Dato’ Kong or Na Tuk Kong or La Tuk Kong or Dato’ Keramat or 拿督尊王, who are they?

by Jean-Marie Metzger

Wherever you go in Malaysia, be it countryside, villages, cities, or golf course, you will often encounter little red shrines on the side of the road, or at the entrance of houses or temples, or at the boundaries of a land plot.  Sometimes these shrines are empty with only some inscriptions that, of course, unless you are fluent in Chinese, you will not understand. However, even if the shrine is empty of any statue, offerings are still present, which are witness of a cult to some kind of deity or spirit. Fortunately for the layman, mostly if he is not Chinese, a statue will be present and…surprise! It is clearly a Malay figure. So who is he? How comes a Malay is present and worshipped in a Chinese shrine?

“Empty” shrines in Penang (©J. M. Metzger 2017)

It seems this is a direct legacy of early animism that infused Malay and Chinese religions. Called Dato’, or Datuk, in Malay, often associated with the word keramat, it represents a spirit of the place. Dato’ means ‘grandfather’ in Malay and the earliest presence of this word dates back to Srivijayan times. What does keramat mean? It is related to the miracles accomplished by Muslim Sufi saints or more generally to “high places” (places of worship according to Mr Bellamy in the Selangor Journal, quoted by W. W. Skeats, “kramat may be roughly translated prophet or magician”).

Altogether, the Dato’ can be associated with either early pre-Muslim animism, to Sufi Islam, or to Chinese Taoism, some also relate it to Hindu-Buddhism.

When the first Hakka immigrants arrived in Malaya in the early 15th century, they paid respect to all the ‘earth spirits’ (tree, water spring, rock or hill – the penunggu of early Malay culture) that were worshipped by the locals. This was not far different from the practice of Taoism which, linked to nature, worships its different spirits (the shen). The Dato’ Keramat, either legendary figures once human, or prominent persons, such as famous silat warriors, pious Muslims, or even shamans (bomoh), later become deities. This was very similar to the Taoist practice by which a famous figure may become a shen and worshipped as such (for example Guan Di –general of the Three Kingdoms–, or much later Sin Sze Ya).

Therefore, it was not difficult for the Chinese immigrants to adopt local practices which led to worshipping a Malay-Muslim figure in a typical Chinese shrine.

While the Dato’ Kong (Na To Kong or La To Kong in Chinese), which means  ‘great Grandfather’, is generally associated with trees, or more generally is considered the protector of the place where it stands, the tradition of Dato’ Keramat, often also called Datuk Panglima, lists nine of them:

  • Datuk Panglima Ali (Ali)
  • Datuk Panglima Hitam (Black)
  • Datuk Panglima Harimau (Tiger)
  • Datuk Panglima Hijau (Green)
  • Datuk Panglima Kuning (Yellow)
  • Datuk Panglima Putih (White)
  • Datuk Panglima Bisu (Mute)
  • Datuk Panglima Merah (Red)
  • Datuk Panglima Bongsu (Youngest)
Datuk Panglima Putih, with DP Merah, DP Kuning and DP Hijau (©Shih Perng Liew)

Associating colours with the deities is a legacy of Hinduism, while the Tiger attribute may refer to Shiva; colours could also refer to the five elements and directions in Chinese belief: white=metal/west, red=fire/south, yellow=earth/centre, green=wood/east, black=water/north.

Apart from these, there are numerous Datuk. Some consider that there are 108 Datuk, identifying them with the 108 Ruesi of Hindu-Buddhism, characters who are gifted with spiritual and magical powers (Buddha, as well as Shiva, are considered Ruesi).

At the KDE Golf club in Ampang, there is a Datuk Panglima Hussein shrine. This shrine may be related to Nakhoda Hussin, quoted by W. W. Skeat in Malay Magic as a jin presiding over water, rain, and streams, who has a kramat, or holy place, in Bukit Nyalas (Johor). This would be consistent with the fact that a stream runs across the premises of the club.

Datuk Panglima Hussein at KDE Golf club in Ampang (©J. M. Metzger 2017)

Dato’ Kong shrines are generally situated outside buildings, be it a temple or a house. In some cases, it may be placed inside a tower, but often at the entrance of the car park, as is the case with Integra Tower in KL (is this because fortune flows in at the toll barrier?). When the statue of the Dato’ Kong is present in the shrine, which is the most frequent situation, it cannot be mistaken for any other deity, as it has all the attributes of a Malay: he usually wears a songkok or a haji white hat, sometimes a tengkolok, and often holds a keris. This Malay attire does not exclude holding a Chinese gold ingot, to bring the appropriate wealth to the worshippers, or showing the long ears of Buddha as a symbol of wisdom.

In Penang and along the coast of Perak, there are female Datuk, called Nenek.

Offerings may vary (betel leaves, bananas, eggs, chicken…cigars and coffee are much appreciated by Datuk Panglima Harimau), but, of course, pork and alcohol are strictly forbidden!

Dato’ Kong, tree spirit, at Chew Jetty in Penang (©J. M. Metzger 2017)
Dato’ Kong, tree spirits, at the entrance of Guan Yin Temple in Penang (©J. M. Metzger 2017)
Dato’ Kong in the back garden of Guan Yin temple in Penang (©J. M. Metzger 2017)
Dato’ Kong in Klang (©J. M. Metzger 2017)
Private homes in Pulau Ketam (©J. M. Metzger 2017)
Dato’ Kong Sin Sze Si Ya Temple, Kuala Lumpur (©J. M. Metzger 2017)
Dato’ Kong at the entrance of the car park of Integra Tower in Kuala Lumpur (©J. M. Metzger 2017)

Now, what can we learn from the omnipresence of Dato’ Kong in Malaysia:

  • That the Chinese immigrants respected the local culture
  • That the Chinese pray to whatever may work and bring them good fortune
  • That Malaysia has always been a land of syncretism and mix of cultures throughout the centuries

Sources:

  • The Three Chinese Wisdoms (in French), Cyrille J.D. Jarry, Ed. Albin Michel (2010)
  • Malay Magic, Walter William Skeats (1900)
  • http://www.lersi.net/108-ruesi/
Advertisements

MV trainees on a guided tour of Melaka – Part 2

By Leslie Muri

(Batch 28’s trip to Melaka – after lunch)

Were we walking in the footsteps of Parameswara?  Had Admiral Cheng Ho passed this way?  Did Princess Hang Li Po grace this riverbank with her 500 maidens on their way to Bukit Cina?  Did Laksamana Hang Tuah sail by this spot on his voyage to Majapahit?  Fast-forward over 500 years and after lunch we found ourselves walking along the river pathway beside Hard Rock Café, turning the corner at Jalan Tukang Besi along side Kiehl’s.  Obviously, Melaka is still a centre of commerce today, but now for consumers.

This narrow old street is now a haven for backpackers, with scant evidence of its namesakes, tinsmiths.  Within a block its name magically transforms to Jalan Tukang Emas with even fewer signs of goldsmiths.  However it has acquired another popular name, Harmony Street, for important places of worship of several different religions are found close to each other on the street.

Along the way, we were treated to a delightful detour to see whimsical street art in an alleyway.  We met a charging water buffalo who had left his padi fields behind, a Chinese girl at her window with her woven and lacquered basket, a demure Malay girl draped in a sarong opening a shutter, a Chettiar money changer, an escaping Sang Kancil leaping from a window, a pair of rambunctious orang utan who have just tossed banana peels onto the road, a tin smith bent over his fire and children pulling each other on upi, the fallen palm fronds.

Street art

Craftsmen still ply their trades along narrow streets, many of which Lingam described to us as ‘dying trades.’  The rattan shop sported dim sum steamers, marketing baskets, back scratchers and the infamous rattan stick, sometimes used to beat the dust out of mats and pillows and sometimes the sillies out of wayward children.  The plants in pots growing right in front of his shop formed a modest at-hand medicine chest as there were cures for coughs, centipede stings and flavourings for curry.  Another common tradesman of old was the tinsmith who fashioned pots and pans, kerosene lamps and mended leaking containers.  Craftsmen who make the carved Chinese name boards were at work.  Calligraphers and tombstone makers were there.  There were funeral shops, where hell money and possessions for the afterlife are produced and paraphernalia for prayers are sold, popular on All Souls’ Day once a year.  As Lingam pointed out, the next generation does not want to do these jobs anymore.  The skills may die, but we hope their values do not fade away.

Inside a rattan shop

The first house of worship we came upon was Sri Poyyatha Vinayaga Moorthy Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia.  It was erected on land given to the Chitty community by the Dutch in 1781 and built by Kapitan Thaivanayagam Chitty, head of the community.  Being dedicated to Vinayaga or Ganesha, it features a sculpture of the elephant deity, with altars honouring his mother, father and Lord Murugan, his brother.  Interestingly some aspects of Dutch influence are found in its design, as it does not have a round tower covered with carved deities but a flat one with three niches for relief images.  Our guide, Mr. Lingam, showed us the place at the temple entrance, where coconuts, which are pure, are offered to fulfill vows. Good events, such as marriages or births, involve offerings of fruit, while sad events like funerals are without fruit.

Sri Poyyatha Vinayaga Moorthy Temple

The Kampong Kling Mosque, so named because of the South Indian Muslims who built it during the Dutch era, was our next stop.  The mosque, at the corner of Jalan Tukang Mas (or Jalan Tokong) and Jalan Hang Lekiu was first built of wood in 1748 and later reconstructed in brick and cement in 1872.  Although not the oldest mosque in Malaysia it is one the earliest and reflects Sumatran, Chinese, Hindu and Malay architectural aspects, just as Melaka of old was home to many cultures.  The three-tiered roof is typical of Melaka mosques, while the minaret resembles a pagoda.  English and Portuguese glazed tiles were used and the columns are Corinthian in style.  Mr. Lingam showed us the structure used in slaughtering livestock during the Hari Raya Korban or Aidil Adha observations.

Kampong Kling Mosque

Lastly, we came to the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, where Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are all practiced.  The building of the temple, in 1645, was under the patronage of Kapitan Cina, appointed by the Dutch to oversee the Chinese Hokkien community.  The beautiful corners of its roof soaring heavenward tie in with the Chinese name, Merciful Cloud Temple.  The elaborate building materials and experienced craftsmen were all brought from China.  Additions and refurbishments were made in 1704 and 1801.  The central prayer hall honours goddess Kwan Yin while smaller surrounding chambers are devoted to scholars, ancestors and other deities.  Traditionally an empty lot is found across the street from temples for the temporary staging of Chinese operas, but this temple is fortunate to have a permanent building for operas across the road.

Decoration on archway leading to the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple

Beside the opera house is a Malay kampong house, which was rescued from certain oblivion and restored.  Features of such wooden houses have been preserved here such as; stilts which; keep the occupants above floods, allow a protected storage place for rice on the ground, provide a cool place to sleep on a hot afternoon and allow cooling breezes to pass under the floor.  Typical of Malay houses but found only in Melaka are the concreted front entry steps decorated in colourful tiles.  Three sections of the house provide a visiting area in the front verandah, a sleeping area in the slightly higher centre and a kitchen/cooking area in the lower back area.

Our last stop was a visit to the Chitty Museum on Jalan Gajah Berang.  The origins of this fascinating community were among the Hindu traders from South India who arrived during the period of the Melaka Sultanate.  Having to depend on the monsoon winds, they have to stay in Melaka for about six months between changes in the monsoons. This extended layover allowed for intermarriage with the local women, thus producing the group known as Indian Peranakans or Chitties.  They soon adopted Malay food, dress, some customs and language, while retaining their Hindu religion.  They flourished during the Sultanate and under the Portuguese, but not under the Dutch who maintained a trade monopoly for themselves.  They then turned to various crafts such as gold smithing and eventually to agriculture.  Today many Chitties work as clerks and technicians.  To this day they speak Malay infused with Tamil and words from other languages and maintain many of their elaborate rituals, such as complex wedding observations and extended ceremonies related to childbirth and girls’ coming of age.  Beef is not part of their diet. They are not to be confused with Chettiars, who were more recent Indian immigrants from a mercantile community, involved in money changing, money lending and land businesses.

Diorama showing a Chitty wedding at the Chitty Museum

We applaud the MV trainers, for arranging this trip, which gave us so much insight into Melaka of the past and present.  Having experienced so much first hand we will definitely remember what we saw, heard and learned.  Who can forget the searing memory of reading the gravestone in Christ Church of the mother and her three children who all died of diphtheria within 15 days of each other in the 1850s? Lingam was an ever-respectful guide who willingly shared his knowledge of all things Melakan.  He also set a standard for us to live up to.  It was a great day and a good time was had by all.

Click here to view Part 1 of this story.

Fruit from the Melaka tree

MV trainees on a guided tour of Melaka – Part 1

by Rama Ramanathan

Twenty-three of us were on the JMM (Department of Museums Malaysia) bus as it departed Museum Negara for Melaka at 7.45 am on Tuesday 10 October 2017.

Apart from our trainers (Jega, Karen, and Jean-Marie) who accompanied us, most of us were from Batch 28 and had delivered or watched presentations in Gallery C about Melaka. Some of Batch 28 trainees are professional guides who’ve seen Melaka often, but most haven’t. We looked forward to seeing how what we said or heard about Melaka during our training would match-up with reality.

In Melaka, we were met by Lingam, a local guide, at 10.00. After introducing himself to us, he briskly took us to the riverside where he explained the origins of Melaka. We heard again about the Hindu king Parameswara from Indonesia who fled to Temasek (now Singapore) where he killed a noble and, fearful of vengeance by the King of Siam, fled to Melaka, about 600 years ago.

Our guide said Parameswara sailed to Melaka and, while resting under a tree, he observed – as we’d heard so often – a mouse deer (kancil) turn aggressor against hunting dogs, one of whom fell into the river and was consumed by a crocodile. To many of us this was a new version on an old story, a version now set in stone in a piece of art, which the local authority has put on display by the river. He continued, “the fighting spirit of the mouse deer made Parameswara choose to settle there.”

The kancil story, immortalised in stone

Our guide next walked us to the Church of St. Francis Xavier, built in 1856 by French missionaries on the site of an old Portuguese church. The architecture of the church is neo-Gothic, modelled on the Cathedral of St. Peter in Montpellier, France. It is worth observing that the French named the church after the Spanish monk known as the “Apostle of the East” and “Patron of Missionaries.” Like the famed Spaniard, the French were Jesuits, members of the Society of Jesus.

We also saw, on the church grounds, the statues of Francis and Anjiro, the Japanese convert whom Francis met in Melaka. Francis had Anjiro trained in India before commissioning him to do missionary work in Japan. (Anjiro translated the gospel of Matthew into Japanese before returning to Japan with Francis; Francis wrote it out in ‘Romanised’ form and often read it publicly in Japan).

Church of St. Francis Xavier

We then walked along the Melaka River to the Protestant Christ Church, which sits on the town square. En route, the guide pointed out a Melaka tree. Many of us thought the Melaka tree was of the palm family, so we were surprised to see that it is tree, which provides ample shade and yields prolific quantities of an edible gooseberry. Of course, we insisted on sampling fruit from the tree. Most of us were disappointed, but some discovered a new fruit they enjoy.

Our guide told us the Tamil name for the gooseberry is ambalakka, and that over time this morphed into “Melaka.” This is a good story, which many of us will re-tell, though we know there are no records to support it! (Other suggestions are that “Melaka” is derived from mulagas, a salted fish exported from the state; also malakat which means “meeting” in Arabic.)

Melaka tree

The old town square has a clock tower and a fountain.

The clock tower was gifted to Melaka in 1886 by Mr. Tan Jiak Kim in memory of his father, Mr. Tan Beng Swee. Originally, the tower had two clocks, imported from Britain. In 1982, the clocks were replaced with four units from Japan. This upset the older population because they did not favour doing business with the nation whose soldiers had caused them much hardship during the Second World War.

Said to be the only functioning colonial fountain in Malaysia, the Victoria fountain was built in 1901 to commemorate the longest reigning British monarch. It has the following inscription: “Victoria Regina 1837-1901, erected by the people of Melaka in memory of a great Queen.” Our guide said it was built with marble imported from Britain.

Next, we entered Christ Church, built by the Dutch as a Presbyterian church in 1753, now used by the Anglican denomination. The impressive roof structure is held up by 40-foot long beams of beautiful, hardy local wood. Behind the altar, is a representation of the Last Supper, a glazed ceramic artwork made abroad and shipped to Melaka. According to our guide, it was found broken into three pieces when it arrived, but was so skilfully assembled that the cracks can hardly be seen.

Christ Church has many notable features, but space only permits mention of one more: a “tombstone” (no body beneath) with a Kurdish-Armenian inscription which translates into:

Hail! You who read the tablet of this tomb in which I now sleep, give me the news, the freedom of my countrymen, for whom I wept much. Did there arise from among them one good guardian to govern them and to keep them? Was it in vain that I expected in the world to see a good shepherd come to look after the scattered sheep?

I, Jacob, grandson of Shameer, an Armenian of a respectable family whose name I keep, was born in a foreign town in Persia, now Inefa, where my parents now forever sleep.

Fortune brought me to this distant Melaka, which keeps my remains in bondage. I was separated from the world on the 7th July, in the year of our Lord 1774, at the age of 29. My mortal remains were deposited in this spot, in ground which I had purchased.

Cornell University digitised version of Robert Norman Bland, Historical Tombstones of Melaka, Paternoster, London, 1905; page 5.

Tombstone with Kurdish-Armenian inscription

We departed Christ Church and entered the Melaka Museum, which is housed in Stadthuys, the Dutch word for “Town Hall.” Built in 1650, it is the oldest surviving Dutch building in the East. It served as administrative centre and housed the Dutch governor and his deputy. We learned that the stones used on the stairway of the main entrance came from the Netherlands as ballast on ships.

Just past the paid entrance, the museum architects have exposed some of what lies beneath the floor: a section of the drainage system incorporated by the Dutch into the design to preserve the building from flooding and erosion.

There is much of interest in the museum, both objects and paintings, with descriptions in both Malay and English. Exhibits that caught my eye include a collection of tortoise coin currency (so bulky and heavy!), a watertight trunk for luggage, and a collection of crockery.

The museum includes a re-creation of the Dutch bakery, which was integral to the design of the building – the colonialists needed their bread! Outside the building are the remains of a well, which supplied water to the building and a large statue of Zheng He, the Chinese Muslim eunuch Admiral who was a frequent visitor to Melaka.

A museum buff should budget at least 3 hours to thoroughly interact with and digest the exhibits.

Stadthuys staircase

From the museum we walked up to what remains of St. Paul’s church. For Catholics, the main attraction of these ruins is that it is the place where the remains of St. Francis Xavier were housed for nine months from March to December 1553. Francis died in Sanchian Island south of mainland China in 1552. His body was buried there, then exhumed and re-buried in Melaka. Then it was exhumed again and taken to Goa where it still is – except for one or more parts which were removed and sent to one or other places. It’s complicated!

Many recovered tombstones are on display. The visitor is struck by the young ages at which these visitors from foreign lands, many of them missionaries, and their local-born infants died in Malaya. Perhaps the most striking tombstone is one dominated by a skull and crossbones.

The guide explained that according to researchers the “pirate symbol,” taken together with other markings upon it, indicates that the person buried under it was a Jesuit Cardinal.

St. Paul’s church is a place to ponder the vagaries of history. The Star, in an article dated 7 December 2013, well summarised its significance:

The St. Paul’s Hill Complex, now a Unesco Heritage Site, mirrors a different “complexion” for the state’s “conquerors” of those yesteryears whenever St. Paul’s Church is brought into focus.

To the Portuguese, it was a place of worship and was the hallowed grounds where St Francis Xavier walked and preached.

To the Dutch, it was a Protestant church, a burial ground for members of nobility as well as a fortress.

While to the British, the church and hill was an artillery bastion and lookout point commanding a wide view of the Straits of Melaka.

According to our guide, the British removed the most of the roof of the building so that their lookouts could walk around the tall walls and spot potential attackers.

We then walked down the hill, past many Dutch and British graves, to A’Famosa gate. This is the only part of the Portuguese-Dutch fort of Melaka, which survived the dynamiting of the fort by the British beginning in August 1807. As we stood there, I remembered the response the British action awoke in Munshi Abdullah, one of the Malay world’s greatest writers: “The fort was the pride of Melaka, and after its destruction the place lost its glory like a woman bereaved of her husband.”

The Dutch entrusted Melaka to the British in 1795 for “safe-keeping” so they could focus on defending the Netherlands from the French. When they returned in 1818, they “got Melaka back,” minus its main fortification and “glory.”

It was 1.00 pm. Physically exhausted, but mentally invigorated, we headed off to find lunch and savour the sights and sounds of the morning.

The adventure continued after lunch and can be viewed here

 

A meal and some sharing

The delay to the annual potluck this year was fortuitous as it could be coincided with the Attendance Certificate Presentation Ceremony for trainee batches 28 and 29. Hence, Saturday 30 Sep saw the Discovery Room flooded with an array of palate-tantalising food, showcasing the culinary talents of many a volunteer. Seasoned volunteers interacted with trainees over this sumptuous lunch while waiting for the presentation ceremony to begin.

A small selection of the dishes brought by volunteers
Master of Ceremonies, Poh Leng, addressing the attendees at the start of the presentation ceremony

In her opening speech, Karen Loh noted that batches 28 and 29 had started their training sessions in February 2017. This made them unique as training has traditionally started in September every year and will revert to the 9th month next year. Karen thanked the trainers for their dedication and hard work. In congratulating the trainees, she reminded them that they are encouraged to attend Focus events and to contribute to the blog, Facebook, and the Screamer.

Four trainees were invited to share their thoughts on the training they had just completed. First up was Marianne Khor. Let’s hear it in her own words:

“When I was asked to give a short 3-minute speech today, I was reminded of the first time I had to give a speech of that length, ‘the 3-minute presentation’. Most of us panicked at the thought of cramming 600 words into 3 minutes. We had to edit it, but then, would it be too short or still too long? Well, I just hope that I will not be timed today! We have all come a long way since these first 3-minute presentations, after all we are here today, receiving our certificates. Not so long ago we were a group of strangers with just a common interest. Now we are friends, and when I look at all of us here from Batch 28, I see that we represent what we learned about the history of Malaysia. Just like the people who made this country, we too are from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. What unites all of us here is our love for history and culture, and the desire to share Malaysia’s history and culture with all those who come to this museum in order to learn more about it.

In all these months we have been presented with a lot of information. We studied and read stacks of books. It was an amazing experience and I am still surprised at how much knowledge was conveyed in such a relatively short time. It has made me appreciate and understand the people and this country that has been my home for 42 years, even more. But it was the dedicated speakers, sharing their knowledge and passion with us week after week, who gave life to all the facts that we had learned and put everything into place, like a puzzle that finally comes together. And it was never boring. Every time that a subject was announced which promised to be a bit dry, we were always pleasantly surprised at how the particular speaker made it interesting and exciting. Our trainers and mentors Poh Leng, Karen, Jega, Jean Marie and Douglas, have done an amazing job in guiding us through the maze of facts and dates and always kept us motivated and interested. On behalf of Batch 28, I would like to thank you, Poh Leng, Karen, Jega, Jean Marie and Douglas, and all the museum staff that have been involved in our journey to get us where we are today. You were always there for us when we needed help and guidance!”

Next was Lee Ean Keong and this is what he had to say:

“Well, to start with, I would like to thank the MV trainers, Jega, Poh Leng, Jean-Marie and Douglas for doing a fantastic job moulding us, Batch 28, into Museum Volunteer Guides. When we started our course on 14 Feb. this year, some of us thought we knew the history of our country……. until we completed the course and realised that at the begining, we actually knew so little of our history and now we know so much more. We can talk to anyone about our country’s history with confidence and with facts. And all thanks to our training course and our trainers. It was an excellent and effective training programme and very dedicated MV Trainers. And also on behalf of Batch 28, I would like to thank Mr. Yee, who was always there taking photos and giving valuable advice and our Librarians who have been so helpful and accommodating. Not forgetting our MV speakers esp. Karen, Rose Gan and Kon Sze Yan and the trainers and all the other external speakers who made their topics so very interesting.

But most of all, I would like to mention that we have a mix group of friends in Batch 28 who are from different nationalities. We have Malaysians, French, Canadian, German, Moroccan, Korean, from Beijing, China, a lady from Kazakhstan. They are all very helpful and supportive. We even have a chat group filled with information on history and museum activities and getting us all still connected even after we have finished our course. So, finally, on behalf of Batch 28, I would like to once again thank all our trainers and say “you are an inspiration to us all. We hope one day we can be as good as you and make you proud”.”

Representing the French in batch 28 was Christine Henry-Bourdon, who shared anecdotes from the French group.

My experience
Last month, while in France, I visited two museums in Paris. One is the Asian Arts museum (called musée Guimet). One can argue about the presence of these treasures outside their homelands, but I must admit that I appreciated greatly the possibility of seeing such a large quantity of marvellous objects from India and South-east Asia in a single place.

The second museum is the Musée du Quai Branly, a museum dedicated to the indigenous arts around the world. Again, I concentrated, of course, on South-east Asia. As I was wandering around the displays, assessing the statues from tribal Borneo, my eyes caught sight of a big artefact in the middle of the room. A year ago, I would have thought: “What a strange and bulky table!”. Not anymore: my eyes widened and I am sure I said aloud: “it cannot be!”. But it was! A complete, big, beautifully preserved Dong Son drum. And I could understand its age, its usage, its meaning, its significance for the bronze age, for the beginning of trading in South-east Asia. By the way, it came from Java and was dated between the 4th century BCE and the 2nd century CE.

Why do I tell you this story? Because it summarizes what might be the biggest of the many benefits I got from following this formation. I have asked my fellow French-speaking trainees, and they told me the same thing. One said: “when I look at what I used to call a Malay dagger, I see today what is behind what I now call a keris : the legends, the magic, the craftsmanship, the religions that left their traces in the decoration, the meaning of the waves, its value for the Malay culture, its usage in the local martial art Silat. We can now understand objects and places, link them to what we have learned and see their beauty.

Anecdotes from the French-speaking group
We were very enthusiastic about learning more about the culture of our current home country. One of us was so anxious not to be late for the first lesson, that she arrived one hour earlier, and sat for the full hour in her car. Being French, we tend to be obsessed by food. So, the yummy breaks were always welcomed and discussed in our group. And as you saw during the lunch, French patisserie is still a very present heritage. We like talking, and of course, it is even better if it is in French. During the mentoring, one of us spent one full hour for the visit of one gallery. But I am sure that it is not specific to the French speakers, is it?

What about a few surprises?
There is evidence, in the written presentations, that the oldest science known to mankind is, by far, archaeology, as the Java man has been “quote FOUND 500,000 years ago”. On the lesson on Fire safety, the surprise to find motorbikes parked all along the Emergency exits,
The surprise to see a real prince with a historic ring explaining to us the story of the Malay population. The surprise of holding the hilt of a very antic and valuable kris, hilt that just got separated from the blade! The last surprise will be on October the 10th, when, at last, we will manage, we hope, to finalise the very expected trip to Malacca!

All of that wouldn’t have been possible without a few groups and structures that gave us this amazing opportunity.
Jabatan Muzium Malaysia and the Museum volunteers’ association, of course, for the organisation, the facilities, their help, their dedication…
The librarians, for their patience, their knowledge and their strictness in making sure that the books circulated as needed. The speakers, who were so knowledgeable in their fields, and who covered together such a broad range of expertise, from archaeology, to religions, history of the Malay kingdoms, of the different colonisations, of the Kris and silat….
The tutors/mentors/teachers, who were present, patient, enthusiastic, so keen to share their knowledge, and to accept our limited but growing understanding of historical and cultural Malaysia. Thanks to our families, who accepted this invading passion and followed us in museums, were our guinea pigs for the presentations, and learned who is Francis Light and what is Dulang washing…
And finally, thank-you to all of you, students and teachers, for accepting us, who come from another world, and for allowing and guiding us during the discovery of this wonderful country we all call, for a shorter or a longer period, our home. From now on, as guides, we will try and share our knowledge and enthusiasm with the visitors, with the hope that they will leave the museum with a better understanding of the country and the wish to learn and see even more of it.

Kayoko Omata represented batch 29, the Japanese Group.

“As I was given 2 themes for today’s speech, first of all, I would like to start from why I joined this MVJ’s program. The main reason was very simple, because I wanted to know more about Malaysia. Actually, every member from Batch 29 has the same reason to join the program.

Myself, I came to Malaysia as an expat family in March 2016. Before that, we were in Myanmar. But it was a short period, and I had not much time to learn the history of Burma. And I feel very regret about that. As I have visited and lived in many parts of regions in the world, I have a belief that “the more I learn the country’s history, the more I can understand each culture’s uniqueness and the people living there.”That will lead to respect for each country. So when I saw the information for applicants on Japanese community Newspaper, I would like to contribute for both Malaysia and Japan, so that Japanese people would be able to deepen their understanding for Malaysia.

To be honest, 5 months training was tough for all Batch 29 members. But through this training, and after experiencing several times of solo guide, we feel very fortunate we could meet a lot of people coming from a different background. Also it was a great experience for us, we could study not only the history of Malaysia, but also the history of south-east Asia and the World. And it broadens our views and knowledge. This year is the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Malaysia and Japan. We really appreciate tremendous kind supports from trainers during these 5months, and we’re looking forward to contributing for both countries friendly relations through this volunteer activities from now on.”

Congrats to all the graduates. Hope you enjoy your guiding sessions. Lastly, a big thank-you to Yee Chun Wah for being on hand to photograph the occasion.

Batch 28 (and their trainers) – happy to be full-fledged volunteers
Batch 29, elegantly dressed in baju kebaya, with their trainers
The food went fast

 

Gyeongju National Museum, Korea

by Karen Loh

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.

A copy of a rock carving depicting whales from Ulsan Daegok-ri Bangudae in Room 1 of the Silla History Gallery.

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.

Silla Gold crown, jewellery and belts with belt hangings made of gold and some with jade excavated from The Silla mound tombs.
An assortment of gold earrings.
Burial ware excavated from The Silla mound tombs.
Ornamental golden sheath from tomb No. 14 in Gyerim-ro, Gyeongju.

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.

Statue of Avalokitesvara in the Buddhist Arts Gallery.
Roof tiles from the Hwangnyongsa Temple.

MRT Link: Muzium Negara to KL Sentral

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. (note: the 40 sen was during the promotion period, it is now 80 sen one way. Hence, a return journey will set you back RM1.60!)

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.

The stations’s on the right

Islam in the Malay World

By Anne Deguerry and Jean-Marie Metzger

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.

181
Stone of Ibnu Sardan – Gallery B, National Museum Malaysia

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.

Terengganu Stone or Batu Bersurat Terengganu – Terengganu State Museum

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.

The conversion of Muhammad Shah – as per the diorama at Gallery B, National Museum Malaysia

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)
    • Metal ware and jewellery
    • Ceramics
    • Carving
A Terengganu Koran with typical Malay features: eg. illuminations of central pages with triangular patterns – Islamic Arts Museum, Kuala Lumpur