SOAS University of London

SOAS Library digitises North Sumatran “magic book”

2 July 2018

SOAS University of London Library has revived the rituals and magic of North Sumatra through a unique digitisation project of the Batak Pustaha. The School is now the second institution in the world to make a full manuscript available online.

The Batak Pustaha [Magic Book] (circa pre-1835) records various types of knowledge, including cures for illness, massage, the production of amulets and offensive magic. There are also calendars used to determine auspicious days for journeys, planting, marriage, house-building or other social activities. The Batak book also uses pictures of animals, insects and human bodies to illustrate charms or ceremonies as described in Batak script.

SOAS Batak magic book

The book came to SOAS archives in 1918 as part of the Marsden Collection – a selection of texts from the English orientalist, William Marsden. Zoom into the pages here for a horizontal view of the book, which is the more culturally faithful representation of the book. 

Annabel Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia at the British Library said: “The digitisation of a Batak manuscript in SOAS Library, MS 41836, is warmly welcomed. This is only the second Batak manuscript in the UK to be fully digitised, after the British Library’s Add. 4726 (found here), which is generally acknowledged as the oldest known Batak manuscript. As part of the important Marsden collection, MS 41836 which probably dates from the late 18th century, and appears to be of considerable textual and artistic significance. Scholars of Batak worldwide – both in Indonesia and elsewhere – will greatly appreciate digital access to this important manuscript in its entirety.’

It consists of 91 pages made from palm tree bark, which has been folded together in a concertina fashion with ink applied to engraved lines of writing. This makes the artefact extremely fragile so digitisation is both a preservation and distribution strategy, allowing researchers near and far to consult them without risk of damage.

SOAS Digital Collections is part of an ambitious, on-going plan to digitise SOAS special collections, archives and research resources for use by a broader, global community. The Batak manuscript is just one of several treasures of SOAS.

SOAS would like to invite those using the book and familiar with the language to help provide users with transcriptions and translations of the book, which would make the manuscript more useful for study. Please contact Stuart Linnett