by Rose Gan
Elephants in the museum? Are you sure? Fascinating details are often hidden in plain sight in the galleries of any museum, frequently overlooked. The elephant, the largest animal of the Peninsula, turns up in some unexpected places at Muzium Negara, if you look carefully enough. This great beast, a vital part of the economy of the region since the earliest times, has had many functions: as a beast of burden, a method of transport through thick forest, a farm animal, a vehicle for the nobility, a valuable trade item, and even a war mount in battle. It also has a particular link to South East Asia’s Hindu-Buddhist past, representing Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles, the particular deity of merchants and travellers for his connections with trade and travel.
So, let us take a quick tour of the galleries and look for elephants! Such quests can be a handy trick to keep in your back pocket when your tour includes children or bored teenagers. ‘How many elephants can you find? Let’s see if you can get more than four…’
The most obvious elephant in Gallery A is a terracotta sculpture, part of the Bujang Valley collection. It may, of course, have a religious significance as a reference to Ganesha, but as it is in no way anthropomorphic, it may simply be a representation of an indigenous creature. Tigers and monkeys, snakes and crocodiles are often found on such pieces, just as on cave paintings, reflecting the animal world of the forest. The elephant was also, of course, important source of everyday labour and transport. This temple decoration came from Candi 21/22, which were Buddhist.
Another elephant example may be represented on the menhirs from Pengkalan Kempas, known colloquially as The Rudder and The Sword. Although there is little certainty about the many complex motifs on these megaliths, there have been suggestions that the animal on the mid left of ‘The Rudder’ is an elephant, whilst the ridge along the top of ‘The Sword’ that rises to a bulbous end may depict an elephant’s trunk. These megaliths are thought to represent several eras: the figures may have been carved at different times, explaining the unusual mix of animist, Hindu-Buddhist and Islamic elements. Pengkalan Kempas was probably a small jetty on a river where goods were exchanged. Ganesha would have been an important votive deity for the merchants who landed there in the hope of a good bargain.
The Makara is an impressive sight at the entry of Gallery B. In Hindu-Buddhist iconography, the makara represents the two opposing forces of the earth, the land and the sea. This highly stylised figure noticeably has a fish tail but also displays a furled trunk as well as tusks, clearly elephant motifs. The makara originated in India where it has a completely different appearance: a hybrid of a dog, a crocodile and a fish. The unique makara of this region, however, draws upon the local elephant and a large fish. It is quite a different chimaera from its Indic origins.
The most interesting elephant in Gallery B, however, is extremely hard to spot unless you are very observant. On the Riau Bugis keris in one of the central cases before the Perak throne, at the very top of the blade where it forms a triangular shape to meet the crosspiece, there is a finely wrought filigree feature. Careful scrutiny – and the help of a laser pointer or torch – reveals this to be a tiny unfurled Ganesha trunk, a trace of the Hindu-Buddhist origins of this archetypal Malay weapon.
Gallery C contains a colourful reference to elephants in one of the pictures at the back of a vitrine in the Portuguese section. During the terrible fighting from June-July 1511 that culminated in the Portuguese capture of Melaka, Sultan Mahmud commanded a huge army of 20,000, gathered from the many vassal states of the Melakan Empire, including Pahang, Sumatra and Java. Amongst this host were 20 war elephants. The image in Gallery C depicts the thick of battle with Melaka town burning in the distance. Centre stage is a furious bull elephant, ridden by Malay warriors armed with spears, charging into a melee of Portuguese infantry and Indian troops, all fleeing in terror. Two other war-elephants bring up the rear. Sadly, despite the superior local forces – and the fearsome elephants – after a battle lasting 40 days, the Portuguese eventually triumphed. The rest is history.
There is another elephant reference in the same gallery, in the pictorial display of Transportation towards the end of the room. Three working elephants, two with open rattan howdahs, the other with a woven covered canopy stand proudly facing the camera with their mahouts. They remind us of the vital role the elephant played in negotiating the narrow paths through the forest in an earlier time as transportation, beast of burden, and a valuable dragging and lifting machine before the invention of modern tractors and forklifts!
Even Gallery D has an elephant reference, although only those very well-informed about royal costume might notice it. Amongst the collection of the tengkoloks of the sultans of Malaysia, is the ceremonial Tanjak diRaja of the Sultans of Terengganu. It has a distinctive high folded front-piece that curves outwards, known as the tengolok belalai gajah (the elephant trunk).
I found seven elephants – have I missed any?
Ahmad Sarji bin Abdul Hamid (Chairman, Editorial Board). (2011) The Encyclopaedia of Malaysia: Vol. 16 – The Rulers of Malaysia. Editions Didier Millet.
Gan, Rose. & Maganjeet Kaur (Eds.). (2017). A Malaysian Tapestry: Rich Heritage at the National Museum. JMM. MPH Group Printing.
National Museum Curators. (2011). Muzium Negara Kuala Lumpur Gallery Guide. JMM.
Salina Abdul Manan, Hamdzun Haron, Mohammed Jamal Mat Isa, Daeng Haliza Daeng Jamal, Narimah Abd. Mutalib. (2020). Tengkolok as a Traditional Work of Art in Malaysia: An Analysis of Design. Journal of Critical Reviews, 7(19). http://www.jcreview.com/fulltext/197-1598175690.pdf