The lontar – an early form of book


Roughly two years ago I posted about bark books. Well, in continuing with an asian theme, let me tell you a little about lontars.


What is a lontar?

Made from flattened and dried palm leaves, lontars usually contained religious texts. They are contained between two wooden covers, and held together with a string, either threaded through the center of the leaves or at either end, finished off with a chinese coin or perhaps a wooden peg.


MS6240-7 Lontar with wooden cover and threaded in the center. Finished with old chinese coin

Where are lontars found:

Mainly in Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Burma, China. Incidentally in Malaysia, Philippines and Nepal. In India and sometimes in China they are called pothi

A pothi is made from bamboo slivers, and usually fully threaded.


How lontars are processed:

Process 1:

  • Picked and dried by hanging;
  • Apply oil (gingili – sesame oil) or smoked;
  • Clean before writing;
  • In India application of tumeric paste after cleaning.

Process 2:

In Orissa (now called Odisha) province, rough and mature leaves were boiled to thin them out. In Sri Lanka young leaves were boiled in water or lime water, and then dried in the shade.

Process 3:

In Thailand, the process is very different (bai-larn). Leaves are picked and then dried in the shade. The stiff ribs are removed and then they are cut to a uniform size. This is done by collecting them in bundles of 50 or so, placed between wooden boards and then trimmed.

The bundles are placed in a kiln for about 24 hours. The kiln has 2 levels: the lower one for the fire, the upper for the bundles. The fire, built in the lower half, is regulated by the fact that all the doors are closed. After 24 hours a black oil exudes from the leaves and is left on the sides of the bundles. After cleaning this excess, the bundles are opened and each leaf is cleaned.

Each leaf is then held over an open fire for a little while and then polished with a cloth. This process makes the leaf absolutely dry and ready for writing.

Before writing or painting, the leaves are coloured or lacquered, either on the edges with vermillion or on the face of the leaf black lacquer is applied upon which the writing was gold.

Several colours were used for writing: white, gold, black or red.

Writing methods for lontars:

Method 1: Pointillist

Incisions were made with pointed stylus. This is the most common method.


There are two incision methods:

  1. Move the leaf under the still stylus
  2. Moving the stylus

Writing goes from Left to Right. This method of writing is made visible by rubbing in lamp-black or charcoal black pigment mixed with oil.

In India, mustard oil or gingili (sesame oil) was mixed with the black.

Crushed tree leaf juice may also be applied to get green lettering.

A paste of bean plant (dolicho lablab), eclipta alba, juices of datura stramonium or fastuosa, black ash, coconut shell and gingili oil was rubbed over the leaf. This was said to be a preservative against insects.

Method 2: Pen or brush

Writing with pen or brush applies the ink on the surface of the leaf.Sometimes both incision and pen work techniques are used on the one lontar.

Length of leaf:

This is usually dictated by the size of the plant and initial leaf


Covers are usually decorated wooden boards. These may be painted or with inlays. To keep it together holes are punched and cord threaded through.

In small lontars a single hole in the centre is all that is needed. In larger lontars, a hole at both ends with or without a centre hole may be used.


The title was written on a strip of either palm leaf, wood or ivory and was placed over the cover and included in the bundle.


Insects that eat lontars:

Gastrallus indicus.

A native method of keeping this bug at bay was to store the lontar with bunches of herbs such as Sweet Flag (ghorabach) or margosa leaves


Due to their very nature and the climactic conditions of south east Asia, lontars do not generally have a long life. The National Library of Australia holds 8 lontars in its collection, mainly from Indonesia but also from Thailand. I think that lontars and pothi are valuable to look at if one wishes to understand the nature of the book. As a means of information transmission, they were but one phase in the development of the codex. In class I get my students to make facsimiles from paper; the next stage is, of course,the scroll. After all it stands to reason that once the concept of  sheets (parchment or paper) was discovered, scribes could write down their stories and texts in much more efficient and convenient ways.

Next up then,  the scroll!


Further reading:

  1. Agrawal, O.P. (1984) Conservation of Manuscripts and Paintings of South East Asia, Butterworth Series







1 Comment

Filed under bookbinding, museum

One response to “The lontar – an early form of book

  1. Pingback: Scrolls and concertinas | Bookish Things to think about

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.