Like the country itself with its 17,000 islands, the great diversity of peoples, languages and religions in the Indonesian archipelago has also left its mark on Indonesia’s literature. This means there is not just a single literature, but a dozen different writing traditions, including Malay (Indonesian), Balinese, Sundanese and Javanese. Poetry has always played a significant role in the cultures of Indonesia and the country is distinguished by a very long oral tradition. Poems, fairy tales and sagas have been passed down by word of mouth, since time immemorial – often accompanied by music and performed in groups.
The roots of Indonesia’s written traditions stretch back 2,000 years – further back in time than most Western literatures. Some of the earliest known examples are the stone inscriptions of Kutai, in western Kalimantan (Borneo), dating from around 400 AD, and the Talang Tuwo stone, dating from 648, which was found in Palembang (South Sumatra), the 7th century capital city of the old kingdom of Srivijaya. Already at that time, the site was an important centre for the study of Buddhism with an extensive library and more than 1,000 scholars from near and far.