Untangling myth and reality from Malaysia's history

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Besides the “startling” news about the origins of the human race, another stir over the history of Malaysia was raised last week when eminent Malaysian historian Professor Khoo Kay Khim declared that some of the characters and stories in Malaysia’s national historical narrative were probably mythical or did not actually exist. Among those figures was the warrior Hang Tuah and the Chinese princess Hang Li Po.

Sculpture of Hang Tuah at the Malaysian National History Museum, wikicommons image

Sculpture of Hang Tuah at the Malaysian National History Museum, wikicommons image


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Proposed Malacca founding date needs international ratification

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The Malaysian minister for Information, Communication and Culture says that the proposed revision of the founding of Malacca to 1262 (from 1400) needs to be confirmed by experts from outside of Malaysia before being accepted by the ministry.

Melaka Sultnate’s New Date Need International Ratification – Rais
Bernama, 03 June 2010
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Researchers claim Melaka sultanate began earlier

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A research team commissioned by the state of Melaka (Malacca) is proposing to push the founding date of the Melaka Sultanate from 1402 to 1298. The change of date is based on an alternate version of the Malay Annals, and it’ll be interesting to see what evidence is presented for the proposed change. From what I understand, the Malay Annals aren’t historically accurate – the earlier chapters explaining the founding of Melaka by Parameswara, a prince from Palembang reads more like a mythological account rather than actual fact. Also, the annals themselves were only commissioned in the early 17th century.

Melaka Malay Sultanate Begins In 1278, Claims Research Team
Bernama, 17 April 2010
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The Many Places of Singapura – Part 3

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Previously on The Many Places of Singapura… we saw the first of the Lion Cities in Vietnam and then we talked about two possible locations for other Singapuras in the kingdoms of Chi Tu and Pajajaran in the Malay Peninsula and Java respectively. In this final installment of The Many Places of Singapura, we’ll explore the origins of reigning Lion City – Singapore, where we’ll find fiction passing off as truth, and where truth is stranger than fiction!

Singapore, of course wasn’t always known as “Singapura” – it once bore the name of Temasek, a name which in Old Malay means “city of the sea”. In 14th century Chinese accounts, Wang Dayuan, a trader who traveled through Southeast Asia mentioned Temasek (Dan-Ma-Xi). There, he noted a settlement where the natives and Chinese lived side-by-side. He also noted that the Dan-ma-xi barbarians were pirates, often letting ships passing to the west unmolested, but plundering returning ships when they reached Karimun island. (Aside: I previously wrote about a Srivijayan inscription on Karimun). So it’s quite amusing that the latest Pirates of the Carribean movie features Chow Yun-fat as the pirate king of Singapore. A case of life imitating art imitating life? Perhaps it would be more accurate to have him say:

Welcome to Temasek!


So how did Temasek get its named changed then? We have one account from the Sejarah Melayu, or Malay Annals. Sang Nila Utama, later entitled Sri Tri Buana (both titular names, and referring to a prince from Palembang) had just crossed the sea from Bentan (Bintan) to the white sandy shores of Temasek:

And when they reached the shore, the ship was brought close on and Sri Tri Buana went ashore with all the the ship’s company and they amused themselves with collecting shell-fish. The king then went inland for sport on the open ground at Kuala Temasek.

And they beheld a strange animal. It seemed to move with great speed; it had a red body and a black head; its breast was white, it was strong and active in build, and in size was rather bigger than a he-goat. When it saw the party, it moved away and then disappeared. And Sri Tri Buana inquired of all those who were with him, “What beast is that?” But no one knew. Then said Demang Lebar Daun, “Your Highness, I have heard in ancient times it was a lion that had that appearance. I think that what we saw must have been a lion.”

Sri Tri Buana then established a city at Temasek, giving it the name of Singapura.
(Shellabear edition of the Sejarah Melayu)

Contrary to popular belief, Singapura was not named after a lion (which indeed would have been a very lost lion), but in fact an unidentified “strange creature” that was thought to be a lion! The source of this account – the Malay Annals – must also be seen as a product of its times. The annals were first compiled in the 16th or 17th century, when the Malacca Sultanate had moved to Johor after being ousted by the Portuguese. The Malay Annals does little to explain to its audience – who would have heard the history rather than read it – why a Malay Islamic sultanate’s precursor would have an Indic name. The early part of the annals, which includes the founding of Singapura, are thought to be romanticised, mythologised accounts of a more shady past.

Other historical sources provide supplementary and contradictory information: according to the Alfonso D’Alberquerque, the Portuguese general who conquered Melaka, a Palembang prince named Paramesvara (Parameswara) fled to Singapura and usurped rule. When the king of Patani (in the Thai peninsula), who was brother of the former ruler, came to seek revenge, Paramwswara fled north to found Melaka. In the Malay Annals, Parameswara was fifth in the line of rulers of Singapura, who was attacked by the Javanese Majapahit and was forced to flee to Melaka, which he founded.

Whatever the case may be, as we may well never truly know, the name Singapura lived on through the Malay Annals. This name and location was later picked up on by Sir Stamford Raffles in the 19th century who sought to build a settlement in Singapore, but also as a symbolic move to legitimise a British foothold in the region. From the lack of textual references from both the Chinese and Srivijaya, it certainly appears that Temasek/Singapura was not geographically significant until around the 14th century, and its current importance is due largely to the British rather than any former glory. However, the different accounts collectively imply that a settlement existed before Parameswara, and typical of other populated areas of the region would have adhered to a syncretic Hindu-Buddhist religion. John Crawfurd, the first British resident of Singapore noted in his diaries the remains of an ancient settlement on Fort Canning Hill, which he attributes as remains of a Buddhist temple and monasteries. It is in this setting, then, that the name Singapura is not entirely out of place.

And that wraps up this series on The Many Places of Singapura! I hope you found this series interesting, as much as I had found it interesting to write about it.

The books I referred to for this article were:
Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula by P. M. Munoz
Archaeological Research on the “Forbidden Hill” of Singapore: Excavations at Fort Canning, 1984
The Malay Annals (Shellabear)

Karimun Inscription

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Over the weekend, I made a trip to nearby Karimun Island, some 30 km west of Singapore in search of an ancient stone inscription.

Karimun region

The island of Karimun Besar (Greater Karimun) is a croissant-shaped island resting at the end of the Melaka strait – a great strategic position because from the north shore one can see Sumatra at the left and the Malay Peninsula in the right. In fact, the British once considered setting up base there because of its location – but Raffles opted instead for Singapore with the romantic notion of resurrecting the civilization (Temasek) that was mentioned in the Malay Annals.

I read about the inscription a long time ago, and was recently reminded by it when I attended a short course on the archaeology of Singapore. Dr. John Miksic, the course conductor, mentioned the Karimun inscription and inspired me to take a trip down to look for it. Finding the inscription was the tricky part, however. Dr Miksic mentioned visiting the place almost 20 years ago, so I was working with 20-year-old information. The only lead I had was that it must have laid on the north shore of the island, possibly by a beach. Locating the stone was also compounded by the fact that Karimun of late was mired in some tension over importing granite to Singapore – and that the granite quarry was also in the north side of the island.

So I was rather fortunate to have met with Tres, one of the taxi drivers who aggressively touted visitors to Karimun. For something like S$30, Tres would drive my party of three up to the northern Pasir Panjang beach. When he found out that we were looking for the stone inscription, he told us that he knew where it was and offered to drive us directly there.

It was a good thing he did – as it turns out the inscription was, as feared, inside the grounds of the granite quarry. We had to pass through two security checkpoints, as well as surrender our cameras at the second checkpoint where we continued on foot. Our guide was good to his word when he led us to a shed 100 metres away from the security post – the stone inscription was carved on the side of a large granite hill, in an area of about 3 metres by 3 metres. At a distance, trucks rumbled carrying workers and granite. The area around the inscription was fairly untouched and protected – a small wall, fence and roof were erected over the inscription, and the presence of incense offerings also indicated that the place was venerated as a shrine. There was even a government notice that indicated the inscription was protected.

Karimun shrine

(Yes, I snuck my phone camera in.) I think the current worshippers at the shrine are Sikhs, judging from the images placed at the shrine. This is quite strange, considering that the inscription was probably written by a Buddhist author:

karimun inscription

karimun inscription 2

According to Dr. Miksic, the inscription is written in Devanegari script and dates to the 9th or 10th century AD. It reads, “These are the footsteps of the illustrious Gautama the Mahayana Buddhist who possessed a round instrument.” Which was why I found it strange that it has become a site of Sikh veneration. Dr. Miksic also noted that the characters that formed the word “round instrument” are unique – they are not found in any other Indian inscription anywhere in the world. When I got home, I merged the two photos in photoshop-cleanup for better clarity:

Karimun-inscription-enhanced

What about the footprints that our illustrious Gautama left behind? At first, I thought it was the rounded depressions on the side of the hill beside the shrine. But Tres our guide came to the rescue again, pointing us to the footprint at the foot of the hill, 20 feet away.

Karimun Buddha footprint

The footprint was carved in the rock, but was partly covered by sand which was also wet. As a result, we couldn’t see if there were carvings at the bottom, but we managed to scoop out enough water to see the outline of the foot. Maybe the task for the next time I visit?

Related Books:
The article on Malaysia in Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by I. Glover and P. S. Bellwood (Eds) mentions the Karimun inscription but not much else.

The Malay Nobat

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For anyone interested in the musical heritage of Malaysia, The Malay Nobat features articles and research about the royal orchestra used by the regional Sultans. From the website:

Malay Nobat

Nobat is a court orchestra played in Malay palaces as a symbol of power and sovereignty. No Malay sultan is legitimately installed unless he is drummed to the sounds of the nobat. Currently there are four nobat ensembles found in Malaysia, in the states of Kedah, Perak, Selangor and Terengganu. The other known Malay nobat which is still active is found in Brunei, a small oil-rich country sandwiched between the states of Sarawak and Sabah in East Malaysia. Nobat is also known to have existed in the ancient Malay sultanates of Pasai (now Acheh), Patani (Southern Thailand), Riau and probably other small provinces in Sumatera, Indonesia.

Raja Iskandar, the author behind the blog is a researcher currently looking into the Nobat of the Perak Sultanate. I was first drawn to the site because of the mention about the Nobat in the Malay Annals, a valuable quasi-historical account about the history of the Malacca Sultanate. The site also features short video clips of the Nobat performances, which are very rare because such music is very ritualistic and considered sacred.

Related Books:
The Music of Malaysia by P. A. Matursky and S. B. Tan
The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Performing Arts