Digitising Malay writing in Sri Lanka (EAP609)

Aims and objectives

This project aims to create a digital archive of Malay writing (including manuscripts, printed books, letters, other documents) held in private collections in Sri Lanka. Written for the most part in Arabic script (but also in the Roman, Tamil and Sinhala scripts) by descendants of exiles, convicts, and soldiers from the Indonesian archipelago and the Malay Peninsula between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, these rare and fragile documents attest to social and cultural aspects of the community’s life, allow for an expansion of our definitions of the ‘Malay World,’ and provide insight into local forms of Islam. There is urgent need to document and preserve such collections, endangered not only by tropical weather and the ravages of time, but also by their owners’ lack of knowledge in archival preservation and a contemporary ignorance regarding the manuscripts’ content and significance.

The Malays of Sri Lanka are a remarkable community, having preserved a spoken dialect of Malay and a rich writing tradition in that language despite living in South Asia for over three centuries. Today most fragile manuscripts that still survive are kept in private collections in poor conditions and many are discarded as their owners age and die, and the younger generation no longer reads the Arabic script in which the manuscripts are written nor understands their content or significance.

The history of the ‘Malay’ community in Sri Lanka goes back to the middle of the seventeenth century, following the foundation of Dutch rule in the island in 1640. The designation ‘Malay’ has been commonly used to refer to people from the Indonesian Archipelago who were exiled to Sri Lanka by the Dutch as political exiles and convicts, or recruited as soldiers to colonial armies, both Dutch and at a later stage, British. Many of those designated as Malay were of Javanese or east Indonesian ancestry, and the early exiles included members of diverse local elites. Despite the distance from the Indonesian-Malay world the Sri Lankan community maintained a flourishing literary culture, with works that closely resemble those produced in the Malay “heartlands” as well as local creations.

This project follows up on the earlier pilot project EAP 450 aimed at surveying the condition of Malay manuscripts and printed books in Sri Lanka and assessing the potential and feasibility of digitising these collections. As a result of that pilot project it is believed that Malay materials in Sri Lanka do indeed justify a major digitisation project and that there is a willingness, even enthusiasm, amongst community members for such a project to materialise. There is no way to calculate precisely the number of manuscripts or books that survive. Beyond the question of quantity it is clear that these sources tell a story about a fascinating history and culture, and in that sense each is valuable and deserving of preservation.

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 project will result in the creation of a digital archive freely available to all. Copies will be accessible via the National Archives of Sri Lanka, the British Library and the library at the Australian National University.


The project encompasses a range of materials written in the Malay language in Sri Lanka from around the mid 19th century to the late 20th century. It includes manuscripts, printed books, prayer booklets, wedding invitations, personal letters, family records, poems and songs. These diverse materials testify to the variety of ways in which Malay was, and is, used in Sri Lanka. The majority of older materials are Islamic in nature, including theological manuals, poems in praise of the Prophet, and tales and histories written in the hikayat genre. These are written in gundul (Malay-Arabic script) and/or Romanised Malay. The collection also includes modern examples of Malay written in the Tamil and Sinhala script, as well as older materials in Arabic and Arabu-Tamil owned by Malay families, testifying to the linguistic and orthographic diversity of the community's writing practices.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: