Hidden Gems: The Mystery of the Missing Bunga Mas

by Jean-Marie Metzger

This may sound more like a ‘Conan Doyle’ story than an article by a Museum Volunteer; so, let’s find out what’s behind this ‘Mystery of the Bunga Mas’.

Everybody will probably be familiar with the Bunga Mas, a reproduction of which is on display in Gallery C of the National Museum.  The correct name of this artefact is actually Bunga Mas dan Perak, which, rather than ‘Golden Flower’ means ‘Gold and Silver Flower’. Indeed, it is very likely that such an imposing artefact, weighing several pounds, with a height of about 1.5 m1, would be very fragile had it been made of solid gold. But as the actual name seems to indicate, it was probably made of gold-plated silver.

The gifts of the Bunga Mas were sent to the King of Siam every three years, by the Sultans of the Northern Malay States (Kedah, Terengganu, Kelantan, Patani,…) accompanied with other gifts, such as shields and spears.

Bunga Mas at Gallery C Muzium Negara. From http://www.muziumnegara.gov.my/gallery/items/Bunga_Mas_61

These gifts from the Sultans to the King, were probably laden with deep political misunderstanding: while the King of Siam would consider them as a recognition of suzerainty over the Malay Sultanates, the Sultans would simply regard them as a token of friendship. The relationship between the northern Sultanates and the Kingdom of Siam had never been an easy one, as can be seen by the various appeals for ‘protection’ to the different occupying powers, be it the Dutch or later the British. There could occasionally even be exchanges of concealed insults. According to a note found in the Cambridge University Library2 (Archives of the British Association of Malaysia and Singapore), the author mentions that he had seen a letter which was sent to the Sultan of Terengganu by the King of Siam in which the latter reversed the traditional courteous formula: ‘sending a gift from the Head of the Sultan to the feet of the King’, into the insulting reply: ‘from beneath the King’s feet to the crown of the Sultan’s head’.

The last Bunga Mas from Kedah to the King of Siam was sent in 1906. Three years later, another Bunga Mas was ready to be sent. In March 1909, however, before it could be send to Siam, Britain and Siam signed a treaty in which the sovereignty over the northern sultanates of Malaya (with the exception of Patani and Setul) was to be transferred to Britain.

According to the above-mentioned note, the Sultan of Kedah sent this Bunga Mas to King Edward VII instead. In the first report of the British advisor to Kedah, Mr. Maxwell, he noted that during the meeting of the State Council on August 23rd 1909, the question arose whether sending the Bunga Mas to Edward VII was to be regarded as ‘the last of a series relating to a remote past’. The offer was indeed accepted, and Tunku Muhammad Jiwa, who had conveyed the previous Bunga Mas to Bangkok, set off to Singapore. Two Bunga Mas, together with forty-two spears and twenty-four shields, as well as a Bunga Mas from Perlis, and ‘other offerings from Terengganu’, were sent to the Colonial Office, and were personally presented to the King by the Secretary of States to the Colonies.

This is where the mystery begins. Although the Archives of Windsor Castle mention that the gift had been received by King Edward, all of the artefacts have subsequently disappeared. There is no mention of them whatsoever in the Royal Collections. A few months ago, the curator for the Royal Gifts, when questioned by me about these artefacts, told me that they had never been heard of. They are certainly not registered in the current inventory.

Furthermore, it seems that another final gift of Bunga Mas was sent in 1911 to King George V by the Sultan of Kedah on the occasion of the King’s coronation. This too seems to have disappeared!

Now there is food for further research: Kedah Archives, Malaysian National Archives, British Colonial Office Archives…MVs! Get ready!

Notes:

1  https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2010/12/07/museum-dept-to-have-a-closer-look-at-bunga-emas-in-bangkok/

2 University of Cambridge Library – RCS/RCMS 103/2/12 ; the author is identified as Hugh Patterson Bryson, and is referenced as having written the note in 1965 see : https://janus.lib.cam.ac.uk/db/node.xsp?id=EAD%2FGBR%2F0115%2FRCMS%20103%2F2%2F12

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Hidden Gems: The Magic Square Bowl

by Marianne Khor

Amidst a number of examples of the Islamic influence on metal and ceramic wares in a showcase in Gallery B, a small bowl can be found with the intriguing description ‘Magic Square Bowl’. It looks like a small Chinese rice bowl but is decorated with Islamic script. On the inside of the bowl is a square consisting of sixteen smaller squares, also containing Islamic writing. Was it used to perform magic, or was it magical in itself?

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Chinese ceramics with Islamic script were already produced in China and transported along the maritime trade routes by Arab and Persian traders. After the Tang Dynasty, ceramics with Islamic inscriptions were no longer produced. Only in the early 16th Century did they appear again. The Magic Square Bowl in Gallery B is from the 18th Century Qing Dynasty.

The Magic Square, or Buduh tradition, predates Islam. The early Magic Square is thought to be of Chinese origin and consisted of a 3×3 square with 9 smaller squares. The numbers 1-9, with the number 5 in the centre, add up to 15 in each row, column and the two diagonals. An early version of Sudoku? A Magic Square was used to find love, prevent fears, attacks and poisoning. It helped during childbirth and also in finding lost objects. In short, it could be quite helpful for many occasions. Later, there were Magic Squares of 4×4, 6×6, 7×7, and 10×10, and even 100×100 squares with an arrangement of letters and numerals.

Islamic mathematicians in the Arab world already knew about the Magic Square as early as the 7th Century. This knowledge may have come from India through the study of Indian astronomy and mathematics, or from China. The earliest Magic Squares were written in ‘abjad’ letter-numerals. The four corners of the square were marked with the letters ba’, dal, waw (or u) and ha. Therefore, this particular square was known as the ‘Buduh’ square.

The name ‘Buduh’ itself was so powerful that it was regarded as a most effective talisman, and so was the letter B with its numerical equivalents 2,4,6,8. This arrangement of letters and its corresponding numbers is believed to protect travellers, babies, postal letters and packages. Even today in some Islamic countries, one can find packages marked with the numbers 2,4,6 or 8 in the corners, or just the letter B added under the address to ensure that the items arrive safely. This might be something worth trying out!

Magic Squares were used by Muslims as religious mandalas, meditation devices, talisman, and amulets. They were drawn on a variety of objects, even on skin.

The Arabic letters and numerals in the Magic Square can also be read as one of the ninety-nine names or attributes of God. The numerical value with a certain specific meaning can be obtained by adding the corresponding letters of any of the columns of the Magic Square in a horizontal, vertical or diagonal way.

One wonders what the inscriptions in the Magic Square Bowl in Gallery B represent…

Do they have a religious meaning?

Or are they just meant to bring good luck in any situation?

Bibliography:

Invulnerability, Federation Museum Journal, Volume XVI new series 1971

Arts and Crafts Company, Global Arts and Crafts, Antiques, Design and Art, Kho- antiques ( Singapore)

Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the US National Library of Medicine, Catalogue: Astrology/Divination/Magic, Author: Emilie Savage-Smith PH.D. Senior Associate, The Oriental Institute University of Oxford

Hypernumber Buduh: hypernumber.blogspot.my

Hidden Gems: The Melaka Tree

by Anne Deguerry Viala

We are all familiar with the legend of Prince Parameswara flying from Srivijaya to Temasek and then to a place named after the tree he sat under. Much less is known about the tree itself: the Melaka tree. Phyllanthus emblica, known as the Āmalaka or Āmelaki tree in Sanskrit, is very common in India, Nepal and South-East Asia and has given its name to Melaka city and the Straits. Its common name in English is Emblic myrobalan (Myrobolan emblique in French) and it produces a fruit called the Indian or Nepalese Gooseberry. When dried, the powder is known as ‘amla’. The importance of the Melaka tree is both symbolic and economic.

Myrobalan fruit

In Buddhist statuary art and sculpture, the Medicine Buddha is depicted, delicately holding the myrobalan plant between his thumb and middle finger.  This symbolic gesture stems from the healing properties of the myrobalan. It entered the Persian pharmacopeia from early times: myrobalan is mentioned in the medical handbook of Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā) in the early 11th century. It was also used in Europe. No later than during the Middle Age, it was a valued ingredient which apothecaries prescribed almost as a universal remedy. It should be noted that, apart from its use in traditional and Ayurvedic medicine, amla has recently aroused a growing interest from modern medicine where it is use in diabetic treatments and to prevent cancer, among other properties.

Buddha holding the myrobalan plant

All parts of the Melaka tree are full of tannins[1], which make myrobalan a very useful ingredient. In the natural dyeing process, myrobalan can be used either as a mordant (a substance which helps fix the pigments into the fibres) or as a dye itself, rendering blackish colours. In addition to dyeing, myrobalan has many other applications.  It is used both for tanning leather and also in the manufacture of Damascus steel.

It is clear that Prince Parameswara was wise to choose this place and this beneficial tree, to establish his new realm!

[1] Tannins are vegetable substances of the family of polyphenols, most often water-soluble, which have the ability to precipitate proteins and other chemical substances. For trees and flowering plants, this is a chemical defence against pests. Tannins can be found in some drinks such as tea, coffee, beer and wine.

Melaka Tree

 

References:

Bonnemain Bruno. Médecine arabe : Paul Mazliak, Avicenne et Averroès. Médecine et biologie dans la civilisation de l’Islam. In: Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 92ᵉ année, n°344, 2004. pp. 650-652. www.persee.fr/doc/pharm_0035-2349_2004_num_92_344_5736_t1_0650_0000_2

Gatellier Marie. L’image du Buddha dans la statuaire birmane. In: Arts asiatiques, tome 40, 1985. pp. 32-40. www.persee.fr/doc/arasi_0004-3958_1985_num_40_1_1178

Jazi Radhi, Asli Farouk Omar. La pharmacopée d’Avicenne. In: Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 86ᵉ année, n°317, 1998. pp. 8-28. www.persee.fr/doc/pharm_0035-2349_1998_num_86_317_4582

Halleux Robert. Sur la fabrication de l’acier dans l’Antiquité et au Moyen Âge. In: Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 151ᵉ année, N. 3, 2007. pp. 1301-1319. www.persee.fr/doc/crai_0065-0536_2007_num_151_3_91356

 

Hidden Gems: The Bellarmine Jar in Gallery C

by Rose Gan

Amongst the detritus of the great explosion that destroyed the Dutch ship ‘Nassau’ at the battle of Tanjong Tuan in 1606, is one small curious flagon, usually referred to as a Bellarmine Jar, that survived the disaster almost unscathed.  These jugs are made of brown earthenware with a bulbous body tapering to a long, narrow neck decorated with the face of a rather fierce bearded man. They often also bear a coat-of-arms, as the one featured in the museum, or a floral decoration. Bellarmine Jars were traditionally produced in Germany, particularly in Frechen outside Cologne. This jar is said to date to the early years of the 17th century, although their production in Germany goes back at least to the 14th century, possibly earlier.

In Germany, these jars were first called ‘Bartmann Krug’ (Bearded Man Jugs). The face is reminiscent of the Wild Man of the Woods spirit common across Europe that originated in ancient times and was still worshipped in rural areas even in the staunchly Christian Middle Ages. In Britain, this image was known as ‘The Green Man’, still a popular name for inns and pubs. Similar faces were often carved or etched onto trees, stone structures or wooden panels as a protection against evil spirits. They can even be found adorning the borders of Christian manuscripts and tapestries.

Bellarmine Jar

But in 1606, the nickname Bellarmine was newly coined and, in fact, may not have been in general use until later in the century. St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), an influential Roman Catholic theologian and Counter-Reformation cardinal, was very unpopular in the Protestant countries, particularly Germany and Holland. It was Robert Bellarmine who was behind the original accusations against Galileo and who led the Papal attempt to declare Copernicus’s theories heretical. As you can imagine, this rigid and reactionary cardinal also held many other strict views – particularly against the consumption of alcohol. These jars seem to have been named for him in an attempt to humiliate the Cardinal by portraying him as a grotesque bearded old man who frowned on fun and enjoyment. There was also the extra insult that these small flagons would often be used to carry alcohol, something Bellarmine was particularly against. Imagine drinkers wishing each other ‘Cheers’, whilst raising the Cardinal’s face in mock tribute!

Carrying gin and brandy was not their only function. Research from the Nassau and various other shipwrecks of Dutch vessels shows that the jars were often used on long voyages to transport mercury, an important component of various medical treatments. Another more sinister use of Bellarmine jars, which must have further insulted the famous cardinal, was as Witches’ Jars used to store hair clippings, nails -or even human urine -for use in spells and charms. The jars were then buried in secret places to work their magic.

Our little jar spans a thousand years of history and tells of pagan rites, Christian conflicts, magic spells, pharmacological remedies – and an irreverent bottle of gin!