There are two handwritten copies of the Quran in Gallery B. Both these Malay Qurans are from the 19th century CE. Our curator will be explaining these manuscripts in a journal article next year. As an addendum to my blog article regarding the Prophet’s traditions, this article highlights the content displayed on the Qurans in gallery B to illustrate the sunnah (the ‘way of the Prophet’). Prophet Muhammad (saw) recited these particular surahs (chapters) on different occasions. Sunnah denotes the actual actions, practices and sayings of the Prophet.
Muslims believe the Quran text is the divine, unaltered Word of God, as revealed orally to Prophet Muhammad (saw) via the Archangel Gabriel in the 7th century CE. Upon memorising the revelations, the Prophet’s closest companions proceeded to transcribe them on palm wood, parchment, bones and later, onto paper. Al-Quran derives from the Arabic word qara’a meaning ‘to read’ or ‘to recite’.
The act of writing occupies an esteemed place in Islamic tradition. Much effort is placed on glorifying the Word of God through calligraphy and manuscript art. Some Ottoman and Indian Qurans were illuminated on every page with gold and colours. Malay Qurans have a defining feature in that only the beginning, middle and end pages are ornately decorated. This is in keeping with Malay values of understatement, restraint and balance. Some Malay Qurans, as in the case of our Javanese Quran in gallery B, do not even make the central pages a feature. Looking at our gallery B Qurans, we note the significance of the four illuminated pages: two at the beginning and two at the end.
The Terengganu Quran in gallery B displays the first surah, Al-Fatihah (the Opener) on the right-hand side and the start of the second surah, Al-Baqarah (the Cow) on the left-hand side. Al-Fatihah is a summary of the entire Quran. Its key verse translates to ‘You (solely) we worship, and You (solely) we ask for help from’. This oneness of God is the essence of Islamic faith. The second verse of Al-Baqarah means ‘That is the Book, in which there is no doubt, guidance for the God-conscious’. Therefore, Muslims consider the Quran as the sacred book for complete guidance, relevant for all time.
The Quran explains when and which direction one should pray, while Prophet Muhammad (saw) showed by example what words and movements to use during prayer. Following the Prophet’s sunnah, the Al-Fatihah is recited whilst standing within every prayer. There are exceptions and modifications to standing e.g. for the elderly and in certain circumstances. However, the words recited remain the same.
The Javanese Quran in gallery B exhibits the final two surahs, Al-Falaq (the Daybreak) and An-Nas (Mankind). Both these surahs are words of protection from evil: Al-Falaq against external elements and An-Nas against evil from within. These two surahs are known as al-Mu’awwidhat (the Refuges). According to Hadith Sahih Al-Bukhari 5016/7, the prophet’s wife Aisha’ narrated that Prophet Muhammad (saw) used to recite both these surahs when he became sick and also, before sleeping every night. Hence, these acts are examples of the Prophet’s sunnah, which Muslims should follow.
In the shahada, Muslims profess that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad (saw) was the best role model and the Quran confirms his exemplary character. We wish ‘peace be upon him’ by saying sallallahu alaihi wasallam (saw) after his name.
At Prophet Muhammad’s (saw) final sermon, he said: ‘I leave behind me two things, the Quran and the sunnah, and if you follow these you will never go astray’.
The Noble Quran translated by Dr Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Dr Muhammad Muhsin Khan (1997) Riyadh: Darussalam
Gallop A.T. (2012) The Art of the Malay Quran. Arts of Asia. Jan-Feb 2012
Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (2020) Mirrors of Beauty. KL. IAMM
M Uthman El-Muhammady (1998) The Quran and the Hadith. The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Religions and Beliefs Vol. 10, KL: Editions Didier Millet
Natasha Kamaluddin (2018) The First Six: An Introduction to the Noble Quran. Back to Basics Vol. 2 KL: Dakwah Corner
Ros Mahwati Ahmad Zakaria (2005) Manuscripts: The Word Made Manifest. The Message and the Monsoon, KL: IAMM
Muzium Negara gallery storyboards & Wikipedia
Muhammad Azam Adnan, Muzium Negara Gallery B curator
The ancient East-West maritime trade surrounding the Malay archipelago brought imported cultures to the local people. Islamization of the Malay world has influenced Malay culture since the 13th century CE. In the 15th century CE, Melaka became the centre of Islamic learning for the region. As Muslims, the Malays are guided by the Holy Quran, Hadith and sunnah. There are two handwritten copies of the Quran in Gallery B. This article highlights artefacts relating to the Hadith.
Hadith is translated as ‘tradition’ referring to the narration, account and record of actions and sayings of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Sunnah denotes the actual actions, practices and sayings of the Prophet. The chain of narrators of ahadith (the plural of hadith) has been meticulously traced to ensure authenticity. The Prophet’s tradition has given practical examples for Muslims to follow.
The first type of zakat (charity tax) ordered by Allah was zakat fitrah on every individual Muslim with the means to give. It is taken mainly for the poor before the end of fasting in the holy month of Ramadan. Based on Hadith 1511 of the Book of Zakat from Sahih al-Bukhari, ‘Ibn Umar said, The Prophet SAW made incumbent on every male or female, free man or slave, the payment of one sa’ of dates or barley as zakat-ul-fitr’.
The Arabic word sa’ translates to ‘small container’. In the Malay world, the gantang is a traditional unit of volume and the container for measuring it. There are two such containers in Gallery B – a copper one and a wooden one. The copper container is inscribed in Jawi with the words ‘This is a Brunei government gantang, the Just King, 1322 AH’. This dates it to 1904 CE when Brunei was ruled by Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin. The copper container is 17cm high with a diameter of 19cm. The wooden gantang is from the Malay Peninsula and doubles up as a pounding mortar for rice flour. It is made from jackfruit wood and has been slightly decorated with a projecting ring at the top. It has the same height as the copper container but is smaller in diameter at only 13cm.
In the Malay world, dates or barley mentioned in the Hadith above may be substituted with rice, as the staple food of the region. The gantang differs in definition between Malay states. Azman et al (2015) explains the difference in gantang capacity is due to its various sizes and the different types of rice (density and size) used in the weighing process. It is worth noting that in the past, there had been studies on the differences in equivalent weight of sa’ by Baghdad and Madinah jurists. Ibn Malik had said that the sa’ is a measure of capacity and it cannot be converted into weight. This is similar to the English ‘bushel’ e.g. one bushel of oats equals 32 pounds whereas one bushel of malt equals 34 pounds.
In modern Malaysia, the traditional measure of gantang has been converted to the metric system with different results. The zakat fitrah in Selangor is calculated based on one Baghdad gantang of rice at 2.7kg whereas in Johor it is at 2.6kg. Malaysia adopted the Hanafi school opinion to pay zakat in currency value instead of using food. Each state religious authority in Malaysia sets its own zakat fitrah rates, ranging from RM5 to RM21 in 2020 CE. The main factor for these different rates is the type of rice consumed. Most people pay RM7 and those who pay above this rate may consider the balance as sedekah (charity). Hence, the spirit of giving as an obligation on every able Muslim is observed in keeping with the Prophet’s tradition.
Muslims follow the Prophet’s tradition of burning incense in mosques and homes for purification. Censers are incense burners used in religious context. In the Malay archipelago, usually kemenyan (benzoin) is placed on hot coals to release fragrance. Most Malay households use brass incense burners. Both incense burners on display in Gallery B are from China.
The cylindrical blue and white incense vase is marked with the seal of Emperor Cheng Hua of the Ming dynasty, who ruled from 1465 to 1487 CE. Chinese Muslim eunuchs were influential at court during the Ming era. This porcelain censer is decorated with three medallions enclosing Arabic inscriptions in underglaze blue. It is without a cover for use with stick incense, popular in China. The ‘Mohammedan’ blue (also known as hui hui qing) is a cobalt blue obtained from Persia. Blue and white porcelain was produced at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen, South China from the early 14th century CE. It is believed that high quality Jingdezhen porcelain was for use at court and Chinese Muslims there. Some Jingdezhen pieces were exported to important Muslims outside of China. Most ceramics exported to Southeast Asia were of lower quality produced at Fujian, called Swatow ware. These were often imitations of blue and white porcelain, mass-produced for the middle class export market.
Our porcelain censer is likely to be a Swatow, with the main clue being the Emperor’s mark. Arabic or Persian inscriptions were introduced during the late reign of Emperor Hongzhi and early reign of Emperor Zhengde. Emperor Cheng Hua’s reign precedes this period. In addition, its inscription is not easy to read since the Fujian potters were unlikely to be well versed in Arabic and therefore, susceptible to mistakes when copying.
The colourful incense burner on display is estimated to be from the 18th century CE Qing dynasty. It is made of metal and enamelled with cloisonné decoration. Cloisonné, also known as Muslim ware (Dashi Yao), was probably crafted by the Arab settlers of Western Yunnan. The technique involves the application of coloured-glass pastes within pattern-shaping cells made of copper or bronze wires soldered on metal. It was introduced during the 14th century CE Yuan dynasty and peaked under the Xuande reign era of the Ming dynasty (1426-1436).
The calligraphic inscriptions (la ilaha illallah) on the burner and its cover means ‘there is no God but God’. Its design is a combination of the Sini script of the Hui Muslims with the motifs and symbolisms of the Han Chinese (notice the ruyi borders and imperial guardian lion knob). This artefact shows the synthesis of the two cultures.
Incense was sold in specialised markets of the perfumers (suq at-attariyyin) in and around the medieval Islamic world. Frankincense and myrrh were among the trade goods along the Silk Road. The Arabs had written about aloeswood and camphor from Tiyumah (Tioman) island off the Malay Peninsula from their 9th century travels. The Chinese used galangal, sage and Chinese weeping cypress in their censers. To this day, scent promotes a sense of well-being and is encouraged by the Prophet’s tradition.
A. R. Azman et al (2015), Calibration of Gantang (Sa’) Based on Metric System for Agricultural Zakat in Malaysia, ASM Science Journal Volume 9(2)
IAMM (2009) Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia Volume II
IAMM (2020) Mirrors of Beauty: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia Guide
L. de Guise & Z. Sutarwala (2006) Spice Journeys: Taste and Trade in Islamic World, IAMM
MAIS (2014) Az-Zakah; Spirit, Realisation and Obligation, IAMM
M. Uthman El-Muhammady (1998) The Quran and the Hadith, The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Religions and Beliefs Vol. 10, KL Ed. Didier Millet
Othman Yatim (1989) Warisan Kesenian Dalam Tamadun Islam, KL Dewan Bahasa Pustaka
Othman Yatim (1998) The Early Islamic Period. The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Early History Vol. 4, KL: Ed. Didier Millet
Wikipedia, Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia & Muzium Negara Gallery storyboards
As you enter Gallery B through the portal of a door from the Palace of Setul, you will be transported to the first millennium of the Common Era (CE) when small polities dotted the Malay World, some of which grew to become empires and shaped the world we know today.
Historical records and surviving artefacts provide evidence that these early Malay kingdoms possessed organised systems of government; they participated in the Indian Ocean trade and they had established relations with Arabia, China, India and Persia. The society was cosmopolitan, more so than what we would have imagined.
Welcome to the Malay World
What and where is the Malay World where these kingdoms flourished? Jim Baker aptly describes it as archipelago South East Asia – comprising present day Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, southern Philippines and south Thailand.
The people who founded these maritime polities and kingdoms were descended from the Malayic-speaking Austronesians. The kingdoms started as coastal city-states, developing as emporia to service traders from east and west. Their lifeline revolved around trade and each sought to dominate the region. The archipelago was rich in natural resources and its products, such as tortoise shells, gharuwood, rhinoceros horns and camphor were highly sought after in China, India and beyond. The strategic location of the region, between its key markets in the east and west, made it a suitable meeting place for traders from outside the region. The cultures of their trading partners, initially Hinduism and Buddhism and, later, Islam would also play a large part in shaping the local societies.
A notable early kingdom on the Malay peninsula was Langkasuka (2nd – 6th century CE). This name is of Sanskrit origin, and the kingdom was closely tied to the Indianised kingdom of Funan in Cambodia. Langkasuka, believed to be located in the Pattani-Songkla area, traded with China through ports on the east coast but it also had links with trading communities on the west coast, just across the isthmus. It was a rich and prosperous state and it may have founded the early settlements in the Bujang Valley. There are scant records on Langkasuka; its demise could possibly be linked to the rise of polities in Sumatra and Java.
The Bujang Valley civilisation was a significant trading kingdom in Kedah with iron smelting as its main activity. By 800 CE, Bujang Valley had come under the influence of Buddhist Srivijaya and, by the early 11th century, the Indian Chola Empire. We can see vestiges of this civilisation at excavation sites and in a museum at Merbok, Kedah; some artefacts are also displayed in Galleries A and B.
According to the Malay Annals, a Khmer prince founded the kingdom of Gangga Negara in the 8th century. Its location is uncertain, but believed to be at modern-day Beruas, Perak, through findings of various significant Buddhist bronzes in the Kinta Valley. The kingdom fell after the Chola attacks in the 11th century.
Into the Second Millennium
Srivijaya was a dominant maritime empire based in Sumatra, but influenced much of Southeast Asia. It was founded in the 7th century after the demise of Funan. The Chola attacks destroyed its capital at present-day Palembang, but its centre moved further north to Jambi where it lasted until the 13th century.
Majapahit was founded by Raden Wijaya in around 1293. It was the last major Hindu empire in the region and among the most powerful empires in the history of the archipelago. Majapahit society developed a high degree of sophistication in both commercial and artistic activities. Its capital was inhabited by a cosmopolitan population among whom literature and the arts flourished. Its power began to wane in the 15th century when Islam spread in the region. Sumatra resented Majapahit’s control, so the conversion to Islam was an opportunity to extricate from Hindu Majapahit. The Majapahit Empire was unable to compete with its Muslim neighbours, and began to disintegrate, finally collapsing in early 16th century. After the fall of the empire, Majapahit kings and nobles, priests and artisans took refuge in the interior mountains of East Java and across the narrow straits to Bali. It can be said that the kingdom of Bali was the successor of Majapahit.
The grandeur of some early kingdoms is evident in the monuments they left behind. Among these are Candi Borobodur, a 9th-century Buddhist temple in Central Java, the world’s largest Buddhist temple; and Candi Prambanan, the largest temple complex dedicated to the Hindu Trimurti, (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) also in Java, built in the 10th century.
Melaka Sultanate, a later Malay Kingdom, was a celebrated Malay empire. Melaka was founded around 1400 by Parameswara, a prince who fled from Sumatra and established a port in the Straits of Malacca, which attracted trading ships from China, India and Arabia. It was a popular port as it was well administered by the Bendahara, Shahbandar, Laksmana and Temenggong. At around this time, the Ming Emperor was sending out fleets to expand trade. Admiral Zheng He called at the port of Melaka on each of his seven voyages. In exchange for regular tribute, the Ming emperor offered Melaka protection from the constant threat of Siamese and Javanese attacks. The court of Melaka gave prestige to the Malay language and the language became the lingua franca of the region.
By the late 15th century, Islam became integrated in the daily life of the people in Melaka. The palace, mosques and religious schools became centres for the study of Islam. The Jawi script became widely used in the Malay Archipelago. Melaka’s growing commercial and political influence helped spread Islam to Melaka’s dependent territories. The Melaka kingdom lasted little more than a century, but during this time it became the established centre of Malay culture and identity, and of Islam.
Brunei existed as early as the 6th/7th century; its power waxed and waned throughout the centuries. Once subjected by Java, it later became a vassal of Majapahit. Brunei was an independent kingdom from the 15th to the 17th century, reaching its height of power under its 6th Sultan, Sultan Bolkiah (1485 – 1524), when its domains included Sulu and southern Philippines.
When Melaka fell in 1511, traders who formerly traded in Melaka turned to Brunei, resulting in it becoming more prosperous. Brunei had influence over Sulu until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Brunei’s power began to decline in the 18th century and it lost a great deal of its territory – North Borneo and Sarawak – due to internal power struggles and foreign intervention, especially by the British.
SetulMambang Segara, was among the last of the kingdoms in the Malay peninsula. It was a traditional Malay kingdom founded in the northern coast in 1808 because of the partition between the rulers of the Royal House of Kedah. It was governed by the Malay Sultanate of Kedah from 1843 until 1909 when it was ceded to Thailand. The sovereignty of the kingdom ended in 1916, following the dissolution by the Siamese government. The state border was inherited by Satun, the successive province.
In this third millennium, the sovereign nations of archipelago South East Asia are the beneficiaries of the Malay kingdoms. The cultural blending of the different beliefs and practices of the Malay World has created a cultural compromise. The traditions that were brought into contact throughout the years of co-existence and assimilation have resulted in a common heritage which we see in the Kris, WayangKulit , TepakSireh, Batik –Sarong, among others. These are the shared heritage of the region, so should the people fight over their origins and ownership?
Evolution of Demographic Composition
The demographic composition of Malaysia is represented by the multiple ethnic groups that exist in the country as a result of the migration and intermingling of the people in the archipelago through the past two millennia.
In the first, there was significant migration from Sumatra and movement from outside, in the form of Indian and Arab traders, many of whom intermarried and settled along the west coast.
The second millennium saw further migration of Malays to the peninsula from central Sumatra and the eastern archipelago. Muslim and Indian traders from India, the Arabs, Persians and Chinese, European missionaries, the Portuguese and Dutch of the colonial years, some of whom inevitably married local women, have all left their mark in the country. Indian Muslims, Baba-Nyonya, Chitties and Kristangs, Dutch and European Eurasians and Jawi Pekan have added to the demographic composition of multi-racial Malaysia.
Videos: My South East Asia with Dr Farish
Book: Didier Millet Editions ̈Noor, Farish A: What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You, (2009)
Book: Crossroads (1st Edition): A popular history of Malaysia & Singapore by Jim Baker
Book: The Encyclopaedia of Malaysia: Volume 4 Early History (1998);
Article: GLIMPSES INTO THE HISTORY OF MALAYSIA, New Nation, 22 February 1973, Page 8
What emotions do the above masks evoke in you? Intriguing and intimidating, they did not appeal to me initially for I did not then realise whence they had come or the mysteries attached to them. However, I was curious and wanted to find out the reason for their ubiquitous presence in advertisements and tourist literature on Sichuan.
… so in May 2017, my sister and I hired a car with a driver from Chengdu to take us to Guanghan, the archaeological site of these Bronze Age relics, 40 km north of Chengdu. The SanXingDui Museum is the current home of artefacts unearthed in Guanghan County and they are valued as Grade 1 Treasures of the People’s Republic of China.
The main museum building, on the excavated site of San Xing Dui (three-star mound: san –three, xing – stars, dui – mound) was completed in 1992 and opened to the public in 1997. It is not easy to get to due to its remote location. San Xing Dui is the ruins of the capital of the ancient Shu Kingdom that existed over 4000 years ago.
Before the excavations, there were no reliable written materials recording the ancient Shu civilization. There is hardly any mention of Shu in early Chinese historical records until the fourth century BCE, thereby shrouding this society in mystery. With the excavation of these cultural relics, the mystery has only deepened.
Discovered in 1929, and re-discovered in 1986, the famous discoveries in two sacrificial pits included animal- and human-faced sculptures and masks, a five-metre tall bronze tree, the best-preserved bronze human figure at 2.62 metres and hundreds of other unique items, each exceedingly exquisite. These relics are believed to be remnants of the Shu Kingdom, which can be dated to 2600 years to 4800 years ago. The discovery surprised archaeologists and historians alike and opened up a world of intrigue as it indicated a semi-Chinese culture that was previously unknown.
It is said that SanXingDui slept for three thousand years and has just woken up to astound the world with its mystique. These 20th century finds caught the world’s attention and the site is considered one with great historical and scientific significance.
The cache of religious bronze sculptures excavated at SanXingDui manifests the sophistication of the Shu culture. The bold lines and forceful contours of the masks combine to create magnificent images, which feature the union of humanity and divinity. The ritual objects reflect the spiritual pursuit of the Shu people. For more than half a century, archaeologists from Sichuan have been investigating the finds and forming theories of the Shu culture.
The large exhibition halls, filled with hundreds of artefacts, are dimly lit. It feels surreal to be inside, especially the first hall I entered, being surrounded by case after case of large masks and human heads, but visitors just move on with their audio guides to gaze upon and marvel at the mysteries of this once-forgotten civilisation. If they could talk, what secrets would these strange human heads reveal?
Exaggerated eyes and ears are the hallmark of SanXingDui masks, but the enormous masks have stalked eye balls (like extended protruding rods) and they seem to represent Can Cong, founder of the Kingdom of Shu. Cynics have commented that if this is true, then Can Cong must be half-insect! The Chinese character for insect, 虫 appears in both Can Cong’s name and the character for Shu, 蜀. The big eyes and ears symbolise the great powers of seeing and hearing from afar. It is believed that Can Cong had protruding eyes and ears.
The sacrificial life and religious rituals of the ancient Shu people are represented through bronze god statues and wares of gold, bronze, jade and stone. Among them is a 2.62 metres tall statue (Bronze Standing Man) wearing a crown and ceremonial garb, standing upright and barefoot on a cloud-patterned base supported by four elephant heads. His two large hands seem to hold a sacred vessel as if commanding a sacrifice. In the minds of the ancient people, he is a combination of god, wizard and king.
Most academicians believe the religious worship was a complex system involving a mix of many types, including nature worship, ancestor worship and god worship. The main function of the holy tree was to act as the axis for ascension to heaven. They connected heaven and earth, gods and humans. These Shamanistic trees were popularly used by shamans to communicate with the universe.
The spiritual world of the Shu people who believed that everything had a soul is shown not only through the magical bronze trees but also through animal-shaped objects such as fish and, more notably, birds. Bronze animal sculptures reflect the ancient Shu people’s ideology that all animals have spirits and their faith in the spirits of birds is the core of this belief.
Some of the artefacts are so large that they have to be seen to be appreciated. Standing at five metres, the Sacred Tree of SanXingDui, the most prized relic, gets pride of place in the central lobby of the museum. The spiral feature of the building’s architecture must have been designed for its display. Overseas display of this valued artefact is prohibited.
I no longer regard the masks of SanXingDui as menacing nor grotesque, but rather as stunning artefacts with deep symbolism guarding secrets of a glorious past. They are objects to be admired, and from which to draw upon for confirmation of hypotheses. How did the bronze smelting technique and the culture symbolized by the Sanxingdui bronze ware come into being? New research may solve the mystery of SanXingDui.
Earlier studies theorised that the disappearance of SanXingDui was due to floods or war but these theories are speculative. LiveScience reports that a mighty earthquake that occurred 3000 years ago decimated the ancient metropolis that was SanXingDui, but this theory is also speculative.
There is still much to learn about this mysterious civilisation. Excavations at the Three Star Mounds continue, the various projects involving researchers from China and abroad aim to discover more items from this lost civilisation. Tang Fei, head of the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, believes there are more sacrifice and worship sites, and aristocratic tombs to be unearthed.
The puzzle of the Three Star Mounds is a puzzle of the ages, but I hope it will eventually be unravelled.
SanXingDui Museum bi-lingual explanatory notes for some of the exhibits
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.
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.
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 Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) 20th Anniversary Curators’ Sharing Sessions enhanced my appreciation of the Islamic artefacts on display at Muzium Negara. Here is an opportunity to highlight the artefacts in Gallery B based on information gleaned from the IAMM curators and publications.
The Malay world began to accept Islam from the 13th century onwards, with evidence first found in northern Sumatra. This early phase was characterized by a superficial understanding of the faith. From the 1400s, the Malays increased their understanding on living as Muslims. Eventually, from the 18th century onwards, there was an even deeper understanding of Islam, through the emergence of Islamic scholars such as Syeikh Daud al-Fatani and Raja Ali Haji.
Intellectual centres in the Malay archipelago included Palembang, Aceh, Batavia, Riau-Lingga, and Patani. These centres became Malay scriptoria where scribes and illuminators copied religious and literature manuscripts.
The Holy Quran on display at Gallery B originates from Terengganu, on the East Coast of the Peninsula. It is a sample manuscript from an area distinguished for its Islamic scholarship and calligraphic expertise. This Quran is a 19th century specimen in Naskh script – a calligraphy style valued for its clarity in assisting non-Arabic speakers recite the Quran accurately. Its arabesque design with floral motifs and vegetal scrolls reflect the natural Malay world. Red and green, colours also seen in woodcarving, echo the decorative traditions of this region. The use of gold suggests that this Quran was made for a royal patron.
Nakula (1980) wrote about the relationship between Islam and the Malay arts. One’s faith in the oneness of Allah can be manifested in the creation of artworks. In modern Malaysia, apprentices of master carver Adiguru Norhaiza Nordin are required to sit in nature so that they may realise the cosmic dimension and have the vision of multiplicity in oneness and oneness in multiplicity. With this understanding, the woodcarvers may then integrate all elements of their being into its proper centre, thus attaining purity and wholeness when executing their art.
The soul of Malay woodcarving is influenced by the moral ethical values connected with Malay worldviews. The poem below illustrates the Malay philosophy on woodcarving:
Tumbuh berpuncaPunca penuh rahsiaTajam tidak menikam lawanLilit tidak memaut kawan
Growth from a source
A source full of secrets
Sharp does not stab foe
Twines do not tie friend
The first two lines allude to Divinity – the starting point of life (God) is not seen. The other two lines indicate Community – the bowing leaves signify respect for one another and that there is harmony even in conflict.
The motifs carved contain underlying messages and sometimes act as a reminder. The door panel on display combines calligraphy and floral motifs, which reminds one of the Creator. Some motifs remain from pre-Islamic days, for example the lotus but these are given a new interpretation to fit the teachings of Islam. Woodcarvings are only displayed in clean or sacred places.
Calligraphy is also used for protection as shown by our red vest with verses. This talismanic vest would have been worn as an undershirt to safeguard its wearer in battle. A similar-looking 19th century silk vest from the Malay Peninsula with Quranic verses displayed at IAMM is made from the underside of the Kiswah – the cloth that covers the Kaaba in Mecca.
A distinctive sample of calligraphy from the Malay world is found on the tombstone of Sultan Mansur Shah. Batu Aceh tombstones are usually found in pairs – one for the head and the other for the foot of the grave. This tombstone has been moved from its original site, which probably explains why only one remains. In true Batu Aceh style, it has a Sufi couplet inscription referring to the transience of life. The calligraphy on this tombstone is challenging to read due to its overlapping nature. Recently, the IAMM curators have deciphered and translated the inscriptions for Muzium Negara. Look out for the new description on display.
A noteworthy artefact in Gallery B is the 16th century ceramic plate from the Ming Dynasty inscribed with Quranic verses. The Aceh-style Swatow dish was a more affordable plate for the middle-class Acehnese who aspired to own Chinese ceramics. Its calligraphy may not be fine or accurate as it was mass-produced for the export market. The back of a similar plate at IAMM shows the crude finish with sandy grits on its base. It is likely that the piece at Muzium Negara has a similar base, albeit hidden from sight.
Islamic metalwork was once highly sought after in Europe. Such metal items made for the European market were known as Veneto Saracenic. Iran was renowned for fine metalwork as exemplified by the 17th century Isfahan copper bowl in Gallery B. Safavid Iran metalwork emphasized steel and copper, usually finished with tin. Isfahan was then its capital city. The use of figural motifs was allowed in the arts, with the understanding that such items were not displayed in sacred places. The copper bowl has calligraphic inscriptions and scenes of daily life – characteristic of Shia Islam.
Abdullah Mohamed @Nakula (1980) Falsafah dan pemikiran orang-orang Melayu: hubungan dengan Islam dan Kesenian, Kuala Lumpur: Kementerian Kebudayaan Belia dan Sukan.
Introduction to Islamic Arts – Calligraphy: The collection of the IAMM (2016)