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Bhāṣa Kawi, Old Javanese
Spoken in Java, Bali, Madura, Lombok, Indonesia; Philippines
Region Malay Archipelago
Language extinction literary language, archaic by 14th century
Language family Austronesian
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2 kaw
ISO 639-3 kaw

Kawi (from Sanskrit: kavi, "poet") is a literary and prose language on the islands of Java, Bali, and Lombok, based on Old Javanese, a language with a sizable vocabulary of Sanskrit loanwords. Kawi is the ancestor language of modern Javanese. The name "kawi" is derived from the root ku, which in Sanskrit means “poet”, and, in derived forms, a “wise, educated man”. The syllabic meter of Kawi poetry is sekar kawi, which means “flowers of the language”, sekar itself deriving from the Sanskrit "sekhara" (“garland”).[citation needed] All Javanese languages are hierarchical and stratified, with strict social conventions for appropriate language subsets to be used for one's superiors or social and cultural functions. Kawi is commonly considered the pinnacle language.

Kawi uses a unique script for writing commonly called hanacaraka; the more correct term is "Dentawiyanjana". It is a syllabic alphabet consisting of 20 letters and ten numbers and a number of vowel and consonant modifiers. The script of the island of Bali, heavily influenced by neighboring Java, has a unique sub-form called Tulisan Bali. Prince Aji Caka (an Indian migrant) is credited with establishing the first known kingdom of Java, called Java Dvipa (Swarna Dvipa) and also introducing the Kawi language was and the twenty letters of the syllabic hanacaraka script.[1] The Javanese also credit the language to Aji Saka, a legendary hero of Medang Kamulan Kingdom. The earliest known inscription of Kawi is found at Candhi Gunung Wukir, in Magelang, East Java, Indonesia.

Kawi is not truly extinct as a spoken language. It is commonly used in wayanga golek, wayang wong and wayang kulit, in addition to high activities such as a Javanese wedding, especially for the stylised meeting ritual of bride's parents with groom's parents in the ceremonies of Peningsetan and Panggih. Archaically or for certain nobles very strongly attached to tradition, it is used for the Midodareni, Siraman and Sungkeman ceremonies of the Javanese wedding.

The island of Lombok has adopted Kawi as its regional language, reflecting the very strong influence of neighbouring East Java. Today it is taught in primary school education as part of the compulsory secondary language unit os National curriculum. Traditionally, Kawi is written on lontar prepared palm leaves.

Kawi remains in occasional use as an archaic prose and literary language, in a similar fashion to Shakespeare-era English, which has such aesthetically and arguably more cultivated words as thy, thee, hast and so forth.

The first scholar to address Kawi in a serious academic manner was Humboldt, who considered it the father of all Malay-Polynesian languages. Furthermore, he deprecated misconceptions about Aki being wholly influenced by Sanskrit, finding that Kawi did not use verb inflexion, thus differing from Sanskrit's highly developed inflectional system. In Kawi language, the meaning of a sentence must be grasped through word order and context. Humboldt further noted that Kawi utilizes tense distinctions, with past, present, and future, and differentiated moods via the imperative and subjunctive.

There are many important literary works written in Kawi, most notably Empu Tantular's epic poem, "Kakawin Sutasoma" (E.M. Uhlenbeck, 1964: "A Critical Survey of Studies on the Languages of Java and Madura", The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff), from which is taken the National motto of Indonesia: "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika". Although often glibly translated as "Unity in Diversity", it is more correctly rendered as "[although] scattered, remaining [as] one"— referring to the scattered islands of the archipelago nation, not as an expression of multicultural solidarity as may be perceived in modern times.

A more modern work is the poem "Susila Budhi Dharma", by Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo, the founder of Subud. In this work, he provides a framework for understanding the experience of the latihan kejiwaan.


Prominent authors

The following are famous authors of Kawi and its associated Jawa Kuno literature:

  1. Candakarana
  2. Sang Hyang Kamahayanikan
  3. Brahmandapurana
  4. Agastyaparwa
  5. Uttarakanda
  6. Adiparwa
  7. Sabhaparwa
  8. Wirataparwa, 996
  9. Udyogaparwa
  10. Bhismaparwa
  11. Asramawasanaparwa
  12. Mosalaparwa
  13. Prasthanikaparwa
  14. Swargarohanaparwa
  15. Kunjarakarna

Famous poems, epics and other literature include:

  1. Kakawin Tertua Jawa, 856
  2. Kakawin Ramayana ~ 870
  3. Kakawin Arjunawiwaha, mpu Kanwa, ~ 1030
  4. Kakawin Kresnayana
  5. Kakawin Sumanasantaka
  6. Kakawin Smaradahana
  7. Kakawin Bhomakawya
  8. Kakawin Bharatayuddha, mpu Sedah dan mpu Panuluh, 1157
  9. Kakawin Hariwangsa
  10. Kakawin Gatotkacasraya
  11. Kakawin Wrettasañcaya
  12. Kakawin Wrettayana
  13. Kakawin Brahmandapurana
  14. Kakawin Kunjarakarna, mpu "Dusun"
  15. Kakawin Nagarakretagama, mpu Prapanca, 1365
  16. Kakawin Arjunawijaya, mpu Tantular
  17. Kakawin Sutasoma, mpu Tantular
  18. Kakawin Siwaratrikalpa, Kakawin Lubdhaka
  19. Kakawin Parthayajna
  20. Kakawin Nitisastra
  21. Kakawin Nirarthaprakreta
  22. Kakawin Dharmasunya
  23. Kakawin Harisraya
  24. Kakawin Banawa Sekar Tanakung

Key scholars

Numerous scholars include the Dutch expatriate Indonesian Prof. Dr. Petrus Josephus Zoetmulder S.J., who contributed an enormous quantity of original texts and serious scholarly study to the language, and his pupil and associate, Father Dr. Ignatius Kuntara Wiryamartana. Other eminent Indonesian scholars include Poedjawijatna, Sumarti Suprayitna, Poerbatjaraka and Tardjan Hadiwidjaja.



  • De Casparis, J. G., Indonesian Palaeography : A History of Writing in Indonesia from the beginnings to c. AD 1500, Leiden/Koln, 1975
  • Florida, Nancy K., Javanese Literature in Surakarta Manuscripts: Introduction and Manuscripts of the Karaton Surakarta, Cornell Univ Southeast Asia, 1993 ISBN 087727603X
  • Wilhelm von Humboldt’s "Über die Kawi-Sprache (On the Kawi Language)": 1836
  • Poerbatjaraka dan Tardjan Hadiwidjaja, 1952, Kepustakaan Djawa'. Djakarta/Amsterdam: Djambatan.
  • Teselkin, Old Javanese (Kawi)
  • E.M. Uhlenbeck, 1964, di dalam bukunya : "A Critical Survey of Studies on the Languages of Java and Madura", The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff
  • Zurbuchen, Introduction to Old Javanese Language and Literature: A Kawi Prose Anthology
  • P.J. Zoetmulder, S.O. Robson, Darusuprapta, 1995, Kamus Jawa Kuna-Indonesia, Jakarta: Gramedia dan Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (KITLV). Bekerja sama dengan S.O. Robson. Penerjemah: Darusuprapta dan Sumarti Suprayitna. ISBN 979-605-347-0
  • 1992-1993, Bahasa parwa : tatabahasa Jawa Kuna: Yogyakarta: Gadjah Mada University Press. Bekerja sama dengan I.J. Poedjawijatna. Cetakan ulang dari edisi tahun 1954

External links

See also



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