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Preserving our identity: The Digitising Malay Writing in Sri Lanka project
In 2011 Prof. Ronit Ricci visited Sri Lanka to conduct a pilot research on an area which had not until then been pursued. She was in search of Malay writing, and Sri Lankan Malay writing in particular. Several research had been conducted by various academics on the Malay language and culture, but within my personal knowledge, this was the first time that writing was to be focused on.
Her project was also different in terms of execution. Her objective was not to scrutinize what was written or how it was written, but to take the initial step of preserving these documents. She would make digital copies (photographs, since scanning would be harmful to some documents), which will be archived at the British Archives website and accessible to anyone who was interested.
Being one of her Research Assistants at the initial stage, it was exciting to be present at a small gathering at the Padang on 7th February 2018, where Prof. Ronit Ricci presented her final outcome and thanked the community for the support.
The aim of the project was to create a digital archive of Malay writing in Sri Lanka, which is in its totality found in private collection. The writing was found in an array of documents – manuscripts, printed books, and letters – and in different forms of writing; mostly religious recitals, personal documents, songs, poems and incantations. The writers have used scripts they are most comfortable with, and thus we see the documents being written in Arabic, Gundul, Arabu-Tamil, Tamil, Roman and Sinhala scripts. A reading of the documents sheds light to the social and cultural aspects of the lives of Malays in Sri Lanka; their personal lives, beliefs, local religious beliefs, all which give a cololurful insight to the identity of who the Sri Lankan Malay is.
The importance of this project hits close to home when one sees the state in which most of these documents are. Having handed down generations, only a few documents were preserved, that too not in technically proper conditions. The rest which created the majority were fragile, discoloured and tearing apart. The lack of knowledge of present owners about what they possess and the ignorance of the content in the manuscripts are the main reasons for the current status of manuscripts. Digitally archiving the documents is harmless and is an ideal long-term preservation method.
According to Prof. Ronit Ricci, during the pilot project approximately 45-50 Malay manuscripts, books, letters and notes were documented. The most significant collection belonged to Thalif Iyne and Jayarine Sukanti, herself a great granddaughter of Baba Ounus Saldin, the important Malay 19th century literary figure and founder of the first Malay newspaper worldwide. This collection includes the only illuminated Sri Lankan Malay manuscript seen to date – an interlinear Arab-Malay copy of the 18th century Maulud Nabi Sharaf-al-Anam; another maulud book with a note indicating it was written in 1865 within the context of the Malay Rifle Regiment; two more maulud texts, one dedicated to Muhideen, the widely venerated Muslim ‘saint’ Abdulkadir Jilani; a printed booklet in romanised Malay containing the local poem Dendang Sayang Pantun Seylon; a compendium of prayers in Malay and Arabic; a 1914 collection of personal notes by M.M Saldin; an 1893 collection of Arabic poems with English translation; a tiny booklet of Arabic incantations carried by Jayarine Thalip’s grandfather in his wallet; and a printed Malay book from 1935 Singapore that offers gender-related advice.
The digitised manuscripts are archived in the British Library website which can be accessed through https://eap.bl.uk/project/EAP609. When on the website you could see the individual manuscripts by going to ‘View Archives from the Project’.