Old Sundanese 101: Part I — Background

This is the first part in a series on the Old Sundanese language, which will provide the rudiments of a course in reading Old Sundanese texts. This post gives some necessary historical and geographical background; in the next post we’ll start looking at manuscripts.

Part II is here.

Part III is here.

The Sundanese language is spoken today by about 36 million people in the western third of the island of Java, the world’s most populous island. Most of these Sundanese speakers live in the Indonesian province of West Java, which includes Bandung, the third biggest city in Indonesia, as well as most of the satellite towns of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia and the largest city in the southern hemisphere (with over 31 million inhabitants). These days, Sundanese is stereotyped to some extent as a language of the mountain people of West Java, having long since been replaced across most of the lowlands by Malay/Indonesian and Javanese.

(This may be why so few people outside Indonesia have heard of it.)

Fig. 1 — A map of present-day western Java, including Jakarta and the provinces of West Java, Banten, and part of Central Java.

Once upon a time, though, all of this part of Java, from the Brebes River right the way to the western tip of the island at Ujung Kulon (Hujung Barat in Old Sundanese), was ruled by a single kingdom (Figure 1). That kingdom was called Sunda. In more recent oral tradition, and in traditional Javanese historiography, the kingdom has been referred to as ‘Pajajaran’, but in old texts we find the name ‘Sunda’ instead — and this is the name used in Portuguese (çumda), Chinese (新拖國), and Arabic (ﺴﻨﺪﻩ) accounts as well (Figure 2). Sunda’s elites engaged in a range of ‘Hindu’ religious practices and worshipped Hindu deities; Buddhism does not appear to have been popular in the region after the early first millenium. It isn’t entirely clear what the religious practices of the commoners involved, as the texts that survive represent elite viewpoints, but there was almost certainly some Hindu influence at all levels of society.

Fig. 2 — ‘Sunda’ as it appears in the “Boke of Idrography”, a series of world maps made by the French cartographer Jean Rotz for Henry VIII of England in the sixteenth century. London, British Library, Royal MS 20 E IX, f.9v — c.1535–1542.

Sunda appears by name in inscriptions beginning in the late first millennium CE, and it seems to have lasted as a largely independent polity for several hundred years — although whether it was a cohesive kingdom the entire time is doubtful. The account of the Chinese administrator Zhao Rukuo (c.1225) describes Sunda as a land of robbers, rarely visited by foreign merchants because of the anarchy that prevailed there. And in traditional Sundanese historiography, Sunda was only one component of the larger Sundanese-speaking culture region, with a rival kingdom based at Galuh to the east being of equal importance.

(If this was ever true it almost certainly wasn’t in the late fifteenth century, and Galuh does not feature as an independent kingdom in the accounts of the Portuguese conquistadores who arrived in the early sixteenth century.)

Anyway: The Sundanese capital was probably located at what is now the city of Bogor, one of the many satellites of Jakarta. In Old Sundanese this city was called Pakuan, and it had districts known as Pakañcilan and Pajajaran (whence the traditional name for the kingdom). Pakuan seems to have been referred to colloquially as Dayeh ‘(capital) city’ (modern Sundanese: dayeuh), and in the Portuguese accounts it tends to be called Dayo, a slight corruption of the Sundanese.

Fig. 3 — ⟨sũdacalapa⟩ on the Queen Mary Atlas of 1555–1559 (London, BL, Add MS 5415 A, f.18r). This is a mistake; the two place names “Sunda” and “Kalapa”/”Calapa” ought to be separate.

Jakarta, about forty kilometres north of Pakuan, was the preeminent Sundanese port-city. In Old Sundanese it was called Kalapa, and in Portuguese accounts of the early sixteenth century it appears as Calapa. (If you visit the old port of Jakarta they’ll tell you there that it was called ‘Sunda Kelapa’, but that’s actually based on a misreading of the captions on some sixteenth-century maps — Figure 3.) It was from ports like Kalapa and Banten that Sunda exported its principal commodities: black pepper and enslaved human beings.

In the 1520s ‘Hindu’ Sunda came under attack from the Muslim-led polities of Central and East Java. Sunda and the Portuguese, who were based at Melaka on the Malay Peninsula, signed a treaty; the Portuguese would fortify Kalapa in exchange for payments of cash and pepper from the Sundanese. The treaty never came into force, as Kalapa was attacked and conquered in 1527 by an army from Demak, in Central Java, under the leadership of a commander named Fatahillah (Figure 4). Assaulted by various sultanates — actually ‘sultanate’ is an anachronistic term to use here, but that’s what these polities are called in later histories — to the north and west over the ensuing five decades, the territory of the Sunda kingdom shrank and shrank until the capital at Pakuan was itself conquered in 1579.

Fig. 4 — Taman Fatahillah in the north of Jakarta, hub of the historic district, is named for the conqueror of Kalapa.

The native language of most of Sunda’s inhabitants was an ancestral form of Sundanese. The surviving texts in a literary register of this language, commonly called ‘Old Sundanese’ (Indonesian: bahasa Sunda Kuno, Sundanese: basa Sunda Buhun), comprise a handful of inscriptions and a fairly small number of manuscripts, most of the latter written on palm leaves and most dateable to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Old Sundanese was written in a few slightly different scripts, including the script we’re going to look at initially in this series; the choice of script depended in large part on the writing surface (Figure 5). I’ll get into the details of this in a later post. For now, it’s enough to know that ‘Old Sundanese’ is defined by a) the use of one or other of these scripts, b) the largely non-Islamic subject matter of the texts written in them, and c) certain phonological and lexical features that distinguish the language from modern Sundanese.

Fig. 5 — Some examples of the scripts used to write Old Sundanese.

Literature in Old Sundanese continued to be written into the seventeenth century, outlasting the kingdom of Sunda, but by the eighteenth it had been replaced by texts in Javanese script (cacarakan) and pégon (i.e., the Arabic script as used for writing Javanese and Sundanese), and in more recent times by the modern Sundanese language written in the Roman alphabet. Other languages were also used in the old kingdom of Sunda, including Old Malay (in the early period) and Old Javanese, and some of the oldest surviving manuscripts of certain Old Javanese texts were actually copied in Sunda/West Java, including the sole extant manuscript of the Old Javanese translation of The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, MS Schoemaan I 21), which dates to 1467 CE.

In any case, this series will take you through the basics of reading Old Sundanese texts. We’ll begin with a look at a manuscript written on lontar leaves in the late fifteenth century. In the next post we’ll examine the line markings and punctuation, so you’ll know your way around the page, and then we’ll start learning to read Old Sundanese by looking at some simple poetry in the original language and script.

I hope you find it as fun and interesting as I do.

A. J. West — Leiden, September 2021

Part II, on punctuation and the page, can be found here.

Part III, on reading a simple line of poetry, can be found here.

Part IV, on cancelling inherent vowels, can be found here.

Part V, on the use of the panolong and panéléng, can be found here.

Part VI, containing tables of all the main aksaras, can be found here.

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.