THE LEIDENER

A Blog by International Students at Leiden University

Manuscripts of South & Southeast Asia Workshop: inside the secretive world of Asian Studies

The University Library hosts a diverse scene of activity throughout the year, and its liveliness is characterised by much more than long coffee lines at Café Ubé or non-Asian studies students trying to sneak into the Asian library during exam periods. While the former might prompt some to mutter Dutch words of a more uncouth variety under their breaths, the latter will leave me, the humble Asian Studies student, almost certainly without a seat and therefore a wee bit embittered. However, on a good day, I might drag myself up the three flights of winding, marble stairwell, deadset on securing that much desired seat, thinking: I wonder if anyone else ever notices the fossil imprints in the marble, and, can I really hold it against other students for seeking out the Shangri-la of study areas?

Inside the Asian Library's Siebold Garden

Ah, the Asian Library’s indoor garden: a lovely green corridor planted between a jungle of books and select hoard of students on wild thesis writing expeditions, conveniently soundproofed so the you may chat with friends, experience the calming effects of foliage during winter while taking a phone call, or scream as you prepare for your upcoming mid-term exams.

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Entrance to the Asian Library, situated inside the University Library. The University Library is also called the UB, an acronym derived from the Dutch term ‘Universiteitsbibliotheek,’ meaning the same. (Fun, cultural tip: if you’re not sensitive to vulgarity, be sure to ask a Dutch speaking friend what the acronym for Leiden University Libraries is and what that means in Dutch.)

Situated on the top floor, with its idilic indoor garden, plenty of sunlight during the day, cinema room showing Asian films, and a lovely view of the Observatory along the canal, my concluding thought on this latter question is an unrelenting “yes”. However, this should not be misunderstood as me partaking in some sort of faculty apartheid. Truth be told, I really just want a place to sit and work, which indeed at peak exam time may well and truly be less probable than one day fixing my very eyes on the fictional Buddhist kingdom of Shangri-La!

The intellectual gateway to Asia is not shut:

“I recently learnt at a Manuscripts of South and Southeast Asia Workshop hosted by the Library, that academic background forms no real barrier at all to having intimate encounters with Leiden University Libraries’ world renowned Special Collections on Asia”

That said, any genuine interest in learning more about the rich and diverse cultures of Asian societies, past and present, is a potentially worldview broadening endeavour that deserves to be nurtured, and luckily for Asian and non-Asian Studies students alike, in order to pursue this interest, access to the Asian Library may be enticing, but is not essential. In fact, I recently learnt at a Manuscripts of South and Southeast Asia Workshop hosted by the Library, that academic background forms no real barrier at all to having intimate encounters with Leiden University Libraries’ world renowned Special Collections on Asia.

From the outside, Asian Studies and the Asian Library may appear secretive and segregated, but with Library hosted workshops running throughout the year and Asian films being screened weekly, both which are accessible to all those in the possession of an LU card, this isn’t entirely the case. While the Asia Library is technically–and I say technically because ‘rumour’ (I see you) has it that non-Asianists still manage to stealthily creep their way inside before being kicked out–off-limits to non-Asian studies students, Asian Studies orientated events on campus are actually quite accessible to all those who are interested: students, staff members, and alumni with library access.

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Kevin, an MA Asian Studies graduate, proudly featured with over one thousand years of Indonesian history at his fingertips. This old Javanese Charter from 878AD is one of the oldest items housed within the Special Collections on Asia, and in sharing this image, the item is recognised to be the property of Leiden University.

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Special Collections curator, Dr. Jedamski, is seen handling an item made of tree bark that she chose to display and discuss during an interactive and informative tour of a select sample of South and Southeast Asian manuscripts. This manuscript is recognised as property of Leiden University.

Manuscripts of South and Southeast Asia Workshop:

When my friend, Kevin sent me an enthusiastic message stating he had just signed up for a workshop on South and Southeast Asian manuscripts, I quickly joined in with his excitement. The event promised an intimate encounter with ancient objects, an introduction to various South and Southeast Asian writing styles and materials (which are interestingly but perhaps somewhat obviously interconnected), and a participation-based workshop on Balinese writing culture. All of this in a single workshop, and no previous background knowledge required? Too good to be true, I thought.

As a self-taught Javanese enthusiast and as someone immensely proud of his Indonesian heritage, my friend encouraged me to register for the same workshop. It wasn’t at all long before I found myself in the throes of writing an e-mail in my most eloquent Dutch to the UB’s secretary, asking whether it was still possible to register for the afternoon session. Looking back, I suppose I could have saved myself the trouble and written the e-mail in English. However, at the time I was feeling rather intimidated by the idea that there are people at this university who are functionally literate in a whole range of different languages, some of which to my untrained eyes look more like art than script–let’s just leave the debate as to whether these are truly independent concepts for now–and perhaps this was a way of asserting my desire to belong. That same day, after some nervous anticipation I received the confirmation e-mail, which warmly welcomed me to attend the Manuscripts of South and Southeast Asia Workshop to be held on 13 February, 2019. A double cause for celebration then, as not only had my Dutch been of an acceptable standard to the secretary, but I was to attend this promising workshop with my friend.

“From a nursing manager at LUMC and a restorationist learning Swedish to a staff member interested in learning more about the tattoo he had gotten in Bali, the workshop had really drawn quite a fun and eclectic crowd.”

On the day itself, Kevin and I  made our way up that familiar marble, winding UB staircase with a spring in our steps, to get to the Heinsiuszaal and Vossiuszaal rooms in which the two-part workshop was to be held. First to arrive, we were greeted by the accomplished academic and curator, Dr. Doris Jedamski, who would later show us some amazing manuscripts and impart some of her extensive knowledge of these upon us. As the other participants started arriving, it quickly became clear that Kevin and I were not just the only student attendees but also the youngest. However, I don’t think either of us had anticipated just how diverse the audience of this workshop could possibly be until it was well and truly underway. From a nursing manager at LUMC and a restorationist learning Swedish to a staff member interested in learning more about the tattoo he had gotten in Bali, the workshop had really drawn quite a fun and eclectic crowd.

Most memorable in my opinion, however, was not the level of eclecticism with which we were confronted that day–although I really did love it–but the passionate yet laid-back way in which Dr. Hedi Hinzler introduced us to palm leaf, or lontar, as a material for writing on and Balinese manuscript culture, which is very much alive today, more generally. Even at the time of writing, which is quite some time after the workshop, I find it astonishing that I had the opportunity to write my name in Balinese inside the UB Leiden, on a material that I learnt is first handpicked from gigantic palm trees, then soaked in bundles in crystal clear streams for some time, and then hand-crafted into its lontar form in Bali. Asian Studies at Leiden, with its unexpected openness and diverse attraction of people, is very special indeed.

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Tried my hand at some flower engraving and writing my name in Balinese. I also completely unintentionally butchered Hindi/ Devanagari, which is rather embarrassing (so be nice, please?).

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The second half of the Manuscripts of South and Southeast Asia workshop consisted of an introduction to lontar engraving and Balinese writing workshop. Displayed amongst textbooks for learning Balinese, were both the lontar and the instruments used for writing upon this palm leaf material.

About Sarah-Louise@TheLeidener

Hello, Sarah-Louise here. I study South & Southeast Asian Studies, including Hindi (नमस्ते), at the Faculty of Humanities. I am interested in identity formation, their politicisation, and social spaces, and for this reason I like to combine my own photography with storytelling. Feel free to leave a comment below, to request a blog topic or to approach me in person, if you happen to spot me on campus. For my full profile, please visit the Meet the Bloggers section of The Leidener.

2 comments on “Manuscripts of South & Southeast Asia Workshop: inside the secretive world of Asian Studies

  1. Daniel Salinas
    April 14, 2019

    The workshop sounds so cool! And I didn’t know the Asian Library had a plant hallway, it looks really nice, so nice I might have to try and sneak in for a look one day 😉

    • Sarah-Louise@TheLeidener
      April 14, 2019

      hahaha! …Or (so I don’t get head hunted by the library staff for planting this idea into your head) come to one of the films! 😀 You can get a newsfeed full of other lovely manuscripts as well as stay in the loop with the film schedule thanks to the the Asian Library Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/asianlibraryleiden/

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