Nalanda and the Southeast Asian connection

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If you’re in Singapore between now and March 2008, don’t miss a unique opportunity to drop by the Asian Civilisations Museum for a special exhibition called On the Nalanda Trail, which showcases Buddhism in India, China and Southeast Asia and traces the pilgrimages of three Chinese monks as they travel to India and back. I’ve written about the exhibition’s focus on China and India at yesterday.sg; here, I’ll write about the exhibition in relation to Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

Nalanda Trail - SEA section

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Angkor exhibition in Zurich

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14 September 2007 (swissinfo) – Readers in Zurich might be interested in an ongoing exhibition on Angkor at the Reitburg Museum.

Rare treasures from Angkor come to Zurich

Masterpieces from Angkor in Cambodia, thought to be the world’s first-pre industrial city, are currently pulling in the crowds at the Rietberg museum in Zurich.

With its 140 examples of Khmer art from different periods, the exhibition -“Cambodia’s Divine Legacy” – offers fascinating insights into the ancient kingdoms of the country.

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Discover Jakarta's History

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29 August 2007 (Jakarta Post) – If you’re in the Indonesian capital this month, do take a stop over the Jakarta History Museum to discover the history of the city in this month-long exhibition. This article also gives a good overview on the history of Jakarta.

Jakarta Post, 29 Aug 2007

Museum visitors get chance to explore open history book
Mustaqim Adamrah

Most Jakartans have only a sketchy idea of the seminal events of their city’s history, which is why the Jakarta History Museum in Kota, West Jakarta, is presenting an exhibition that helps visitors “fill in the gaps” and rediscover the past.

“Many of the older people living in Jakarta come from places outside the city. They come here to work, looking for money, and go back to where they belong when they get enough,” museum head R. M. Manik said Tuesday after the exhibition opening.

“That’s why so few Jakartans have more than a fleeting impression of the capital’s history,” he said.

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More Cat Tien artefacts

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28 August 2007 (Nhan Dan) – An update on the previous post about the Cat Tien site exhibition in Hanoi. This story contains pictures of some of the exhibits: a stone linga-yoni and a stone lintel. Only the linga is shown here. The exhibition seems to have extended its run from December to April next year – another excuse to hop on a cheap flight to Vietnam!

Cat Tien artefacts on show in Hanoi

An exhibition of artefacts from Cat Tien, Lam Dong central highlands province opened today in Hanoi’s Museum of History, showcasing over 300 items dating back to the 8th century B.C.

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Ancient holy site to be exhibited in Hanoi

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24 August 2007 (Vietnam Net Bridge, by way of chlim01) – Finds from the Cat Tien archaeological site will be on display at the Vietnam History Museum until December. The site, located in the Lam Dong Province in the Central Highlands, is identified as a major religious site dating from the 4th and 8th centuries. You can read previously published stories on the Cat Tien Archaeological site here and here.

Vietnam Net Bridge, 24 Aug 2007

Hanoi to get glimpse of ancient site

As of August 28, Lam Dong Museum will showcase valuable ancient objects from the Cat Tien Holy Site in Hanoi in the first effort ever to promote these famous archeological finds.

The Cat Tien Holy Site stretching for 12 km along the Dong Nai River in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong was first discovered in 1985. It is the first ancient religious capital to be discovered in the Central Highlands, and is extremely significant in the study of early civilisation in the south of what is now Vietnam.

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Kris exhibition in Bali

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15 July 2007 (Jakarta Post) – A story about the Kris, or keris, the characteristic wavy-bladed knives of the Malay world, in conjunction with an exhibition in the Neka Art Museum in Bali. It’s interesting that the story notes how the blade is honoured in ceremonies involving the Hindu god, Brahma – indicative of the unique syncretism of Hinduism in Bali.

Magic of metal: Spiritual and physical powers of the kris

Whether created by human hands or of supernatural origin, krises are believed to be physical manifestations of invisible forces. Forged in fire but symbolic of water, a kris represents a powerful union of cosmic complementary forces.

A distinctive feature of many krises is their odd number of curves, but they also have straight blades. Krises are like naga water-serpents that are associated with irrigation canals, rivers, springs, wells, spouts, waterfalls and rainbows.

Some krises have a naga head carved near their base with the body and tail following the curves of the blade to the tip. A wavy kris is a naga in motion, aggressive and alive; a straight blade is one at rest, its power dormant but ready to come into action.

Different types of whetstones, acidic juice of citrus fruits and poisonous arsenic, bring out the contrast between the dark black iron and the light-colored silvery nickel layers that together form pamor, damascene patterns on the blade.

These motifs have specific names that indicate their special powers: udan mas (golden rain) is good for prosperity, wos wetah (unbroken rice grains) brings well-being.

The kris is an important family possession and considered to be an ancestral deity, as weapons often play critical roles in the rise and fall of families and fortunes in history.

Heirloom krises have proper names that describe their power: Ki Sudamala is Venerable Exorcist and repels negative forces, Ki Baju Rante is Venerable Coat of Armor and spiritually protects one wearing it.

In Bali, an heirloom kris and other such metal objects are presented offerings every 210 days on the day known as Tumpek Landep, which means “sharp”.

They are cleaned, displayed in temple shrines, and presented with incense, holy water, and red-colored food and flowers to honor Hindu god of fire Brahma.

This is followed by prayers for a sharp mind to Sanghyang Pasupati, the deity who empowers sacred objects and defeats ignorance.

Read more about the kris in Balinese life.

The ancient script of Southeast Asia – Part 2

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In this second part of the Ancient Script of Southeast Asia (click here for part 1), we’ll explore two more exhibits from the Aksara: The Passage of Malay Scripts exhibition at the National Library of Singapore. These two pieces are from Terengganu in Malaysia, and Java in Indonesia.

The first exhibit, the Terengganu Scripted Stone, stands at the mouth entrance between the Sacred Writings gallery and the Islamic gallery. Anyone who’s visited the Terengannu State Museum (where the original sits) or the National History Museum in Kuala Lumpur would instantly recognise this Terengganu Stone. I hear it also features in the Malaysian history textbooks as well.

Discovered in the late 19th century, the Terengganu Inscribed Stone, or Batu Bersurat, dates to the 14th century and is the oldest evidence for Islam in Malaysia. The script used is Jawi while the language is Malay, and the inscription describes a set of Islamic laws, as well as proclaiming Islam as the state religion. As to which state this may be remains unclear – the region of Terengganu was known to be under the influence of Srivijaya as late as the 13th century, while the Terengganu Sultanate only dates as far back as the 18th century. The stone is inscribed on four sides, although it probably would have been larger – as you can guess, the top portion of the stone has been broken off and is probably lost for all time…

I was surprised that these “venetian blinds” were not mentioned in the exhibition guidebook. While they may look like a set of ancient venetian blinds, they are actually a collected set of palm leaves on which a Balinese script is written. This is the Pararaton, or the Javanese Book of Kings, which is on loan from the National Library of Indonesia. Given that the Pararaton was written in palm leaves, I was surprised to see a copy in such good condition.

Here’s a closer look at the Pararaton and the Balinese script. As one can guess from the name, the Javanese Book of Kings describes the events during the rule of the kings of the Singosari kngdom and Majapahit Empire which was centred in Java. Although the date of this particular copy is unknown, the Pararaton was first written at the end of the 15th century. Like its Malay counterpart the Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals), the Pararaton is a mix of myth, legend and historical events, which make some of its contents suspect when using it as a source for historical events. Unlike the Malay Annals, the Pararaton is made more difficult to read accurately because the record of kings and nobility mentioned in it are referred to by title rather than name!

Singapore Stone - from National Archives of Singapore Strangely enough, the Aksara exhibition did not feature the only ancient inscription from Singapore: the Singapore Stone. The Singapore Stone is a sad page from the local book of archaeology: this inscribed boulder once stood at the mouth of the Singapore River and may have potentially been the very same stone mentioned in the Malay Annals, but early in Singapore’s modern history, the British decided to blow up the stone in order to widen the mouth of the Singapore river. Only fragments of the stone remain, one of which is exhibited in the permanent collection of the National Museum of Singapre and to this date remains undeciphered.

Well, these are only some of the highlights from the Aksara: The Passage of Malay Scripts exhibition going on at the Singapore National Library. I’ve only chosen to focus on some of the ancient inscriptions, and there are many more ancient examples of writing, as well as galleries featuring other Malay writings in more modern times. The exhibition finishes its run at the end of this month, so if you’re in Singapore, don’t miss this opportunity to catch it! Go now before it’s too late! (And don’t forget to catch the Saturday guided tours at noon and 1 pm!)

SEAArch would like to thank the National Library Board, Singapore for the permission to take photographs in this exhibition.
Books featuring ancient Southeast Asian scripts and inscriptions:
Uncovering Southeast Asia’s Past: Selected Papers from the 10th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists by E. A. Bacus, I. Glover and V. C. Pigott (Eds)
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
The Pararaton by I Gusti Putu Phalgunadi

The ancient scripts of Southeast Asia – Part 1

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I chanced upon “Aksara: The Passage of Malay Scripts” while I was doing research at the National Library last weekend and was surprised at the richness of the exhibits and artefacts gathered there. Aksara features the early script of the Malay world in Southeast Asia, drawing from the collections of the National Museum of Indonesia and the Vietnam History Museum – this is indeed a rare opportunity to see the epigraphy of ancient Southeast Asia in one collection. I had not realised that this exhibition was going on, but it’s still not too late to catch it as there are two more weeks left.

The Aksara exhibition is divided into four galleries, each covering a particular time period: The Sacred Knowledge of Writing, The Coming of Islam, Colonial Encounters and Singapore and Modern Writing. For this series, I’ll be concentrating on the first two galleries, but the entire exhibition will be covered elsewhere. See that stone pillar on the right? I almost wet my pants My heart literally skipped a beat when I discovered what it was:

The Kota Kapur Stone was discovered on Bangka Island off Sumatra and dates to the 7th century. It describes a punishment for disobeying the law, as well as Srivijaya’s attempt to conquer Javanese territories. In fact, the Kota Kapur Stone was one of the first few inscriptions which led the emminent French scholar George Coèdes to conclude the existence of a polity named Srivijaya, a polity that once held influence over much of the island Southeast Asia and the all-important trade route between China and India. Say, didn’t I just write something about Srivijaya…?

Other exhibits were no less exciting. This is a rubbing of the Vo Canh Stele, the earliest evidence for Buddhism in Southeast Asia, which describes a donation of property by the King Sri Mara to his relatives. Written in Sanskrit and dating to around the 4th century, the stele is named after the Vietnamese village of Vo Canh where it was found. Short of going up to Vietnam and visiting the Vietnam History Museum, this is the closest anyone can be to the actual stele.

The use of writing of course was a highly specialised skill, a knowledge usually reserved for members of the religious caste or leadership. To the commoner, the act of inscribing in words would have been seen as a very powerful form of magic. Examples of these stele would in fact be displayed not to be read by people but as symbols of power exercised by the inscriber. Hence one sees the common themes of cursing, warning and commemorating in early writing – not just in Southeast Asia, but the rest of the world.

There are two more artefacts that I will feature in a Part 2 of The Ancient Script of Southeast Asia, but for now, if you are in Singapore, this is your last chance to visit this spectacular – and underrated – exhibition at the National Library. The exhibit is at Level 10 and admission is free. The last day of this exhibtion is on June 30.

SEAArch would like to thank the National Library Board, Singapore for the permission to take photographs in this exhibition.
Books featuring ancient Southeast Asian scripts and inscriptions:
Uncovering Southeast Asia’s Past: Selected Papers from the 10th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists by E. A. Bacus, I. Glover and V. C. Pigott (Eds)
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
The Pararaton by I Gusti Putu Phalgunadi

Collectors showcase Vietnamese antiquities in exhibition

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08 June 2007 (VietNam Net Bridge) – 20 collectors of Vietnamese antiquities showcase the best and oldest in an exhibition in Hue City for the Traditional Craft Festival. It is interesting to note that the aim of this exhibition is to provide inspiration for craft makers to produce antique-style souvenirs!

20070608 VietNam Net Bridge

Antiquarians to descend upon Hue

For the first time, hundreds of antiques made of materials ranging from wood to gold owned by 20 collectors nationwide will be exhibited at the 2007 Hue Traditional Craft Festival that starts today, June 8.

Other collectors will come to the festival with more than 30 antiques dating from the Nguyen Dynasty, Vietnam’s last dynasty. Thanh Hoa province will contribute the most to the festival with nearly 200 antiques, more than 100 of which date back to the Dong Son period.

According to the organisation committee, of the collectors to participate in the upcoming festival, only collector Hoang Van Thong from Thanh Hoa has established his own private antique museum. Others have exhibited their collections at many places, but this will be their first participation in a bronze, wooden and gold antique exhibition in a festival.

Read more about the Hue 2007 Traditional Craft Festival.

For books about Vietnamese antiquities, you might want to read:
Art & Archaeology of Fu Nan by J. C. Khoo
The Art of Champa by J. Hubert
Vietnamese Ceramics: A Separate Tradition by J. Stevensen, J. Guy and L. A. Cort

Khmer art exhibition in Berlin

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07 June 2007 (The Economist) – The Economist reviews the Angkor: Sacred Heritage of Cambodia exhibition in Berlin and also touches on looted Cambodian antiquities. The looting of Cambodia’s cultural heritage has been touched on many times in this site; you might want to look up our podcast featuring Heritage Watch, as well as the more recent news of Angkor Wat artefacts put up for sale on eBay.

Gods on display

There are two stories that unfold in the cool lofty rooms of Berlin’s 19th-century Martin-Gropius-Bau museum—a far cry from the sweaty heat of the National Museum of Phnom Penh, which has lent many of the exhibits. First, are the splendid sculptures dominated by a procession of the Hindu deities, Vishnu and Shiva, plus Harihara, who represents a mixture of both. One of the most striking is the serene face and upper body of Vishnu in a sleeping pose, an 11th-century fragment of what is believed to have been the largest bronze statue ever cast in Cambodia.

The second story is less obvious and probably unintended by the show’s organisers. It is to do with the wholesale looting of the temples that began when the French swept into Angkor 150 years ago. In the style of European colonisers of the period, acquisitive French explorers strapped prize statues onto the backs of locals for the trip out of the jungle, then loaded them onto rafts for the journey down the Mekong river for dispatch to Paris. Many ended up as the core of the collection of Asian art at Paris’s Musée Guimet.

Read about the Angkor: Sacred Heritage of Cambodia exhibtion at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum.

Books about the art and statuary of Cambodia and the Khmers:
Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art by E. C. Bunker and D. Latchford
Apsarases at Angkor Wat, in Indian context by K. M. Srivastava
Khmer sculpture and the Angkor civilization by M. Giteau
Art & Architecture of Cambodia (World of Art) by H. I. Jessup