Hidden Gems: The Mystery of the Missing Bunga Mas

by Jean-Marie Metzger

This may sound more like a ‘Conan Doyle’ story than an article by a Museum Volunteer; so, let’s find out what’s behind this ‘Mystery of the Bunga Mas’.

Everybody will probably be familiar with the Bunga Mas, a reproduction of which is on display in Gallery C of the National Museum.  The correct name of this artefact is actually Bunga Mas dan Perak, which, rather than ‘Golden Flower’ means ‘Gold and Silver Flower’. Indeed, it is very likely that such an imposing artefact, weighing several pounds, with a height of about 1.5 m1, would be very fragile had it been made of solid gold. But as the actual name seems to indicate, it was probably made of gold-plated silver.

The gifts of the Bunga Mas were sent to the King of Siam every three years, by the Sultans of the Northern Malay States (Kedah, Terengganu, Kelantan, Patani,…) accompanied with other gifts, such as shields and spears.

Bunga Mas at Gallery C Muzium Negara. From http://www.muziumnegara.gov.my/gallery/items/Bunga_Mas_61

These gifts from the Sultans to the King, were probably laden with deep political misunderstanding: while the King of Siam would consider them as a recognition of suzerainty over the Malay Sultanates, the Sultans would simply regard them as a token of friendship. The relationship between the northern Sultanates and the Kingdom of Siam had never been an easy one, as can be seen by the various appeals for ‘protection’ to the different occupying powers, be it the Dutch or later the British. There could occasionally even be exchanges of concealed insults. According to a note found in the Cambridge University Library2 (Archives of the British Association of Malaysia and Singapore), the author mentions that he had seen a letter which was sent to the Sultan of Terengganu by the King of Siam in which the latter reversed the traditional courteous formula: ‘sending a gift from the Head of the Sultan to the feet of the King’, into the insulting reply: ‘from beneath the King’s feet to the crown of the Sultan’s head’.

The last Bunga Mas from Kedah to the King of Siam was sent in 1906. Three years later, another Bunga Mas was ready to be sent. In March 1909, however, before it could be send to Siam, Britain and Siam signed a treaty in which the sovereignty over the northern sultanates of Malaya (with the exception of Patani and Setul) was to be transferred to Britain.

According to the above-mentioned note, the Sultan of Kedah sent this Bunga Mas to King Edward VII instead. In the first report of the British advisor to Kedah, Mr. Maxwell, he noted that during the meeting of the State Council on August 23rd 1909, the question arose whether sending the Bunga Mas to Edward VII was to be regarded as ‘the last of a series relating to a remote past’. The offer was indeed accepted, and Tunku Muhammad Jiwa, who had conveyed the previous Bunga Mas to Bangkok, set off to Singapore. Two Bunga Mas, together with forty-two spears and twenty-four shields, as well as a Bunga Mas from Perlis, and ‘other offerings from Terengganu’, were sent to the Colonial Office, and were personally presented to the King by the Secretary of States to the Colonies.

This is where the mystery begins. Although the Archives of Windsor Castle mention that the gift had been received by King Edward, all of the artefacts have subsequently disappeared. There is no mention of them whatsoever in the Royal Collections. A few months ago, the curator for the Royal Gifts, when questioned by me about these artefacts, told me that they had never been heard of. They are certainly not registered in the current inventory.

Furthermore, it seems that another final gift of Bunga Mas was sent in 1911 to King George V by the Sultan of Kedah on the occasion of the King’s coronation. This too seems to have disappeared!

Now there is food for further research: Kedah Archives, Malaysian National Archives, British Colonial Office Archives…MVs! Get ready!

Notes:

1  https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2010/12/07/museum-dept-to-have-a-closer-look-at-bunga-emas-in-bangkok/

2 University of Cambridge Library – RCS/RCMS 103/2/12 ; the author is identified as Hugh Patterson Bryson, and is referenced as having written the note in 1965 see : https://janus.lib.cam.ac.uk/db/node.xsp?id=EAD%2FGBR%2F0115%2FRCMS%20103%2F2%2F12

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Graduation – Batches 28 and 29

The graduation ceremony for Batches 28 and 29 took place on 10 March. Karen, in her opening speech, was happy to note that a high percentage of trainees graduated this year – 27 out of 30 from Batch 28 and 8 out of 9 from Batch 29. In addition, 16 out of 18 trainees  from Batch 30 received their certificate of completion. She also noted that Batches 28 and 29 were the only batches to have trained in February and that the training programme will revert to September this year with Batches 31, 32, and 33. Karen highlighted that the current two-tier graduation will no longer be practised and that Batch 30 will be the last batch to receive course completion certificates. Moving forward, trainees will only receive graduation certificates. Moving forward, JMM has requested more Mandarin-speaking guides. In addition, Karen is looking at the MV extending tours to Muzium Tekstil and Muzium DiRaja.

Karen

Representatives of the various batches shared their experiences. Below are the speeches made by Rama and Afidah, both from Batch 28.


Ramanathan L Manickavasagan (Batch 28)

Rama

About 14 months ago, on the 21st of January, 2017, the group known as “Batch 28 volunteers” met together for the first time. We were shown the schedule of training which we must attend and we were told what we must fulfil in order to qualify as guides.

We gasped when we heard that we would have to submit written texts and give oral presentations lasting 3 minutes for one artefact, 5 minutes for two artefacts and 15 minutes for a whole gallery. We shuddered when told we had to present without notes.

We were pleased when we learned that we would have mentors who would teach and encourage us. Our pleasure grew over the weeks as we realised how capable our trainers were, just as our anxiety grew because we saw they exhibited such high standards.

On 20th June 2017 we completed our formal training. By then

  • We had written 3 papers, varying in length from 500 words to 3,000 words
  • We had communicated often through WhatsApp messages.
  • We had accompanied at least 3 guides as they conducted public tours.
  • We had read much both in books and through online research.
  • We had completed our single gallery, 15 minute presentations and received feedback from our classmates as well as our trainers.
  • We felt like “maybe we can do this.”

Then we scheduled time with our trainer-mentors for us to do solo guides of the whole museum so they could watch us, give us feedback and decide when we would be ready to be rostered as museum guides.

Today each of us from Batch 28 has conducted at least 3 tours on our own. We have guided visitors from across a wide spectrum of humanity: young, old, eager, passive, aggressive, silent, interrogative, patient, impatient, well-read and unread.

We’ve often had the interaction I again had yesterday when I was guiding:

  • 10 am
    • Guide: What made you come to the museum?
    • Visitor: Reading about how much visitors enjoyed the free guided tours.
  • 12 noon (it usually takes 2 hours, not the hoped for 1 hr 20 minutes)
    • Guide: Did the tour meet your expectations?
    • Visitor: Oh, it’s even better than I expected.

We reverberate with joy when that happens. The joy comes not only from personal satisfaction. It comes also from the fact that each guide is a member of a community of guides who strive to excel in knowledge, presentation and service.

As I lay in bed last night thinking about the discourse during the morning’s guided tour, I recalled this passages from a book I read some years ago:

History is the study of humans and time, indeed, of humans changing over time. Furthermore, history is the memory of the stories about people changing over a time span. In a certain sense, history would not be possible if it were not for the telling of it. … History untold is not history at all. History … is vital to our human existence. To have no story is, almost, to have no life. People suffering from amnesia can live and function, but they lead pitiable lives because they have lost contact with their own story. (Wells, History Through the Eyes of Faith, page 2)

A year on, I realise we are story tellers, our subject matter is history and our goal is the removal of amnesia.

Becoming a museum guide has made us more thoughtful persons, more careful in what we say and driven to study. This is a day to be celebrated. I thank all of you, trainers and trainees alike, who have made it possible for us to join the ranks of amnesia-removers.


Afidah Zuliana bt Abdul Rahim (Batch 28)

Afidah

It has been my secret ambition to be a museum volunteer for about 22 years now. In 1996, the President of Korea Gas Corporation, Mr. Han Kap-Soo requested a visit to Muzium Negara. As a young Petronas executive, I was assigned to show Mr. Han around the museum. It was a daunting task as I had to rely on my Form 3 Malaysian history to inform this distinguished gentleman. Thankfully, I managed to pull through and surprisingly enjoyed myself, so much so that I secretly wished to be able to do more museum tours. Of course, the MV did not exist then. It was only last year that I finally had the opportunity to sign up as an MV trainee.  Thank you Karen and team for making my dream a reality.

It has been a challenging journey for Batch 28 but I am sure you would agree that it has been well worth the effort. Thanks to our inspiring lecturers, MV trainers and librarians, our knowledge of Malaysian history has improved tremendously. Also, our presentation skills have been honed over the past year.  Special thanks to my mentor, Jega. Thank you Poh Leng, Jean-Marie and Douglas for your dedication and patience in training us. Thank you to En. Jamil, Fiza & Jane of JMM for hosting us.

This MV training has certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone. Notably, when one of my visitors, having been on my tour, decided to introduce me to a Harvard-trained anthropologist so that we can talk shop! With nerves of steel, I drew upon my MV training to get through our lunch and I am happy to say that we are still in touch. The training also gave me the confidence to seek out a curator from the Asian Civilisations Museum and engage in conversations with Singapore docents.

My world has expanded with this experience. I joined the MV trips to Sin Sze Si Ya temple and Royal Museum – places I had not visited, even as a local. Above all, the MV training has given me a deeper appreciation of Malaysian history and culture. As a Malaysian, I am proud of our rich heritage.

So far, I feel that I have gained more than I have given. Now, it’s payback time! I tell almost everyone I meet about our free guided tours. I look forward to my monthly guiding duty and to future MV events. There is still so much more to learn.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me.

Sama-sama, kita berkhidmat untuk negara.

The three batches together with their trainers

 

Hidden Gems: The Magic Square Bowl

by Marianne Khor

Amidst a number of examples of the Islamic influence on metal and ceramic wares in a showcase in Gallery B, a small bowl can be found with the intriguing description ‘Magic Square Bowl’. It looks like a small Chinese rice bowl but is decorated with Islamic script. On the inside of the bowl is a square consisting of sixteen smaller squares, also containing Islamic writing. Was it used to perform magic, or was it magical in itself?

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Chinese ceramics with Islamic script were already produced in China and transported along the maritime trade routes by Arab and Persian traders. After the Tang Dynasty, ceramics with Islamic inscriptions were no longer produced. Only in the early 16th Century did they appear again. The Magic Square Bowl in Gallery B is from the 18th Century Qing Dynasty.

The Magic Square, or Buduh tradition, predates Islam. The early Magic Square is thought to be of Chinese origin and consisted of a 3×3 square with 9 smaller squares. The numbers 1-9, with the number 5 in the centre, add up to 15 in each row, column and the two diagonals. An early version of Sudoku? A Magic Square was used to find love, prevent fears, attacks and poisoning. It helped during childbirth and also in finding lost objects. In short, it could be quite helpful for many occasions. Later, there were Magic Squares of 4×4, 6×6, 7×7, and 10×10, and even 100×100 squares with an arrangement of letters and numerals.

Islamic mathematicians in the Arab world already knew about the Magic Square as early as the 7th Century. This knowledge may have come from India through the study of Indian astronomy and mathematics, or from China. The earliest Magic Squares were written in ‘abjad’ letter-numerals. The four corners of the square were marked with the letters ba’, dal, waw (or u) and ha. Therefore, this particular square was known as the ‘Buduh’ square.

The name ‘Buduh’ itself was so powerful that it was regarded as a most effective talisman, and so was the letter B with its numerical equivalents 2,4,6,8. This arrangement of letters and its corresponding numbers is believed to protect travellers, babies, postal letters and packages. Even today in some Islamic countries, one can find packages marked with the numbers 2,4,6 or 8 in the corners, or just the letter B added under the address to ensure that the items arrive safely. This might be something worth trying out!

Magic Squares were used by Muslims as religious mandalas, meditation devices, talisman, and amulets. They were drawn on a variety of objects, even on skin.

The Arabic letters and numerals in the Magic Square can also be read as one of the ninety-nine names or attributes of God. The numerical value with a certain specific meaning can be obtained by adding the corresponding letters of any of the columns of the Magic Square in a horizontal, vertical or diagonal way.

One wonders what the inscriptions in the Magic Square Bowl in Gallery B represent…

Do they have a religious meaning?

Or are they just meant to bring good luck in any situation?

Bibliography:

Invulnerability, Federation Museum Journal, Volume XVI new series 1971

Arts and Crafts Company, Global Arts and Crafts, Antiques, Design and Art, Kho- antiques ( Singapore)

Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the US National Library of Medicine, Catalogue: Astrology/Divination/Magic, Author: Emilie Savage-Smith PH.D. Senior Associate, The Oriental Institute University of Oxford

Hypernumber Buduh: hypernumber.blogspot.my

Peking man disappears

by Maganjeet Kaur

A pharmacy may seem an unusual place to look for petrified fossils but palaeontologists in China used to frequent these shops to get leads on possible sites for archaeological digs. This is because farmers coming across ‘dragon’ bones would sell them to medicine shops where they were pounded into a remedy for a wide range of ailments. The palaeontologists recognised that these dragon bones were in actuality fossils of extinct animals. Peking man was discovered through such a lead.

In 1923, Otto Zdansky, an Austrian palaeontologist, unearthed a rich hoard of fossils at Chou Kou Tien (now Zhoukoudian), which is located around 50 kilometres southwest of Peking (now Beijing). The hoard consisted of at least twenty species of animals, majority of which are extinct. This impressive find was made momentous by two small teeth – a molar and a premolar. The teeth were those of a hominid (primitive man) said to have lived around 500,000 years ago (Chinese scientists later revised this to 700,000). The moniker ‘Peking man’ was coined. The importance of Peking man prompted the establishment of a formal programme to continue the exploration at Chou Kou Tien. The programme was led by the Peking Union Medical College (PUMC) and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Zhoukoudian site

Further excavations led to more hominid finds. In 1929, Pei Wen Chung found the first complete skull. By 1937, the collection of bones had grown to represent 40 separate individuals – men, women, and children. These individuals were all part of a single population group. Finding an array of bones which represents a single population is very rare and this further illustrates the importance of Chou Kou Tien. Peking man is not so much an individual but rather an epithet used to represent this population. Although initially given a separate genus, Sinanthropus pekinensis, Peking man is now accepted within the genus Homo with the species name Homo erectus Pekinensis.

Replica of five skulls found at Chou Kou Tien

Excavations had to be halted in 1937 because of growing tensions between the Chinese and Japanese. The PUMC had so far escaped raids by the Japanese as the institution was American; Japan was not at war with America. However, there was a growing sense of danger and in 1941 this became so pronounced that the Chinese appealed to the Director of PUMC to send Peking man to the US for safekeeping. This, the Director was reluctant to do as the understanding between PUMC and the Rockefeller Foundation was that all finds from Chou Kou Tien would remain in China. However, in August 1941, the Chinese managed to persuade the American ambassador to ship out the fossils.

Due to some unknown delay, the fossils were only prepared for shipment in mid-November 1941. They were wrapped in cotton and packed in small boxes. These boxes were then placed in two wooden boxes, similar to the footlockers used by the U.S. Marines for their personal effects. The footlockers were sent to the U.S. Marines barracks in Peking as the marines were entrusted with taking them safely out of China. The marines, though, were not aware of the contents of the footlockers or of their importance.

Replica of a footlocker in which Peking man was packed

The marines were to rendezvous with the SS President Harrison, which had been commissioned to transport them to Manila and which was due in the port of Chingwangtao (now Qinhuangdao) on 8 December. But time had run out. Japan bombed Pearl Harbour on 7 December and the two countries were now at war. American property and personnel were no longer inviolate. The SS President Harrison, captured by the Japanese near the mouth of the Yangstze River, never made it to Chingwangtao. The footlockers are believed to have reached Camp Holcomb, a U.S. military base in Chingwangtao. However, this camp was taken over by the Japanese on the morning of 8 December. The Peking man fossils disappeared, never to be seen again.

Camp Holcomb, U.S. Marine base, the last know location of Peking man

With the fossils missing, what is being displayed at the ongoing exhibition at Muzium Negara? The team at PUMC had photographed the fossils, made detailed drawings, and created casts. These had been safely taken out of China. The artefacts at Muzium Negara are replicas of the Peking man fossils, recreated from the casts. Also displayed at the exhibition are replicas of skulls from Upper Cave, located southwest of the Peking man site. These are skulls of humans (Homo sapiens) that lived 30,000-10,000 years ago. They were packed together with the Peking man relics and, hence, suffered the same fate. Do visit the exhibition which ends on 16 June 2018. See how Peking man looked like. Learn to differentiate Homo erectus from modern Homo sapiens. Understand the environment in which Peking man lived and the animals with which he shared this environment. Appreciate the tools they made and how they controlled fire. Learn about other archaeological sites in China, from Palaeolithic to Neolithic. Find out the earliest known location where shoes were worn.

A reconstruction of Peking man by Harry Shapiro. Peking man was short, muscular, and broad-shouldered. He had a low brow which projected prominently just above the eyes. His skull was flat and small compared to modern humans. His neck was thick, almost bull-like. His arms, which reached his knees, were longer than his legs.

In retrospect, it may have been better to have left the fossils in PUMC and allow the Japanese to acquire them. The Japanese were aware of these fossils and came looking for them on the morning of 8 December. Some of the Chou Kou Tien fossils of lesser importance had been left behind and the Japanese confiscated these. After the war, the Americans found these fossils at Tokyo University and returned them to China. The Japanese would not have destroyed Peking man as they had wanted the fossils for their own research and study. If taken by the Japanese, the fossils would have been, in all likelihood, eventually recovered. Over the years, some have claimed to either know the location of the fossils or to have them in their keeping. These claims were made mostly by people seeking huge rewards. The leads were followed up but did not pan out. Among the latest claims is that Peking man is buried under an asphalt parking lot in Qinhuangdao (formerly Chingwangtao).

The environment Peking man lived in, shared with animals now extinct

Primary source: Shapiro, Harry L. (1976) Peking Man: The Discovery, Disappearance and Mystery of a Priceless Scientific Treasure, Suffolk: Book Club Associates.

Hidden Gems: The Melaka Tree

by Anne Deguerry Viala

We are all familiar with the legend of Prince Parameswara flying from Srivijaya to Temasek and then to a place named after the tree he sat under. Much less is known about the tree itself: the Melaka tree. Phyllanthus emblica, known as the Āmalaka or Āmelaki tree in Sanskrit, is very common in India, Nepal and South-East Asia and has given its name to Melaka city and the Straits. Its common name in English is Emblic myrobalan (Myrobolan emblique in French) and it produces a fruit called the Indian or Nepalese Gooseberry. When dried, the powder is known as ‘amla’. The importance of the Melaka tree is both symbolic and economic.

Myrobalan fruit

In Buddhist statuary art and sculpture, the Medicine Buddha is depicted, delicately holding the myrobalan plant between his thumb and middle finger.  This symbolic gesture stems from the healing properties of the myrobalan. It entered the Persian pharmacopeia from early times: myrobalan is mentioned in the medical handbook of Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā) in the early 11th century. It was also used in Europe. No later than during the Middle Age, it was a valued ingredient which apothecaries prescribed almost as a universal remedy. It should be noted that, apart from its use in traditional and Ayurvedic medicine, amla has recently aroused a growing interest from modern medicine where it is use in diabetic treatments and to prevent cancer, among other properties.

Buddha holding the myrobalan plant

All parts of the Melaka tree are full of tannins[1], which make myrobalan a very useful ingredient. In the natural dyeing process, myrobalan can be used either as a mordant (a substance which helps fix the pigments into the fibres) or as a dye itself, rendering blackish colours. In addition to dyeing, myrobalan has many other applications.  It is used both for tanning leather and also in the manufacture of Damascus steel.

It is clear that Prince Parameswara was wise to choose this place and this beneficial tree, to establish his new realm!

[1] Tannins are vegetable substances of the family of polyphenols, most often water-soluble, which have the ability to precipitate proteins and other chemical substances. For trees and flowering plants, this is a chemical defence against pests. Tannins can be found in some drinks such as tea, coffee, beer and wine.

Melaka Tree

 

References:

Bonnemain Bruno. Médecine arabe : Paul Mazliak, Avicenne et Averroès. Médecine et biologie dans la civilisation de l’Islam. In: Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 92ᵉ année, n°344, 2004. pp. 650-652. www.persee.fr/doc/pharm_0035-2349_2004_num_92_344_5736_t1_0650_0000_2

Gatellier Marie. L’image du Buddha dans la statuaire birmane. In: Arts asiatiques, tome 40, 1985. pp. 32-40. www.persee.fr/doc/arasi_0004-3958_1985_num_40_1_1178

Jazi Radhi, Asli Farouk Omar. La pharmacopée d’Avicenne. In: Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 86ᵉ année, n°317, 1998. pp. 8-28. www.persee.fr/doc/pharm_0035-2349_1998_num_86_317_4582

Halleux Robert. Sur la fabrication de l’acier dans l’Antiquité et au Moyen Âge. In: Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 151ᵉ année, N. 3, 2007. pp. 1301-1319. www.persee.fr/doc/crai_0065-0536_2007_num_151_3_91356

 

Hidden Gems: The Bellarmine Jar in Gallery C

by Rose Gan

Amongst the detritus of the great explosion that destroyed the Dutch ship ‘Nassau’ at the battle of Tanjong Tuan in 1606, is one small curious flagon, usually referred to as a Bellarmine Jar, that survived the disaster almost unscathed.  These jugs are made of brown earthenware with a bulbous body tapering to a long, narrow neck decorated with the face of a rather fierce bearded man. They often also bear a coat-of-arms, as the one featured in the museum, or a floral decoration. Bellarmine Jars were traditionally produced in Germany, particularly in Frechen outside Cologne. This jar is said to date to the early years of the 17th century, although their production in Germany goes back at least to the 14th century, possibly earlier.

In Germany, these jars were first called ‘Bartmann Krug’ (Bearded Man Jugs). The face is reminiscent of the Wild Man of the Woods spirit common across Europe that originated in ancient times and was still worshipped in rural areas even in the staunchly Christian Middle Ages. In Britain, this image was known as ‘The Green Man’, still a popular name for inns and pubs. Similar faces were often carved or etched onto trees, stone structures or wooden panels as a protection against evil spirits. They can even be found adorning the borders of Christian manuscripts and tapestries.

Bellarmine Jar

But in 1606, the nickname Bellarmine was newly coined and, in fact, may not have been in general use until later in the century. St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), an influential Roman Catholic theologian and Counter-Reformation cardinal, was very unpopular in the Protestant countries, particularly Germany and Holland. It was Robert Bellarmine who was behind the original accusations against Galileo and who led the Papal attempt to declare Copernicus’s theories heretical. As you can imagine, this rigid and reactionary cardinal also held many other strict views – particularly against the consumption of alcohol. These jars seem to have been named for him in an attempt to humiliate the Cardinal by portraying him as a grotesque bearded old man who frowned on fun and enjoyment. There was also the extra insult that these small flagons would often be used to carry alcohol, something Bellarmine was particularly against. Imagine drinkers wishing each other ‘Cheers’, whilst raising the Cardinal’s face in mock tribute!

Carrying gin and brandy was not their only function. Research from the Nassau and various other shipwrecks of Dutch vessels shows that the jars were often used on long voyages to transport mercury, an important component of various medical treatments. Another more sinister use of Bellarmine jars, which must have further insulted the famous cardinal, was as Witches’ Jars used to store hair clippings, nails -or even human urine -for use in spells and charms. The jars were then buried in secret places to work their magic.

Our little jar spans a thousand years of history and tells of pagan rites, Christian conflicts, magic spells, pharmacological remedies – and an irreverent bottle of gin!