The Toraja people were originally from central Sulawesi in Indonesia. They are about 1.5 million strong but less than 500,000 live in their native land, the remainder have sought work in Makassar or Jakarta. By doing this, they can send money to their family in Tanah Toraja.
Their traditional burial customs are expensive to practice, particularly for the noble caste. The caste system is still used in Toraja society; there are nobles, warriors, traders, free men and “slaves”, the last ones being well treated and respected. A “slave” can cut tie with the family he works with at his own time and will.
When someone dies, the body is quickly embalmed but it stays at home, up to one year sometimes, so family and friends can come and see the dead who is considered “very sick” until the burial ceremony takes place. For this ceremony, the family will first buy buffaloes (one animal and up to two hundred, depending on how wealthy was the dead). The price of each buffalo depends on the marks of his robe; one with the proper “white” marks on the head can fetch several tens of thousands dollars.
Then they prepare the temporary bamboo huts to welcome the guests. The enlarged family, the friends, and all the people who have been familiar with the dead are invited; the family of the dead “gives back” to every person who has helped in one way or another to enable the dead to become wealthy.
The ceremony is now ready to take place. Generally, it lasts several days. Each day, the male slaves of the family sacrifice one to several buffaloes followed by pigs (bought at the market). They prepare the meat to feed everybody while the women prepare the drinks.
Some men dance while singing the main events of the dead’s life. All the guests bring gifts. The ceremony master states the names of the guests and their gifts. When all the gifts have been given, the dead is ready to be buried. As the earth is here to give birth, corpses cannot be buried and so the Toraja entomb the bodies in cliffs or large boulders.
It takes six months for a man to chisel out the grave from a boulder.
In addition, the nobles and warriors have the right to have their effigy sculpted in wood and displayed on a “balcony” near the grave.
If they are really wealthy and have sacrificed at least 200 buffaloes, a megalith can be raised in a specific field close to their village.
When a little baby dies, he is not strong enough to reach heaven by himself, so the Toraja entomb him in a big tree trunk so the tree can help the baby to go to heaven. The tree shall be alive and if the tree dies, a part of it is transferred to another tree that becomes the next “passeur d’âme”.
I learned about the Toraja burial practices during my short stay in Tanah Toraja, a very nice part of Sulawesi surrounded by mountains. Our guide, Otto who is part of the noble cast, was very helpful in teaching us all the customs of his tribe.
It is truly amazing to see how far the country has come since the days of Merdeka/ Independence, with Kuala Lumpur paving the way at the forefront of the transformation. In what is considered to be a relatively short period of just 60 years, continuous innovations and developments have changed much of this ever-lively city, yet the thriving local culture can still be found preserved in the many familiar nooks of the city in which they were first created. All these are spectacularly captured through the many vibrant photos at the exhibition, cleverly composed to compare the KL of yesteryear with the KL of today.
In some of the showcased pieces, for example the photographs along Gombak River and of Jalan Tun Perak, the open skies in the background are replaced with more prominent physical elements of architecture and expanding public amenities, while horse-drawn or man-powered modes of transportation in the foreground are replaced with modern motorized vehicles, with home-made Proton and Perodua cars (both unabashedly mentioned here with a hint of national pride) cruising alongside their imported counterparts. Other pieces, such as shots of Petaling Street, show that some of the activities there have remained and have grown, indicating that they continue to be a strong element of the community. Another beautiful aspect to note is that many historical buildings have been preserved as focal points of the city, as clearly seen in some the photographs of the present.
On the other hand, there are also pieces that bring some contrast to the above, such as the one of the Pudu Jail, captured in its previous entirety in an old sepia photograph and showcased against a current shot of its now solitary front gate, which was decidedly conserved from the demolition works making way for a new development there, resembling a still-dutiful guardsman defiantly standing at attention facing the oncoming busy traffic. The image is somewhat reminiscent of the Porta de Santiago of the A’ Famosa Fort in Melaka; perhaps, as the saying goes, just another example of history repeating itself: both gates are the only saved remnant of their respective infamously intimidating walled-structure of the past, although the major difference here being that the former was meant to keep people in whereas the latter to keep people out.
Lastly, just to mention so as not to be missed, is a wall-sized, intricately detailed, hand-drawn, pencil-sketched birds-eye-view of the streets of KL, quietly standing near the back of the exhibition. Do stop a while to “walk” through this map and discover the various social characters and cultural focal points which can be found in real life around KL.
From majestic old photographs capturing the grandeur and heritage of Malaysia’s history in black & white and hues of sepia, to the colourful and inviting snapshots portraying the unique melting pot of culture that has become the celebrated identity of Malaysia today, this temporary exhibition is definitely worth a catch while it’s here, to add a spice of flavour to the tour of the museum.
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.