By Pamella Lim
The dragon is one of many commonalities that binds the Malay Nusantara together, and that’s exactly what the ‘Dunia Naga’ exhibition aims to showcase. The temporary exhibition which runs until 30th October 2022 at Gallery 2 in Muzium Negara was curated by Encik Mohd Nasrulamiazam, who is also the deputy director of Muzium Negara.
On 22nd September 2022, En Nasrul, along with Muzium Negara curator Encik Muhammad Azam, took 14 museum volunteers on a special tour of the exhibition which features dozens of artifacts and we were delighted to learn about how this mythical creature played its part in the history of the region.
This report is a combination of the insights shared by the curators, my experience during the tour as well nuggets of information from my own research.
An age-old belief
While the Western world depicts dragons as four-legged, flying animals associated with evil and darkness, the Eastern version is a wingless, slithery creature associated with the seas and symbolises bravery, prosperity and protection.
Some etymology here – ‘naga’, the Malay word for dragon, comes from the Sanskrit word which means ‘serpent’ and is often used in Southeast Asian and Indian literature to refer to mythical beings with divine powers.
The belief of dragons in the Malay Archipelago predates the arrival of Hindu-Buddhism influence. And as Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms were established, as well as with the arrival of Islam later on, the locals’ depiction of dragons continuously evolved to incorporate religious and cultural beliefs.
As we made our way into the gallery, faint dragon roars coming from a video projection truly set the scene for our tour.
To treasure and to protect
Lining the walkway of the entrance was a row of ceramic jars, each glazed with different shades of warm, earthy colours and incised with intricate designs of serpentine dragons seemingly coiling around the vessel. These jars were often used for secondary burials in Borneo, but originated from China as most ceramics are. They are known as Martaban jars, named after the transit port of Martaban in Burma, a common stop in the trade route traveled by the ships carrying this pottery.
A final resting place is not the only purpose of these jars, though. The jars have also been used for storage of food and treasures or as a display ornament. It is also a symbol of social status, often handed down generations as family heirloom. In fact, such is the value of the jars that it can also be used as dowry and even to pay fines!
Next up in glass showcases were something akin to an artifact in Gallery B – makaras. The dragon makaras here were made in the 15th century AD in Sukhothai, which is the northeastern part of modern day Thailand. These white sculptures of wide-mouthed dragons bearing sharp teeth are a blend of Chinese and Southeast Asian cultures and made specifically for architectural decoration – to be mounted on staircase railings or the edge of rooftops, similar to gargoyles in Gothic architecture.
The art of war
Most MVs are pretty familiar with the keris, but the one in this exhibition stands out from the usual with its extraordinary length of about 2 metres. As one may guess based on its regal appearance, the Javanese Keris Besar Madura was mainly used for ceremonial purposes rather than in battles. However, the belief is that the dragon motif on the blade has mystical powers which can defeat the enemy.
There were also several other dragon spears from Majapahit kingdom and bronze swords from Ceribon, Indonesia on display. Other weapons in this exhibition that’s worth taking a closer look at is a mini cannon in the shape of an elongated dragon, as well as beautifully carved machete sheaths.
Dragons were often featured in weaponry and regalias of many Malay kingdoms as the creature symbolises power, bravery and strength. And some of the regalia still exists, such as the Perak sultanate’s ‘Pontoh Bernaga’ – a pair of golden dragon-headed armbands worn by the Sultan during official state ceremonies and believed to have existed since the days of Melaka sultanate.
All work and no play?
So we’ve seen burial jars, makaras, regalia and weaponry, and the second half of the gallery gets even more colourful. One of the first item to catch my eye because of how it glistened under the warm lights, was a gorgeous golden snake-dragon-patterned ‘blencong’ or oil lamp which is used as a light source for wayang kulit.
And as our group stood in front of several wayang kulit shadow puppets featuring dragons, we began discussing about the dying art of wayang kulit and other traditional performing arts such as Mak Yong. I must say, this is one of my favourite things about being an MV – the continuous learning that comes from information sharing and thought-provoking exchanges that take place whenever we gather… OK, now back to the exhibition!
A highlight in this area is also several carved-wood artifacts, including congkak boards shaped like a boat with dragon heads facing out from both ends and reptile-like scales carved deep into its wooden torso.
There are many fashion pieces too that feature this mythical being. From brass bangles, metal coin belts and traditional Chinese outfit to a sparkly tablecloth embroidered with beads. We also saw everyday objects such as kettles and a comb.
Looking at all the various artifacts and the amount of detail involved in its design, carvings and paintings, you can imagine how much the locals were fascinated by the dragon, be it for religious or cultural beliefs. And the fantastical nature of the subject too, was most likely a driving force for their creativity.
Loch Ness of Asia and Horn of the Dragon Princess
Somewhere in the middle of the tour, Nasrul told us about manuscripts and stories or hikayat around the region which mentioned dragons or some version of it and that reminded me of a couple of dragon-related folklore I heard as a child growing up in east coast state of Pahang.
Arguably the most famous dragon in Malaysia, is one that supposedly lurks in the state’s Tasik Chini — Malaysia’s second largest natural lake. Locals, especially the native Jakun tribe, strongly believe that a dragon named Seri Gumum resides beneath the waters. There have also been reported sightings of this creature, though none were scientifically proven.
Another story is about how the beautiful Tioman island came to be. Legend has it that a Chinese ‘dragon princess’ was flying across the South China Sea en route to present-day Singapore when she chose to rest on the waters along the way. She then fell in love with serenity of the location and decided to stay and transform her body into the island and the last remnant of the princess’ existence is her ‘dragon horn’ – twin peaks of Gunung Semukut, the island’s most striking landmark.
The legend lives on…
As we approached the end of the gallery, the spotlight was on a wide range of modern-day items in which dragons continue to feature prominently such as movie posters, video games, toy figurines and books; including one written by our fellow MV Rose Gan : ‘Dragon – (Penang Chronicles Vol 1)’.
The tour took about two hours and although time flew by, it did feel like we travelled through the ages. And the dragon, though ever evolving and ever illusive, has clearly stood the test of time.
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