The lontar or palmyra palm is the tree of life on the mountainous, arid islands of Indonesia's Nusa Tenggara Province. The Sasak communities of Lombok Island use the juice of this hairy, black trunked palm with a fan of leaves at the top to make a nutritious palm sugar for both themselves and their animals. Local vendors sell a homemade palm wine in the lanes of the villages and towns.
The smooth, waxy leaves are used for rain capes, folded into simple containers or dried and made into a papyrus-like writing paper. The Sasak communities are Islamic or Wektu Telu, a form of Islam combined with the earlier Hindu and Buddhist influences and many of these sacred teachings are recorded in lontar palm books.
Another use for the lontar palm is in decorated household storage boxes. These lontar boxes are made of light wood, bark and split bamboo with the lontar leaves and nassa shells added to the exterior for decoration. The dried palm leaves are strong and flexible with a natural pale yellow surface. The craftspeople dye them in bold blacks, browns, purples, reds and dark greens and more recently with variegated patterns. These are cut and glued to the surface of the boxes in lively geometric patterns accented with stitched lines of white shells. The boxes are very light and easy to move around, yet they are strong enough to stand on.
They are often made in nested, matched sets which can be stacked in colorful pyramids or rows in the house. The traditional dowry for a bride consists of many hand-loomed textiles. These are stored and carried in the wedding ceremony in lontar boxes such as the one illustrated above which is made in the shape of a traditional Sasak village house. The roof-shaped lid and middle sections are separate compartments.
Different families and villages may specialize in different stages of making these boxes. In central and east Lombok there is a cottage industry and new shapes, such as the decorative oval box below, are made for resale. These lovely small boxes are easier to resell to the Indonesian buyers in Jakarta and tourists can carry them home in a suitcase.
Other styles are being made including small chests with drawers, and the traditional box with an added edge for a sheet of glass to make an end table in a modern house. Lontar boxes are a good example of a craft which continues to evolve and change while still retaining its original uses in the Sasak communities of Lombok.
This type of lontar palm leaf book is found on other islands including Bali. The coin is an old Chinese one.
Lontar palm leaves are also use to make the cut leaf decorations which last longer than ones made of coconut palm leaves. These one is from Bali.
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