by Rose Gan
In a small annexe off the main Lost Kingdoms Exhibition a selection of inscribed stones (Malay: prasasti) stand erect, infinitely perplexing to the casual observer. For the most part, they are less immediately pleasing to the eye than the more distinctive commemorative statues. Some of them are elegantly wrought, like the Kota Kapur, but most are little more than crudely shaped stones with faded chiselling, impossible for any but the expert to construe.
It is often easy in a museum to bypass the most valuable record of the past in favour of artefacts of more aesthetic charm. A jar of dust in the Prehistory Room of Muzium Negara hides a story of a cataclysmic super-volcanic eruption of devastating effect. The most humble exhibits can reveal unexpected insights; these inscription stone are such an example.
The following stones represent the early evolution of written language in the archipelago, and are the first evidence of the indigenous people recording their own story for posterity, at the point in time when prehistory became history. The first extant written evidence for South East Asia derives from external sources: China, India, the Arab world and Classical Europe. Although the accounts of other civilisations are important, their original purpose was to tell their own story, not that of the local people, which renders them an imperfect witness at best. Much of what they observe, they do not fully understand. Sometimes it is in their interest to purposely exaggerate or misreport. The opportunity afforded by these inscribed stones to hear the voice of the peoples of the archipelago for the first time is a vital part of our understanding of the early history of the region.
Of course, inscriptions have their limitations. Prasasti stones are not intended as a chronicle or complete record. They do not give access to everyday life or offer a historical account of events. They only contain snippets, an opaque window into a snapshot in time. Yet, what they do offer is exact dates, indispensable in building up the chronology of the past. They contain information that is, for the most part, entirely factual, not subject to the obscurities of mythology or invention. Inscriptions reflect actual incidents, dynasties, statements of law or religion, records of battles, or the establishment of religious foundations. They are always dated and usually contain the name of the local king or lord, thus providing an invaluable framework for the study of a period. They are the essential building blocks required in assembling primary historical sources.
The featured Prasasti are written in an early Indic script known as Pallava, named for the dynasty in southern India where it originated. The Pallava dynasty lasted from c. 300 – 900 CE and was situated in the northern part of Tamil Nadu, around its capital at Kanchipuram. Variants of this script have been found throughout South East Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, the Malay Peninsula, and Indonesia, attesting to the importance of early trade contacts between the Tamils of the Coromandel coast and the region. In South East Asia, early Pallava script developed into Java Kuno (Old Javanese) and Old Malay, as well as Old Sundanese and Old Balinese. Post-Pallavan scripts later emerged amongst indigenous peoples, notably the Batak, the Lampungese and the Bugis, a testament to the far reach of this ancient form of writing.Each character represents a consonant accompanied by the vowel ‘a’. Alternative symbols are used to express other vowels and groups of consonants. As a result, the southeast Asian scripts derived from ancient Pallava are often referred to as hanacaraka scripts. Letters are not uniform, some being twice the size of others, giving the script a grandiose and dramatic sense of contrasting strokes, especially in its earliest forms. Later versions are more standardised.
This stone is one of a collection of seven similar andesite stones originating from a very early dynasty of east Borneo known as the Kutai Kingdom, situated in the Mahakam river valley of East Kalimantan, near the modern town of Samarinda. The stones are dated to the first decade of the fifth century CE, making Kutai the first known kingdom of the archipelago to develop a written language. The modern regency of Kutai in Kalimantan has recently been suggested as the future location of the new capital of Indonesia. If this goes ahead, the wheel would indeed have turned full circle.
The word Yupa refers on the actual inscriptions to the stones themselves. The yupa is a species of tree in India, used to make sacrificial posts to which animal offerings were tied during ritual slaughter. Stone yupas are distinctly rare in India; these are the only ones found in Indonesia. The stones contain the genealogy of King Mulawarman, considered to be the greatest ruler of the Kutai dynasty that had originated with his grandfather Kundunga, followed by his son Aswarwarman, and then his three sons, the most prominent of whom was Mulawarman. Aswarwarman and Mulawarman have typical Indic royal names, while the grandfather’s name appears wholly different. The assumption is that Kundunga was an indigenous leader, the founder of the dynasty. It is likely that his son Awarwarman was the first to accept Hinduism and Indic culture, rather than it being brought in by external settlers or conquerors. This is in line with the generally-held belief that Indic civilisation was adopted rather than imposed in South East Asia. The other stones describe the sacrificial rites and the gifts of gold, cattle, horses and land presented to the officiating priests. The stone on display attests the achievements and good character of Mulawarman.
The Yupa stones are in Sanskrit, written in the Pallava script. They depict a thriving indigenous Indic kingdom in East Borneo, with active trading links to India and elsewhere, well established by around 400 CE. Other excavations in the area have revealed objects of Sivaite worship as well as Buddhist icons, suggesting the civilisation flourished over several centuries, and was probably also in contact with China.
The Tugu stone takes us to West Java where a group of inscriptions were unearthed, dating to the mid fifth century. They are, unhelpfully, collectively also known as Prasasti Tugu. This stone is the oldest of the seven. These prasasti describe an organised state ruled by King Purnawarman of the Sundanese Tarumanagara Dynasty, situated in the area of today’s capital city Jakarta. This early Hindu dynasty is believed to have been founded in 358 CE by a king known as Jayasingawarman; it was his grandson Purnawarman (395-434 CE) who moved his capital to Sundapurna by the coast. This particular stone was found at Tanjung Priok, near the modern port of Jakarta.
The large egg-shaped boulder contains five verses of Sanskrit written in Pallava script, of a similar style to that found on the Yupa stones. The writing mentions the illustrious Raja Purnawarman and concerns the digging of a water channel in the 22nd year of his reign. The canal was more than 11 km in length and the engineering project was supervised by Brahmin priests. The king presented the priests with a gift of a thousand cows for their assistance. This attempt to alleviate flooding, still a real problem in the same area today, was quite an achievement at the time, particularly as, according to the stone, the work was completed in 21 days!
The most famous of the other Tugu stones is the Ciaruteun Stone, named after the river in which it was found at Kampung Muara near Bogor, where it can still be viewed. Replicas are on show at Museum Nasional Indonesia and the History Museum at Kota, Jakarta. This is a much-loved stone because it contains a famous illustration of a very large pair of footprints; the accompanying script compares Purnawarman’s feet to those of Vishnu. Other drawings depicted on the stone are spiders (meaning unknown) and symbols similar to later ikat motifs that no doubt had ancient significance and power. Children always love this stone, and can often be seen sketching it in the museum.
Sacred footprints are associated both with Buddhism and also the worship of Vishnu, indicating the people of this dynasty were Hindu-Buddhists. Indigenous folklore in Indonesia also regards both animal and human footprints as containing magical power, representing the spirits of their ancestors, a vivid reminder that these early civilisations had not entirely forsaken their earlier belief system. A Chinese pilgrim, Fa Hsien, stranded in Java for several months in 413 CE (possibly in Tarumanagara), wrote that the people of the area knew Hinduism and also practised animism, but that the knowledge of the Lord Buddha was scant. Chinese chronicles also record an embassy to China in 435 CE from King Purnawarman, and describe the kingdom of Tarumanagara as both Hindu and animist, with a small evidence of Buddhism.
The Tarumanagara period flourished from the fourth to the seventh centuries, eventually coming under the influence of the empire of Srivijaya, after which it ultimately went into decline. A large private university in Jakarta, one of the oldest in Indonesia, is called Universitas Tarumanagara, recalling this early significant Indic civilisation in Java.
The elegant Kota Kapur stone follows on naturally from the Prasasti Tugu since it represents the supremacy of the empire of Srivijaya by the seventh century CE. Found on the island of Bangka that faces Palembang off the south east coast of Sumatra, the Kota Kapur is thought to have been brought there; this type of stone is not local to the island. The Kota Kapur is a six-sided obelisk bearing the Saka date of 608, i.e. 686 CE. The inscription is written in Pallava script but the language is Melayu Kuno (Old Malay), from East Sumatra. The text runs vertically down the needle-like stone, in an evolved version of Pallava; the words are now more standardised in size and uniform in shape.
This inscription is a statement of imperialism: it proclaims that the Kingdom of Srivijaya has authority over West Java, thus eclipsing that of the indigenous kingdoms. It lays a curse on anyone who does not show loyalty, which implies that there has already been resistance from Java. The inscription announces a military expedition to Java in order to restore Srivijayan control. It would seem the people of West Java did not at first willingly bend their knee! From this period on, Buddhism became more widespread throughout Java and beyond, blending with Hindu worship and local animistic practices. Srivijaya was based around Palembang and Jambi, but the empire was essentially maritime, generally less interested in physical conquest and the building of monumental structures, preferring to establish strong and stable trading monopolies.
The earliest known Srivijayan inscription is dated about four years earlier than Kota Kapur. The Kedukan Bukit, a more humbly wrought stone, has the distinction of being the first evidence of Old Malay in Pallava script, an important development in the evolution of the Malay language. The Kedukan Bukit stone was found on the river Musi, near Palembang, and proclaims a military victory against the Khmers. Despite Srivijayan preference for peace to enable trade, it appears that conflict was readily undertaken when necessary to assert the will of the empire. It also illustrates the vast area of South East Asia under nominal Srivijayan authority by the late 7th century.
Another very imposing Sriwijayan prasasti usually associated with the Kota Kapur stone is the Telaga Batu dated 683 CE, and found at Palembang in East Sumatra. It reveals information about the oaths of loyalty mentioned on the Kota Kapur, apparently sworn by subject people to their maritime masters to ensure fidelity. Either the kings of Srivijaya were regularly challenged by their subjects or there was paranoia that they might be. Often known as The Cobra Stone, from the seven-headed naga that crests the arch, the text gives intricate details of the fate awaiting anyone who takes the oath and then commits treason. During a ritual, water was poured over the head of the stone to run down the body and gather in the yoni-like funnel at the base. It is thought that oath-takers would drink a cup of this water on the understanding that, should they break their oath, the water would turn to venom inside and destroy them from within. An interesting spin on Buddhist self-discipline!
The Telaga Batu stone represents a complex syncretism of Buddhism, Hinduism and indigenous worship. The cobra, or Mucalinda, is the protector of the Buddha, often shown in images as shielding the Buddha from above under its hood. The cobra also represents the powerful ancient indigenous worship of the naga spirit. The stone itself is a lingga and the spout a yoni, the dual male-female elements of the Hindu cosmos. These three Srivijayan stones, all dated to a four-year period of the later 7th century, shed vital light on the shadowy empire of Srivijaya and its relationship with the neighbouring kingdoms.
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