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