During a trip to South Korea recently, I visited the historic city of Gyeongju. About 2 hours by train from Seoul, this ancient city was once the capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 BCE – 935 CE). Legend has it that a man by the name of Park Hyeokgeo-se came down from the heavens in 57 BCE and founded the kingdom of Silla. The city was officially named Gyeongju by the founder of the Goryeo Dynasty, King Taejo, in 940 CE. The Goryeo Dynasty ruled Korea from the 10th-14th century. Listed as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO in November 2000, the historic area in Gyeongju is divided into five sections. The five areas are Namsan, Wolseong, Gobungun, Hwangnyongsa, and Sanseong.
My first stop in Gyeongju was naturally at their National Museum. Located in the city close to Korea’s major historical attractions, this museum is dedicated to the preservation of Silla’s historical artefacts. According to the guidebook, the museum has 2,500 artefacts on display and houses around 80,000 relics. Opened in 1975, the museum has three permanent exhibition galleries, namely the Silla History Gallery, Silla Art Gallery, and the Wolji Gallery. There is also an interesting outdoor exhibition area. Amongst the displays outdoors are a Head of Buddha carved out of stone, a very large Divine Bell of King Seongdeok that is 3.77 meters tall, and a Three-Story Stone Stupa from the Goseonsa Temple; the latter two are listed as national treasures.
The Silla History Gallery has four rooms with artefacts displayed from the pre-historic era to the forming of the kingdom in the middle of the 4th century, the conquering of nearby lands around the 6th century, and unification of the three kingdoms (Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo) to form the Unified Silla Dynasty.
The highlights of the museum for me personally are the exhibits of the rich relics excavated from the Silla mound tombs. Recovered from the Geumgwanchong (nicknamed Gold Crown Tomb), Cheonmachong (nicknamed Heavenly Horse Tomb), and Seobongchong (nicknamed Felicitous Phoenix Tomb) mound tombs, there is a vast collection of personal ornaments made of pure gold such as crowns, decorated waistbands with hanging tail ornaments, belts, bracelets, earrings, and rings.
The Silla Art Gallery is divided into three rooms. The first room is dedicated to Buddhist Arts – stupas, Buddha statues, and relics. The second room houses the Kukeun Collection, which is from the private collection of Dr Lee Yang-sun. The highlights in this collection include a cup in the shape of ‘Warrior on Horseback’ and lacquered-bronze stirrups. The Hwangnyongsa Room is dedicated to the display of roof tiles from the prestigious Hwangnyongsa Temple and a sarira (Buddhist relics) reliquary.
Last but not least, the Wolji Gallery displays artefacts from Wolji, a site where a pond was built in the palace grounds during the reign of King Munmu (661 – 681 CE) of the Unified Silla Dynasty.
The brand new MRT station, blocking Muzium Negara’s beautiful murals, links the MRT line with other rail lines at KL Sentral. An underground walkway links the two stations. Now, that is convenient. One small detail though – you pay 40 sen for the pleasure of taking this short walk. Dammed cheek! Therefore, a return journey to the museum (via LRT) will add 80 sen to your total fare.
At the MRT station, walk through the barriers that takes you to the trains. However, instead of taking the escalator down to the trains, keep left towards KL Sentral. The route is well sign-boarded. You will come out on the same floor as the LRT line.
You can do it on the cheap if you do not want to pay the 40 sen. Take the underground pass to the other side of the road (in front of St. Regis). From there, you can walk to NU Sentral and, then, cross over to KL Sentral. At the MRT station, head towards ‘Pintu A: St. Regis, Jln Damansara’ to take you to this side of the road. Once you are there, just walk along the road, following the signboards for vehicular traffic.
This article was originally written for and published in the Gazette of the Association of Francophones in Malaysia and is reproduced here with the gracious authorization of its President, Ms Elizabeth Galland; it also widely draws upon Anne’s 7 minutes presentation written for Batch 28 MV training course.
Islam started to spread all over the world at the end of the seventh century C.E, but the Islamization of insular Southeast Asia was achieved much later on, by the penetration of merchant networks and not by conquest.
Several factors have been put forward to explain the extension of Islam in the Malay world at this time. The Malay Archipelago was perfectly located at the crossroads of trade routes between East (China) and West (Europe, Middle East, India), at the reversal of the monsoon, and in shallow waters that fostered navigation. It stimulated international trade.
India was exporting fabrics (cotton fabrics, muslins, patola), cowries (shells used as currency collected in the Maldives and piled up in Gujarat), pearls, gemstones, and local spices.
China was exporting silk, ceramics, paper and copper.
Locally, merchants could find raw materials of great value such as precious wood, plants, resins and wax, spices (cloves from Ternate and nutmeg from Banda islands), tortoiseshell, feathers, ivory, tin, silver and gold.
The ethno-geographical group formed by the Malay archipelago and the peninsula of Malaya was, from the first centuries CE, influenced by Indian merchants whose presence favored the establishment of Malay kingdoms. These were marked by language, culture, and religion (Hinduism and Buddhism), imported from the south of India. According to Chinese texts of the 3rd century CE, nearly 100 kingdoms were known in the region. Small political entities, or often, probably, somewhat large cities of fishermen and merchants at the mouths of rivers, evolved into stronger structures and, from the 7th century, the Buddhist Srivijaya empire, based in Palembang (Sumatra), started gaining suzerainty over Sumatra and the Malayan Peninsula. From the 13th century, the decline of Srivijaya, which controlled the Straits of Malacca and Sunda, left the door open for the emergence of a new political and religious order.
The texts relating to the arrival of Islam in the region are varied, not always coherent and often written, very late, with objectives of historical and political reconstruction for the benefit of the reigning dynasties. Among these texts, the Malay Annals, Sejarah Melayu which, even today, forms the basis of much of the national story of Malaysia, was written from the 16th century and has not less than 32 different versions. The Kedah Annals or Hikayat Marong Mahawangsa, believed to have been written between the 18th and the 19th century, could have been intended to rewrite history in order to give Kedah anteriority over the Sultanate of Malacca, considered today as the founder of Islam in the Peninsula.
Islam, most likely, came from India through Muslim merchants (both Indian and Arab). Gujarat was then a very dynamic trading center. Commercial outposts were created on the coasts of Southeast Asia, and then, in the late 13th century CE, merchant sultanates arose, such as in Samudra-Pasai in northern Sumatra, in Champa in today’s central Vietnam, and finally in Malacca.
In 1292, Marco Polo signaled the presence of an important Muslim Kingdom in Aceh. Long before that, evidence of trade with the Abbasids, dating from the 9th century, was discovered in Kedah in the form of coins. A stone inscribed ‘Ibnu Sardan 213’ was also found in Bujang Valley. The Ibnu Sardan family is mentioned in different texts of the time and they were known as intellectuals, sailors and missionaries. The date 213 Hegira (Hijra) corresponds to the year 823 of our era. The Kedah Sultanate is dated to 1136 upon the conversion to Islam of the Raja who then took the name of Sultan Mudzaffar Shah.
Beyond the influence of India, one must also consider the contribution of the Chinese. Admiral Zheng Ho, himself, who led seven maritime expeditions from 1405 to 1453, of which at least 4 stopped in Malacca, was a Muslim, as was his translator Ma Huan. Ma Huan, considered as one of the artisans of the Islamization of Java, took part in three of the seven expeditions and recorded the journeys. While the number of ships and people accompanying the fleets may have been exaggerated, the fleet of Zheng Ho was huge and heavily armed; it was the official symbol of Chinese diplomacy. Following Zheng Ho’s journeys, the Sultanate of Malacca placed itself under the protection of China, against the attacks of Siam and Java.
If archaeological findings or ancient texts attest to the presence of Muslims in the Peninsula since the 9th century, the first indigenous evidence of the presence of Islam in the Malay Peninsula is a granite stele, known as the Terengganu Stone, inscribed in Malay using Arabic characters -a script known as Jawi, still used in official documents or in the Northern sultanates such as Kelantan or Terengganu (it is also used on street name plates in Melaka). The stele was discovered in 1899 in Kuala Berang in the State of Terengganu. Its date is deciphered as 1303 (702 Hegira) although there are contentions on this date.
Why is this stone so important? First of all, because it is not a tombstone. The early Muslim tombstones (Batu Aceh), many of which were discovered in Malaysia and Indonesia, only show that a Muslim person was buried and often have no personal names. But the Terengganu Stone is engraved with a set of Islamic laws. It indicates an early Islamization of the northeast coast of the Malay Peninsula and the legal character of the inscription is a sign of strong anchorage in society.
In any event, although it occurred nearly one century later than the date inscribed on the Terengganu Stone, the most important event was the conversion to Islam of the rulers of Malacca, from which they gained undeniable political and economic advantages:
Patronage of powerful Muslim traders
Legitimation against Majapahit, the largest kingdom after the demise of Srivijaya
Legitimation of sultanate authority, a new form of government
It is however rather difficult to determine who was the first Muslim ruler of Malacca as the sources vary, some being more literary than historical. Depending on the case, there are assertions between Parameswara, his son Megat Iskandar Shah, and his grandson.
Parameswara, a prince of Srivijaya, was said to have founded Malacca in 1400 (but this date itself is controversial!), then married a Muslim princess of the Pasai Sultanate in northern Sumatra and may have converted. But according to Portuguese sources, it is the son of Parameswara, Megat Iskandar Shah (1414-1424), that first converted to Islam. Finally, the Malay Annals attribute the conversion to the grandson of Parameswara, Muhammad Shah (1424-1444). Legend says that Muhammad Shah was visited one night by an angel in a dream; on waking up he could quote verses from the Quran verbatim. The next morning, his advisers told him about some Arab scholars debating at the port. He met with them. He was immediately struck by their learning, courtesy, and high character and he decided to adopt Islam. This is the version retained in Gallery B of Muzium Negara.
But whatever was the conversion timeline, Islam was attractive to Malacca:
it emphasized the individual value of each man;
with the view that the ruler was seen as “The Shadow of God on Earth”, Islamic traders would regard Malacca as a safe place;
it provided access to the learning and sophistication of the Muslim world (continuing the intellectual tradition of Palembang, from where Parameswara originated, as a center of Buddhist studies, Malacca quickly became a famous center for Islamic studies)
Altogether, it does not matter which, Kedah, Terengganu or Malacca, or even the Malay States of the archipelago, was the first to convert to Islam, the conversion of the Sultan of Malacca was a founding act by establishing, clearly and publicly, Islam as a state religion. In this sense, modern Malaysia is certainly the heir of Malacca.
The arrival of Islam in the Malay world greatly influenced the Malay lifestyle and culture and brought a vibrant influence in the archipelago, through the development of arts.
Calligraphy, Arabic script (jawi)
Decorative applied arts (calligraphy/geometric patterns/arabesques)
The replica of a panel at Borobudur on display at Gallery B, Muzium Negara depicts a scene from the Lalitavistara Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist text. In this panel Queen Maya and King Suddhodhana, parents of the future Buddha, are shown at their palace in Kapilavastu. The trees on the panel indicate that they are most likely seated in a garden pavilion. In this scene, the Queen has approached the King and seated herself on his right. She requests permission from the King to take a pledge of self-denial and, judging by the King’s hand gesture, he has consented to this request.
In the Lalitavistara text, this scene takes place in the music hall and the royal couple are seated on a throne with jeweled latticework. The Borobudur panel, on the other hand, shows ashoka trees (Saraca asoca) indicating an outdoor scene. The text also mentions that the Queen came accompanied by 10,000 women but only five of them, shown behind the Queen, are represented in the carving.
The Lalitavistara, translated loosely as ‘The Play in Full’, provides an account of Buddha’s descent into this world and how he attained his awakening. Borobudur has 1,460 bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the Lalitavistara, Jataka, and other Buddhist texts. These bas-reliefs are found in the galleries of the first four floors. Each floor has these bas-relief panels on both sides of the walls. The first floor has four series of panels, two series on the inner wall and two on the outer wall. The other three floors have two series of panels each, one on each side of the wall. This makes a total of ten series of panels; ten is an important figure in the Buddhist cosmology as it represents the ten stages of a bodhisattva’s path to awakening.
The correct way in which to circumambulate Borobudur is to start from the east staircase, turn left on the first floor, and walk clockwise while viewing the top series of panels on the outer wall. The visitor would then do another three rounds on the first floor while viewing the remaining three series of panels. The visitor then moves to the second floor and goes around this floor twice to view the series of panels on both the inner and outer walls. Two rounds each are again made on both the third and fourth floors. In this way, the visitor would have walked ten rounds. The Lalitavistara panels are located on the inner wall (top series) of the first floor.
Lalitavistara, The Play in Full, translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee.
John Miksic (1990) Borobudur: Golden Tales of the Buddhas, Hong Kong: Periplus Editions.
It was music to my ears when I was informed that the planned visit to Istana Alam Shah was finally confirmed with approval given by the palace. This once in a lifetime golden privilege was well worth the hassle for me rearranging my schedule and shopping for a baju kurung just for the occasion. We were advised and reminded to adhere strictly to the dress code.
In order to ensure punctual arrival, we left early in the morning for the Selangor Royal Gallery, also known as Sultan Abdul Aziz Royal Gallery. We were warmly welcomed by Encik Munasar, general manager of the gallery, and his staff. This gallery was commissioned in 2002 by the current Selangor Sultan in honour of his late father, Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah, the eighth Sultan of Selangor and the eleventh King. The gallery displays collections of many photographs and items such as the crown jewels and royal regalia including the state sword. We were brought back in time as En. Munasar told us many fascinating stories as he guided us through the gallery. The collection in the gallery also includes royal state medals, gifts to the Sultan and royal family, the Sultan’s collection of personal items such as beautiful clocks and watches, plus a scaled down model of Istana Mahkota Puri, the old Istana that was torn down to give way to the current Istana Alam Shah.
After taking a group photo at the gallery, we proceeded to the second phase and the highlight of our visit, i.e. Istana Alam Shah. Once again, we were warmly welcomed, this time by the palace staff. After taking our first group photo at the palace, we were ushered into a brightly lit hall where we were served refreshments. This was followed by more group photos and a visit to the royal banquet hall. Along the way, a prominent display of nobat (an ensemble of royal musical instruments) caught my eye. We were briefed on the seating positions of the Sultan and the royal family and their guests. We were also shown how crockery and cutlery were placed on the dining tables. Explanation was given on dining protocols as well.
Our next stop was the guests’ waiting room. This room is furnished with beautiful sofa sets which are extremely comfortable. Of course, certain sofas were designated strictly for the royals but we were allowed to sit in those which are not. High ceilings with lovely patterns and adorned with glistening chandeliers along with the sofas gave a luxurious feel to the room. As we moved through the corridors from one room to another, we saw many photographs and paintings adorning the palace walls. Our attention was drawn to a painting of a famous photograph of the official declaration of independence. The original photograph had the Sultan of Perlis almost totally hidden behind Tunku Abdul Rahman (Malaysia’s Father of Independence) while this painting clearly depicted the Sultan of Perlis.
We were next led into the meeting room of the royal council. In this room, the royal council of advisers would deliberate and advise the Sultan on state matters. Next to this was the pardons room where the pardons board would meet and deliberate. In both of these rooms, banners listing the designations of the members were displayed. Next to the pardons room is where the Sultan’s personal office is located.
After a short walk away, we were ushered into a familiar looking room. Here, we were advised that photos were strictly not allowed to be taken. This is where the official royal installation of important positions including that of the Sultan, the crown prince, etc. takes place. This is also where state titles are officially conferred. The ceremonies include oath taking. The palace staff demonstrated protocols when one’s name is announced to receive recognition and award from the Sultan. We were told of a dedicated area specifically for traditional Malay musicians. It was fascinating to learn that these traditional music instruments have mystical powers and apparently, only selected people can play these instruments.
Following this, we were led upstairs where we discovered many more family photographs and personal possessions and collections displayed. Among these were included beautiful hand crafted pottery, sculptures, figurines, clocks, cabinets, and etc. There was also a collection of rifles, shotguns and pistols.
The mosque in the palace grounds became our next stop. It was not huge but not small either. Apart from the royals, palace staff and their families were allowed to use it. There was a room dedicated for cleaning and preparation of the remains of the deceased near the main prayer hall. This hall was airy and bright with lots of natural light pouring in.
From here, we hopped back on to our bus for a very short drive to our next stop; the Selangor Football museum. It is a small building in which memorabilia including photographs and newspaper articles relating to Selangor Football, past and present, are displayed. This brought me down memory lane as I recollected watching some of the football matches with my dad in my younger days.
We then proceeded to life size models of the old Bukit Timah railway station. An actual old train coach with properly maintained interior was also available for us ‘explore’. This was another nostalgic ‘journey’ back to the early railway days. Nearby, we saw a life size model of the Tanjung Pagar (Singapore) railway station main entrance and right beside this, our eyes feasted on the beautifully landscaped Islam inspired garden, Taman Mahkota.
Our final stop was none other than the Royal Automobile Gallery. This houses the Sultan’s famously vast automobile collection, both vintage and modern, covering brands such as Rolls Royce, Jaguar, Mercedes, Aston Martin, Harley Davidson, and etc. We were shown vehicles used for both official and private functions. Some were personally driven by the Sultan himself. There was even, amongst others, a US army truck and an old British Royal Mail van on display. On the upper floor, we could even see vintage petrol pumps and air pumps. Indeed impressive and a well maintained collection.
What a day! What a privilege! This visit has been most memorable for all of us. We all went away happy, though tired, to have had this wonderful opportunity to see and feel what it is like living as a royal in Selangor – all with the warmth and hospitality of the wonderful palace staff.
The Tatars were a Turkic-speaking nomadic tribe occupying northeast Mongolia and the area around Lake Baikal before being consolidated into Genghis Khan’s army in the early thirteenth century. Genghis Khan’s army united many Turkic as well as Mongol nomadic tribes and he mobilised this army to conquer a large part of Eurasia. Although his army was a fusion of two different language-speaking groups, the invaders in Europe became associated with ‘Tatar’ or ‘Tartar’. They were also identified with the Golden Horde, originally a Mongol Khanate founded by Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan.
An ongoing exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum titled ‘The Tatars: Muslims in the Republic of Poland‘ explores the lives of the Tatars in Poland through photographs and drawings. The exhibition is located at the open space outside the main galleries and will run until 30 April 2017.
The Toraja people were originally from central Sulawesi in Indonesia. They are about 1.5 million strong but less than 500,000 live in their native land, the remainder have sought work in Makassar or Jakarta. By doing this, they can send money to their family in Tanah Toraja.
Their traditional burial customs are expensive to practice, particularly for the noble caste. The caste system is still used in Toraja society; there are nobles, warriors, traders, free men and “slaves”, the last ones being well treated and respected. A “slave” can cut tie with the family he works with at his own time and will.
When someone dies, the body is quickly embalmed but it stays at home, up to one year sometimes, so family and friends can come and see the dead who is considered “very sick” until the burial ceremony takes place. For this ceremony, the family will first buy buffaloes (one animal and up to two hundred, depending on how wealthy was the dead). The price of each buffalo depends on the marks of his robe; one with the proper “white” marks on the head can fetch several tens of thousands dollars.
Then they prepare the temporary bamboo huts to welcome the guests. The enlarged family, the friends, and all the people who have been familiar with the dead are invited; the family of the dead “gives back” to every person who has helped in one way or another to enable the dead to become wealthy.
The ceremony is now ready to take place. Generally, it lasts several days. Each day, the male slaves of the family sacrifice one to several buffaloes followed by pigs (bought at the market). They prepare the meat to feed everybody while the women prepare the drinks.
Some men dance while singing the main events of the dead’s life. All the guests bring gifts. The ceremony master states the names of the guests and their gifts. When all the gifts have been given, the dead is ready to be buried. As the earth is here to give birth, corpses cannot be buried and so the Toraja entomb the bodies in cliffs or large boulders.
It takes six months for a man to chisel out the grave from a boulder.
In addition, the nobles and warriors have the right to have their effigy sculpted in wood and displayed on a “balcony” near the grave.
If they are really wealthy and have sacrificed at least 200 buffaloes, a megalith can be raised in a specific field close to their village.
When a little baby dies, he is not strong enough to reach heaven by himself, so the Toraja entomb him in a big tree trunk so the tree can help the baby to go to heaven. The tree shall be alive and if the tree dies, a part of it is transferred to another tree that becomes the next “passeur d’âme”.
I learned about the Toraja burial practices during my short stay in Tanah Toraja, a very nice part of Sulawesi surrounded by mountains. Our guide, Otto who is part of the noble cast, was very helpful in teaching us all the customs of his tribe.