As we know, the Dongson drum displayed in the burial section of Gallery A is one of two found face down in a boat burial at Kampung Sungai Lang, Selangor. What about the second drum? Where is it located? It rests closer to home at the Jugra Insitu Museum in Kuala Langat.
Examining historical artefacts complements textual research and, hence, knowing what artefacts are available in museums is an important step for historians and researchers. Using Google My Maps as the database, 209 museums and galleries have been identified pertinent to the history, culture, heritage and natural history of Malaysia. Although work is still ongoing to obtain information on the collections, this database is a good starting point to understand the museum scene in Malaysia.
Each state in the country has its own museum showcasing the history and heritage of the state, generally starting from prehistoric times up to the modern era. There are also smaller museums within a state that focus on a district or a town; examples include the Petaling Jaya Museum, Rembau Museum in Negeri Sembilan, the Kemaman District Museum in Terengganu and the Baram Regional Museum in Sarawak. Museums such as the Chitty Museum in Melaka, the Murut Cultural Centre in Sabah and the Sapan Puloh Melanau Museum in Sarawak, celebrate the uniqueness of local communities. The Pogunon Community Museum in Sabah was built in-situ on an ancient megalith site to showcase the archaeological discoveries in the area.
Skimming through the list of museums, you will find that there are three museums dedicated to the kite – Muzium Wau in Kelantan as well as a Muzium Layang Layang in both Johor and Melaka – attesting to the popularity of this pastime. Previously, kites were used to establish contact with the heavens. Hence, they were beautifully shaped and decorated to find favour with the sky and wind spirits. Kites featured in the three museums have shapes and decorations unique to the state, providing valuable insight into kite research.
There are quite a number of other special-purpose museums. Museums such as the Pineapple Museum (Johor), Timber Museum (Sarawak), Petroleum Museum (Sarawak) and the Tanjung Balau Fisherman Museum (Johor) are industry specific while the Ho Yan Hor Museum (Perak) showcases the history of a company. The Bank Kerapu Second World War Memorial in Kota Bharu preserves the memory of the Japanese Occupation. The Mersing Museum, although conceived to showcase the history and culture of Mersing, also provides information on the naval engagement, popularly known as the Battle of Endau, that took place off its shores between the Allied forces and the Japanese Army. The Watercraft and Boat Gallery in Pahang would be an interesting one to visit for those interested in boats, both ancient and contemporary. Melaka is a treasure throve for speciality museums – Submarine Museum, Malaysia Prison Museum, Melaka Stamp Museum and Beauty Museum, to name a few.
Malaysian waters have its fair number of shipwrecks. While the National Museum has a large collection of shipwreck ceramics, some pieces from the Wanli Shipwreck are displayed at the Dungun District Museum while the Tanjung Balau Fisherman Museum provides information on the Desaru Shipwreck.
Tin mining machinery at the Kampar Tin Mining Museum Mural at the Paddy Museum in Alor Setar Metal bowl from the Mamluk Sultanate at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia A display at the Time Tunnel Museum in Cameron Highlands Fossils at the Geology Museum in Ipoh
The National Archives of Malaysia manages a number of galleries dedicated to honouring the contributions of selected individuals to the country, mainly political figures such as former Prime Ministers. However, local communities have also established museums to honour local heroes, such as the House of Sybil Kathigasu in Papan (Perak) and the Mat Kilau Gallery Complex in Pulau Tawar (Pahang). The Bentong Gallery in Pahang is dedicated to Loke Yew’s role in developing this tin mining town.
Big or small, elaborate or simple, each museum/gallery in the list has a story to tell. Click the button below to explore the list of museums on Google My Maps.
The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) has an extensive collection of Malay Qurans, from which two samples will be examined here. Malay Qurans are only ornately decorated at the beginning, the middle and the end. Considering that my previous blog article had highlighted the illuminated pages found at the beginning and end of Malay Qurans, this article features the central illuminations instead. In his forward to Al-Quran: The Sacred Art of Revelation Vol. II (2014), the Chairman of IAMM invites us to contemplate the beauty of both the meaning and physical appearance of these manuscripts. This is because embellishment of the Malay Quran is done to assist recitation and to bring forth emotions, for Muslims believe the Quran relates specifically to the heart of man. Hence, building on ‘The Quran and the Sunnah’, we will briefly touch upon tafsir (Quran exegesis) of the central illuminated pages.
Malay Qurans are sometimes decorated in the middle, possibly influenced by Uzbek, Kashmiri and Indian Qurans. This is done to celebrate the reader’s arrival at the halfway point – the ‘heart’ of the holy text. The decoration style is similar to the front and back pages. A Javanese Quran, for example, could feature batik-style motifs throughout its illuminated pages. Different scribes and illuminators may use different methods to indicate the centre e.g. letter, verse, surah or word count. According to the tradition of Quran reading in the Malay world, the word ‘wa-l-yatalattaf’ in Surah Al-Kahf verse 19 is accepted as the centre word of the Quran. This translates to ‘and let him be careful’ that means to conceal himself as much as possible. Malay Qurans, like Terengganu Quran 2012.13.6, may emphasise this word with enlarged or gilded script to mark its midpoint.
As far as illumination is concerned, Surah Al-Kahf (the Cave) can be said to be the central marking. Both the Malay Qurans featured here are illuminated at the start of Surah Al-Kahf. With reference to Tafsir ibn Kathir, Al-Hakim recorded from Abu Said that the Prophet (s.a.w) said “Whoever recites Surah Al-Kahf on Friday, it will illuminate him with light from one Friday to the next”. Tafsir ibn Kathir is the most widely accepted explanation of the Quran, based on other parts of the Quran itself as well as hadith i.e. ‘tradition’ referring to the narration, account and record of actions and sayings of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).
Our first artefact is a Royal Terengganu Quran 1998.1.3427 dated 1871CE/ 1288AH. It is considerably large, measuring 43cm by 28cm and uses naskh script for clarity. Terengganu style is deemed the finest and most delicate of Malay Qurans. This artefact would have been copied during the reign of Sultan Baginda Omar (ruled 1831; 1839-76) who attracted foreign students and artisans to Terengganu by encouraging learning and industry. Foreign artisans then passed on their skills to the locals.
Malay Qurans have rich and symmetrical decorations. Both our artefacts have double-decorated frames illuminating the central pages. Similar to Malay woodcarving, these decorations include sulur-suluran (vegetal scrolls) and gunungan (mountain-shaped) motifs. Arabesques and geometric designs from the broader Islamic world are complemented with the permissible plant-motifs; avoiding figural representations. The arch-shaped gunungan motif is a legacy from the region’s Hindu past, which continued into the Islamic era since it reflects the natural landscape.
Colours too were produced from nature. The most popular colours used on Malay Qurans were red (from brazil-wood), black (from soot or charcoal) and yellow (from turmeric). Our Terengganu Quran features much gold, traditionally reserved for royal patronage.
In Southeast Asia, copying the Quran was only entrusted to professional, religious scribes. These scribes were occasionally under the supervision of a royal atelier. The design of our Royal Terengganu Quran suggests a foreign artisan. The clues lie in the noticeable use of lapis lazuli blue along with non-local choice of floral and vegetal decorations. Lapis lazuli was imported from Afghanistan or China and was no doubt an expensive pigment. Nonetheless, typical of Terengganu style, there is an outer frame i.e. a border running along the exterior edges with curved corners.
The central pages here include verses 1 to 17 of Surah Al-Kahf. It is noteworthy that some Qurans have abridged tafsir annotations written in the white margins of the illuminated pages, even though such is not the case here. The main theme of this surah is letting go of materialism. It begins with praise to Allah for sending us the Quran. The first passage warns of great trials ahead but gives glad tidings to the believers. Subsequently, the story of the youths who fled to a cave is told. According to Tafsir ibn Kathir, these youths were sons of Byzantine leaders who lived under a tyrannical king called Decianus, who tried to dictate their religion. Refusing to believe in multiple gods, these youths hid in a cave and they were protected by Allah. In other words, the youths defied worldly authority to guard their tawheed (belief in the one and only God) and they were thus saved from persecution.
The central illumination of our second artefact, Quran 2004.2.3, also includes an outer frame with curved corners, which is unusual for Javanese Qurans. This Quran measures 30cm by 20cm and is therefore, smaller than our first artefact. Our Javanese Quran displays similar motifs to the Terengganu Quran including gunungan, floral and vegetal scrolls. In addition, this artefact shows an interlocking black pattern within its innermost frame, known as ‘banji’, suggesting its Cirebon (West Javan) origin. In Javanese Qurans, the banji (swastika) motif derives from the island’s Hindu-Buddhist history and is present because it resembles the regional craft of rattan weaving.
This Javanese Quran uses red, gold and black, along with a more striking blue. Blue is more prominent in Javanese Qurans in a variety of shades including indigo to light sky blue. The surah headings are in red thuluth script while its text is in black naskh. The European paper watermark shows a lion within a roundel, topped off by a crown, which dates this Quran to the 19th century CE. Synthetic (French) ultramarine as a substitute to lapis lazuli was available during this time, which may have been used here.
The illuminations here surround verses 1 to 9 but one word of Surah Al-Kahf. The word ‘al-kahfi’, which gives the surah’s name, occurs in verse 9. With the addition of verse 10, the illuminated pages and missing word ‘ajaban’ (wonders) would protect its reader from the false messiah. Referencing Tafsir ibn Kathir, Imam Ahmad recorded from Abu Ad-Darda’ that the prophet (s.a.w.) said, “Whoever memorizes ten ayat from the beginning of Surah Al-Kahf will be protected from the Dajjal”.
It is now clear that these central pages hold particular benefits for the Quran reader. Surah Al-Kahf is appropriately illuminated since spiritually, its reader can be illuminated with light for up to a week. The illuminated pages are indeed arresting amidst the normal pages of text. Nonetheless, even the normal pages may have ornamentation at regular intervals along the margins to indicate the reader’s position within the holy text e.g. juz’ or nisf markers. Both artefacts showcased above represent the exquisite craftsmanship and artistry of nineteenth century CE Malay manuscripts.
The Noble Quran translated by Dr Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Dr Muhammad Muhsin Khan (1997) Riyadh: Darussalam
Abdullah Zakaria Ghazali (2011) Terengganu Sultanate, The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, The Rulers of Malaysia Vol. 16. KL: Editions Didier Millet
Gallop A.T. (2012) The Art of the Malay Quran. Arts of Asia. Jan-Feb 2012
IAMM (2020) Mirrors of Beauty. KL. IAMM
IAMM (2016) Introduction to Islamic Arts – Calligraphy. KL: IAMM
IAMM (2014) Al-Quran: The Sacred Art of Revelation Vol. II. KL: IAMM
IAMM (2008) Malay Manuscripts: An Introduction. KL: IAMM
IAMM (2006) Al-Quran: The Sacred Art of Revelation. KL: IAMM
A fort is any construction work erected to strengthen a position against an attack. What was to be defended? Was there any attack, siege, or capitulation? The answer to these questions may help shed light on key events in Malaysia’s history.
In Gallery C of Muzium Negara we find major and minor references to five forts: A Famosa and Fort St. John, both in Melaka; Kuala Kedah Fort on the estuary of the Kedah river; Fort Cornwallis in George Town, Penang; and ‘pillboxes’ in Kelantan. Through them, we can read the colonial history of peninsular Malaysia. But there are many other forts in Malaysia, some of which go back to pre-Islamic history … (continue reading)
I remember it well – the day I took my daughter on her first visit to a museum. It was the National Science Centre in Bukit Kiara. She was two years old, barely out of her toddler’s gait, excitedly walking up and down the aisle, absorbing, gazing all around with wonder, taking it all in. I’m not sure what it was – the colours, the buttons to press, the lit up exhibits, the big pictures on the walls – the visit seemed like fun to her from the get go. She was too young then to have me explain much, or any, of the content, so we simply roamed the museum as I let her lead. It was truly memorable.
Many more visits followed, later with her younger brother in tow. As my children grew, our museum and gallery visits grew as well – in frequency, in the time spent as well as in attention to the exhibits.
Something about their response to our trips propelled me to make these trips part of their growing up years. I found that museums did something to kids that books could not. While books inform and educate, museums, through large installations, interactive displays and the like, have the ability to capture the imagination and spark curiosity that written words on pages, cannot quite. The immersive learning experience museums and galleries provide are incomparable.
Numerous curators and directors of museums and galleries agree that exposure to museums among young children have tremendous benefits. “Bringing children to museums opens their eyes to different ideas and perspectives that are relevant to their lives. This kind of exposure can help develop higher critical and creative thinking skills, which are integral to future success.” —Rebecca Davidson, Manager of School and Educator Programs, Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art.
Maria Montessori put it beautifully when she said, “Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavour always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.”
Museums, with their engaging exhibits, are a great place to spark a child’s curiosity. References to different places and times, displays of varying forms and styles and the weaving of captivating storylines around them, are powerful tools to capture a child’s imagination and can lead to lifelong learning.
Parents, teachers, curators and museum guides like ourselves, all play a pivotal role in making museum visits educational and fun for kids. For some children and students that visit Muzium Negara, especially from outside the Klang Valley, we must remember that the visit is one rife with opportunity – to engage and to inspire.
Below are some tips to keep in mind when guiding children in museums:
Be clear on what the main content will be.
Children have short attention spans. No matter how interesting the exhibits are, resists the urge to want to show them all off. Be clear on what the main message or learning topic is that you would like to share and stick to it.
It might help to do a quick brief on what to expect, before beginning the tour.
Pick pieces or exhibits that will allow bodily engagement. This does not necessarily have to be buttons to press or levers to pull. Large installations, the shape of which children can mimic or imitate with their bodies can have a tremendous impact too.
At the Makara, for instance, won’t it be fun to ask children how an elephant and a fish posing together might look like? Get a group of boys to show the others how Hang Tuah and his band of brothers might have looked together. Ask children to close their eyes and imagine what living in a New Village might have felt like. What modern cartoons or super hero would they depict with a Wayang Kulit puppet?
This is the time to have fun yourself! Embrace the child within and let your imagination be your guide. You’ll be surprised how refreshing the experience will be.
Large exhibits over wordy signboards…. anytime!
Guide children toward larger exhibits to create a ‘wow’ moment, and one they are not likely to forget – the tin dredge and rubber tree in Gallery C, the diorama of the Melaka port in Gallery B and of the Pangkor treaty in Gallery C – these are sure to hold a child’s attention.
Trust the child.
Remember that learning is innate in human beings, especially so in children. Trust that they are whole, able and competent – capable of absorbing and processing information and making sense of what they see. History is a wonderful subject, filled with lessons to teach everyone, the young included. Do your best to prepare, but let the pieces, the content and the child’s natural learning desire, do the rest.
“It is very important to take children to museums and galleries. Exposing children to museums at a young age will inculcate a love for history and culture. A good museum is a great informal learning platform that can complement formal learning. For example, after learning about ancient civilizations in textbooks, it may be interesting for children to see the actual tools and ornaments used by people from those times. They might also be able to better picture scenes of daily life or important events from history by looking at relevant dioramas or exhibits; or listening to audio guides at various stops. Artefacts like actual fossils and dinosaur bones can also inspire awe and prod curiosity. This provides more learning touch points and better multi-sensory learning for children, versus just reading about something. It will fire up all their other senses, and lead to better retention and recall of important points.
Museums also provide opportunities for children to learn how to observe things carefully, digest information, and assess what they still need to find out and to ask relevant questions.
Guides play a role to enhance and optimize the experience by doing a little groundwork beforehand to help to set the scene for the visit. Without context to link what they see to what they know and what is important to them, children will just get bored very quickly looking at a bunch of “rusty and musty old things”! Activity sheets for kids also help.
Spend a few minutes thinking about how to relate the exhibits and artifacts to things children are learning about in school, what they are interested in. Encourage them to express their opinions. Ask them to compare and contrast what they see to things they use or do now. For parents, I think children will really value this kind of time spent with family. Just as we are curious about what our children think about things, they are also curious about our opinions and us. Creating a positive experience at the museum will also lead them to associate learning with happy experiences as a family. I think these visits to museums and galleries create a shared experience and memory as well as opportunities for family members to have real and meaningful conversations.”
Li Hsian, Co-Facilitator of Art Discovery Tours and Coordinator of Children’s Programmes, ILHAM Gallery
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