The on-going (well, it ends on 5th Mar) exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) in Singapore titled ‘Cities & Kings: Ancient Treasures from Myanmar’ brings together 60 artefacts from 4 museums: National Museum Nay Pyi Taw, National Museum Yangon, Bagan Archaeological Museum, and ACM.
The exhibition showcases the culture and history of the country from the early Pyu and Mon civilisations up to the Mandalay Kingdom.
The Pyu civilisation developed in upper and central Myanmar in the early centuries of the first millennium and remained a force for close to a thousand years. It had among the earliest, if not the earliest, urban centres in Southeast Asia and saw the emergence of large walled cities such as Halin, Beikthano, and Sri Ksetra. These cities, located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River amidst fertile agricultural plains, had sophisticated irrigation systems and participated in long distance trade. The culture adopted Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, Hinduism. It is thought that Buddhism flowed into Central Myanmar through present day northeast India and Bangladesh which were part of the Pala Kingdom. Here was also located the Nalanda University which expounded Mahayana and Tantric schools of Buddhist thought and these strands of Buddhism flowed into the Pyu culture.
Contemporaneous with Pyu was the Mon civilisation in Lower Myanmar. Large urban centres with specialisations in trade developed at Thaton, Kyaikkatha, and Winka-Ayetthema. These were coastal cities connected by trade routes to India, Sri Lanka, Dvaravati (a Mon Kingdom in today’s Thailand), and the Hindu-Buddhist polity at Bujang Valley (Kedah). Theravada Buddhism prevailed in Lower Myanmar showing a close link with Sri Lanka.
Bagan (previously Pagan), founded by the Bamars (Burmans), rose to prominence during the 11th to 13th centuries. It was an inland polity situated on the left bank of the Ayeyarwady River between Kyaukse and Minbu, two rice producing regions. Rice surplus from these two regions was centralised at Bagan and this allowed Bagan to exercise control throughout the Ayeyarwady basin, including the Mon controlled coastal areas. Bagan became the first royal capital of Myanmar. Its first king, Anawrahta (reign: 1044-77), introduced Theravada Buddhism to Bagan after sacking the Mon city of Thaton in 1057 to obtain a copy of Tipitaka, a text on Theravada Buddhism. The population of Myanmar today remain Theravada Buddhist.
Power shifted to Inwa (previously Ava) in the mid 14th century. As Bagan disintegrated, a new Mon kingdom was established at Bago (previously Pegu) in 1281 and a king appeared at Rakhine (previously Arakan). The Shans, who had dominated the northern highlands, started moving to the lowlands. King Mindon (reign: 1853-78) moved his royal capital from Amarapura to Mandalay in 1857. This was the last royal capital as the British captured Mandalay in 1885 and King Thibaw was exiled to Ratnagiri, India. The British moved the capital to Yangon (previously Rangoon) which they had captured in 1852. Nay Pyi Taw, 300 km to the north of Yangon, became the capital of Myanmar in 2005.
“From Angkor to Bujang Valley”. That was the title of the conference which took place at Alliance Française of Kuala Lumpur on Jan 25th. And as you all know, when MVs hear the words “Bujang Valley”, they tend to flock like birds on a wire. And indeed a large audience, comprising quite a few MV docents, trainees, and trainers, gathered to listen to Dr Daniel Perret, researcher from the French School for Asian Studies. The talk was mostly oriented towards the program of research in South-east Asia and the archaeological methods employed by this unit.
The French School for Asian Studies (Ecole française d’Extrème-Orient) is a public institution under the Ministry for Higher Education and Research. It was founded in 1898 in Saigon and, therefore, started its activities mostly in what was French Indochina. Today it is established in twelve countries, with eighteen research centers, from India to Japan. In Malaysia, the Center is hosted by the Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya. It conducts research in cooperation with the University of Malaya, UKM, JMM…
A lot of research has been devoted to Indochina: it included, from 1992, the rehabilitation of many Angkor Temples, but the center has also been active in countries such as Laos (Vat Phu Temple -11th-13th century CE), Vietnam (Quang Ngai wall, a 19th century fortified wall extending for 127 km in the Champa region), and Myanmar (inventory of 2,800 monuments in Pagan (Bagan) -1044-1287 CE-).
Dr Perret himself has devoted a lot of his activities in Indonesia, mainly Sumatra, and in Malaysia, including in the Bujang Valley.
In Sumatra, research, which has now turned away from the exclusive study of temples and monuments, has been devoted to the evolution of three settlements, Barus (on the west coast), Padang Lawas (central Sumatra) and Kota Cina (on the north-east coast).
All research on human settlements, in the absence of temples, must be correlated with other types of data (archaeological findings – Chinese ceramics being often important for dating, local epigraphy, local literature and traditions, foreign written sources).
In the case of Barus, a Tamil inscription (1088 CE) indicates that the earliest known inhabitants were Tamils, a fact in accordance with local literature and tradition. Other sources include the “Sejarah Raja Raja Barus” (late text from 19th century), an Armenian maritime chart (12th century), the Archives Cairo Geniza (11th-13th century), Marco Polo’s writings (13th century), many Chinese and a few Portuguese and VOC sources. One of the difficulties conducting archaeological research in Indonesia is the concentration of layers which do not exceed 30 cm in depth and, hence, chronology is often difficult to establish between the different artifacts found. Nevertheless, interesting findings could relate the settlements to Indian presence and trading activities with many parts of Asia: for example pottery, analogous to Cambay Ghee pots still used in Southern India. A figurine, dated between 12th and 16th century, analogous to an Old Bahrein figurine (12th-14th century) was also unearthed. Stoneware was also found originating from China, and also Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Japan (in particular originating from Hizen kiln active in the first half of the 17th century).
In Padang Lawas, archaeological research had been very active in the past, about 30 Hindu-Buddhist monuments and some 1,039 inscriptions (in Malay, old Sanskrit, paleo-Sumatran) had been catalogued, but nobody was interested, until recent years, in the settlements themselves. One of the astonishing findings, related again to trade activities, was a Bukhara Dirham, dated 1003-1004 CE, from the Qarakhamid/Ilek Khan Dynasty.
In Kota Cina, where some Hindu-Buddhist images were found in the 1970’s, the site for digging had a particularity: there was a lot of water infiltrating the soil. That was a big problem because water had to be pumped out regularly, but also a big benefit as water better preserves organic remains. Hence, wooden construction pillars, animal remains (mostly turtles) and also human skeletons were found. The site also yielded some 160,000 pieces of earthenware (around 1,5 t), making it the biggest site in Sumatra, but also more than 1,000 coins, mostly Chinese. The dating of all these findings ranges from the end of the 11th century till the beginning of 14th century, but analysis is just beginning.
Dr Perret’s research in Malaysia was devoted first to the cataloguing of Batu Aceh tombstones: 450 of them were studied in Johor. In Bujang Valley, Dr Perret studied glassware. Some 6,000 shards were categorized, many of them (about 95%) coming from jarlets (a small type of vessel, about 3 cm for the rim and the base, 6 cm for the height). A recent book has been edited by Dr Perret (together with Zulkifli Jaafar) and published by JMM, “Ancient glassware in Malaysia – The Pengkalan Bujang Collection”.
Finally, Dr Perret explained how external interference can bring some kind of perturbation to academic work and spice it up a little. When he and his team found a human skeleton at Kota Cina, although it seemed clearly to be dated a few hundred years before the discovery, it appeared it could make a criminal “cold case” as the skeleton had both hands and feet bound together…so the local police claimed the skeleton for forensic investigation! Fortunately, when a second skeleton was found the police considered they had enough with one and left it to the archaeologists…
We, MVs, are very lucky to know that the Perak Man died from a tooth infection, otherwise we could have been caught in another episode of “NCIS Lenggong Valley”!!
On the first day of February, Jean-Marie, my husband and I went to a Puja Pantai (sea healing ceremony) at Pulau Carey, which is about one hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur. A Puja Pantai is a Hari Moyang (spirit day) for the fishing Mah Meri villagers.
JM joined us early at our home so we could be at Kampong Bumbun at 9am, as instructed by the young lady in charge. Actually, we had plenty of time to visit, for 3 to 4 times, the museum in this charming cultural village. Now we know plenty about the Mah Meri culture and wood carvings!
Finally we were invited to wear a nice origami headdress and instructed to keep it on our heads throughout the ceremony so the spirits could recognize us as guests.
Then we took our car to join the procession coming from Kampung Judah, another Mah Meri village. Jean-Marie and I followed the procession while my husband had to follow by car as he could not leave the car on the road side. We walked with the crowd, trying to take pictures on the way of the shaman, the musicians, the navy soldiers who were there to carry the busot jantan (a mound made of bamboo frame and plaited palms leaves).
After about 2 kms, we turned left and, there, the shaman and his helper sanctified the cross road to show the way to the spirits.
Finally we arrived at the beach where we waited about two hours while the shamans chewed betel, smoked, and ultimately came to a trance.
Then, to please the spirits, there was a Jo-oh dance. Several young ladies began to dance around the busot jantan. A male mask dancer joined them and finally the shaman entered the dance.
Following the dance, the procession went to the beach itself to join the rumah moyang now that the tide was low.
Muzium Negara has, in its collection, around 500 wayang kulit (shadow play) puppets and 200 of these are currently on display at an exhibition titled ‘Symbolism Behind the Screen’. There are also puppets on loan from Fusion Wayang Kulit that depict characters from comics and science fiction. Do take the time to visit the exhibition which runs until 28 February 2017 at Muzium Negara.
In a wayang kulit performance, the puppeteer (known as Tok Dalang) manipulates the puppets in a raised hut which has a white screen stretched across the front hiding him and the puppets from view of the audience. A lamp behind the puppets casts shadows on the screen and this is the basis of the performance.
The wayang kulit is considered a microcosm of the universe while the Tok Dalang, manipulating the puppets, is taken as symbolising God. Dalang means ‘priest’ in Sanskrit; the Tok Dalang was also trained in magic rituals and many dalang functioned as bomoh or practitioners of Malay magic. In fact, in days gone by, the Wayang Kulit was not just a performance art but was also used in spirit exorcism ceremonies. In the wayang kulit universe, the sun is represented by the lamp while banana trunks, used as a resting place for the puppets, represent the earth. Humans perceive the universe through the screen.
Perhaps the most important prop is the pohon beringin (tree of life) which represents all life in the universe. This tree, seen both at the start and end of the story, symbolises the start of the universe and the end of the world. The tree is divided into three parts: the top represents the sky and includes motifs of birds, the middle represents earth and includes animals, while the bottom represents the supernatural world.
A touch-screen kiosk at the exhibition provides substantial information on the symbolism behind the rituals conducted before, during, and after a performance. For example, a feast is held during the ‘theatre opening ceremony’ in order to ensure the performance goes well. During this time, the musical instruments are blessed so that they will succeed in attracting and holding the attention of spectators. An offering consisting of 25 items placed on a large tray is also made.
Apart from the conventional wayang kulit characters, i.e. Sita Dewi, Sri Rama, Hanuman, and Ravana, the exhibition also displays a host of other puppets including demonic and animal characters as well as the Punakawan (e.g. Semar) that provide comic relief. Wayang Kulit’s foray into science fiction started with the the production of the ‘Peperangan Bintang’ performance inspired by the Star Wars movies. Its success spurred a new line of puppets including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Flash. These are also on display.
The beautiful, traditional Malay house adorning the grounds of Muzium Negara is Istana Satu, a palace belonging to the Terengganu royalty, which was acquired in 1972 by the Federation of Museums. Its reconstruction on the grounds of Muzium Negara was completed in April 1974.
Built high on pillars, it conforms to the long roofed, 12-pillared architectural style of Terengganu. Traditional houses in Terengganu are generally 6-pillared or 12-pillared, a reference to the number of pillars holding the roof structure. These tall pillars, which can raise the floor of the house as high as eight feet, not only protected the house from wild animals and floods but also warded off ground dampness prevalent in our humid climate.
Seven steps lead to the verandah of the palace. This number is intentionally odd as, according to Malay superstitious practice, a person should leave the house with his/her right foot first. With an odd number of steps, the journey away from the house will again start with the right foot.
A traditional 12-pillared Terengganu house has three sections – the serambi (verandah where guests are also received and entertained), Rumah Ibu (Mother’s house, comprising the living and sleeping areas), and Dapor (kitchen, which also includes the dining area). Rumah Ibu, the main section of the house, is named as such as the mother occupies an important position in Malay culture.
Istana Satu originally comprised two units: the Federation of Museums only acquired one unit while the other unit was purchased by a private individual. In the original palace, the Rumah Ibu would have been a structure separate from the Dapor but linked with it.
The Sultan’s palace in Kuala Terengganu has traditionally been located at the foot of Bukit Puteri. Sultan Baginda Omar (r. 1831, 1839-1876), wresting control of Terengganu in 1839, initially stayed in a fort on Bukit Puteri but later moved down the hill to this traditional site. He built a timber palace, Istana Hijau, on this site but it was gutted in 1882 by a fire that also destroyed 1600 other houses. This incident occurred during the reign of Sultan Zainal Abidin III (r. 1881-1918) who then built Istana Satu (First Palace) enclosed in a large compound known as Kota (fort). Other buildings were added within Kota and in 1895, the imposing Istana Maziah became the official residence of the Sultan.
Do saunter into Istana Satu the next time you visit the museum, leaving your shoes at the base of the steps.
by Maganjeet Kaur (with a special thank-you to Lim Tze Tshen for a tour of the museum)
The distance may seem daunting but, housing a collection that dates to the early 1900s and showcasing Malaysia’s rich biodiversity, the Natural History Museum is well worth the drive to Putrajaya.
Malaysia is listed as one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world, i.e countries that have a high percentage of the Earth’s plant and animal species as well as a high percentage of species endemic to the country. Although only a fraction of this diversity is captured in the museum, the museum does provide some interesting representations in the various animal categories.
The seas are no less vibrant and 77 molluscs are displayed providing an easy reference guide for cataloging.
The on-going exhibition on skeletons is especially interesting as it provides an insight into how skeletons of different groups of animals evolved and adapted to their different functions. Flight requires a strong but light-weight structure. To achieve this, the skeleton in birds was adapted with a strong chest bone to hold the flight muscles. In addition, some bones were eliminated and the remaining ones hollowed out. The front limbs saw a reduction in digits and development of feathers. However, it is believed that the development of feathers was an exaptation; their original purpose could have been to regulate heat and it was only later that they were adapted for flight.
To live in trees, arboreal creatures (e.g. primates and koalas) developed strong chest and hip bones while a prehensile tail provided stability to navigate the canopy. The opposable thumb evolved allowing primates to grasp tree branches; this same opposable thumb would later give flexibility to hominids to fashion tools and weapons from stone and other materials. Did Darwin get it right when he said it was the need to free the hands to handle tools and weapons that gave rise to bipedalism? The earliest known stone tools date to 2.6 million years ago while hominids started walking upright 6 million years ago making it unlikely it was the need to handle tools that caused bipedalism. Many other theories abound; one that is gaining popularity specifies that wading in shallow water to forage for edibles necessitated walking on two legs. In addition, water cushioned the joints from pressure in an upright position allowing hominids to walk on two legs for longer periods.
It is said that it was the use of technology that shaped us into who we are, that pushed us onto a very different evolutionary track from the other primates. Performing complex tasks increased our brain capacity to the 1,300 ml average of today. Compare this to the 400 ml of the extant Australopithecus and the same amount of the chimpanzee today. This increased brain capacity has enabled our march to the stars.
For the fourth time, the French MV`s of Jakarta, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur met for a cultural gathering. This time, we were four from Kuala Lumpur and 18 altogether. We had the opportunity to visit Borobodur, Prambanan and a part of old Yogyakarta with all the information we could have dreamed about, thanks to the hard work of the Jakarta French team.
After half a dozen loops above the airport due to a malfunction of the control tower, we landed and were welcomed by the president of the IHS (initiator of these cultural meetings) and Laurence, both former Kuala Lumpur MVs. We were met by a few other Jakarta guides and went directly to visit Candi Mendut and sank into the Buddhist culture. Candi Mendut is one of the three buildings erected aligned with Borobodur in the 9th century. It was restored beginning of the twentieth century using the anastylose method, a technique developed by the “French School of Oriental Art” (yeah!!).
Then we proceeded to the Manohara Hotel, very conveniently situated, right at the foot of Borobodur. From there, our guides brought us to a wonder for tea time, the Aman Jiwo hotel. Modelled on a stupa, the lobby is facing Borobodur valley with the rooms spread in half concentric circles of smaller stupas, just like Borobodur itself. We had the opportunity to visit the rooms but for the asking price, we decided to come back only for the tea with our respective husbands! After a long delay and also a few rounds in the sky of Yogyakarta, the Singapore guides arrived and could enjoy the breath taking site seeing.
Back to the hotel, we met the last of the Jakarta guides (no tea in wonderland for them, sadly!). Then the serious work began: a cultural “apero” was waiting for us at the library. Most of “foreign” guides had bought a bottle of wine at the duty free and after the welcome word and batik gift from our president, we shared the firsts of them while listening to Colette presenting the highlight of the trip: Borobodur. We learned it was built in the 9th century by kings of the Sailendra dynasty. It is a mountain temple made of 4 square terraces and 3 round ones, each one smaller than the preceding one and topped by the main empty stupa. Each square terrace comprises two walls facing each other and displaying a strip depicting the life of Buddha, the legend of his previous lives and the everyday life of common people of the time. The first terrace walls being higher than the other three, accommodate two strips per wall. The pilgrims had (and again since the 90’s only and after a long oblivion) worshiped, by doing as many tours of the galleries as there are strips; altogether, they have to walk 5km before reaching the circular terraces where 72 stupas containing a Buddha are their reward. On the last terrace a large empty stupa shows the vacuity of life. Here the pilgrim can make a wish and tour the stupa with an uneven number of paces and in silence to get it granted.
Then it was dinner again for us in the nice Plataran hotel. The Mongolian barbecue was delicious!
After a short night for most of the MVs, they woke up at 4:15 am to go and discover Borobodur at sunrise. Too early for me! But it was said to be very nice in the mist. After a well-earned breakfast (for them…), we all went to the foot of Borobodur for further talks on central Java history and Buddhism. That is when we discovered the difference between enlightenment and awakening, vacuity and emptiness. I cannot say I understood everything but, well, I was enlightened! At long last, we began the climb of the sacred mountain and received more information about the nicest and most famous bas-relief. There we discovered the famous 4 boats which are not from Majapahit, as they were carved too early to be from that kingdom’s time, but plain Javanese boats.
We did only one tour of each gallery. When we arrived at the main stupa, all of us tried the wish trick (even though the silent part was difficult for us!). Let`s see if our wishes will be fulfilled!
We climbed down the temple and up again a hill facing Borobodur for a last presentation of the restoration of Borobodur before a well-earned nasi or mee goreng back at the hotel.
Then it was the much expected visit of the …. unexpected: the “gereja ayam”. After yet another straining climb, a kind of pillbox in the shape of a hen was awaiting us. Our guides told us it was a prayer room built by a man who had a vision; God told him to build a prayer room in the shape of a dove in the middle of the jungle and here it was, very unexpected indeed! Even though, it was not completed due to lack of funds and looking more like a hen (ayam) rather than a dove.
Back to the bus, we went to the last of the three buildings built aligned with, and at the same time of, Borobodur, Candi Prawon. It is a shrine (probably the shrine of a King), not a temple. Then it was back to Yogyakarta, where a 2 hours rest was most welcome. Then, we learned about the story of Yogyakarta, one of the only two provinces with a sultan only since 1755, the other one being Solo. We also had our first encounter with Hinduism, in a presentation of Prambanan. Prambanan was built at the same time as Borobodur. It is a cluster of temples. The main one is dedicated to Shiva (Agastya, Ganesh and Durga), between one to Brahma and one to Vishnu; each god’s temple is fronted by atemple dedicated to his own vehicle, respectively Nandi, Hamsa and Garuda.
In front of these 6 temples were 254 or 249 (we cannot remember!) small temples which are now just piles of stones anyway and whose function has yet to be determined.
During the diner at a French restaurant that followed, we emptied a few more bottles and were happy to have a good night sleep after!
Wednesday morning we met our local French speaking guide for a visit of old Yogyakarta. He showed us a wet market and we took nice pictures of the group at the Sultan’s Bath. None of us were sent a flower to go and swim at his private swimming pool!
From there we went and visited the underground mosque. I was there when Wahida called about the university visits on the 9th December and 12th January, relayed by Sylvia to KL MVs; by the way, we still need help for the visit on the 12th January at 4:00 p.m. !!
We finished the morning in a “wayang kulit” workshop where we learned the symbols belonging to the Javanese philosophy in the carvings of the puppets. The ones I remember:
They have a long nose because they look for knowledge in the West.
They have big feet and short legs to stand firmly on Earth.
The lower part of their bodies is round like the Earth with carvings representing Fire, Water and Air.
The tree of life is full of symbols as well. The base is a Yoni, then there are several animals: the bull (strength), the tiger (cleverness), the snake and some monkeys.
After tasting some of the preferred courses of the sultans, we reached Prambanan. During the visit, Colette described each divinity but, unfortunately for the 4 of us, it was soon time to go and catch our plane back home and we could not attend the end of the lecture. The Jakarta guides left one hour after us and the Singapore MVs had a plane only the next morning at 6:00 am! But at least, they could finish the bottles Wednesday night. I do not know in which state they were in the morning!
As you can see it was a very busy, interesting, enriching trip, well washed down (not only with wine, but rain as well!); I want to thank the Jakarta team for all their hard preparatory work.
You are interested in this kind of trip? I`ll tell you two secrets, Jamil asked me the contact of the “Singapore Friends of Museums” to organise a similar treat with them. And Karen is considering a field trip to Borobodur.