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Early Javanese Inscriptions: A New Dating Method

Early Javanese Inscriptions: A New Dating Method. By J. C. EADE and LARS GISLEN. Handbook of Oriental Studies, section 3: South Asia. Leiden: BRILL, 2000. Pp. ix + 224.

Serving as it must as a cornerstone of his research, calculation of dates within a reasonable margin of error is bound, at best, to be a daunting business for the historical expert; at worst, a terrifying and disorienting one. Finding the task to be not quite his cup of tea to start with, he may shrink from it with distaste or else find his patience sorely tried by its complexity, not to say its tedium. An inestimable debt of gratitude is thus owed to J. C. Eade of the Australian National University and Lars Gislen of Lund, for they approach the matter in a spirit of adventure and, appearing to like nothing better than a challenge, from an entirely new angle of attack. Working in concert, the one, a scholar of English Literature who has undergone a comprehensive refit as a specialist in southeast Asian calendars, and the other, a theoretical physicist with an auxiliary competency in information technology, have succeeded in producing an indispensable work of reference, a Handbuch in the best sense of the wor d and in the grand tradition of authoritative Wissenschaft. Their collaboration has resulted in an important addition to a distinguished series in Oriental studies, each of whose items on the languages, history, and cultures of the non-Western world excels, like the book under review, in utility and ease of access and is without compare in its field.

The authors' declared purpose is an examination of the substantial series of articles by the great epigrapher Louis-Charles Damais on the Indonesian inscriptional record, to see whether corrections, modifications, and improvements to the Javanese component of it are feasible. Java is the focus as Java constitutes three quarters of the whole in Damais' study (the remainder being of Balinese provenance). Their ambition is to place the analysis of the record on a different footing by making use of the gains in accuracy, speed, and reliability provided by computer analysis. To this end, they have resorted to an advanced Calendrical Computer Program based upon Suriyasiddhanta, which presents all the astronomical data and the indigenous Indonesian and Indian dating system data, and which, it is a delight to note, may be viewed with ease via a link on the World Wide Web, where a manual in MSWord is also to be found, together with a read-out of the Indonesian weekday combinations.

Damais' findings, the authors are careful to concede before offering their own, are by and large secure and inspire confidence, inasmuch as ambiguities and uncertainties in the original were quite properly left unresolved as a challenge to posterity. He paid especial attention to the weekday system whose 210-day structure can be determined with complete certainty, independently of the inscriptional data. Another system is, however, customarily in operation in the very same record, and it too is recoverable with tolerable certainty. This is the pancanga, whose constituent elements, the tithi, the wara, the naksatra, the yoga, and the karana, receive detailed and admirably terse consideration in section two. It serves as a control on evidence and veracity where the inscriptions citing date and weekday are concerned, and may be said thereby to yield a greater purchase on the text. The existence of many different canons is acknowledged (as is Roger Billard's pioneering study, L'Astronomie indienne [Paris, 1971]) but with demur, it being averred in defense of the present undertaking that no canon differs widely enough from the Suriyasiddhanta (which inserts additional lunar months into its calendar) to be thought of as the preferred model for Indonesia. The authors are quick to follow this remark with a general observation and a qualifying statement. The former makes clear that no lunar-solar calendrical system can be properly accounted for unless the type of intercalation/insertion is understood. The latter reminds us that the intercalary system invoked as the alternative throughout the monograph confines itself for much of the time to the months Vaisakha to Karttika, in contrast to its Javanese counterpart, which extends across the entire year. The Javanese record differs, too, in its doubling of particular months and in its tendency to insert the extra month sooner than might be indicated by procedure according to Suriyasiddihanta.

The art of the book lies in its adoption of a new method as a benchmark for assessment of the early Javanese record, differences of up to one day, plus or minus, providing a satisfactory match insofar as they may allow for distinction between minor dislocation and gross error. This is the best that can be hoped for in the circumstances, circumstances here being the absence of any indigenous treatise permitting us to say with confidence what modifications were made in Java to the imported system of reckoning, and whether systematically or haphazardly. The authors are commendably fastidious in their use of terms, "Java," they concede, functioning as more or less crude shorthand and of necessity skirting large issues of history, geography, and politics, not to mention linguistics and epigraphy. The ratiocination is sound and deserves to be credited: the wuku system, Eade and Gislen maintain, could no more be subject to local variation and idiosyncrasy than could the astronomical system have been unstable across regions and in time. And there is justice, too, in their claim to have established a rule of thumb for interpretation that provides a rational, orderly, and "remarkably consistent" account of how the Javanese intercalation system might have operated. The central section of this short but highly useful vade mecum is given over to a demonstration of how best to apply the rule of thumb recommended for practical purposes.

Early Javanese Inscriptions sheds much light on a difficult subject, and will amply repay the efforts of anyone possessed of the specialist interest (and, frankly, the staying power) needed to work his way through three chapters and seven appendices of an unremittingly technical and at times a forbiddingly abstruse nature. To suggest that the way forward, as paved here, is flanked the length by dense thicket, or to warn those treading it that the going is uphill, is to cast no blot on the authors' escutcheon. The difficulty inheres in the subject matter; there is no getting round it. All the more reason, then, to applaud the exceptional clarity of the authors' style, the felicity of phrase and grace of expression which everywhere marks explication and analysis. These qualities are conjoined to forensic skill and to circumspection and candor in treating of the invariably arcane problems to which interrogation of the evidence gives rise. In this respect, no less than as regards the zeal for the truth and the pr ocedural elan exhibited by its authors, the book may be held up as an example to any historian working on complex dating systems.
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Author:ROSKIES, D. M.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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