Now and then, I get questions from visitors to the Museum on how, in the past, explorers, travellers, and others communicated with the peoples of the places they visited. Going to a country with a different language in today’s world is not a problem – with dictionaries available literally at your fingertips, with Google Translate, or even with applications on smartphones that translate one language to another on the fly. In any case, English is the universal language these days.
However, how about Christopher Columbus, Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and so many others during earlier times – how did they communicate with the locals they encountered? …………. read more
While the formal ‘museum’ did not emerge until the 17th century, collections of objects resembling this seemingly modern phenomenon date back thousands of years.
Museums have a long history going back to the 3rd century BCE, when the first known museums (of the ancient world) were opened in Egypt, Babylon and Mesopotamia. The oldest such in evidence was Ennigaldi-Nanna’s museum, dating from c. 530 BCE.
The remarkable woman Ennigaldi-Nanna, said to be the world’s first curator, was a Mesopotamian princess and priestess of the moon deity. Her museum, over 2500 years old, was centred on cultural heritage, and it is thought to have had an educational purpose. Along with her priestess role, Ennigaldi ran a scribal school for elite women. Thus, was founded for posterity the function and role of museums in preserving and curating items of cultural and historical value for education and enjoyment.
The early museums housed, cared for and displayed collections of curiosities in objects of cultural, artistic, spiritual and religious significance. The story of the world’s earliest museums shows the timeless appeal of conserving the treasures of past civilisations.
Although these institutions of antiquity were abandoned around 500 BCE due to deteriorating environmental conditions, museum culture spread to nearly every part of the world and today almost every country has at least one museum, no matter how small it may be. The concept of the museum has become a global concept that has survived through millennia.
The early museums were elitist and only the aristocrats could visit them. The public were excluded, but this focus has since shifted. Today, museums have redefined their missions, their goals and their functions, making their collections accessible to all – the researchers and the public. Still doubling as educational hubs and conservation centres, museums play a pivotal role in the preservation of culture and supporting the history of communities. Though they range in size and speciality, every museum’s mission revolves around the display and care of its collection, as well as continuous research on artefacts and thematic or general exhibitions.
The benevolent legacies of Elias Ashmole and James Smithson resulted in the establishment of institutions to further the cause of education and preservation of history.
Ashmole’s vision was to create a centre for practical research and the advancement of knowledge of the natural world, which, in his own words, “is very necessary to human life, health and the conveniences thereof.” Ashmole’s vision of a ‘place of curiosity which fuels a quest for knowledge’ is still being realised in the Ashmolean Museum, founded in 1683. It is the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology. Its world-famous collections range from Egyptian mummies to contemporary art, telling human stories across cultures and across time.
In 1829, Englishman James Smithson died at the age of 64 and left more than $500,000 (the equivalent of $9.6 million today) to the “United States of America, to found … an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge”. In the annals of philanthropy, there exist few more inscrutable final testaments than this – Smithson had never set foot in USA. The Smithsonian, begun in 1846, is a group of 17 museums and research centres administered by the Government of the United States of America. It is a treasure chest for visitors and a guide to the most fascinating aspects of our world.
From the Ashmolean and British museums in the United Kingdom to the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, DC, the Greco-Roman collections of the Mediterranean region, the great museums of the Indian subcontinent, the Orient and the Occident in between, these repositories of knowledge promote better understanding of our collective heritage and foster dialogue, curiosity and self-reflection. Quite simply, without museums we would most certainly lose the tangible links to our past.
The world around us is constantly changing and has radically shifted since the days of the early museums. Can museums remain static and yet be relevant? The future of museums will have to be different from the past. Museums will need to do what they can to engage with their public through their displays, education and outreach programmes.
Created in 1946, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), an international organisation of museums and museum professionals committed to the “research, conservation, continuation and communication to society of the world’s natural and cultural heritage, present and future, tangible and intangible”, recognises the need for a new museum definition. This would reflect the new role of museums and the obligations and possibilities for museums. As the voice of museum professionals, ICOM makes recommendations on issues related to cultural heritage. Its forum of experts raises public cultural awareness through global networks and co-operation programmes.
In 2016, ICOM led a one-year reflection on museums and cultural landscapes, organised an International Conference in Catania on ‘Museums and World Cultural Heritage’, published a declaration on the subject and adopted a Resolution on the ‘Responsibility of Museums towards Landscape’.
“Museums have the capacity to promote good practices and standards of excellence, notably by following the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, to involve and empower local communities to care for their heritage and to be a vehicle for peace and reconciliation”.
Suay Aksoy – President, International Council of Museums (ICOM), Paris, France
ICOM established International Museum Day (IMD) in 1977 to increase public awareness of the role of museums in the development of society, and it has been steadily gaining momentum. In 2019, more than 40,000 museums held special events in more than 150 countries, including Malaysia through the Department of Museums, Malaysia (DMM).
With the theme ‘Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion’, IMD 2020 was held on 18 May to “celebrate the diversity of perspectives that make up the communities and personnel of museums, and champion tools for identifying and overcoming bias in what they display.”
With the theme ‘Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion’, IMD 2020 was held on 18 May to “celebrate the diversity of perspectives that make up the communities and personnel of museums, and champion tools for identifying and overcoming bias in what they display.”
DMM is a member of ICOM. With its Director General, Datuk Kamarul Baharin bin A. Kasim, as President of ICOM Malaysia, museums in Malaysia work in cooperation and in tandem with the ethics and ideals of ICOM International.
Muzium Negara (National Museum of Malaysia) in Kuala Lumpur was officially opened on 31 August 1963 and gazetted as an ancient monument and historical site on 4 April 1996. The new building was constructed on the site of the former Selangor Museum, which was established in 1898. Near the close of World War II in 1945, the right wing of the Selangor Museum was destroyed by accidental Allied bombing. The left wing continued to serve as the Federation’s museum until the first Prime Minister of the Federation of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman, decided on the construction of a new building for the nation’s historical and cultural treasures.
The four galleries in the main building tell the story of the nation, from pre-history to post independence. The Music Gallery, the Malay World Ethnology Museum, and the Orang Asli Crafts Museum are in smaller buildings. Outdoor displays include transportation, past and present, burial poles and models of the megaliths found in Pengkalan Kempas, and the gateway to the Kedah Fort.
Research is one of the core services of the Department of Museums Malaysia (DMM) and plays an important role to the department’s role to preserve, maintain and disseminate knowledge about our heritage.
Exhibition, being the other core of DMM, is classified into Permanent, Temporary and Special exhibitions. The department collaborates with foreign embassies to host special exhibitions as in ‘The Great Steppe: History and Culture’ exhibition at Muzium Negara in October 2019. What a treat it was for Malaysians to view the most significant exhibits from Kazakhstan, and to be included in ‘The Procession of the Golden Man in the world’s museums’ international project.
DMM also co-operates with other national museums for the loan of artefacts that Malaysians may have the opportunity to appreciate the national treasures of other countries on their home soil. The recently-concluded ‘Lost Kingdoms’ exhibition, which featured 103 exhibits, was made possible with the co-operation of the DMM, the National Museum of Indonesia and the National Museum of Cambodia.
DMM’s working relationship with museum institutions globally provides knowledge development for Malaysians through events and special exhibitions regularly held.
By bringing exhibitions to the local communities and involving them in the care of their own heritage, museums reinforce the preservation of the world’s living memory and nurture the protection of intangible heritage. Museums also have the capacity to promote cross-cultural dialogue between local populations and visitors and for sustainable tourism.
The museum today tells the story of man the world over and how humanity has survived in its environment over the years. It houses things created by nature and by man. The prestige of museums has never been higher. Every city that wishes to be on the visitors’ map knows that it must build one. No foreign trip seems complete without visiting one.
The simplest method to study the heavens is to stick a stick into the ground and observe its shadow at different times of day. This is the basis of sundials and the ‘stick’ is known as a gnomon. Apart from telling time of day, the resulting sun angles can also be used to tell the time of year.
Residing in a serene corner on the grounds of the National Planetarium are miniaturised replicas of three famous astronomical observatories from different parts of the world together with Malaysia’s own iconic timepiece. These are more sophisticated than the stick but they function essentially as gnomons. The four timepieces tell different stories, each compelling in its own way. The mysterious Stonehenge continues to hide its secrets, defying the hundreds of researchers bent on probing its depths. As you walk the grounds, gaze at the Guo Shou Jing Observatory and be amazed at the astronomer that conceived this marvel. Imagine the intellectual discourses that would have taken place at the Jai Singh Observatory, not only among local astronomers but also among those from afar as Bavaria, France, and Portugal. Recapture the excitement of Merdeka at the Merdeka Sun Clock.
Stonehenge, one of England’s most visited sites, was once sold at an auction for £6600! On 21 September 1915, Cecil Chubb, a barrister, was sent to an auction by his wife, Mary, to buy dining chairs; he returned home, instead, as the proud owner of a few acres of ruins, much to Mary’s chagrin. Fortunately, Chubb’s intentions were to protect the monument and, three years later, he donated Stonehenge to the nation, receiving a knighthood in exchange.
While the experts agree that Stonehenge was built in different phases by different groups of people, possibly for different functions, there is no common consensus on the constitution of the phases and the functions of the stones. The structure dates to around 3000 BCE, reaching its present shape around 1800-1500 BCE. The original structure was a henge, a circular flat area surrounded by a ditch, with the only difference from other henges being in its size – a whopping 100 metres across. Outer and inner banks surrounded the ditch and 56 circular cavities ran along the inner bank. Named Aubrey holes after the person who first noticed them, the cavities were believed to have initially contained bluestones but were used in a later period for cremation burials.
The stones at the centre of the circle started being erected in different phases from around 2500 BCE, possibly beginning with the five trilithons. These were followed by the other stones including the bluestones, sarsen circle, heel stone, slaughter stone, and the four station stones. Attempts to link Stonehenge with observations of the heavenly bodies have mostly been refuted. It has been pointed out that it was not necessary to build a huge stone structure in order to make astronomical observations that could easily have be done using simpler tools. However, researchers acknowledge that Stonehenge is aligned on its northeast to southwest axis with the occurrences of solstices. There is also an interesting link between the heel stone and the midsummer solstice. There are a number of other connections with astronomy but a detailed discussion on the astronomical functions of the various stones, while fascinating, is outside the scope of this article.
Guo Shou Jing Observatory
This observatory was built in 1276 under orders by Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan dynasty in China. The observatory measures the sun’s shadow at noon and its variation throughout the year. It was named after the observatory’s creator, the renowned astronomer Guo Shoujing. The observatory lies near Gaocheng town, southeast of Dengfeng city in the Henan Province in China. Today, it is known as the Gaocheng Observatory or, more popularly, as the Dengfeng Observatory.
The observatory has two components: a platform formed by a truncated pyramid and a horizontal scale known as shigui.
The platform is 9.45 metres above ground level. Two staircases run up to the platform, on which has been built two rooms, joined by a single roof. The rooms raise the height of the structure to 12.62 metres. Each room has a window facing north and overlooking the horizontal scale below. The rooms also have a second window facing each other; a horizontal rod connects the two rooms through these windows. This rod acts as the gnomon. The height of the structure from the base to this horizontal rod is 9.75 metres, which is exactly 40 chi, a standard unit of measure in ancient China. A typical Chinese gnomon at the time was 8-chi tall (1.98 metres) – an example is the Tang period gnomon close to the vicinity of the Dengfeng Observatory. However, Guo Shoujing recognised a link between the height of the gnomon and the accuracy of the measurements; the resultant 40-chi gnomon at Gaocheng was thus innovative. It is said that Guo Shoujing’s move to a 40-chi gnomon was inspired by Middle Eastern astronomy, which had innovated large instruments, e.g. the Maragheh Observatory (1259 CE) in Iran.
The horizontal scale extended to the north of the large platform. The horizontal rod (gnomon) installed on the platform cast a shadow on the scale and this was the basis of the astronomical measurements. The horizontal scale, poetically known as the ‘sky-measuring ruler’, measures 31.19 metres in length or 128 chi. Two parallel troughs, linked at the ends, would have held water to check its level.
The Dengfeng Observatory became the first of 27 observatories built by Guo Shoujing in various places in China. He used his observatories to develop a new Shoushi (season-granting) calendar. However, most of the information on the length of the sun’s shadow for this calendar came from another 40-chi gnomon he built in Dadu. The calendar, which started in 1281, would continue to be used for 364 years – until the end of the Ming dynasty.
Jai Singh Observatory
Pur means ‘city’ in Sanskrit and hence Jaipur, the breath-taking ‘pink city’, capital of Rajasthan, can be translated as the ‘City of Jai’. More specifically, it is the city of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, who founded the city in 1726. Maharaja Jai Singh was an avid astronomer and he made a detailed study of Indian astronomical treatises. These go as far back as the Vedic texts (c. 1500-900 BCE), in which the study of stars and planets was known as Nakstravidya. He also studied Aryabhata’s famous treatise, Aryabhatiya (c. 476 CE), Varahmihira (c. 500 CE) and Brahmagupta (c. 598 CE). During the time that Jai Singh was carrying out his research, Middle Eastern and European knowledge of astronomy was very advanced and Jai Singh had their treatises translated into Sanskrit for his studies.
Sawar Jai Singh’s studies led him to recognise errors in the ephemerides, i.e. the trajectory of astronomical objects, used to calculate the imperial calendar and the astronomical tables. However, his existing brass instruments were not good enough for him to carry out the recalculations needed to correct the errors. Hence, he commissioned the construction of a jantar mantar (astronomical observatory) in Delhi. This would become the first of five observatories he would establish between circa 1721 and 1743. The others were at Jaipur, Ujjain, Varanasi, and Mathura. The observatory at Jaipur was the largest, in keeping with Jai Singh’s vision of his capital city having state-of-the-art architectural and astronomical edifices. With the exception of the observatory at Mathura, these observatories still exist and are heritage sites.
The information board at the planetarium specifies that the replica on its grounds is the Samrat Yantra (King of Instruments) from the Delhi Observatory. A Samrat Yantra is essentially a sundial usually with a triangular pyramid as its gnomon. It is flanked by two quadrants and the shadow of the gnomon on these quadrants measures the sun’s movement.
The Samrat Yantra in Delhi has a colossal pyramid, measuring 21.3 metres in height. The hypotenuse of this right-angled triangular pyramid is parallel to the Earth’s rotation axis and the angle made by the hypotenuse and the horizontal is equal to the latitude of Delhi. The gnomon is flanked by two large quadrants, which lie on the plane of the equator. Their scales are graduated in a manner that allows the instrument to measure local time, right ascension, and declination. The Samrat Yantra allows measurements to a very high level of precision; both the Samrat Yantra at Delhi and Jaipur can measure time to an accuracy of two seconds.
Apart from the Samrat Yantra, the Observatory at Delhi has three other key instruments, each measuring different aspects of the movements of the heavenly bodies. These are: Misra Yantra, Jaya Prakasa Yantra and Rama Yantra. The Misra Yantra was built by Madho Singh, Jai Singh’s son. It is a compendium of five instruments including a Samrat Yantra.
Merdeka Sun Clock
Originally installed at Merdeka Park, the Merdeka Sun Clock was moved to the National Planetarium in 1997. The Merdeka Park, a public park opened on 20 April 1958, was located outside Merdeka Stadium, venue of the declaration of Independence on 21 August 1957.
This sundial was the brainchild of Dato’ Stanley E. Jewkes, who had designed the Merdeka Stadium, Merdeka Park and, later, the National Stadium. His decision to include a sundial in the park was inspired by the solar clocks in India and by Stonehenge.
Malayan symbols have been weaved into both the gnomon and the bowl onto which the gnomon’s shadow is cast – the bowl is in the shape of a crescent and the pointer of the gnomon is an 11-pointed gold star representing the 11 states of Malaya (Sabah and Sarawak were not part of Malaya at that time). The clock measures time of year with zodiac signs used to represent months. Hour lines on a sundial are normally straight. However, the shape of the crescent bowl made this difficult and Jewkes compensated by building an equation of time into the lines. Two intersecting lines were drawn, differentiated by colour – one followed the sun as it moved north and the other as it moved south. An information board provides detailed instructions on measuring time using this solar clock.
Castleden, Rodney (2004) The Making of Stonehenge, Taylor & Francis e-Library.
Johnson-Roehr, Susan N. (2015) Observatories of Sawai Jai Singh II in C.L.N. Ruggles (ed.) Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy, New York: Springer, pp. 2018-2028.
Lai Chee Kien and Ang Chee Cheong (2018) The Merdeka Interviews: Architects, Engineers and Artists of Malaysia’s Independence, Kuala Lumpur: Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia.
Pearson, Mike Parker (2013) Stonehenge – A New Understanding: Solving the Mysteries of the Greatest Stone Age Monument, New York: The Experiment.
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.
Gan, Rose, ed. (2011) Museum Nasional Training Materials, 3rd edition: Vol 1. History, Vol 4. Stones and Bronzes, MNI Jakarta
Reichle, Natasha (2007), Violence and Serenity: Late Buddhist Sculpture from Indonesia, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu
Sulistianingsih Sitowati, Retno and Miksic, John N, (2006) Icons of Art: National Museum Jakarta, BAB Publishing Indonesia
Many experts – and museum visitors – believe Prajnaparamita to be the finest of all East Javanese statues. It is of the highest craftsmanship with a sublime simplicity that elevates it amongst many other fine works of the period. Sculpted from pale rose andesite that gives the piece a warm glow, the goddess sits on a double lotus cushion set on a minimally decorated square plinth. The backrest is elegantly wrought but plainly adorned, bordered by a narrow column in a wave motif that continues around the arched top piece, transforming into a leafy effect at shoulder-height. Outlining her head is a halo-like oval, its plainness accentuating the bare symmetric features of the face. Prajnaparamita sits yogini-like in the padmasana posture, her hands in a dharmacakramuda gesture (the wheel of life) as befits her role as Mother of the Universe.
The figure bears all the expected attributes of a deity: the piled tresses of the jatamakuta crown surrounded by an ornate diadem; the lotus flower entwined around her left arm that holds up the tiny volume of the Sutra; the caste cord of pearls that wraps deftly around her body; and the rich necklaces and earrings that frame her face, their opulence in stark contrast to the heavenly bliss of her expression. She may be dressed as a queen but her countenance reveals the tranquillity of a god: the eyes are lowered, the visage is still and detached from the world, immortal.
The Prajnaparamita is a remarkable piece of art. The delicacy of its sculpture is breath-taking. The caste cord hangs with artless naturalism, spilling over the edge of the lotus cushion on her right side. The detail on the batik sarong is astonishing; it is intricately patterned in a traditional ceplok design displaying the jelamprang motif, itself with sacred origins connected to the worship of Siva. The sarong is so skilfully re-created that it has the texture and sensuous drape of real cloth, in counterpoint to the serene stillness of the visage. The effect of the whole has the power of a Madonna and, given the subject matter, is a perfect example of reverence in art that stands equal to any medieval work in the Christian tradition.
Prajnaparamita in Buddhism
Prajnaparamita is the living embodiment of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, referenced by the book placed atop the lotus blossom at her left shoulder. The Sutras are the three sacred scriptures of Buddhism: the Lotus, the Heart and the Diamond Sutras. The Prajnaparamita is the extended version of the Heart and Diamond Sutras (which are merely summaries of the original), and is the earliest version of the Mahayana scriptures.
The Prajnaparamita image is thus the deification of this Book of Perfect Wisdom in the form of a serene goddess whose virtues include generosity, morality, proper conduct, patience, tolerance, honesty and kindness. In Tantric Mahayana Buddhism, she is the greatest female deity, the sakti (consort) of the Highest Buddha, Vajradhara, who is the Dharmakaya, the supreme essence of all Buddhas, from whom they originate and to where they will eventually return. Just as the universe is personified in the Buddha, so perfect knowledge and wisdom are deified as his consort. From Vajradhara springs the 5 Dhyana Buddhas of the Tantric Vajrayana Pantheon (In Sanskrit: vajra means diamond or thunderbolt). Vajradhara is always dark blue in colour and is usually illustrated in a cross-legged position embracing a vajra (sacred thunderbolt) and a bell in hands held against his heart.
Yet, as in all these statues, there is so much more to decipher than the obvious. Beneath the sacred lies another story, immortalised in the Majapahit Pararaton (the Book of Kings), a fascinating blend of myth and history. Prajnaparamita commemorates the passage into immortality of a famous queen of East Java. The statue is commonly believed to be the memorial stone of Queen Ken Dedes, reputedly the most beautiful woman of her day, even now regarded in Java as the epitome of womanhood, just as Helen of Troy and Cleopatra are in the West. To be accorded the tremendous honour of becoming one with the highest female deity suggests that Ken Dedes was known in life for more than just her beauty. The high regard in which she is remembered, even today, indicates her wisdom, kindness and impeccable conduct.
On his death in 1049, Airlangga divided his kingdom between his sons, Janggala and Panjula, in territory centred around Kediri in East Java. In retrospect it was perhaps the wrong decision, surprising for such a wise king as Airlangga, but he had few options. To have chosen between his sons would have resulted in civil war; the boys, born of different mothers, were sworn enemies. Airlangga’s strategy ultimately failed because the two men were constantly at war attempting to wrest sole power. The glorious kingdom built by their father was to suffer unrest and decline over the following century and a half, with only one distinguished king of Kediri, Jayabhaya (1135-1157) The final ruler of this dynasty, King Kertajaya, was particularly hated for both his cruelty and his lack of reverence to Vishnu, traditionally the favoured god in the region. In 1222, a commoner called Ken Agrok from Singhasari led a successful rebellion against King Kertajaya, cornering the royal family in a temple. The king killed himself and his family self-immolated, a shocking end to the line of Airlangga, leaving Ken Agrok to become the first king of a new dynasty, the Singhasari (also Singasari/Singosari).
Ken Agrok (or Ken Arok) is one of the more colourful, if bloodthirsty, characters of Javanese stories, a favourite of film makers and novelists alike. Although an historic character, it is nigh impossible to extricate him from the realms of mythology. His backstory is far from honourable. It is said that as a young man he dabbled in black magic and wizardry to raise himself from his humble origins (Ken was an honorific Javanese title). Although he was supposed to have turned from his worldly ways after spending some time with a Brahmin monk, his career is replete in examples of bad behaviour. One such story relates to his wife, Ken Dedes.
This beautiful young girl, the daughter of a Buddhist holy man, Mpu Purwa, became the obsession of the governor of a nearby province, one Raja Tunggul Ametung. He kidnapped her and forced her to marry him, an act for which Mpu Purwa cursed him, saying that he would not live long for what he had done to his daughter. Sometime later, after she had born a child, Ken Agrok saw Ken Dedes as she was being carried through the streets. A gust of wind blew her sarong open; he saw her naked legs and thighs and- so the story goes- glanced the place above, which to his surprise was lit in a golden light. Convinced that Ken Dedes was touched by divinity and that any child she bore would one day be a great ruler, he decided to claim her for himself. Ken Agrok killed Tunggul Ametung and took Ken Dedes as his wife.
There is no record of what this serene beauty thought of this turn of events or of the fact that for the second time she had been carried off by a brutal man against her will. Ken Dedes would, however, go on to become the first queen of Singhasari, and her children would indeed one day rule after her. It is believed she is the ancestor of the first Majapahit kings.
As often happens in legends, fate did not quite transpire as Ken Agrok had wished. Rather than one of his own children, it was Ken Dedes’ first child, Anusapati, son of her original husband Tunggul Ametung, who succeeded as the second king of Singhasari. Anusapati revenged the murder of his father and the capture of his mother by assassinating Ken Agrok in 1228, only six years into his reign. If this statue (dated around 1300 CE) is Ken Dedes’ memorial stone, then it suggests she lived on for many years. Even if it was erected decades after her death, she must still have enjoyed a long life, and witnessed the reigns of several of her descendants. So perhaps Ken Dedes had the last word after all.
There are numerous other images of Prajnaparamita in East Java, as well as copies of the statue, although none are as accomplished as the original. This prevalence indicates the importance of the deity in the worship of the time. That the image has lived on even into the modern Islamic era is tribute to how powerfully she represents Java’s sense of history and culture. While it is never certain if the traditions that associate such a statue with an actual king or queen are accurate, given the equal status still accorded in Java to Queen Ken Dedes, there is little reason to reject the traditional viewpoint. Ken Dedes is even fondly referred to as ‘Ibu Batik’ (Mother of Batik) from the sarong that she wears in this statue.
The Prajnaparamita is reputed to have been found in Candi Singhasari (Malang, East Java), possibly in a side temple, still known as Cungkup Putri (The Dome of the Princess), located some distance from the main complex. In many ways this possible identification strengthens the connection between the statue and Ken Dedes. The statue was returned to Indonesia from Holland in 1978, quite fittingly during the state visit of Queen Juliana. The Museum Nasional Jakarta has two versions: the original housed in the Old Wing (Gedung Gajah), and a replica on show in the Treasure Room of the new Gedung Arca. It may be worth pointing out that the one on display at Muzium Negara may be the replica.
Kinney, Ann R. with Klokke, Marijke J, Kieven, Lydia (2003) Worshipping Siva and Buddha: The Temple Art of East Java, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
Reichle, Natasha (2007), Violence and Serenity: Late Buddhist Sculpture from Indonesia, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
Gan, Rose, ed. (2011) Museum Nasional Training Materials, 3rd edition: Vol 1. History, Vol 4. Stones and Bronzes, Vol 7. Textiles; MNI Jakarta.
Anshori, Dr. Yusak, Kusrianto Adi, eds. (2011) Keeksotisan Batik Jawa Timur: Memahami Motif dan Keunikannya, Kompas Gramedia, Jakarta.
Prajnaparamita statue. Image taken by Rose Gan
Prajnaparamita statue detail of face. Image taken by Rose Gan
Prajnaparamita statue detail of batik sarong. Image taken by Rose Gan
Diagram of jelamprang motif from sarong. Image taken from Keeksotisan Batik Jawa Timur: Memahami Motif dan Keunikannya
Back in the good old days when we could all still visit museums, the Lost Kingdoms exhibition at Muzium Negara offered us a fascinating journey around the early civilisations of South East Asia and Indo-China. I was stopped in my tracks by a series of stones from Indonesia, personally very dear to my heart. It felt very much like a surprise visit from old friends.
The Museum Nasional Indonesia (MNI) is a vast repository for collections gathered from across the Indonesian archipelago since the earliest days of the V.O.C. Raffles himself once housed the ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ in his own residence in Batavia; some of current exhibits were originally part of his personal collections. The present museum building (opened in 1868) is a graceful Graeco-Roman structure at the very heart of Jakarta. Two new modern buildings have since been added. The Museum is a cornucopia of delights, so vast that it is impossible to take in its riches in one visit; each huge hall alone hosts enough to fill an entire morning.
When I was guiding there, one section became my go-to place, sometimes simply as a getaway from the madding crowds of Central Jakarta, where traffic is so dense at any time of day that it is usually at a noisy standstill. In the Stone Courtyard, a serene peristyle garden surrounded by a shady portico, one could sit in silence, surrounded by hundreds of silent stones, a perfect place for contemplation. The sculptures, of many different types and styles, are randomly arranged higgle-piggle on different levels, some obscured behind others, some set above eye-level, and some only visible on one’s knees. Stones of astonishing importance are often relegated to hidden corners and easily missed, or jumbled in with broken roof ornamentation and water spouts. Commemorative statues, guardians, mythical beasts, gods, kings, and queens, countless lingga and yoni, obelisks and containers, peripih and prasasti: the list goes on and on. And at the centre of the peristyle lawn, a herd of Nandis lie contentedly chewing their cud.
Many of the significant pieces have been relocated to the modern wings next door, now set on raised plinths or behind glass, perfectly lit from above and with detailed vitrine notes, given their proper pride of place. But I still feel privileged to remember when they were almost forgotten, their loveliness buried away without any information to mark them. Then it was almost impossible for a visitor without a guide to understand their importance. This fired my curiosity and set me off on an obsession to learn more about them. The Lost Kingdoms exhibition brought my favourite pieces back to me in a wholly unexpected setting.
These stones fall into two main groups: Arca (statues) and Prasasti (inscribed stones). The former are more instantly appealing because of their undoubted aesthetic attraction and the stories that the figures and motifs describe. The Prasasti, however, are difficult to interpret: they are plainer and more obscure. Both conceal a wealth of information that unlocks many early events in the history of the archipelago that might otherwise be lost for ever. This series of blog posts aims to shed a little light on the perplexing subject should we be able to peek again inside the exhibition any time soon!
Airlangga and Garuda
This dramatic piece is arguably the highlight of the exhibition. Described as on loan from MNI, it is in fact currently at the Museum in Trowulan, the site of the great Majapahit capital. It was originally located at Belahan on nearby Mount Penanggungan where two famous bathing places from the 11th century were devoted to Airlangga, one of the most revered kings of East Java, who died in 1049. Such sites were erected as memorials to the ascension of a human ruler into his deified existence, and were often erected some years after the actual death. Mount Penanggungan is an idyllic place, cool, lush, green, and silent. A mystical aura of tranquillity and age-old knowledge hangs heavy in its forests, where devotees have worshipped since time immemorial.
Set amongst this scene, these ritual bathing places, an essential feature in the religious practices of the Hindu-Buddhist era, are astonishing stone constructions at one with the mountain itself. They contain niches for statuary and pools fed by water spouts in the shape of mythical beasts. This statue once held centre stage in such a grotto, where now only two female statues remain, at the base of the structure. Their naked breasts form twin spouts to feed the pool below.
Airlangga was the son of King Udayana of Bali and Princess Mahendradatta, the daughter of the great East Javanese ruler, Dharmawangsa Teguh. In 1016 during a palace coup, King Dharmawangsa and his entire family were killed; Prince Airlangga escaped, taking refuge with a group of hermit monks. Some years later, he returned and defeated the local princes, becoming the ruler of East Java, and establishing a new dynasty based at Kediri. During his long and peaceful reign, East Java enjoyed a flowering of art, learning, commerce and good governance.
This memorial depicts Airlangga as a young man in the prime of life, sitting on a lotus throne in a Hindu lalitasana posture: his left leg in half lotus and his right hanging down, to represent kingship. Airlangga’s hands form the Buddhist dhyanamudra, the gesture of meditation, also reflected in his serene countenance and lowered eyes. He is dressed as befits a king, replete with golden jewellery and clad in a long ornate sarong. It was customary in commemorative statuary for the face to be expressionless; this is not meant to be portraiture but implies spiritual awakening.
The effigy, however, is about so much more than Airlangga’s human existence. On close observation, we become witnesses to his deification and ascension to immortality, illustrated in terms of allegory. Airlangga is Vishnu, the Preserver, one of the three deities of the Trimurti that holds the universe in balance. In his upper right hand, he spins the cakra (wheel), representing the power over life and death. In his upper left is the sankha (conch shell) a musical instrument that wards off demonic forces and signifies the creation of the universe. These motifs are particularly associated with Vishnu, whose cult was strong in Bali; Airlangga was known for his devotion to him. This Vishnu bears many divine symbols: the jatamakuta crown, reserved for deities, along with the caste cord and multiple arms.
The most dynamic aspect of the assembly, however, is the figure of Garuda, in his most fierce anthropomorphic manifestation, more deity than bird, an interesting counterpoint to the tranquil stillness of the god. Vishnu’s right foot rests on Garuda’s shoulder, signifying his authority, but Garuda is more than a mere vahana (vehicle) for the deity. This representation vividly depicts an episode from Garuda’s backstory, that of his great battle with his traditional enemies, the nagas, one of whom can be seen coiled around the base of the sculpture, vicious head raised in attack.
The Legend of Garuda
Garuda was born from an egg, a human boy with wings. His mother Vinata had been enslaved by her sister, Kadru, the mother of all serpents. Later the nagas promised Garuda that if he stole amrita, they would free his beloved mother from servitude. This seemed an impossible task. The elixir (amrita) was in the hands of the gods. They guarded it jealously for it was the source of their immortality and protected inside a great ring of fire where fierce rotating blades slaughtered anyone who tried to enter. Beyond were two giant poisonous snakes. Garuda was equal to the challenge. First, he defeated a host of gods, driving them in all directions. Next, he channelled water from the Great Ocean to extinguish the fire. Shrinking himself, he managed to evade the blades to reach the serpents, whom he destroyed. Holding the amrita in his mouth without swallowing, Garuda took to the air with the intention of delivering it to the nagas. On the way, however, he met Vishnu who promised him immortality if Garuda would become his mount. In return he would help Garuda in his quest to save his mother. Then he met Indra, the god of the sky, who promised to allow him to devour the nagas if he returned the amrita. So, Garuda flew to the kingdom of the nagas, placed the precious amrita on the ground and thus liberated Vinata. Then he informed the snakes that before consuming the elixir, they must ritually cleanse. This allowed time for Indra to sweep down and recover the amrita. Garuda then battled the nagas, ultimately devouring them. From that day forward, Garuda became the implacable enemy of snakes, as well as the ally of the gods and the mount of Vishnu.
This legend is packed with allegory. Garuda’s attributes may be inspired by the Indian short-toed eagle which lives entirely on a diet of snakes. This made him protector against poison, or the devourer of evil. In early animist Indonesia, birds and nagas had always been worshipped as ancient spirits of the forest. In the Hindu-Buddhist period, this battle between sky and earth became a central theme of the duel between opposing cosmic forces. By the Majapahit period in East Java, Garuda underwent a further metamorphosis until his human characteristics disappeared, and he became a giant bird. He even acquired a phoenix-like appearance, adopted from Chinese influence, just as the naga later took on a dragon-like perspective.
It should be noted that although this statue is generally believed to represent Airlangga, this is largely conjecture and has been challenged by some historians. Another theory believes that Belahan was constructed in the century before Airlangga. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Vishnu and Garuda are depicted here and that the statue is in memory of a significant king of the region.
Kinney, Ann R. with Klokke, Marijke J, Kieven, Lydia (2003) Worshipping Siva and Buddha: The Temple Art of East Java, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
Reichle, Natasha (2007), Violence and Serenity: Late Buddhist Sculpture from Indonesia, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
Resink, Th. A. (1968) Belahan or A Myth Dispelled. Indonesia 6 pp.2-37.
Gan, Rose, ed. (2011) Museum Nasional Training Materials, 3rd edition: Vol 4. Stones and Bronzes, MNI Jakarta.
It was December 1941. The British in Malaya knew that the Japanese invasion was imminent. However, they had a secret plan in place, known as Operation Matador.The plan was to destroy the landing bays at Songkhla and Pattani in Thailand so that the Japanese could not land there. However, that plan failed to be activated.
On ‘Blue Monday’ 8 December 1941, just after midnight, the Japanese army landed at Kota Bharu and two other towns in Thailand, namely Pattani and Singora (a.k.a Songkhla). Approximately seventy minutes after the landing in Kota Bharu, Japanese warplanes attacked Pearl Harbour. These two attacks marked the start of the Pacific War and World War II in Asia.
Japanese forces took two routes – one from the north at Jitra, making their way down the west coast, and the other from Kota Bharu, taking the east coast. They fought Allied Forces, comprising British, Indian and Australian armies, all the way down to the south, to their final destination ‘Fortress Singapore’, also nicknamed ‘Gibraltar of the East’.
In less than two months, Japanese forces had invaded the whole of the Malay Peninsula and made landfall in Singapore on 7 February 1942. The Battle of Singapore came to a halt after a week of fighting when British Lieutenant General Arthur Percival surrendered the island to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. It came as a great shock to PM Winston Churchill as it is recorded to be the largest British surrender in its history.
Immediately, Japanese Military Administration took over control and, on the very next day, Singapore was renamed Syonan-To (Light of the South). Less than a week later, Japanese forces started Operation Sook Ching (Chinese term meaning ‘purge through cleansing’). The Japanese term for the operation was ‘Dai Kensho’ meaning ‘great inspection’. Chinese males aged 18 to 50 were rounded up and brought to screening centres set up around the island. They were inspected by the Kempeitai (Japanese military police) and Imperial Guards Division; those suspected of being anti-Japanese were taken away to killing sites and executed, their bodies thrown into the sea. The operation was initially planned from 21 to 23 February 1942 but it was extended to 4 March 1942.
Mamoru Shinozaki started work in a Japanese news agency and was posted to Shanghai in 1934. Two years later, he joined the Japanese Foreign Office as press attaché. In 1938, he was transferred to the Japanese Consulate General in Singapore and his job was to report on local conditions and British military defence. In September of 1940, he brought two Japanese military officers to various locations on the island as well as in Malaya to survey military installations and study British defence capability.
His activities did not escape the eyes of the Special Branch and he was put on surveillance. On 21 September 1940, Shinozaki was arrested and convicted of espionage and sentenced to three and a half years of rigorous imprisonment. He was incarcerated in Changi prison. With the fall of Singapore, Shinozaki was released and he was appointed Adviser of Defence Headquarters. He was tasked to reassemble the documents of the Japanese Consulate and issue protection cards to diplomats and other foreigners from neutral countries.
It was during the Sook Ching massacre that Shinozaki used his good connection with the Japanese chief and his position to issue personal protection cards to thousands of Chinese thus sparing their lives from execution. One of the men that he saved was Lim Boon Keng. Lim was a medical doctor and a strong advocate of social and educational reforms in Singapore. He was the president of the Xiamen University in China. He co-founded the first locally owned insurance firm in Singapore and the Oversea Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) Bank. He was well known in the Chinese community.
In the midst of the Sook Ching operation, Shinozaki had asked Lim to be the leader of the Overseas Chinese Association (OCA). The OCA was the brainchild of Shinozaki; its function was to mediate between the Japanese Military administration and the local Chinese community. After much persuasion, Lim finally accepted the post and, at the same time, Shinozaki became its Adviser. It was formed on 2 March 1942. As soon as OCA was formed, Shinozaki was removed from his post and replaced by Toru Takase who used the Association to demand 50 Million dollars from the Chinese community. It was extremely difficult to meet the demand, even after two extensions. This prompted the Japanese administration to include Chinese communities from the states of Malaya into the Association. After another three extensions, the Association only managed to collect 28 Million dollars. Eventually, Takase allowed the Association to take a loan of 22 Million dollars from the Yokohama Specie Bank. The cheque of 50 Million dollars was presented to the Japanese by Lim and 57 Chinese leaders on 25 June 1942.
With that episode over, Shinozaki returned to OCA in August and again took the post as Adviser. In the same month, he was appointed as the Chief Welfare Officer and he helped in the setting up of the Eurasian Welfare Association (EWA). Similar to the OCA, EWA was the representative of the Eurasian community to the Japanese administration. A prominent surgeon in Singapore at that time, Charles Joseph Pemberton Paglar, was appointed as the President of EWA.
Japanese authorities foresee an eventual shortage of food to feed the island’s population of a million people. Hence, they immediately embarked on the promotion of the Grow More Food Campaign. People from all walks of life including school children and Government servants, were encouraged to grow their own food and be self-sufficient. However, the campaign failed to produce results. Moving forward, Japanese authorities took a tougher stance and one of the plans was the setting up of agricultural settlements outside the city. Again, the services of Shinozaki were required and he was tasked to oversee the resettlement project.
Shinozaki turned to the OCA and persuaded them to take up the offer. OCA was coaxed into the plan when Shinozaki made several promises to them – the settlement would be self-governing, the Japanese would not interfere, and the settlement was assured of constant rice supply until they become self-sufficient. With that assurance, a committee was formed and headed by Lim. A team was dispatched to survey a suitable site in Malaya. After much consideration, Endau in Johor was selected as the site for the new settlement. Endau was the choice because of the accessible supply of fresh water and arable land that was ideal for agriculture.
Endau is located on the northern tip of east Johor and close to the border with Pahang. The location of the town was already in the maps published by the British as early as 1793 and 1805. However, it was then known as Blair’s Harbour, named after Archibald Blair who was working for the Bombay Marine (Bombay Marine evolved into the Royal Indian Navy of today). He came to the South China Sea, did a survey, and reported that the site of Endau was potentially a ‘good harbour’. He did a similar survey of the Andaman Islands during that time and, today, the capital city of Andaman and Nicobar Islands is named after him, Port Blair.
The Endau settlement was also known as the New Syonan Model Farm and it was entirely for the Chinese community. Japanese authorities had targeted to evacuate 300,000 Chinese to the settlement. As the next step, OCA made efforts to raise money for the project and managed to raise one million dollars. This was followed by construction work – clearing the jungle, and building roads and houses. OCA also assigned suitable candidates to head the various departments set up to help the settlers. The departments were agricultural, medical and health, supply, public works, timber mill, and public peace and order. With all these in place, the pioneer settlers arrived in September 1943. The population grew and by the end of the first year, Endau attracted 12,000 settlers. Progressively, the settlement saw the establishment of a bank, school, paper factory, sawmill, and several restaurants. It was becoming a successful self-sufficient scheme and it attracted the attention of anti-Japanese guerrillas in Malaya, the Malayan People Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA). They attacked the settlement and claimed the lives of several settlers. Again, Shinozaki came to the rescue when he managed to enter into a secret pact with the MPAJA guerrillas by offering rice in exchange for peace. The Endau settlement continued until 1945 when the Japanese Occupation ended.
The Eurasian community also wanted to participate in the voluntary migration scheme primarily because the community felt that they were constantly being monitored by the Japanese Military Police and this created fear and insecurity. This prompted the Roman Catholic Bishop, Adrian Devals, and Herman De Souza Sr, a representative of the Eurasian community, to make the trip to Bahau in Negeri Sembilan to assess its suitability. The Eurasian community gave their thumbs up and it was reported to Shinozaki. However, Shinozaki had reservations about the new settlement. It was further away from Singapore and sending support from the island would be difficult – they would have to count on support from the Negeri Sembilan government. Furthermore, it was difficult to clear the vegetation and the land was unsuitable for agriculture.
The plan went ahead and the Japanese named the new settlement Fuji-go, which means Fuji village or ‘beautiful village’. The first group to arrive consisted mainly of bachelors. They were selected by the Japanese to help lay the foundation of the new settlement as well as to set up a model farm and transfer farming techniques to the settlers. Between December 1943 and April 1944, some 2,000 Eurasians arrived at Bahau, and they brought with them curtains and pianos to furnish their new homes. Shinozaki and Paglar made frequent visits to Bahau, bringing with them food and medicines for the settlers. Life in the new settlement was no bed of roses, as most of them did have farming knowledge. Many suffered from malnutrition and diseases such as malaria. At the end of the Japanese Occupation, it was reported that the number of settlers was estimated to be around 3,000. Besides the main groups of Eurasian and Chinese Roman Catholics, there were also a small group of European Protestants and neutrals from countries such as Switzerland, Denmark, Romania, and Russia.
At the end of Japanese Occupation in August 1945, the settlements were abandoned and the settlers returned to Singapore. Besides Endau and Bahau, the Japanese also created a settlement in Pulau Bintan (largest island in the Riau Province, Indonesia) for the Indians.
When the British returned to Singapore, Mamoru Shinozaki was interned in a Jurong camp but he was freed when the Chinese and Catholic communities petitioned the British for his release. He acted as a witness in a number of post-war trials in Singapore. He died in 1991.
For a long time now, I have been interested in the history of Egypt, its associated pyramids, the discoveries, and of course King Tutankhamun. Why I have never visited Egypt is a question I have yet to answer myself.
Hence, when I read a newspaper article last November about an exhibition in London on artefacts of King Tutankhamun (or King Tut as he is affectionately known), I decided to make the trip for mid-March this year. The exhibition was to have closed on 3 May 2020. Then came the virus scare, but the exhibition was to be the last tour and I had to see it, so I had to go, and so I did. A few days after I visited, the exhibition closed indefinitely.
The exhibition is at the Saatchi Gallery and if you read the website, you would have been fascinated as well.
Tutankhamun’s Priceless Treasures to Make Final London Appearance
TUTANKHAMUN: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh Celebrates the Centenary of Howard Carter’s Discovery; Unprecedented Collection Coming to Saatchi Gallery in November
Produced by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and IMG, and presented by Viking Cruises
The words ‘Final London Appearance’ struck me. The exhibition was to have gone on to Boston and Sydney and finally to the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo where the artefacts will be placed and never to go on tour again. I chose London, as I had other plans such as visiting relatives, British Museum etc. But two days after my Saatchi Gallery visit, I cut short my trip and returned home.
This description is only of my visit and of the artefacts with some explanations. It is not a detailed study of King Tutankhamun and Egyptology.
Access was scheduled in batches each half hour and so you bought the ticket according to when you want to go. You could spend any length of time and so could be passed over by crowds of later batches.
There are 150 artefacts on display in vitrines over two floors. Of these, more than 50 artefacts are travelling out of Egypt for the first and last time. Each artefact was described on a panel below. The exhibition is really of objects involved in the journey of King Tut to the afterlife and immortality. I had ordered an audio guide and when I asked, the Reception staff were kind enough to lend me a file of the script after I showed them my MV Pass! They also allowed me to scan the pages before I returned the file!
Doctor Tarek El Awady is the curator of this exhibition. His comments are also heard in the audio guide, together with comments made by Howard Carter who led the expedition to King Tut’s tomb, sponsored by Lord Carnarvon. My descriptions include comments from both Tarek and Carter. As a background, Lord Carnarvon was among other things, an Egyptologist and had sponsored other digs as well; he was also a collector of Egyptian antiquities. In 1918, he got a concession to dig in the Valley of Kings. Howard Carter was an archaeologist and worked for him; Alfred Lucas did the restorations.
After a short introductory video, we enter the exhibition hall. As mentioned, the contents of the tomb connected the world the King was leaving behind with everything he would need on the journey and in the afterlife. These were cosmetic boxes, painted trunks, and carrying cases – all filled with beautiful items and a lot of other equipment and weapons.
On the walls are posters quoting spells from the Book of the Dead. This book is a collection of funerary texts consisting of magic spells. These spells are a guide for the spirit of the deceased through the netherworld, or underworld, as it journeys to the afterlife. There is no one Book for all, as each person can have one prepared for him or herself. In the earliest days, it was only royalty who had one but, later, others could also afford to prepare one for themselves.
Below is an example of a spell. It is Spell 144 from the Book of the Dead and tells of the Power of Words. Words are magic and repeatedly speaking the name of the deceased ensures immortality.
The journey of King Tut to the afterlife is really the journey of his Ba, the spirit that travels to the afterlife, while his Ka, the soul, remains with the body. The body is mummified to stay intact for when the Ba returns as a bird, to merge with the Ka for the magic of rebirth. To quote Tarek…….. ‘for the ancient Egyptians, death is not the end, it is a beginning of a journey to an eternal afterlife. That is why there are so many things made for him. He is a traveller. He needed to be well equipped with all he needs for the journey, a mysterious journey as no one knew what it is like. Each artefact has a purpose’.
The entire philosophy and theory is vast and too complicated for a quick study, and I will not go into the details. Furthermore, there are so many artefacts to show and describe, so I will just give a few interesting samples. The ambience in the galleries was dark with low lighting and the artefacts had lights shone on them. Taking pictures was a challenge but I managed by taking my time. At one point, someone politely whispered to me…’you are not the only one here taking pictures you know, excuse me’! I only gave a smile in return.
There is a display of vases as you enter. In the one on the left, there was residue of perfumed oil, oils being important in their rituals. The vase on the right has inscriptions about King Tut and his wife Ankhesenamun. She is actually his half-sister, and her mother was the renowned Queen Nefertiti. It was normal tradition in Egyptian Royalty for marriages between siblings.
Next is a collection of painted wooden containers for food for the Ka, or the soul of King Tut. Since the Ka is said to remain in the tomb, it needs to be fed. Food would include breads, meats, grains, spices and fruits.
The red box below has ebony, gold leaf, and bronze on it, as well as cartouches of King Tut. A cartouche is an inscribed oval on an item with the name of the pharaoh to which it belongs. The box is among 50 elaborate boxes serving as luggage for King Tut’s journey.
And you thought only Australian Aborigines had Boomerangs?
Below is the wooden armchair for King Tut. He was King at the age of 19 years, so the furniture made for him was smaller than usual. The footstool is of ebony and ivory from sub-Saharan Africa and the wood is probably cedar from the Middle East. Such was the stretch of their influence. The chair is also ebony and ivory with gold leaf. The gilded wooden bed next to it is ebony covered in gold leaf.
An interesting ritual, not shown of course, is the weighing of the heart. The deceased’s heart is placed on a scale and countered with a feather from the goddess Maat. If the scales balance, the heart was deemed sin-free by Osiris. Osiris is the Egyptian Lord of the Underworld and Judge of the Dead. If not, the heart would be eaten by the goddess Ammit who is part crocodile, hippopotamus, and lion. The heart is very important and is left behind in the mummy while other organs are removed. It was believed to be the centre of intelligence as well as feelings and was needed in the rebirth.
Below is a statuette of Amenhotep III, the grandfather of King Tut. Interestingly, a lock of hair belonging to his wife, Queen Tiye, was found together with this statuette. The lock of hair thus dates to 3400 years ago!
This truly beautiful artefact is a canopic coffin (coffinette). It stands 10 inches (25.4 cm) tall and contained King Tut’s liver. Designed as a replica of his sarcophagus, it consists of a lid and box. There are four coffinettes inlaid with gold, coloured glass, and carnelian, and they contained the viscera of the pharaoh. The viscera are the liver, stomach, lungs, and the intestines. The four coffinettes are each placed in a jar closed with a calcite stopper. The jars were then placed in an elaborate canopic shrine (not displayed). The coffinettes bear the likeness of the King so that his Ba will be able to recognise him.
This gilded wooden shrine-shaped box shows scenes of King Tut and his wife Ankhesenamum, and it is made of wood encased with thick sheet gold. The scenes are of various episodes in the life of the King and Queen. Such life-experience scenes make it feel as if it were yesterday. Being in the tomb, King Tut wishes that such an afterlife with his Queen would await him.
Please click on ‘Page 2’ below to continue to the next page or click here. Coming up next page: Curse of the Trumpet.
The Malay Annals (known in Malay as Sejarah Melayu) is one of the most important works of traditional Malay literature. This work is known also as Sulalatus Salatin, which translates as Genealogy of Kings. This is an indication of the primary concern of the Malay Annals, i.e. the rulers of Melaka, the most famous kingdom in Malaysia’s history.
A fairly large number of manuscripts of the Malay Annals have survived till this day. Some of these are found in Malaysia, under the custodianship of either the Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia (National Library of Malaysia) or the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Institute of Language and Literature). The majority of manuscripts, however, are kept in libraries or institutions outside Malaysia. According to a 1967 article by Roolvink, 11 manuscripts are held by the United Kingdom, 12 by the Netherlands, five by Indonesia, and one by Russia. Although the majority of the manuscripts are late copies dating to the nineteenth century, the fact that so many manuscripts were produced reflects the high regard in which the Malay Annals was held.
The Malay Annals was originally written in Classical Malay in the Old Jawi script (a script adapted from Arabic for the writing of the Malay language). Subsequently, the work has been Romanised, and translated. The first English translation of the Malay Annals, for example, was made by John Leyden, and was published posthumously in 1821. It may be mentioned that in addition to the better-known English translations of the Malay Annals, there is also an incomplete French one. It’s lengthy title, Le Sadjarah malayou (l’arbre généalogique malais), ou, Histoire des radjas et sultans malais : depuis les origines jusqu’à la conquête de Malaka par Alphonse d’Albuquerque, en 1511 translates as The Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Family Tree), Or, History of the Malay Rajas and Sultans: From the Origins to the Conquest of Melaka by Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1511.
There are a number of questions surrounding the Malay Annals that have yet to be fully answered. For instance, the exact date of the text’s composition is unknown. According to Winstedt, the oldest copy of the Malay Annals is the Raffles MS No. 18, dating to 1612. Winstedt goes on to argue that the Raffles MS No. 18 was rewritten and compiled from an older manuscript, which he believes dates to before 1536. This manuscript is also believed to be the one closest to the original version of the text. Incidentally, the Raffles MS No. 18 resides today in London, at the Library of the Royal Asiatic Society.
The identity of the author of the Malay Annals is another unsolved mystery. Winstedt believes that the author of the original text was a Melakan at the court of Sultan Mahmud Shah, who ruled Melaka when it was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511. Winstedt is of the opinion that the writer survived the fall of the city, and that he continued writing until 1535. It is generally agreed that in 1612, the Bendahara Paduka Raja of Johor, Tun Muhammad bin Tun Ahmad, better-known as Tun Sri Lanang, was commissioned by Raja Bongsu (the future Sultan Abdullah Ma’ayat Shah of Johor) to rewrite, revise, and edit the Malay Annals.
The Malay Annals (Raffles MS No. 18) contains 31 chapters, beginning with a brief preface praising Allah, the Prophet, and his companions, as well as detailing the circumstances in which the manuscript was written. The story proper begins with Iskandar Zulqarnain (commonly identified as Alexander the Great), to whom the rulers of Melaka trace their ancestry, and ends with ‘Alauddin Ri’ayat Shah, the first Sultan of Johor. Apart from the rulers of Melaka, the pages of the Malay Annals are filled with many colourful characters, some of whom have become household names in Malaysia.
Despite its focus on the Melakan rulers, the Malay Annals is much more than a mere royal genealogy. This work sheds light on various aspects of the Melakan Sultanate, including its administration, foreign relations, economy, as well as social norms and customs. Having said that, it should also be noted that the Malay Annals was not meant to be a faithful record of historical events, and that many of its stories ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Still, the Malay Annals is a significant piece of work, not only as a work of Malay literature, but also for the information about the Melakan Sultanate it contains, and the strong influence it has exerted on the development of the Malay civilisation. Therefore, in 2001, the Malay Annals, following its nomination by Dato’ Haji A. Aziz Deraman, the former Director-General of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka,was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
The ‘Tales from the Malay Annals‘ series on this blog will look at some of the stories contained within this manuscript. Do look out for these articles.
Raslin, A. B. & Effah, I. Z. (2013) ‘Sulalatus Salatin: Karya Agung Melayu di Institusi Simpanan Dunia’ in Seminar 400 Tahun Sulalatus Salatin. Kuala Lumpur, 29-30 October 2013.
Roolvink, R. (1967) The Variant Versions of the Malay Annals. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 123(3), pp. 301-324.
Sejarah Melayu [Cheah, B. K. (comp.), Abdul Rahman, Hj. Ismail (transcr.), 2009. Sejarah Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: The Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.]
Historical societies in our country have existed since the time of the Straits Settlements. The earliest was the Straits Asiatic Society formed at a meeting on 4 November 1877 at the Raffles Library and Museum in Singapore with its parent organisation, the Asiatic Society of Bengal.
The Asiatic Society of Bengal was founded on 15 January 1784 by Sir William Jones who was a lawyer and Orientalist. When he came to Calcutta (now Kolkata) on 25 September 1783, he took up the post as a Supreme Court judge and five months later, he formed the society, receiving strong support and encouragement from the Governor General of Bengal at that time, Warren Hasting. The setting of the society was to encourage Oriental studies.
The meeting on the formation of the Straits Asiatic Society was chaired by Archdeacon George Frederick Hose, who later became Bishop. It was attended by prominent members from the expatriate communities in the three Straits Settlements states including D.F.A. Hervey (Resident Councillor of Malacca), Charles John Irving (Lieutenant General of Penang), and William A. Pickering (first Protector of Chinese of the Chinese Protectorate based in Singapore). The society started with an enrolment of 150 members. The Society’s mission was ‘to produce the collection and record of information relating to the Straits Settlements and the neighbouring countries’. Its other aims included producing a journal and establishment of a library.
The following year, the society was renamed Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society when its affiliation with the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland or commonly known as Royal Asiatic Society, was confirmed on 6 May 1878. Bishop Hope was appointed as the first President of the Society and he went on to become one of the longest serving Presidents, from 1878 to 1908. The other founding members also took up appointments in the Society and contributed actively to its journal. The first journal was named Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society; it was dated July 1878 but it was published in September 1878.
The society then went through name-change on two occasions in accordance to the political situation of the time. In 1923, it was renamed Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society when the British influence went beyond the Straits Settlements; and in 1964, it was renamed Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, after the formation of Malaysia. The name remains until today. Its office was moved from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. The name of the journal also changed in accordance to the renaming of the society. Some of its past illustrious members were Sir Hugh Clifford, Sir Frank Swettenham, Sir Ernest Woodford Birch, Alfred Dent, and Henry Nicholas Ridley to name just a few.
In 1930, of two more organisations were formed, namely the Malacca Historical Society and the Penang Historical Society. This was no coincidence as both states were under the Straits Settlements and had strong Western influence. Twenty-three years on, in 1953, the Malayan Historical Society (MHS) was formed, based in Kuala Lumpur. It was officially formed on 30 April 1953 at its first meeting held at the Kuala Lumpur Town Hall on Jalan Raja (the old City Hall). It was a grand inauguration attended by the British High Commissioner in Malaya, General Sir Gerald Templer, and the Malay Rulers – Sultan of Pahang, Yang DiPertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan, Sultan of Kedah, Sultan of Terengganu, Tengku Mahkota of Johor, Regent of Perak, and Deputy Raja of Perlis. Also in attendance were 200 local dignitaries – Datuk Onn Jaafar, Datuk Thuraisingam, Datuk Nik Ahmad Kamil, Datuk Tan Cheng Loke, and Tuan Za’aba, to name a few.
General Sir Gerald Templer in his speech emphasized that the Society is an effort to bring all the people of Malaya together to become a unified nation in the face of time and destiny of independence. He said ‘a nation which does not look back with pride upon its past, can never look forward with confidence towards its future’. He also tasked the Society ‘to ensure that things of beauty and historic value, old and new, find their way to a place where they’ll be properly cared for, and are not allowed to moulder, forgotten and unappreciated’. He also wanted the Society to work together with other organisations and the knowledge gathered about the history to be widely disseminated to the people: ‘This is not a Society for the Government, for the educated or for any class or section of the populations, it is for everybody, and everybody has something to contribute to it’.
At the end of the meeting, a Council was formed and it was headed by the first President, Datuk Mahmood Bin Mat. Its office was initially housed at the National Museum, but it was later moved to Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. In 1976, the Government provided a Government house located at No.958, Jalan Hose, Kuala Lumpur to be utilised as MHS’s headquarters. Tun Hussein Onn, the then Prime Minister, officially opened the building on 31 August 1976. Later, Tun Hussein Onn managed to secure a plot of prime land in Kuala Lumpur and awarded it to MHS. On 1 December 2003, MHS officially relocated to its new headquarters at Wisma Sejarah, No.203, Jalan Tun Razak, opposite the Institut Jantung Negara/National Heart Institute.
The first publication by MHS was entitled The Malayan Historical Journal; it was published in May 1954 and the editor was J.C. Bottoms. The annual subscription was twelve dollars and a single number (per issue) was priced at three dollars. In 1957, Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard took over from J.C. Bottoms and the journal was renamed Malaya in History. This journal went on for 15 years until April 1972, when Prof. Zainal Abidin Wahid took over, but from this time on (until today), the journal is produced in the Malay language and given a new name Malaysia dari segi Sejarah (Malaysia in History, in English). The late Prof. Emeritus Khoo Kay Kim was next in line to hold the editorial chair when he came on board in 1978 until 1989; he was then replaced by Prof. Dr. Nik Hassan Shuhaimi.
In addition to the journals, MHS also publishes books and monographs. Some of the bestsellers include Lembah Bujang (published in 1980), Historia (1984), Changi, the lost years (1989), Duri dalam daging (2001) and The Malay Civilization (2007). Today, the Malaysian Historical Society (Persatuan Sejarah Malaysia in Malay) maintains branch offices in all the states.