Material Text Cultures

Sacred and Holy Scripture. On the Materiality and Function of Competing Systems of Writing during the Formation of the Religious Field in Bali


current staff members

Teilprojektleiterin Prof. Dr. Annette Hornbacher
akademischer Mitarbeiter Jiří Jakl

former staff members

akademischer Mitarbeiter Prof. Dr. Richard Fox





  • Ongkara cake processParadigmatically working out the mutual entanglements of material script-bearers and ritual and/or cultural practices using Bali by way of example: above all comparison between magically effective and hermeneutically ‘legible’ writing.
  • Researching the significant transformations on the social, content and formal levels that currently are occurring in Bali through the transformation of the religious field by the adoption of typographical scripturality.
  • Analysis of reflexive approaches to various material script-bearers: from the ban on reading magical lontar texts to the current search for a typographically reproducible and broadly accessible ‘sacred scripture‘.


  • Ulantaga

    Documenting and analysing the material substrates of Balinese scripts (lontar, stone, fabric), their aesthetic design and their performative incorporation into social space.
  • Working out the concomitant social practices and hierarchies as well as the reflexive restriction and/or the ritual control of access vis-à-vis magical texts and sigils.
  • The key question is which changes and polarisations on the social levels and in the content accompany the transition from magically potent scripture to sacred text, and how do processes of modernisation affect the understanding and use of script and the interpretation of religion.


  • Kajang

    Of central importance to the CRC is extending the range of methods by including an ethnographic approach which, through participant observation, includes the social and ritual embeddedness of script-bearing artefacts and their reflexive categorisation by the protagonists, and thus can also provide a methodological corrective.



  • The Materiality and Efficacy of Aksara: Situating Balinese Scriptural Practices, An International Conference
    January 30 - February 1st 2014
    Institut für Ethnologie, Universität Heidelberg

The conference brought together leading experts in South and Southeast Asian literary culture to explore traditional uses of writing on the Indonesian island of Bali with a special emphasis on the power and efficacy attributed to Balinese script. Scholars have long recognized a certain gap between modern western practices of philological interpretation and those of the Javano-Balinese textual tradition. We were interested to ask what, if any, impact recognition of this gap should have on our conception of the text. Of what relevance, for example, are the uses to which Balinese script has been put in the context of ceremonial rites? Does it matter that many of the manuscripts on which we work were, and often are, thought to be ‘alive’ by those who have produced and made use of them? What ideas of materiality, power and agency are at work in the production and preservation of palm-leaf manuscripts, inscribed amulets and other script-bearing ritual instruments? In asking these questions we were not simply interested in attending to material – such as palm leaves, copper plates and the like – as an inert substrate for the text and its script. Rather we examined indigenous ideas of materiality with an eye to their implications for critical scholarship. It is in this latter connection that we were especially interested in comparison with uses of script and writing in India and Java, but also in mainland Southeast Asia. The proceedings of the conference are being published in a special volume by Brill (further details below).

  • Intensive Summer School Program in Kawi Language
    Summer Program run both in 2013 & 2014

Course Overview: Old Javanese – known in Bali as Kawi, the language of poets – artfully integrated lexemes, poetic meters and figures of speech from the world of Sanskrit into an Austronesian linguistic base. It played a crucial role in the artistic, ritual and sociopolitical life of pre-modern Java and Bali and spread its influence over a large area of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago. However, Kawi is not merely of historical interest; today it is a distinct linguistic register within Balinese and Javanese that is crucial for understanding how ethical and aesthetic ideals and the dynamics of ritual practice are shaped by the textual and oral traditions of Kawi. The aim of the course is to provide the tools needed for reading works of the prose (parwa) and verse (kakawin) forms of literature as well as didactic and documentary works. Students from disciplines ranging from art history and comparative religion to linguistics and comparative literature, as well as those focusing on some aspect of Indonesian society will benefit from this course. To attend the course no prior experience is required.


  • Fox, R. (2012) ‘Ngelidin Sétra, Nepukin Sema? Thoughts on Language and Writing in Contemporary Bali’. Jurnal Kajian Bali. 2(2): 21–48.
  • Fox, R. (2013) ‘Rival Styles of Writing, Rival Styles of Practical Reasoning’. Material Text Cultures Blog, 2013.03:
  • Fox, R. (2014) Online interview on the Material Text Cultures website. (Stand 08. November 2014)
  • Fox, R. (2015; in press) ‘Why Do Balinese Make Offerings? On Religion, Teleology and Complexity’. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde. 171(1): pages TBA.
  • Fox, R. (in preparation) ’The Meaning of Life… or, How to Do Things with Letters’. Chapter contribution to Hornbacher & Fox (eds.), as below.
  • Hornbacher, A. (2014) Machtvolle Zeichen: Schrift als Medium esoterischer Spekulation, ritueller Wirkung und religiöser Kanonisierung in Bali’. In: Joachim Quack u. Daniela Luft (Hgg.) Erscheinungsformen und Handhabungen Heiliger Schriften (Materiale Textkulturen 5), Berlin, 311–336.
  • Hornbacher, A. & R. Fox, eds. (forthcoming) The Materiality and Efficacy of Balinese Letters: Situating Scriptural Practice. Leiden: Brill.
  • Hornbacher, A. (in preparation) Chapter contribution to Hornbacher & Fox (eds.), as above.
  • Suamba, I.D.B. (2013) ‘Balinese Lontar. Its Philosophical Background and Its Ritual Performance’. Bali Prajna. 2(1): 65–71.
  • Die Projektleiterin und der Mitarbeiter des Teilprojekts beteiligten sich außerdem an insgesamt drei Artikeln im Sammelband MTK 1 (siehe unten in Abschnitt 32.2): Affordanz; Präsenz; Schriftzeichen.


  • Fox, R. (Winter 2012-13) Practical Matters, an MA seminar on theories of materiality.
  • Fox, R. (Winter 2014-15) The Uses and Consequences of Writing in Indonesia, MA seminar.
  • Hornbacher, A. (Sommer 2014) "Sprachbau", Schriftbild, "Geist": Wilhelm v. Humboldts Kawi Werk im Blick auf Boas und im Licht Derridas


Subprojects of the 3rd Funding Period

A01 A02 A03 A05 A06 A08 A09 A10 A11 A12 B01 B04 B09 B10 B13 B14 B15 C05 C07 C08 C09 C10 INF Ö2 Z



Completed Subprojects

A01 A03 A04 B02 B03 B06 B07 B11 B12 C01 C02 C03 C04 C06 IGK Ö1



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