The ancient script of Southeast Asia – Part 2

1 Comment

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 Many Places of Singapura – Part 2


We saw in the first installment of The Many Places of Singapura that the ‘Lion City’ (Singha-Pura) first existed in central Vietnam from the 4th to 9th century. In this installment, we’ll talk about two other “potential” places. We’ll call them potential for now because while they were identified in the email discussion, I haven’t been able to find any explicit evidence of Singapura/Singhapura in the literature that I have. These two places were the kingdom of Chi Tu in 7th century Malay Peninsula, and in 14th-15th century Western and Northern Java which is likely to be the kingdom of Pajajaran. So with the lack of any direct references to “Lion Cities”, let’s get two know more about these two kingdoms:

Chi Tu, 7th century

Chi Tu

Not much is known about this kingdom of Chi Tu, and even its location is subject to conjecture. Chi Tu is mentioned in the annals of the Chinese Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD), and from its description the kingdom lay on the eastern side of the Thai-Malay peninsula, anywhere between Songkhla in Thailand down to Pahang in Malaysia. The general consensus is that it lay in the region of Kelantan. The name literally Chi Tu refers to ‘red earth’, presumably used to describe the kingdom’s terrain. A 5th century Sanskrit inscription found in Kedah also mentions a land called Raktamrtikka, meaning the same red earth, and are both thought to refer to the same place.

Pajajaran, 14th century


Fast-forwarding 700 years, the next potential Singapura is said to be in the vicinity of Cirebon, in northern Java during the 14th century. At this time, Cirebon was represented the easternmost boundary of the kingdom of Pajajaran, which was founded in 1333. This Sundanese kingdom controlled much of what was Western and Northern Java during the 14th and 16thcenturies, and was a next-door neighbour to the Majapahit. The Pararaton (the Javanese book of kings describing the rulers of the Majapahit kingdom) mentions an episode about the King of Sunda – equated with Pajajaran – and a botched attempt of a political marriage which led to bloodshed.

Could the kingdoms of Chi Tu and Pajajaran both have cities or places named Singapura? We can’t know for sure – for now. But let me say for now that both kingdoms followed a syncretic mix of Hinduism and Buddhism. In Chi Tu, it was noted that the Buddha was worshipped, but Brahmans were held in high regard. Portuguese accounts of Pajajaran in the 16th century noted that the religion was a mix of Hindu and Buddhist. Thus, a locale named “Singha-pura” would not be out of place.

That’s enough conjecture for now, there is one more Singapura to go – and this time it’s a real place still in existence (that’s a no-brainer giveaway!) But you’ll have to wait for part 3 of The Many Places of Singapura…

Related Books:
Two main books I referred to for this post –
Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula by P. M. Munoz
– And the chapters on “Classical cultures of Indonesia” and “Early Maritime Polities” in Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by I. Glover and P. S. Bellwood (Eds)