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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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-).
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).
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.
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.
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”!!