tanah Jawi in Indonesia and the Sejarah Melayu in Malaysia and Singapore.

The Sejarah Melayu (also known by its Arabic title Sulālāt al-Salāṭīn) is a famous example of traditional Malay historiography, two manuscript copies of which are included in the Malay Heritage Centre’s exhibition. It is a dynastic genealogy produced in the court of Johor in 1612 CE, as a compilation of older materials. This compilation was edited and evolved into three different versions during the seventeenth century. 6 The Sejarah Melayu has a vast genealogical scope, connecting diverse ancestors such as Iskandar Zulkarnain of Macedonia with south Indian, Sumatran, and Javanese kings. This whole kinship network is centred on the ruling dynasty of Singapura and Melaka in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The anecdotes contained within the dynastic genealogy, especially those pertaining to Melaka life shortly before its capture by the Portuguese in 1511 CE, have proven useful for historical studies of the period.

A page from a manuscript of the Sulālāt al-Salāṭīn (or Sejarah Melayu) currently on display at the Malay Heritage Centre
Collection of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board

We know nothing concrete about the sources for the 1612 CE compilation of the Sejarah Melayu. It is likely that written records were drawn upon, but there is also evidence of oral composition in the language of some parts of the text. We do not possess any written records that can confidently be identified as source materials for the Sejarah Melayu, though its account of the Pasai kingdom shows some similarity to that of the Hikayat Raja Pasai. Written historical records most likely existed in Melaka, but they were probably lost soon after the city’s capture. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Sejarah Melayu in its three versions seems to have become the dominant account of the history of Melaka. The rapid physical loss of written records in the archipelago is a crucial factor in this development. Without recourse to original primary source documents, the claims of later texts could not be verified and different versions of events could proliferate unchecke

As with many similar texts, there has been considerable debate as to what extent the Sejarah Melayu should be considered ‘myth’ or ‘history’, or a mixture of both. 7 This dichotomy may not be very helpful, because all narratives about the past contain mythic elements, even those that are strongly grounded in historical evidence. The validity of a historical claim (‘is it well or poorly justified?’) and the manner of its expression (‘is it told mythically or realistically?’) are separate issues. 8 Rather than the rigid framing of ‘history versus myth’, we instead need a detailed and nuanced investigation of the concrete practices out of which these texts emerged: how they drew on earlier sources, how they fit into different genres, and how their manuscripts were copied over the centuries. Understanding traditional historiography is therefore an essential part of the study of the archipelago’s premodern history.


Vladimir Braginsky, The heritage of traditional Malay literature: a historical survey of genres, writings and literary views, vol. 214, Verhandelingen van het Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2004).

Henri Chambert-Loir. ‘The History of a History: Variant Versions of the Sulalat al-Salatin’. Indonesia 104 (2017): 121-77.

———. ‘The Sulalat al-Salatin as a Political Myth’. Indonesia 79 (2005): 131-60.

John N. Miksic, Singapore & The Silk Road of the Sea, 1300-1800 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2013).

Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan. ‘How To Read A Chronicle: the Pararaton as a conglomerate text’. Indonesia and the Malay World 140 (March 2020): 1-22.

Dick van der Meij, Indonesian Manuscripts from the Islands of Java, Madura, Bali and Lombok (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017).

P.V. van Stein Callenfels, Epigraphica Balica, VBG 66 (Batavia: G. Kolff & Co., 1926).

Richard T. Vann. ‘The Reception of Hayden White’. History and Theory 37, no. 2 (1998).

Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).

Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan

Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan

Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan is a doctoral student of Asian History at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on the historical writing practices of premodern Southeast Asians, specialising in texts written in Javanese, Balinese, and Malay. He is also interested in the theory of history, the environmental and economic history of Southeast Asia, modern Indonesian history, and Indonesian popular music. He is a founding member of the research group Perspectives on the Past in Southeast Asia and is an editor for New Mandala.

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  1. P.V. van Stein Callenfels, Epigraphica Balica (Batavia: G. Kolff & Co., 1926), 22.
  2. There are a few exceptions to this generalisation, but in general it is very rare to encounter Indonesian and Malaysian manuscripts older than three hundred years. Dick van der Meij, 'Indonesian Manuscripts from the Islands of Java, Madura, Bali and Lombok' (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017), 232.
  3. Elsewhere I have described how this occurred in the transmission of the Pararaton. Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan, “How To Read A Chronicle: the Pararaton as a conglomerate text,” Indonesia and the Malay World 140 (2020).
  4. The Malay Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiyyah, based on a Persian story, was particularly important as a model for later heroic hikayat texts. Vladimir Braginsky, The heritage of traditional Malay literature: a historical survey of genres, writings and literary views (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2004), 128.
  5. Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).
  6. Henri Chambert-Loir, “The History of a History: Variant Versions of the Sulalat al-Salatin,” Indonesia 104 (2017): 168-71.
  7. “The Sulalat al-Salatin as a Political Myth,” Indonesia 79 (2005); John N. Miksic, Singapore & The Silk Road of the Sea, 1300-1800 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2013), 146.
  8. This theoretical distinction is clearly demonstrated in Hayden White’s works of the 1970s such as 'Metahistory', in which he shows that the nineteenth-century European historians Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt had presented radically different visions of history that were independent of their factual validity. Many professional historians felt uncomfortable with the parallels White drew between historical writing and literary fiction, sometimes inaccurately labelling his approach as ‘postmodernist’. I contend that White’s theoretical perspective is especially illuminating for historical traditions from outside Western Europe, such as in premodern Nusantara. On the debates surrounding White’s theories, see Richard T. Vann, “The Reception of Hayden White,” History and Theory 37 (1998).
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