When archaeology clashes with religion

Lest this post sounds like an ideological battle, it’s actually more… architectural. Renovations to a local mosque are preventing archaeologists from investigating the remains of the ancient kingdom of Singosari in Java, Indonesia. Archaeologists fear that the renovations might damage the foundations of two 12th-century walls located underneath the mosque.

Archaeologists lament neglect of historic Singosari town
Jakarta Post, 10 September 2008

Wahyoe Boediwardhana, The Jakarta Post, Malang, East Java

Renovations to a mosque in a village in Malang regency are hindering archaeologists in their attempt to excavate and preserve the site of an historic Singosari kingdom township, believed to be under the mosque.

Blasius Suprapta, a senior archaeologist and lecturer in Indonesian history at the State University of Malang, admitted he was disappointed by the government’s decision to allow locals to continue renovations of At-Thahiriyah mosque in Bungkuk village, Singosari.

Blasius believes the mosque could be relocated to a nearby area, allowing the walls and township of the former kingdom to be reconstructed, a move that would enrich the country’s heritage.

“It is quite ironic that two walls of the town were discovered precisely under the area on which four pillars of the mosque were planted,” Blasius told The Jakarta Post here recently.

The two walls were found at a depth of 70 centimeters and form a right angle from north to south to west. They are made from bricks thought to date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, he said.

Dwi Cahyono, an archaeologist at the same university, said the present Singosari district in Malang municipality was believed to have been the center of the former Singosari kingdom.

He called on Malang authorities to reconsider renovations to the mosque to salvage the major historical site and national heritage.

If the government is committed to conserving the archaeological remains of King Kartanegara’s reign and accelerating tourism in the regency, the rare discovery should be salvaged and preserved, rather than be buried again under the mosque, according to the archaeologists.

For Blasius, the rare find could be a starting point for further exploration to reconstruct the Hindu-influenced Singosari as an example of an old kingdom in Indonesia in general and in East Java in particular.

“A piece of history is here right below the authorities’ nose and we do nothing,” he said, adding a local archaeological service staff member had come to the site recently for the sole purpose of reporting on it to the central government.

He called on the government to enforce the 1992 law requiring the conservation of all archaeological finds, saying the historical site should be preserved for future generations.

He also said the discovery confirmed statements in Kertagama’s book, according to which Hayam Wuruk of Majapahit Kingdom spent a night at a mess in a township near Singosari Temple, 12 kilometers north of Malang, during his travels in Pasuruan.

The discovery of several big piles of rock, locally known as umpak, usually used for the construction of roofs and large houses, could be used to confirm the presence of a big building in the township where Hayam Wuruk was believed to have spent the night, he said.

Several other pillars have been discovered in nearby farmland and under houses in the village.

“The pillars confirm that the Kertagama state existed and it had a vast housing area in addition to the temple, Saptorenggo Temple, Drapala and Prajna Paramitra statues,” he said, adding the Prajna statue was known as Ken Dedes, a queen of Singosari.

The brick construction, he said, functioned as a foundation. The bricks were made from clay containing ores to make them stick together without needing cement.

The discovery of Chinese ceramics at the site supports the hypothesis that the big house belonged to a noble family living in the 13th century.

The Kertagama book also said the Singosari kingdom was located close to Singosari Temple but its form needed reconstruction, he said.

“Most of the locals have failed to appreciate the archaeological items, which contributes to the cut in reconstructions of Indonesian history. The local government should allocate special funds to conserve them,” he said.

He used as an example the Sragen administration, which has relocated locals from archaeological sites and allocated Rp 2 billion annually for an archaeological conservation program.

The implementation of regional autonomy has also contributed to the neglect of archaeological sites because many regional leaders have little interest in the issue, he said.

He cited as an example the former capital of Ken Arok’s kingdom in Bedah town and that of Singosari, which have not been examined even though the discoveries could boost the regency’s tourism potential.

“Most important is that experts, especially archaeologists and historians, be able to construct the planology of the Singosari kingdom so it can be attractive for local and foreign tourists,” he said.

Related Books:
Java in the 14th Century: A Study in Cultural History the Nagara-Kertagama by Rakawi, Prapanca of Majapahit, 1356 A.D. by R. Prapantj
Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula by P. M. Munoz
Ancient History (The Indonesian Heritage Series) by Indonesian Heritage

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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