B is for Buddhagupta

by Maganjeet Kaur

Image credit: Dennis Ong

Mahanavika1 Buddhagupta was a mariner who lived possibly in the second half of the fifth century CE. The title ‘Mahanavika’ bestowed on him implies he was a skilled navigator while his given name, Buddhagupta2, identifies his religious affiliation. Hailing from Raktamṛttika, his visit to the northern Malay Peninsula has entered into the annals of history though a stone stele he donated to a local shrine.

Replica of the Buddhagupta Stone at the National Museum, Malaysia. Found in 1834, Captain James Low gifted the stone to the Asiatic Society of Bengal in January 1835 and it is currently on display at the Indian Museum in Kolkata. A replica was gifted by the Indian Government to the National Museum in 1961. Incidentally, another replica was gifted in 2018 by the Indian Prime Minister to the Singaporean Prime Minister. Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur

Only the upper part of this stele has survived; it measures 66 centimetres in height, between 29 to 34 centimetres in width and 8 to 9 centimetres in depth. The main feature on this slab is the representation of a stupa with an almost spherical dome, in itself unusual given that they are typically semi-hemispherical.

A balcony can be seen on top of the dome and rising from this is a staff carrying seven parasols of diminishing sizes ending in two semi circles. The dome sits within the upturned petals of a lotus blossom while downward petals of the lotus frame the base. This base is decorated by three pilasters – the pilaster in the centre is shown complete while the two side pilasters are in halves. Alternatively, these could have been pillars. The stone is broken off under the pilasters/pillars – the base could have been resting on a plinth as in the case of the Kampung Sungai Mas inscription.


A drawing of the stupa at the Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum. Note that only the central pilaster/column has been traced. A handbook published by the Indian Museum in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1883 describes the stupa as a Burmese pagoda while Jane Allen finds similarities with a Gupta-period relief on the façade at Ajanta Cave 19 in Maharashtra (India). Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur

Inscriptions run along the sides of the stupa as well as along the sides of the slab. The language is Sanskrit and the script Pallava. There are two parts to this inscription. The inscription that runs along the right side of the stupa is a karma verse that can be translated as:

Through ignorance, karma is accumulated. The cause of birth is karma. Through knowledge karma is not accumulated. Through absence of karma one is not reborn.3


This verse has also been found on inscriptions at two locations in southern Kedah – Kampung Sungai Mas and Bukit Meriam – in both cases coupled with the Buddhist Ye Dharma Hetu credo. The coupling of the karma and the Ye Dharma Hetu verses has not been found in India or Sri Lanka and, hence, could have been a local blending of philosophies.

The second part of the inscription mentions a Mahanavika Buddhagupta from Raktamṛttika giving thanks for a successful voyage. The inscription likely continues onto the broken-off piece of the stele and hence this inscription is not complete. The translation by Kern4 of the surviving inscription is below.

Right-hand side of stele: ‘Of the eminent shipowner Buddhagupta resident at Raktamrttika…’

Left-hand side of stele: ‘In every way, from everything, in every respect, all… who has performed a successful journey’


Raktamṛttika translates to ‘red earth’. This location was initially identified with the Chitu mentioned in Chinese records, which also translates to ‘red earth’; it is believed to have been located in Kelantan. Another possibility is the Raktamṛttika Mahavihara mentioned in the writings of Hiuen-Tsang (Xuanzang), a Chinese traveller to India in the seventh century CE. He wrote that the most learned men in the kingdom congregated at this vihara. Its location has been identified with the archaeological site at Rajbaridanga in West Bengal, India.

First line: right-hand side of stele; second line: left-hand side of stele; third line: right of stupa.
The writing style of this inscription bears close similarity with those found in West Java from the fifth century; the Buddhagupta stele is thus epigraphically dated to this period. Image credit: http://skyknowledge.com/pallava.htm (this inscription is as per JASB, 17(2), plate IV)

And… just for fun… an attempt to transliterate one line of the Pallava script.

The Pallava consonant indicated for ‘gu’ was possibly incorrectly copied on this drawing as it does not transliterate to ‘gu’. A close look at the artefact in the museum shows that it is inscribed as per the image shown above this image. The consonant ‘s’ should be a conjunct with another consonant, which cannot be made out as the inscription has broken off. Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur (base image taken from JASB, 4, plate III)

The stele was discovered in 1834 by Captain James Low while he was excavating some ruins at a sandy site in Seberang Perai (at its border with Kedah). Low did not leave behind any further details of the location but later researchers speculate it to be Guar Kepah, a sandy site at Penaga on the southern bank of Muda River.

Guar Kepah has other calls to fame. At one time coastal, it lies on an old beach ridge and it was previously made up of shell middens, i.e. mounds made up mainly from remains of edible molluscs and other kitchen waste. The shell midden at Guar Kepah was recorded in 1860 by G.W. Earl as being six metres high; by 1936, this had been reduced to less than two metres due to quarrying activities for lime. Shell middens signal the presence of prehistoric settlements and the Guar Kepah site was in occupation during the Hoabinhian and the Neolithic. Excavations during the colonial period had unearthed 41 skeletons and the discovery in 2017 of ‘Penang Woman’, a 5,710 year-old skeleton, puts the focus back on Guar Kepah.

With such a long history, it is thrilling to think that the shell mounds may have back dropped a stupa of the design shown on the stele. Guar Kepah is not done revealing its secrets and we can only hope that future discoveries will illuminate the Buddhagupta period, shedding light on the community that resided in the area at the time.

Buddhagupta Stone’s find-spot is speculated to be Guar Kepah, which has a history stretching to the Hoabinhian. This image shows Professor Mokhtar Saidin, director of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Global Archaeological Research (CGAR), examining the ‘Penang Woman’ skeleton found at Guar Kepah. Image credit:
https://www.todayonline.com/world/asia/carbon-dating-confirms-penang-woman-5710-years-old

1 ‘Navika’ is a Sanskrit word translated initially as ‘sea-captain’. However, present-day scholarship leans towards ‘navigator’ as the more accurate meaning. ‘Mahanavika’ thus translates to ‘Great Navigator’.

2 Names identifying religious affiliation were common. As an example, among the 193 Indic inscriptions discovered at Hoc Cave on Socotra Island in Yemen, many were personal names indicating religious affiliation with Vishnu, Siva, Kartikeya or Surya. Incidentally, Budhagupta was also the name of an emperor of the Gupta Dynasty, reigning between c. 476 and 495 CE. The navigator who arrived on the shores of Kedah may have been named after him.

3Jacq-Hergoualc’h (2002, 216)

4Kern (1907, 96)

References

Allen, Jane. (1986-87). An Inscribed Tablet from Kedah, Malaysia: Comparison with Earlier Finds. Asian Perspectives, 27(1), 35-57.

Anderson, John. (1883). Catalogue and hand-book of the archaeological collections in the Indian Museum. The Order of the Trustees, Calcutta. https://www.indianculture.gov.in/rarebooks/catalogue-and-hand-book-archaeological-collections-indian-museum

Bahadur Chand Chhabra. (1965). Expansion of Indo-Aryan culture during Pallava Rule. Munshi Ram Manohar Lal.

Bulbeck, David F. (2005). The Guar Kepah Human Remains. In Zuraina Majid (Ed.), The Perak Man and other Prehistoric Skeletons of Malaysia (pp. 383-423). Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Jacq-Hergoualc’h, Michel. (2002). The Malay Peninsula: Crossroads of the Maritime Silk Road (100 BC–1300 AD). Translated by Hobson, Victoria. Brill.

Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (JASB) , 1835, 4, plate III.

Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (JASB), 1848, 17(2), plate IV.

Kern, H. (1907). Concerning some old Sanskrit Inscriptions in the Malay Peninsula. Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 49, 95-101.

A is for Abdul Rahman Limbong

by Maganjeet Kaur

Image credit: Dennis Ong

Muzium Negara has on display a few personal items that belonged to Haji Abdul Rahman bin Abdul Hamid, a religious scholar and freedom fighter from Kuala Terengganu. Born in 1868, Abdul Rahman was a successful entrepreneur with business dealings as far as Menara (today Narathiwat) in southern Thailand. His frequent visits to Limbong in Kemaman to trade as well as to preach earned him the moniker ‘Limbong’, which was tacked to the end of his given name. Some simply called him ‘Tok Limbong’. In spite of his wealth, he was down to earth, generous and ready to help; this made him well known especially along the middle part of the Terengganu River. He was very versatile; apart from trade, he had agricultural concerns, practised silat and was a religious teacher.

For day to day use, Haji Abdul Rahman wore either Malay attire or jubah. His footwear was the terompah (wooden clogs) and he wore a terendah (headgear). The headgear displayed at Muzium Negara is an elaborate embroidered piece, decorated with beads.

History remembers him for the role he played in protesting against the land and forest management laws introduced by the British. Forest produce, such as timber, attap, rattan and eaglewood, was an important source of revenue for the state. Taxation on these products had been in place even before British intervention – Malay district chiefs, through royal grants, exercised monopoly over their purchase. However, the rates were flexible and, importantly, transactions were mainly through barter. The British introduced a much higher tax rate for jungle products and included many additional items into the taxable list. Their tax collection process was also more efficient as they completely replaced the barter system with cash. In addition, permits were required before trees could be felled preparatory to dry-rice cultivation. All these measures put a huge burden on the peasantry.

This artefact is a container used by Haji Abdul Rahman to keep his watikah, letters of instruction from the Sultan.

In 1921, in an effort to end shifting cultivation, the government introduced a license to cultivate land on a temporary basis, with a hefty fine for non-compliance. The following year, a group of farmers disregarded the law and worked the land in Beladau without permit, supported by Haji Abdul Rahman. When 43 of these farmers were served with warrants for their rebellion, Haji Abdul Rahman applied for a special attorney’s license to defend them during their trial. However, too many supporters turned up in court, some bearing weapons, and Haji Abdul Rahman’s refusal to cooperate with the authorities saw him lose his special license. His license as a religious teacher and permit to hold circumcisions were also revoked. He was viewed with concern as his ability to garner support and rile up a crowd pegged him as a powerful and dangerous leader.

This belt buckle was used by Haji Abdul Rahman as a talisman. An Arabic phrase is surrounded by numerals (in Arabic) and set with green stones along the edges.

Discontent over the land duties and royalty over jungle produce continued to mount. The Malay chiefs were also unhappy losing their customary claims over land. On 20 May 1928, with a conviction that the land belonged to God and that the State had no right over it, around 2,000 people marched to Kuala Berang. The District Officer and the police, made up of a sergeant and four men, made a prudent retreat and summoned help. A team of 25 policemen later caught up with the dissidents in Kuala Telemong. Here, after failing to disperse the crowd in spite of repeated warnings, the police fired one volley, killing eleven men including one of the key leaders of the rebellion, i.e. Lebai Deraman, better known as To’ Janggut  (not be to confused with the Kelantanese rebel leader). Further reinforcements arrived the next day from the Federated Malay States and the dissidents finally dispersed.

Twelve other ringleaders were arrested and given long prison sentences coupled with hard labour. Haji Abdul Rahman, though he did not take part in the actual disturbance, was identified as the leader behind the incident and he was exiled to Mecca.

A belt used by Haji Abdul Rahman is also displayed at the museum.

References

Berhanundin bin Abdullah, Kamaruzaman bin Yusoff & Mansoureh Ebrahimi (2015). Haji Abdul Rahman Limbong (1868-1928): Fighter against the Colonialist. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 6(6), 281-289.

Kathirithamby-Wells, Jeyamalar (2005). Nature and Nation: Forests and Development in Peninsular Malaysia. NIAS Press and NUS Press.

Last Year’s Riots in Trengganu. (1929, 31 December). The Straits Times. https://tinyurl.com/pzc7xpyv

Tuan Azam Tuan Johan. (2007, 21 May). Descendant sheds more light on Tok Limbong. The Star. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/community/2007/05/21/descendant-sheds-more-light-on-tok-limbong