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