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Poerbatjaraka (alternative spelling: Purbacaraka, 1 January 1884 – 25 July 1964) was a Javanese/Indonesian self-taught philologist and professor, specialising in Javanese literature. The son of a Surakarta courtier in the Dutch East Indies, he showed interest in Javanese literature at an early age, reading from books in the court's collection. Despite attending only primary school, his knowledge of Dutch and Javanese literature allowed him to take a position at the colony's Archaeology Service, and then at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He was allowed to obtain a doctor's degree at Leiden. He then returned to the colony to work at a Batavia (today Jakarta) museum, cataloguing Javanese texts and writing scholarly works. After Indonesia's independence, he became a professor at the universities of Indonesia, Gajah Mada, and Udayana.

Raden Mas Ngabehi

Poerbatjaraka in 2006 book cover.jpg
A portrait of Poerbatjaraka on the cover of a 2006 book commemorating him.

(1884-01-01)1 January 1884
Died25 July 1964(1964-07-25) (aged 80)
Jakarta, Indonesia
OccupationPhilologist, professor
Known forworks on the Javanese literature
AwardsHonorary Member, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies
Academic background
Alma materLeiden University
Academic work


Names and titlesEdit

It was common for a Javanese gentleman of Poerbatjaraka's time to change names and be given new titles throughout his life.[1] His birth name was Lesya (also spelled Lesja and Lesyo, meaning "funny").[2] When he served at the court he became known as Lesya Atmopradonggo.[2] After his first move to Jakarta, he became known as Poerbatjaraka and later granted the titles Raden and Ngabehi.[1] Subsequently, he was raised to the title of Raden Mas.[1]

The spelling of his adult name, "Poerbatjaraka", was Dutch and the one he always used.[3] In later Indonesian texts his name may be spelled "Purbacaraka" (using the latest spelling system), or "Purbatjaraka" (using the Republican Spelling System).[2] The first part of the name, Purba or Poerba, was from Sanskrit purwa ("first"), and his father's name prefix.[1] The second part, tjaraka or caraka was from hanacaraka, the name of the Javanese script, and was a literary allusion.[3]

Early life and familyEdit

Poerbatjaraka was born as Lesya on 1 January 1884 in Surakarta, the capital of Surakarta Sunanate, a principality which was then part of the Dutch East Indies.[2] He was the eldest son of Raden Tumenggung Purbadipura, a courtier to the Sunan (monarch) Pakubuwana X.[1] Purbadipura was close to the monarch, and took on multiple roles, including those comparable to a European master of the robes, a barber, a divination doctor, and a composer.[1]

Lesya attended the Hollands-Indische School (HIS), a primary level, colonial school for Indies natives. He was not given further education, which was common for children in his position.[4] He was interested in Dutch (the language of administration and scholarship at the time) and often talked to Dutch soldiers in his area to learn and practice the language. During his childhood, his love for classical Javanese literature began as he read works found in his father's library. He also read a book on old Javanese literature by the professor Hendrik Kern. It was a gift from a Dutch official to Pakubuwana, who did not read Dutch and gave it to Purbadipura. Once, when literary-minded courtiers had a discussion about Old Javanese poems, his insight from the book allowed him to solve a problem in explaining difficult passages, contradicting the more senior courtiers. This caused him serious trouble as it was not his place to do this. He began to feel uncomfortable at court, and wrote to the Dutch resident (the top colonial official in Surakarta). This correspondence resulted in an appointment in Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, with the colony's Archeological Service.[4]


Dr. G. A. J. Hazeu, for whom Poerbatjaraka worked as an assistant at Leiden University.

In 1910, Poerbatjaraka moved to Batavia to take the Archaeology Service position.[3] His knowledge of Javanese literature proved very useful to the institution, and he was often consulted by its staff.[3] During these years he also learned Sanskrit.[3] He took a new name, Poerbatjaraka (Purbacaraka in modern Indonesian spelling) and was given the titles Raden and Ngabehi.[3] After several years in Batavia, he was recruited by Leiden University in the Netherlands.[3] He became assistant to a scholar of Javanese culture Dr. G. A. J. Hazeu, and taught Javanese language classes.[3] Despite not having the prerequisite academic requirements, he was given special dispensation and allowed to pursue a doctorate, which he did without attending lectures.[3][5] He completed his doctor's degree cum laude[2] in 1926, with his thesis titled "Agastya in den Archipel" ("Agastya in Nusantara").[3]

He then returned to Batavia and worked at the Museum of the Royal Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences (today the National Museum of Indonesia), and catalogued the museum's large collection of Javanese texts, accumulated over nearly a century. While doing this, he wrote monographs on several groups of manuscripts, containing their Dutch summaries and indexes of names.[3] In Batavia, he also met the future historian of Java, H. J. de Graaf, to whom he gave weekly lessons in Javanese culture and language between 1927 and 1930. De Graaf later considered Poerbatjaraka his "revered teacher" and praised him for "unveil[ing] some of the secrets of your people".[6]

After Indonesia's independence, he became a professor, teaching at Gajah Mada University in Jogjakarta, University of Indonesia in Jakarta, and Udayana University in Denpasar, Bali.[5] He was one of the founders of Udayana's Literature Department. He continued to write about Javanese history and literature for journals both in Indonesia and the Netherlands. In 1952, he published a collection of his studies in a book entitled Kapustakaan Djawi. He was made an honorary member of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in 1963.[7] In 1964, the Indonesian Journal of Cultural Studies published a volume of twenty-six articles in his honour to mark his 80th birthday.[1] On 25 July of the same year, he died in Jakarta.[8]

Scholarly style and worksEdit

The Literature Department's faculty building named after Poerbatjaraka at Gajah Mada University, Yogyakarta.

With limited formal education, Poerbatjaraka was largely an autodidact.[9] Early in his career, he was criticized as "amateurish", and lacking a "scholarly accurateness".[9] According to the Javanese literature scholar Th. Pigaud, he made up for this with his extensive knowledge of Javanese literature, of all things Javanese in general, and by his zeal for Javanese studies.[9] As he matured, he gained respect among both Europeans and his fellow Indonesians.[9] His works combined the scientific method—which was uncommon among Indonesian native authors at his time—with his intimate knowledge of his subjects as an insider.[10] He was often critical of the text and manuscript that he worked on, noticing spelling errors, and preferring to compare multiple sources before publishing a manuscript.[11] Pigeaud said that his works and his behaviour often showed a sense of humour characteristic of a punokawan (jesters in Javanese wayangs).[12] During his retirement in Jakarta, he did not stop working.[13] De Graaf said that during this period he was "quietly but indefatigably studying and publishing".[13]

According to his biography by Indonesia's Education and Cultural Ministry, he published seventy-nine works throughout his life, while Pigeaud put the number at seventy-three.[8] His works focus on epigraphy of old Javanese literature.[14] They were written mostly in Dutch and, after Indonesia's independence in 1945, he also wrote in Indonesian and Javanese.[15]

Among his notable works, he published studies on Agastya, the Old Javanese works Smaradahana, Arjunawiwaha, Ramayana and, with C. Hooykaas, the Bharatayudha.[16] His study on the Ramayana established that, based on language, metrics, titles of officials and description of a temple, the Old Javanese version of the epic poem originated at the end of the ninth or the beginning of the tenth century. This finding was later confirmed by other studies, including one by Hooykaas.[14] Later in his career, he published Kapustakan Djawi ("Javanese Literature"), which surveyed eighty-four old and modern Javanese literary works.[17] He also published what he intended to be the first volume of Riwajat Indonesia ("The History of Indonesia"), covering the country's history up to the eighth century.[17] No further volume was published until his death.[17][18]

Personal lifeEdit

Poerbatjaraka was married, "at a mature age," to a member of the Yogyakarta royal family. A Javanese gentleman of standing, he was proud of his Surakarta heritage. Throughout his life he supported his many relatives.[12]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g Pigeaud 1966, p. 405.
  2. ^ a b c d e van der Meij 2006, p. 1.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Pigeaud 1966, p. 407.
  4. ^ a b Pigeaud 1966, p. 406.
  5. ^ a b
  6. ^ Ricklefs 1985, p. 192.
  7. ^ Pigeaud 1966, pp. 407–8.
  8. ^ a b van der Meij 2006, p. 2.
  9. ^ a b c d Pigeaud 1966, p. 409.
  10. ^ van der Meij 2006, pp. 1,3.
  11. ^ van der Meij 2006, pp. 5–8.
  12. ^ a b Pigeaud 1966, p. 408.
  13. ^ a b Ricklefs 1985, p. 199.
  14. ^ a b Hall 1961, p. 141.
  15. ^ Anderson 2006, p. 213.
  16. ^ Hall 1961, pp. 136,141.
  17. ^ a b c Hall 1961, p. 155.
  18. ^ Pigeaud 1966, pp. 411–412.


  • Pigeaud, Th. (1966). "In Memoriam Professor Poerbatjaraka". Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde. Leiden. 122 (4): 404–412. doi:10.1163/22134379-90002918. ISSN 0006-2294. JSTOR 27860637.
  • Ricklefs, M. C. (1985). "In Memoriam Dr. H. J. de Graaf: 2 December 1899 — 24 August 1984". Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde. Brill. 141 (2/3): 191–201. JSTOR 27863672.
  • van der Meij, Dick (2006). "Prof. Dr. R.M. Ng. Purbatjaraka Tokoh Jawa Dalam Dunia Ilmu Pengetahuan Kesusastraan Jawa" (in Indonesian). Perpustakaan Nasional Indonesia (The National Library of Indonesia).
  • "Poerbatjaraka". Retrieved 21 May 2017.
  • Anderson, Benedict R. O'G (2006). Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia. Equinox Publishing. ISBN 978-979-3780-40-5.
  • Hall, Daniel George Edward (1961). Historians of South East Asia. Oxford University Press.