Kuala Lumpur – Masa Berlalu

by Bahiah Ismail

It is truly amazing to see how far the country has come since the days of Merdeka/ Independence, with Kuala Lumpur paving the way at the forefront of the transformation. In what is considered to be a relatively short period of just 60 years, continuous innovations and developments have changed much of this ever-lively city, yet the thriving local culture can still be found preserved in the many familiar nooks of the city in which they were first created.  All these are spectacularly captured through the many vibrant photos at the exhibition, cleverly composed to compare the KL of yesteryear with the KL of today.

DSC_1092_2
Sungai Gombak at the back of Sultan Abdul Samad building

In some of the showcased pieces, for example the photographs along Gombak River and of Jalan Tun Perak, the open skies in the background are replaced with more prominent physical elements of architecture and expanding public amenities, while horse-drawn or man-powered modes of transportation in the foreground are replaced with modern motorized vehicles, with home-made Proton and Perodua cars (both unabashedly mentioned here with a hint of national pride) cruising alongside their imported counterparts. Other pieces, such as shots of Petaling Street, show that some of the activities there have remained and have grown, indicating that they continue to be a strong element of the community. Another beautiful aspect to note is that many historical buildings have been preserved as focal points of the city, as clearly seen in some the photographs of the present.

DSC_1096

20170320_145842
Central Market at Jalan Hang Kasturi started as a wet market

On the other hand, there are also pieces that bring some contrast to the above, such as the one of the Pudu Jail, captured in its previous entirety in an old sepia photograph and showcased against a current shot of its now solitary front gate, which was decidedly conserved from the demolition works making way for a new development there, resembling a still-dutiful guardsman defiantly standing at attention facing the oncoming busy traffic. The image is somewhat reminiscent of the Porta de Santiago of the A’ Famosa Fort in Melaka; perhaps, as the saying goes, just another example of history repeating itself: both gates are the only saved remnant of their respective infamously intimidating walled-structure of the past, although the major difference here being that the former was meant to keep people in whereas the latter to keep people out.

20170320_150148
Pudu Prison at Jalan Hang Tuah. Today, only the main gate and a small part of the exterior wall remains.

Lastly, just to mention so as not to be missed, is a wall-sized, intricately detailed, hand-drawn, pencil-sketched birds-eye-view of the streets of KL, quietly standing near the back of the exhibition. Do stop a while to “walk” through this map and discover the various social characters and cultural focal points which can be found in real life around KL.

From majestic old photographs capturing the grandeur and heritage of Malaysia’s history in black & white and hues of sepia, to the colourful and inviting snapshots portraying the unique melting pot of culture that has become the celebrated identity of Malaysia today, this temporary exhibition is definitely worth a catch while it’s here, to add a spice of flavour to the tour of the museum.

Map of Jalan Petaling, Jalan Sultan and adjacent streets, drawn by Gan Sze Hooi

Ancient Treasures from Myanmar

by Maganjeet Kaur

The on-going (well, it ends on 5th Mar) exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) in Singapore titled ‘Cities & Kings: Ancient Treasures from Myanmar’ brings together 60 artefacts from 4 museums: National Museum Nay Pyi Taw, National Museum Yangon, Bagan Archaeological Museum, and ACM.

dsc_0856
The ACM building has a long history. The oldest part of the building was constructed between 1864-67 using convict labour from India. A flagstaff at the top of the building was the Origin of Coordinates for Singapore. The building originally housed a number of government departments. In March 1964, the Singapore Branch of Bank Negara, Malaysia was officially opened in the building. This was the bank’s second branch outside Kuala Lumpur, the first was in Penang which opened in March 1961. ACM has occupied the building since 2003.

The exhibition showcases the culture and history of the country from the early Pyu and Mon civilisations up to the Mandalay Kingdom.

The Pyu civilisation developed in upper and central Myanmar in the early centuries of the first millennium and remained a force for close to a thousand years. It had among the earliest, if not the earliest, urban centres in Southeast Asia and saw the emergence of large walled cities such as Halin, Beikthano, and Sri Ksetra. These cities, located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River amidst fertile agricultural plains, had sophisticated irrigation systems and participated in long distance trade. The culture adopted Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, Hinduism. It is thought that Buddhism flowed into Central Myanmar through present day northeast India and Bangladesh which were part of the Pala Kingdom. Here was also located the Nalanda University which expounded Mahayana and Tantric schools of Buddhist thought and these strands of Buddhism flowed into the Pyu culture.

dsc_0874
This bowl with a peacock motif in the centre surrounded by foliate (dated to the 9th century) was found at Sri Ksetra, a Pyu city. The lobbed design of the bowl indicates Chinese influence as it parallels a four-lobbed bowl with mandarin duck design found at Famen Temple near Xian. However, the bowl is believed to have been made in Myanmar with inspiration taken from China signifying a trade relationship between the two cultures.

Contemporaneous with Pyu was the Mon civilisation in Lower Myanmar. Large urban centres with specialisations in trade developed at Thaton, Kyaikkatha, and Winka-Ayetthema. These were coastal cities connected by trade routes to India, Sri Lanka, Dvaravati (a Mon Kingdom in today’s Thailand), and the Hindu-Buddhist polity at Bujang Valley (Kedah). Theravada Buddhism prevailed in Lower Myanmar showing a close link with Sri Lanka.

dsc_0883
This terracotta plaque, dated to the 5th or 6th century, was found at Kyontu, an early Mon city. Two musicians flank a central figure (face damaged) which is either riding or fighting a bull. Three more figures fill the space above. These three-dimensional figures are surrounded by a circular frame set within a larger frame with floral motifs on each corner.

Bagan (previously Pagan), founded by the Bamars (Burmans), rose to prominence during the 11th to 13th centuries. It was an inland polity situated on the left bank of the Ayeyarwady River between Kyaukse and Minbu, two rice producing regions. Rice surplus from these two regions was centralised at Bagan and this allowed Bagan to exercise control throughout the Ayeyarwady basin, including the Mon controlled coastal areas. Bagan became the first royal capital of Myanmar. Its first king, Anawrahta (reign: 1044-77), introduced Theravada Buddhism to Bagan after sacking the Mon city of Thaton in 1057 to obtain a copy of Tipitaka, a text on Theravada Buddhism. The population of Myanmar today remain Theravada Buddhist.

bagan-artefacts
left: a sandstone from  Bagan (11th century) showing Prince Siddharta cutting his hair, symbolising his break from royal life and starting his path towards Buddhahood. right: a miniature stupa, made of bronze with gold-leaf lacquer, from Bagan dated to the 19th century. Miniature stupas were used to house relics, an enduring tradition that has lasted till today. This stupa has five sides with five lion-like mythical figures projecting from the base. The five niches would have each contained a miniature Buddha and each niche has a makara-like figure above it.
dsc_0907
Lacquered betel boxes from Bagan known as kun-yit-gyi. The cylindrical boxes contain two inner trays in which the ingredients necessary for betel chewing are stored. The designs on the boxes are incised with red, green, yellow, and black lacquer. The box on the right tells the story of Prince Wee-Ta-Na-Pa and his astrologer, Ah-Nu-Ya.

Power shifted to Inwa (previously Ava) in the mid 14th century. As Bagan disintegrated, a new Mon kingdom was established at Bago (previously Pegu) in 1281 and a king appeared at Rakhine (previously Arakan). The Shans, who had dominated the northern highlands, started moving to the lowlands. King Mindon (reign: 1853-78) moved his royal capital from Amarapura to Mandalay in 1857. This was the last royal capital as the British captured Mandalay in 1885 and King Thibaw was exiled to Ratnagiri, India. The British moved the capital to Yangon (previously Rangoon) which they had captured in 1852. Nay Pyi Taw, 300 km to the north of Yangon, became the capital of Myanmar in 2005.

dsc_0888
Indigenous animistic spirits, known as nats, continue to be worshipped although the population is predominantly Buddhist. Nats can take human and animal forms as illustrated in this display. From left to right: Lat Lay Pat Nat, four armed nat; Paunte Maung Tint Tal Nat, Handsome Blacksmith, a household guardian; Koe Myoe Shin Nat, Lord of the nine towns; Pale Yin Nat, sister of Koe Myoe Shin.

 * photos taken at ACM

From Angkor to Bujang Valley

by Jean-Marie Metzger

“From Angkor to Bujang Valley”. That was the title of the conference which took place at Alliance Française of Kuala Lumpur on Jan 25th. And as you all know, when MVs hear the words “Bujang Valley”, they tend to flock like birds on a wire. And indeed a large audience, comprising quite a few MV docents, trainees, and trainers, gathered to listen to Dr Daniel Perret, researcher from the French School for Asian Studies. The talk was mostly oriented towards the program of research in South-east Asia and the archaeological methods employed by this unit.

20170125_210536
Dr Daniel Perret

The French School for Asian Studies (Ecole française d’Extrème-Orient) is a public institution under the Ministry for Higher Education and Research. It was founded in 1898 in Saigon and, therefore, started its activities mostly in what was French Indochina. Today it is established in twelve countries, with eighteen research centers, from India to Japan. In Malaysia, the Center is hosted by the Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya. It conducts research in cooperation with the University of Malaya, UKM, JMM…

A lot of research has been devoted to Indochina: it included, from 1992, the rehabilitation of many Angkor Temples, but the center has also been active in countries such as Laos (Vat Phu Temple -11th-13th century CE), Vietnam (Quang Ngai wall, a 19th century fortified wall extending for 127 km in the Champa region), and Myanmar (inventory of 2,800 monuments in Pagan (Bagan) -1044-1287 CE-).

img_0059
Temples at Bagan

Dr Perret himself has devoted a lot of his activities in Indonesia, mainly Sumatra, and in Malaysia, including in the Bujang Valley.

In Sumatra, research, which has now turned away from the exclusive study of temples and monuments, has been devoted to the evolution of three settlements, Barus (on the west coast), Padang Lawas (central Sumatra) and Kota Cina (on the north-east coast).

All research on human settlements, in the absence of temples, must be correlated with other types of data (archaeological findings – Chinese ceramics being often important for dating, local epigraphy, local literature and traditions, foreign written sources).

In the case of Barus, a Tamil inscription (1088 CE) indicates that the earliest known inhabitants were Tamils, a fact in accordance with local literature and tradition. Other sources include the “Sejarah Raja Raja Barus” (late text from 19th century), an Armenian maritime chart (12th century), the Archives Cairo Geniza (11th-13th century), Marco Polo’s writings (13th century), many Chinese and a few Portuguese and VOC sources. One of the difficulties conducting archaeological research in Indonesia is the concentration of layers which do not exceed 30 cm in depth and, hence, chronology is often difficult to establish between the different artifacts found. Nevertheless, interesting findings could relate the settlements to Indian presence and trading activities with many parts of Asia: for example pottery, analogous to Cambay Ghee pots still used in Southern India. A figurine, dated between 12th and 16th century, analogous to an Old Bahrein figurine (12th-14th century) was also unearthed. Stoneware was also found originating from China, and also Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Japan (in particular originating from Hizen kiln active in the first half of the 17th century).

bahrein
left: figurine found in Barus Ⓒ D. Perret; right: figurine from Bahrein

In Padang Lawas, archaeological research had been very active in the past, about 30 Hindu-Buddhist monuments and some 1,039 inscriptions (in Malay, old Sanskrit, paleo-Sumatran) had been catalogued, but nobody was interested, until recent years, in the settlements themselves. One of the astonishing findings, related again to trade activities, was a Bukhara Dirham, dated 1003-1004 CE, from the Qarakhamid/Ilek Khan Dynasty.

image3
Dirham from Bukhara Ⓒ D. Perret

In Kota Cina, where some Hindu-Buddhist images were found in the 1970’s, the site for digging had a particularity: there was a lot of water infiltrating the soil. That was a big problem because water had to be pumped out regularly, but also a big benefit as water better preserves organic remains. Hence, wooden construction pillars, animal remains (mostly turtles) and also human skeletons were found. The site also yielded some 160,000 pieces of earthenware (around 1,5 t), making it the biggest site in Sumatra, but also more than 1,000 coins, mostly Chinese. The dating of all these findings  ranges from the end of the 11th century till the beginning of 14th century, but analysis is just beginning.

image4
Fragment of jarlet from Bujang Valley Ⓒ D. Perret

Dr Perret’s research in Malaysia was devoted first to the cataloguing of Batu Aceh tombstones: 450 of them were studied in Johor. In Bujang Valley, Dr Perret studied glassware. Some 6,000 shards were categorized, many of them (about 95%) coming from jarlets (a small type of vessel, about 3 cm for the rim and the base, 6 cm for the height). A recent book has been edited by Dr Perret (together with Zulkifli Jaafar) and published by JMM, “Ancient glassware in Malaysia – The Pengkalan Bujang Collection”.

Finally, Dr Perret explained how external interference can bring some kind of perturbation to academic work and spice it up a little. When he and his team found a human skeleton at Kota Cina, although it seemed clearly to be dated a few hundred years before the discovery, it appeared it could make a criminal “cold case” as the skeleton had both hands and feet bound together…so the local police claimed the skeleton for forensic investigation! Fortunately, when a second skeleton was found the police considered they had enough with one and left it to the archaeologists…

We, MVs, are very lucky to know that the Perak Man died from a tooth infection, otherwise we could have been caught in another episode of “NCIS Lenggong Valley”!!

kota-cina
Excavation at Kota Cina, taken from Dr Perret’s presentation

Puja Pantai at Pulau Carey

by Marie-Andree Abt

On the first day of February, Jean-Marie, my husband and I went to a Puja Pantai (sea healing ceremony) at Pulau Carey, which is about one hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur. A Puja Pantai is a Hari Moyang (spirit day) for the fishing Mah Meri villagers.

JM joined us early at our home so we could be at Kampong Bumbun at 9am, as instructed by the young lady in charge. Actually, we had plenty of time to visit, for 3 to 4 times, the museum in this charming cultural village. Now we know plenty about the Mah Meri culture and wood carvings!

Finally we were invited to wear a nice origami headdress and instructed to keep it on our heads throughout the ceremony so the spirits could recognize us as guests.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Two of the three shamans

Then we took our car to join the procession coming from Kampung Judah, another Mah Meri village. Jean-Marie and I followed the procession while my husband had to follow by car as he could not leave the car on the road side. We walked with the crowd, trying to take pictures on the way of the shaman, the musicians, the navy soldiers who were there to carry the busot jantan (a mound made of bamboo frame and plaited palms leaves).

 

The busot jantan

After about 2 kms, we turned left and, there, the shaman and his helper sanctified the cross road to show the way to the spirits.

The shaman dance

Finally we arrived at the beach where we waited about two hours while the shamans chewed betel, smoked, and ultimately came to a trance.

Then, to please the spirits, there was a Jo-oh dance. Several young ladies began to dance around the busot jantan. A male mask dancer joined them and finally the shaman entered the dance.

The Jo-oh dance
The male mask dancer
The shaman enters the dance

Following the dance, the procession went to the beach itself to join the rumah moyang now that the tide was low.

 

Symbolism Behind the Screen

Muzium Negara has, in its collection, around 500 wayang kulit (shadow play) puppets and 200 of these are currently on display at an exhibition titled ‘Symbolism Behind the Screen’. There are also puppets on loan from Fusion Wayang Kulit that depict characters from comics and science fiction. Do take the time to visit the exhibition which runs until 28 February 2017 at Muzium Negara.

In a wayang kulit performance, the puppeteer (known as Tok Dalang) manipulates the puppets in a raised hut which has a white screen stretched across the front hiding him and the puppets from view of the audience.  A lamp behind the puppets casts shadows on the screen and this is the basis of the performance.

The wayang kulit is considered a microcosm of the universe while the Tok Dalang, manipulating the puppets, is taken as symbolising God. Dalang means ‘priest’ in Sanskrit; the Tok Dalang was also trained in magic rituals and many dalang functioned as bomoh or practitioners of Malay magic. In fact, in days gone by, the Wayang Kulit was not just a performance art but was also used in spirit exorcism ceremonies. In the wayang kulit universe, the sun is represented by the lamp while banana trunks, used as a resting place for the puppets, represent the earth. Humans perceive the universe through the screen.

20161207_114230
Behind the screen. The diorama shows the Tok Dalang in the process of placing the puppets on the banana trunks. The ‘good’ puppets will be placed on the trunk on this right while the ‘evil’ puppets will be placed on his left.
pohon-beringin
Example of a ‘pohon beringin’

Perhaps the most important prop is the pohon beringin (tree of life) which represents all life in the universe. This tree, seen both at the start and end of the story, symbolises the start of the universe and the end of the world. The tree is divided into three parts: the top represents the sky and includes motifs of birds, the middle represents earth and includes animals, while the bottom represents the supernatural world.

 

A touch-screen kiosk at the exhibition provides substantial information on the symbolism behind the rituals conducted before, during, and after a performance. For example, a feast is held during the ‘theatre opening ceremony’ in order to ensure the performance goes well. During this time, the musical instruments are blessed so that they will succeed in attracting and holding the attention of spectators. An offering  consisting of 25 items placed on a large tray is also made.

20161129_141249
Pak Dogol, a Kelantan Wayang Kulit character that bears similarities with the Javanese Semar. This character is portrayed with a shaved head and a prominent high-bridged nose. His only clothing is a pair of long trousers which does not cover his distended stomach, thus revealing a protruding navel. He carries a parang golok.

Apart from the conventional wayang kulit characters, i.e. Sita Dewi, Sri Rama, Hanuman, and Ravana, the exhibition also displays a host of other puppets including demonic and animal characters as well as the Punakawan (e.g. Semar) that provide comic relief. Wayang Kulit’s foray into science fiction started with the the production of the ‘Peperangan Bintang’ performance inspired by the Star Wars movies. Its success spurred a new line of puppets including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Flash. These are also on display.

20161207_120443
A selection of puppets from the Wayang Kulit Gedek, one of the five wayang kulit types showcased at the exhibition. From left to right: Puteri Suni, Atung, Pak Tam, and a Hulubalang (palace guard)

 

Istana Satu

The beautiful, traditional Malay house adorning the grounds of Muzium Negara is Istana Satu, a palace belonging to the Terengganu royalty, which was acquired in 1972 by the Federation of Museums. Its reconstruction on the grounds of Muzium Negara was completed in April 1974.

Built high on pillars, it conforms to the long roofed, 12-pillared architectural style of Terengganu. Traditional houses in Terengganu are generally 6-pillared or 12-pillared, a reference to the number of pillars holding the roof structure. These tall pillars, which can raise the floor of the house as high as eight feet, not only protected the house from wild animals and floods but also warded off ground dampness prevalent in our humid climate.

Seven steps lead to the verandah of the palace. This number is intentionally odd as, according to Malay superstitious practice, a person should leave the house with his/her right foot first. With an odd number of steps, the journey away from the house will again start with the right foot.

dsc_0492
Malay craftsmanship is evident through the beautiful wood-carvings, both inside and outside the palace. The tiered roof is unique to the northeast states of Terengganu and Kelantan.

A traditional 12-pillared Terengganu house has three sections – the serambi (verandah where guests are also received and entertained), Rumah Ibu (Mother’s house, comprising the living and sleeping areas), and Dapor (kitchen, which also includes the dining area). Rumah Ibu, the main section of the house, is named as such as the mother occupies an important position in Malay culture.

Istana Satu originally comprised two units: the Federation of Museums only acquired one unit while the other unit was purchased by a private individual. In the original palace, the Rumah Ibu would have been a  structure separate from the Dapor but linked with it.

20170103_105900
The royal bedroom. Tekat needlework can be seen on the pillows. This technique uses gold or silver thread to create embroidery on satin silk and velvet. Tekat became part of the royal Malay tradition.

The Sultan’s palace in Kuala Terengganu has traditionally been located at the foot of Bukit Puteri. Sultan Baginda Omar (r. 1831, 1839-1876), wresting control of Terengganu in 1839, initially stayed in a fort on Bukit Puteri but later moved down the hill to this traditional site. He built a timber palace, Istana Hijau, on this site but it was gutted in 1882 by a fire that also destroyed 1600 other houses. This incident occurred during the reign of Sultan Zainal Abidin III (r. 1881-1918) who then built Istana Satu (First Palace) enclosed in a large compound known as Kota (fort). Other buildings were added within Kota and in 1895, the imposing Istana Maziah became the official residence of the Sultan.

Do saunter into Istana Satu the next time you visit the museum, leaving your shoes at the base of the steps.

20170107_085410
Kota, circa 1895. Taken from the Federation Museums Journal, Vol VII, 1962, pg 93. Istana Satu was connected via a bridge to Rumah Tele making it convenient for the Sultan to visit the occupants. Rumah Tele was built in 1888, in time for the King of Thailand to occupy it during his visit to Terengganu in February 1889. This building has been reconstructed on the grounds of the Terengganu State Museum.

Natural History Museum

by Maganjeet Kaur (with a special thank-you to Lim Tze Tshen for a tour of the museum)

The distance may seem daunting but, housing a collection that dates to the early 1900s and showcasing Malaysia’s rich biodiversity, the Natural History Museum is well worth the drive to Putrajaya.

20161218_133653
Dinosaur eggs from China on display at the gallery. These eggs may not be from here but the discovery of a dinosaur tooth in Pahang suggests that dinosaurs roamed this land 140 million years ago.

Malaysia is listed as one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world, i.e countries that have a high percentage of the Earth’s plant and animal species as well as a high percentage of species endemic to the country. Although only a fraction of this diversity is captured in the museum, the museum does provide some interesting representations in the various animal categories.

insects
The entomological collection was started over a century ago by amateur naturalists fascinated by the country’s rich flora and fauna.

The seas are no less vibrant and 77 molluscs are displayed providing an easy reference guide for cataloging.

20161221_181834
Some common shells picked from the beaches of Malaysia.
20161221_124719
Skeleton of an eagle

The on-going exhibition on skeletons is especially interesting as it provides an insight into how skeletons of different groups of animals evolved and adapted to their different functions. Flight requires a strong but light-weight structure. To achieve this, the skeleton in birds was adapted with a strong chest bone to hold the flight muscles. In addition, some bones were eliminated and the remaining ones hollowed out. The front limbs saw a reduction in digits and development of feathers. However, it is believed that the development of feathers was an exaptation; their original purpose could have been to regulate heat and it was only later that they were adapted for flight.

20161221_123455
Skull of a langur (Presbytis sp.). We shared a common ancestor with the langur around 25 million years ago

To live in trees, arboreal creatures (e.g. primates and koalas) developed strong chest and hip bones while a prehensile tail provided stability to navigate the canopy. The opposable thumb evolved allowing primates to grasp tree branches; this same opposable thumb would later give flexibility to hominids to fashion tools and weapons from stone and other materials. Did Darwin get it right when he said it was the need to free the hands to handle tools and weapons that gave rise to bipedalism? The earliest known stone tools date to 2.6 million years ago while hominids started walking upright 6 million years ago making it unlikely it was the need to handle tools that caused bipedalism. Many other theories abound; one that is gaining popularity specifies that wading in shallow water to forage for edibles necessitated walking on two legs. In addition, water cushioned the joints from pressure in an upright position allowing hominids to walk on two legs for longer periods.

20161221_124334
Skeleton of a chimpanzee. In humans, the spine and leg bones are in a straight line while these are at an angle in the chimpanzee allowing it to walk in a semi-upright position. In other four-legged animals, the spine and leg bones are at right-angles making an upright position difficult to achieve.

It is said that it was the use of technology that shaped us into who we are, that pushed us onto a very different evolutionary track from the other primates. Performing complex tasks increased our brain capacity to the 1,300 ml average of today. Compare this to the 400 ml of the extant Australopithecus and the same amount of the chimpanzee today. This  increased brain capacity has enabled our march to the stars.

20161218_133505
Pieces of rock from the moon and a flag of Malaysia that was carried by the Apollo 11 mission. The plaque reads: “This flag of your people was carried to the moon and back by Apollo 11, and this fragment of the moon’s surface was brought to Earth by the crew of that first manned lunar landing”.