Jewel of the Jungle

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July 2007 (Smithsonian Magazine) – Quite aptly enough, the July issue of the Smithsonian Magazine has a feature story on the jungle complexes of Angkor – a nice fit for this week’s Angkor theme while I’m away in Cambodia to visit the temples myself. 🙂 Unlike most travel pieces, this feature gives a good historical overview of the Angkor temples.

Jewel of the Jungle

Although Angkor Wat is the largest and best known of these temples, it is but one of hundreds built by the kingdom of Angkor. Huge stone monuments scattered across hundreds of square miles of forest in northern Cambodia, the temples are the remains of a vast complex of deserted cities—which included manmade lakes, canals and bridges—that were astonishing in their size and artistic merit.

But piecing together information about the ancient Khmers who built them has not been easy for archaeologists and historians. The only written records that still exist are the inscriptions on the temple walls and the diary of a Chinese diplomat who visited Angkor in 1296. All administrative buildings and the homes of kings and commoners alike were made of wood; none have survived, leaving only the religious creations of brick and stone.

Direct ancestors of modern-day Cambodians, the Khmers are thought to have descended from the Funan peoples of the Mekong delta. Funan was a decentralized state of rival kings that thrived as a trading link connecting China and the West for the first few centuries A.D. In the late sixth century, Funan was superseded by the state of Chenla, based farther north into Cambodia’s interior. Chenla lasted for about 250 years until the start of the Angkor period.

Meanwhile, Hindu and Buddhist influences, which originated in centuries-old contact with Indian traders, appeared in region. (Neither ever fully displaced the local animist religion, but rather assimilated into it.) Elite Khmer rulers commissioned the building of temples and gave themselves Sanskrit names to demonstrate their wealth and power. Their subjects made donations to the temples to curry favor—both with the gods and with the local ruler. Temples, as such, were not only religious but also commercial centers. In the time of Angkor many temples operated as small cities, and some of them as very large cities.

Around A.D. 800 a powerful regional king named Jayavarman II consolidated the rival chiefdoms in Cambodia and founded the kingdom of Angkor. It was Jayavarman II who instituted the cult of the Devaraja (literally “god-king” or “king of the gods”), symbolically linking Khmer royalty to the divine realm.

Read more about the Jewel of the Jungle, Angkor.

More books about the Angkor temple complexes and the history of Angkor:
Khmer Civilization and Angkor by D. L. Snellgrove
Ancient Angkor (River Book Guides) by C. Jaques
Angkor and the Khmer Civilization (Ancient Peoples and Places) by M. D. Coe
The Civilization of Angkor by C. Higham
A History of Cambodia by D. P. Chandler
Angkor: The Khmers in Ancient Chinese Annals by P. Y. W. Chuen and W. Weng

Off to Angkor

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I’ll be taking a short break from the blog as I’ll be heading up to see the Angkor temples for a long-awaited holiday. There won’t be any news updates from now until the coming week, although if all goes well, news updates will resume on Thursday, 5th July. In the meantime, I’ve lined up a series of posts relating to Angkor and Cambodia. To start with, I’ve finally gotten down to making the paper model of Angkor Wat:

How to make an Angkor Wat.

1. Download the instructions and paper template of Angkor Wat – remember to print and enlarge the template of heavy paper. The larger the better!

2. Cut out the base and paste the first storey of the temple.

3. Cut and paste the inner set of ramps to the first floor.

4. Very carefully fold and set the outer wall. This bit is tricky because the wall can be quite flimsy!

5. Add the roof to the inner sanctuary.

6. Position the centre tower. This is the Mount Meru!

7. I thought the outer wall was difficult, but I was wrong. The really tricky bit is constructing the towers. It also didn’t help that the model I worked with was all of 2″ square. So the outer towers looked really, really bad.

8. … and finally, the final entry ramps on the outer courtyard.

And it’s done! Your very own Angkor Wat. Mine, actually. It’s not very hard to make, but on hindsight I wish I had printed it on very much larger card. It took me all of two hours to finish constructing this paper model.

Stay tuned to SEAArch for more Angkor-themed posts starting from Monday! In the meantime, if you haven’t already done so, please cast your vote for SEAArch for theBest Education Blog category in the Blogger’s Choice Awards!

Looking for books about Angkor Wat?
Angkor Cities and Temples by C. Jaques
The Treasures of Angkor: Cultural Travel Guide (Rizzoli Art Guide) by M. Albanese
Angkor: Cambodia’s Wondrous Khmer Temples, Fifth Edition by D. Rooney and P. Danford
Angkor Wat: Time, Space, and Kingship by E. Mannikka
Angkor Wat and cultural ties with India by K. M. Srivastava

Categories: Angkor Cambodia

The Belitung Shipwreck


Earlier this month, I was able to catch a lecture about the shipwreck laden with Tang Dynasty treasures that sunk off Belitung island in the 9th century. What was it about this shipwreck that made it so spectacular? What treasures were stored aboard the ship and where was it headed? And what did the Belitung Shipwreck tell us about maritime trade n Asia and Southeast Asia at that time?


The Belitung Shipwreck was discovered in 1998 – like most shipwrecks, this one was discovered by chance by some fisherman. The wreck rested on relatively shallow waters – about 17 metres below the sea-level and recovery of the wreck took about two years. It is currently the oldest shipwreck in Southeast Asian waters.

The majority of the cargo (some 60,000 pieces) recovered consists of ceramics, most of which are Changsha ware. Changsha ware was mass produced for export in Tang China, and the dates imprinted on a couple of the bowls place the shipwreck from between 826 and 850AD. Other significant finds from the wreck include lead ballasts, some pieces of resin which would have come from Sumatra, pillow-shaped silver ingots, a number of gold vessels and several rare pieces of high-fired blue-and-white, white ware and Yue wares.

The wreck’s construction strongly suggests that the ship was of Arab or Indian origin: stitched hull planks, the lack of wooden dowels or iron fastenings and later, the identification of the wood type. Combined with the large number of export ware, this find suggests the existence of a Maritime Silk Route, a direct trading link between China and the Arab lands as early as the 9th century.

Dr Rosemary Scott, who gave the lecture on the Belitung Wreck in June goes even further to suggest that the wreck is possibly the most important wreck uncovered to date because the evidence strongly suggests the presence of a Maritime Silk Route, rather than through the role of intermediaries like Srivijaya. Besides the ship’s construction, other evidence for this direct link include the small number of Changsha ware inscribed with “salaam” and other Arabic verse, and the presence of the rare ceramics, all of which have a close association with the imperial court. This in turn suggests the importance of this particular cargo as a form of royal tribute. While Changsha ware is found just about everywhere in the ancient world (all the way to India, Persia and the Near East), the Yue and Xing wares have been found only in a handful of Near Eastern sites, including the ancient city of Samarra in Iraq.

An interesting point about the Belitung shipwreck was its location. Ships plying between China and India would have come down the Malacca strait, into the sphere of Srivijaya influence. Ships would possibly call at the Srivijayan capital at Palembang, before sailing to the Riau islands and up north again to China. The Belitung shipwreck is located a little too far south. Given that the majority of the shipwreck’s cargo was mainly for the Persian market rather than the coastal ports of Srivijaya, the ship would bypass the major Srivijayan markets and take an alternative route through the Sunda Strait (between Sumatra and Java), before heading northwest to India – stil Srivijayan territory, but not as important as the ones along the Malaccan strait..

The material for this post was based on my notes during the talk on the Belitung Shipwreck by Rosemary Scott at the National University of Singapore Museum in June 2007, as well as a 2001 paper by Dr. Michael Flecker in World Archaeology.
Books about shipwrecks in Southeast Asia:
The Archaeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia by Himanshu Prabha Ray
Shipwrecks and Sunken Treasure in Southeast Asia by T. Wells

Nei Xue Tang: A Museum of Buddhist Art – Part 1


Along Singapore’s Cantonment Road, just at the edge of the central business district, a line of three old houses lie. They don’t sit on any particularly valuable real estate – in fact, the stand side-by-side to some low cost apartment housing. In short, they’re not the kind of house that you pay attention to when you’re passing by on the street.

Yet the house in the centre holds a most surprising museum collection, a private museum called the Nei Xue Tang (roughly translated as “The Hall of Inner Peace), home to some 10,000 pieces of Buddhist art with examples from different styles, regions and periods from around the world. This, of course, includes examples of religious sculpture from Southeast Asia.

Nei Xue Tang - Entrance

Nei Xue Tang is the first private museum opened in Singapore. It is owned by Mr W. T. Woon, a lawyer and a devout Buddhist himself, who has been collecting Buddhist antiques since he was seven! The museum is a culmination of over 40 years of collecting Buddhist antiques – many from his own collection, and some others donated or bequeathed to Nei Xue Tang from corporations and individuals. In the collection, you’ll find examples from Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and the different Chinese dynasties, but it’s the ones from Southeast Asia that I’ll be writing about, this post and next.

NeiXueTang- Mr Woon

These three Buddhas are examples of Mon-Dvaravati art from Thailand. From left to right, they are: A bronze Buddha; A Buddha seated under a Bodhi tree; and another bronze Buddha. All of them date to around the 8th century. Little is known about the Dvaravati period on Thailand (6-11th centuries). The kingdom was centred around Central Thailand and seems to have played an important role in the spread of Buddhism to the rest of Southeast Asia. Later in history the Mon people seemed to have been assimilated into the growing influence of the neighbouring Khmer and Burmese empires.

Nei Xue Tang - Mon Dvaravati art

As is typical of many of the Hindu and Buddhist art from Southeast Asia and Asia, many of these artefacts are unprovenanced, and it has taken years of collecting experience for Mr Woon to provide information about what style and region the artefact came from and its approximate date. Sadly, the archaeological context of these artefacts may well forever be lost. I have a sense of ambivalence while looking through exhibits at Nei Xue Tang, at once marveling at all the different styles of Buddhist sculpture under one roof, and at another a sense of sadness of how so much cultural heritage has been removed from its context, unable to tell any more stories. Still, it’s nice to see a private collector open his collection up for the public to enjoy, and experience the breadth of expression in Buddhist art. In part 2 of this article, we’ll take a look at some Khmer sculpture, and also some Khmer inscriptions.

Nei Xue Tang is located at 235 Cantonment Road, Singapore 089766. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children and the museum is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm. The museum also has a website.

SEAArch would like to thank Mr Woon and Nei Xue Tang for the permission to take photographs for this post.

Other books about Buddhism and Buddhist Art:
The Art of Champa by J. Hubert
Origins Of Thai Art by B. Gosling
Ancient Pagan by D. Stadtner
Asian Religions: An Illustrated Introduction by B. K. Hawkins
Hindu-Buddhist Art Of Vietnam: Treasures From Champa by E. Guillon
The Sacred Sculpture of Thailand: The Alexander B. Griswold Collection, the Walters Art Gallery by H. W. Woodward
The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia (Suny Series in Religion) by D. K. Swearer
Art of Sukhothai by C. Stratton and M. Scott

Vote for SEAArch in the Blogger's Choice Awards!

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Dear readers, SEAArch has been nominated for the Best Educational Blog category in this year’s Blogger’s Choice Awards!

The awards recognise blogs that are making an impact in the blogosphere, and voting is now on until October. I hope you will show your support by casting your vote for SEAArch in the Blogger’s Choice Awards! Some registration is required in order to cast your vote (to prevent instances of cheating, I guess) but the whole process should take about 10 minutes.

Categories: Websites


China backs Malaysia's call for Asian Heritage chapter

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26 June 07 (New Straits Times) – Malaysia has previously pushed for an Asian version of UNESCO, and this call for an Asian chapter of UNESCO is now bolstered by backing from China. While I agree with the fact that the World Heritage sites seem skewed towards Europe and America, I can’t help but feel that this push by Malaysia and China (the latter not particularly known for actually treasuring their cultural heritage) is more keyed to economics and the tourist dollar rather that treasuring heritage for heritage’s sake.

China backs call for heritage chapter

The Chinese government supports Malaysia’s proposal for an Asian chapter of the Unesco World Cultural and Natural Heritage centre.

Chinese Minister of Culture Sun Jiazheng says his government agrees with Malaysia that Asia, which has its own distinct set of values and principles, deserves its own criteria for what constitutes a world heritage site.

Malaysia decided to propose an Asian version of the list in October 2006 because the government felt the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation is placing too much emphasis on Europe and the US, and not recognising enough heritage and historical sites in Asia.

“The Chinese government supports this proposal to Unesco and will continue to do so vocally in the international arena,” said Sun after a closed-door meeting with Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Rais Yatim at Kompleks Kraft yesterday.

Read about the proposed Asian Chapter of the Unesco World Cultural and Natural Heritage Centre.

SEAArch on Intute


Intute is a service created by a partnership of UK universities to bring you the best web resources for education and research. The web resources are listed under four broad categories: Science and Technology, Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences and Life Sciences.


I’m pleased to announce that SEAArch has been included as a web resource under Arts and Humanities/Archaeology/Asia : Archaeology. Check out Intute for links to other web resources on Asian archaeology. Do also check out the SEAArch resource page for other web links related to Southeast Asia and archaeology.

Categories: Websites


Digging for the truth in Kelantan?


22 June 2007 (The Star) – Which is the birthplace of Malay civilisation – Kelantan or Perak? That is what the state of Kelantan wants to find out, through analysis of archaeological material found in the Nenggiri Ulu Valley. The aim is to shed light on the origin of a pre-Islamic, prehistoric even, civilisation in Kelantan. So far, the earliest known evidence of human habitation is in Perak (see the article by Liz Price and the Perak Man podcast).

But I’m not sure if the research is looking that far back in prehistoric time (after all, the Perak Man is only one skeleton), or if they are looking for actual “kingdoms” or evidence for civilisations. I wonder why there was no mention of Chitu or Langkasuka, which were most probably pre-Islamic and also was probably situated in the Kelantan region.

Still, if there are any researchers wanting a shot to read the archaeological material, here’s your chance!

Kelantan inviting archaeological researchers

Kelantan is inviting researchers to ascertain archaeological findings that claim that the oldest form of civilisation in Malaysia, besides the oldest human fossils and artefacts, were located in the state.

This will put to rest ongoing debates over where civilisation originated from in the country, state museum board chairman Datuk Takiyuddin Hassan said.

“Some say the Perak Man is the oldest (10,000 years-old) but we have research evidence to indicate that civilisation began here (Ulu Kelantan) some 12,000 years ago,” he said after opening a month-long archaelogical exhibition of the Nenggiri Ulu Valley, which is a Masters research study of National Museum and Antiquities Department director-general Datuk Dr Adi Haji Taha here.

He said the state would welcome input from all, including international researchers and historians to ascertain the claims.

Nenggiri Ulu, which is part of Ulu Kelantan, now called Gua Musang, has a cave system where evidence of neolithic life has been found and the present orang asli community are said to be their descendents.

According to Takiyuddin, research done has unveiled strong suspicions that there was a a pre-Islamic Malay Kingdom in Ulu Kelantan from where the legendary Princess Ruler of Kelantan – “Puteri Saadon” – originated from.

Read more about the invitation to research Kelantan.

Books about the archaeology of Malaysia:
Early History (The Encyclopedia of Malaysia) by Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman (Ed)

Indon Prez says: Visit Museums!

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21 June 2007 (Jakarta Post) – Have you visited your museum lately? If you’re in Indonesia, you’ll have no less than the president exhorting you to visit the museum! President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was encouraging Indonesians to visit their museums.

It’s interesting to see how museums are now seen as cultural repositories of the past, particularly in the context of post-colonial Southeast Asia. The concept of the museum evolved from the desire to showcase “acquisitions” from the worldly travels of the European elite. This concept is somewhat different in the Southeast Asian context: more often than not, they initially began as a showcase of acquisitions by the former colonial masters to exhibit the exotic in the colonized lands; and in more modern times museums in Southeast Asia have played an important part in “recapturing” the exotic, and using it to develop and define the national identity. For example, it is no accident that the article mentions exhibits from the Majapahit empire, as the Majapahit is considered the height of ancient Indonesian glory. The celebration of past glories is a common motif in museums elsewhere in Southeast Asia: Malaysia has the Malacca Sultanate, Thailand has Ayutthuya and Myanmar has Pagan. This gives museums a political role in defining what national identity is, a definition controlled by the ruling power.

Of course, as the postcolonial states of Southeast Asia begin moving into industrialization and globalization, the role of museums have once again become slightly altered: a source of economic revenue. Because the value of history and heritage are impossible to quantify, tourism, and in particular heritage tourism, have become the new space for museums to reside, and grow, in an increasingly capitalistic world. The article also notes the (insufficient) cost of running Indonesia’s 287 museums, where money is needed to not only run, but promote its museums and must thus become treated as economically viable ventures.

SBY urges Indonesians to museums

Expressing his concern over the public’s lack of interest in visiting museums, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono encouraged people Wednesday to visit museums to learn from the wisdom of the past.

“Let us relive the past glory and pride to build Indonesia to become a developed, advanced and prosperous state. From museums we can learn to appreciate differences and become more tolerant,” Yudhoyono told the opening ceremony of the Gedung Arca (Statue Building) at the National Museum.

The president said Indonesia had to be more creative in expanding economic alternatives such as eco-tourism and heritage economics to survive in the future.

He said museums, as repositories of the nation’s cultural heritage, could be a new economic resource in the future.

Read more about Indonesia’s museums.

Books about museums in Southeast Asia:
Museum Treasures of Southeast Asia by B. Campell
Museums Of Southeast Asia by I. Lenzi
Extraordinary Museums of Southeast Asia by K. Kelly

One temple, Two countries tussle

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21 June 2007 (Bangkok Post) – The Angkor temple of Prasat Preah Vihear was mentioned recently when Cambodia submitted the site for consideration as a World Heritage Site. The temple, which stands close to the Thai-Cambodia border is in the news again – this time, Thailand wants to have a say in the proposals as well. Ownership of the temple was contested between the two nations until the International Court of Justice awarded Cambodia custody of the site. However, the entrance of the temple is on the Thai side of the border and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Northeast Thailand.

Preah Vihear frays ties with Phnom Penh again

Thailand wants to have a say in a Cambodian proposal to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) that the ancient Preah Vihear temple be listed as a World Heritage Site. Adul Wichiencharoen, chairman of the National Committee on the Convention for the Protection of World Culture and Natural Heritage, expressed concern over Cambodia’s lobbying of Unesco without Thailand’s participation.

Mr Adul said consideration should be given to the whole site, not just the part of it on Cambodian soil.

The entrance to Preah Vihear is in Thailand’s Si Sa Ket province, right on the border with Cambodia. The location was the cause of a long-standing dispute over the site’s ownership until 1962, when the International Court of Justice ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia.

Read about Thailand’s claim to Prasat Preah Vihear.

Related books about the Preah Vihear temple:
The Treasures of Angkor: Cultural Travel Guide (Rizzoli Art Guide) by M. Albanese
Angkor and the Khmer Civilization (Ancient Peoples and Places) by M. D. Coe
Angkor: Cambodia’s Wondrous Khmer Temples, Fifth Edition by D. Rooney and P. Danford