Old Sundanese 101: Part II — Punctuation and the Page

In the first post in this series I introduced you to the Sunda kingdom (c.850?–1579), based in what is now West Java, Indonesia, and to some of the history of Old Sundanese, the language that was used for writing poetry and inscriptions there. In this post we’re going to look at how one gets one’s bearings when looking at Old Sundanese manuscript material. How is the page put together? What are all these lines and marks?

Once we’ve sorted all that, we can start reading.

An Old Sundanese Page

In this post, and probably in the next few posts, I’m going to take my examples from Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Jav. b.3. (R), the sole surviving manuscript of the wonderful Old Sundanese narrative poem, Bujangga Manik, which I edited for my Ph.D thesis at Leiden (2021). (Dear Bodleian: Please don’t sue me for using these pictures.) The text dates to the late fifteenth century; the manuscript may be just as old, although the earliest date verifiably associated with it is the year 1627, when it was donated to the Bodleian Library by a man from the Isle of Wight named Andrew James. You can find zoomable photographs of the entire manuscript on the Digital Bodleian site.

I’ll give you detailed information about the manuscript and text another time. For now, suffice it to say that the text is written on, or more properly cut into, leaves of the lontar palm (Borassus flabellifer). There are some inked Old Sundanese manuscripts — these are usually made of gebang (Corypha utan) leaves, although some are written on daluwang (the bark of the paper mulberry tree, Broussonetia papyrifera) — but the one we’re looking at here involves no ink at all. (Actually, a Bodleian curator appears to have marked it with a biro at some point. Aside from that though…)

A typical page looks like this (Figure 1):

Fig. 1 — Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Jav. b.3. (R), alias “Bujangga Manik”. On the Bodleian site this is labelled “f.?r”, but in my edition it is the verso of the first folio (f.1v). This is the first leaf with text on it, and f.1r is blank (as per usual with Old Sundanese manuscripts). Each leaf is about 35 centimetres long and 3 centimetres wide.

And here it is zoomed in on the left (Figure 2):

Fig. 2 — The first bit of text in “Bujangga Manik”. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Jav. b.3. (R), f.1v.

The leaves are usually inscribed on both sides, although that isn’t true of the first leaf, the first side (‘recto’) of which is invariably blank.

I’m going to use the zoomed-in image above (Figure 2) as a base for going over some of the features of the Old Sundanese writing system. This time we’re only going to look at punctuation and the arrangement of the text — but in the next part we’ll have a look at the first line of the poem, and you’ll learn how to read a little Old Sundanese poetry in the original. That will make you a member of a very small club indeed.

Ruled Lines

The page space is divided up by ruled lines cut into the surface of the leaf. Vertical lines are used to separate the margins from the writing space, and they also frame the central hole of the leaf/page (Figure 3). The central hole — it’s actually ever-so-slightly off-centre, for reasons I won’t get into here — is usually threaded with cordage to hold the manuscript together, although that’s mostly missing from MS Jav. b.3. (R).

Fig. 3 — The vertical lines, highlighted. These divide up the writing space. There is some variation between manuscripts in how these lines are arranged.

Page numbers in Old Sundanese numerals are usually found in the left-most margin on the backs (‘versos’) of the leaves. These begin on the second leaf (Figure 4). (I’m not sure why that is, but it’s consistent across Old Sundanese manuscripts.)

Fig. 4 — The Old Sundanese numeral ⟨1⟩ in the left-most margin of the verso (back) of the second leaf. MS Jav. b.3. (R), f.2v. (f.1r according to the erroneous foliation on the Bodleian site.)

The lines cut lengthwise form the headlines for the letters to hang down from — they do not sit on lines like letters of the Roman alphabet do (Figure 5). Old Sundanese palm-leaf manuscripts, like Old Javanese ones, almost invariably have four such headlines. Above the headline we find most of the diacritics — little marks that change the sounds of the letters they modify.

Fig. 5— The horizontal lines form headlines from which most of the writing hangs down.

Why is there no baseline under the letters? Well, that may be because the letters are sometimes stacked on top of one another. (It’s one way of writing consonant clusters.) You can see examples of that at the beginning of the bottom line in Figure 5 and then again about halfway through the same line. You may also notice that some letters are bigger than others, and hang down lower.

Are these really letters? They aren’t referred to as such by specialists, in large part because this isn’t an alphabet. The main ‘letters’ represent syllables, usually ending in [-a], and they’re modified by diacritics, like those that go above the headline. We normally call these ‘letters’ aksaras, from the Sanskrit akṣara ‘letter, syllable’; this is the common name both for the letters individually and for the script as a whole. There are a few different types. We’ll talk more about this next time.


There isn’t very much punctuation in a typical Old Sundanese manuscript. There are, however, three signs to learn before we can move on.

The first is a large and elaborate mark that serves two functions. One is to announce the start of a text. Here it is in that role, right at the beginning of the first page of Bujangga Manik (Figure 6):

Fig. 6 — The initial punctuation mark in “Bujangga Manik”.

And here it is in isolation (Figure 7):

Fig. 7— My attempt at drawing the punctuation mark above.

This sign — which varies quite a bit between manuscripts — also serves to mark a distinct break in the narrative. It occurs a few times in the Bujangga Manik manuscript, and not always where you’d expect it. It is usually transcribed/transliterated like this: //0//

A second, smaller, sign performs a similar function, marking less definitive breaks in the story. There isn’t an example of this on the first page of Bujangga Manik, but it’s usually transcribed like this, ·/0/·, and looks like this (Figure 8):

Fig. 8 — The slightly less consequential punctuation mark.

Either side of that second mark are two dots, as you can see. These dots often have a trailing edge to the right, and they feature as independent punctuation marks of their own, denoting the separation between lines of poetry. I’ve marked up the image to show the location of every one of these dots, which I usually transcribe with an interpunct ⟨·⟩ (Figure 9):

Fig. 9 — The locations of all the octosyllabic markers in the image above, from MS Jav. b.3. (R), f.1v. A lot of transliterations of Old Sundanese texts leave them out, but their presence or absence can be significant.

A typical line of Old Sundanese poetry is eight syllables long. There is no rhyme scheme, and there is no difference between the lengths of syllables or morae, so octosyllabism is really the only consistent feature of this standard poetic metre. (This is quite a common characteristic of poetry elsewhere in the Indo-Malaysian archipelago, incidentally.) Rarely, lines are longer or shorter than eight syllables. Sometimes there’s a good reason for this, and the octosyllabic marker — that little dot — is put between two shorter or longer lines to mark this. Sometimes the octosyllabic marker is absent between two octosyllabic lines for no particular reason. Otherwise, all else being equal, there’s a dot every eight syllables.

That’s it for this post. In the next one we’re going to looking at this line of text — the very first line in Bujangga Manik (Figure 10). It says: · saur sang mahapa(n)dita · ‘· the great sage said ·’. There are eight syllables in the line, so it’s a typical piece of Old Sundanese poetry. The text is written from left to right. Here it is highlighted on the page:

Fig. 10 — The first line of “Bujangga Manik”: saur sang mahapa(n)dita. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Jav. b.3. (R), f.1v.

How does it say that? How does this script work? Where are the divisions between the letters?

I’ll give you the answers to those questions, and some others, next time.


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