The ancient scripts of Southeast Asia – Part 1


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

Karimun Inscription


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:


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.

Cham inscriptions and Cham manuscripts: A legacy of development


Cham inscriptions and Cham manuscripts: A legacy of developmentSpeaker: Mohamed Effendy bin Abdul Hamid
Date/Time: Sat 14 Apr 07, 2.30 – 4.30pm
Venue: National Library (Singapore), 100 Victoria Street, Possibility Room, Level 5The Vo Canh Stele is one of the earliest Sanskrit inscriptions found in Southeast Asia, in the vicinity of the kingdom of Champa, Vietnam. The inscription, dated to be from the fourth century, records the donation made by a King belonging to the family of Sri Mara. The significance of this inscription was that it was one of the earliest examples of the Pallava script being used in Southeast Asia by a Malay-like polity, Kerajaan Champa.

This seminar will highlight the localization of Sanskrit by the Cham people by contrasting it to other Cham inscriptions and the writing found in the Cham manuscripts. This will highlight that although the Cham language and writing show significant borrowings from other cultures, it actually enhanced the development of the Cham language.

Admission is FREE and no registration is required.

About the Speaker:
Mohamed Effendy bin Abdul Hamid is a postgraduate student in the National University of Singapore, Southeast Asia Studies Programme. His interest in Champa’s history began in the year 2000 and has been awarded a research grant in 2005 by National University of Singapore’s Graduate research programme to conduct fieldwork research in Cham communities in Vietnam and Cambodia. Mohamed Effendy has also participated and attended in several international conferences and symposiums such as “New scholarship on Champa”, 5-6 August 2004. He co-presented a paper with Research Associate Mr Pritam Singh on “The Muslims of Indochina: Islam, Ethnicity and Religious Education” and a paper “Cham Manuscripts and the Possibility of a Second Champa Kingdom” at the 19th International Association of Historians of Asia (IAHA) 2006 in the Philippines.

Related Books:
The Art of Champa by J. Hubert