Singapore once named as ‘tricky place to stay’

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via Straits Times, 10 October 2018: More behind Singapore’s name, according to old records!

Singapore River. Source: Straits Times

Singapore River. Source: Straits Times

Singapura, as explained by some Portuguese authors in the 16th century, is translated from its original language in Malay into Portuguese as falsa demora, which means the wrong or tricky place to stay.

Meanwhile, the name Barxingapara, which appeared in maps in the early 1500s, can be broken down as follows: “bar” means a kingdom of a coastal region, “xin” means “China” and “gopara” or “gapura” is the word for “gateway”.

Dr Borschberg’s talk is part of the ongoing Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre’s lecture series called 1819 and Before: Singapore’s Pasts, organised in the lead-up to the bicentennial next year. The first lecture in the series took place in July.

Source: Singapore once named as ‘tricky place to stay’, Singapore News & Top Stories – The Straits Times

Lost in literature: why we need to stop the quest for Suvarnabhumi

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via New Mandala, 10 October 2018: Is Suvarnabhumi even a real place?

While we have to appreciate the profound work of scholars like O.W. Wolters, H.G. Wales, Georges Coédes, and the impeccable work on Chinese texts by Paul Wheatley, historians have gotten used to treating Suvarnabhumi or its synonyms in other languages as a historical-geographical fact. I argue, instead, that Suvarnabhumi is a literary device. We need to work together as archaeologists, linguists, local and international, art historians, historians and heritage scholars to get rid of the idea of Suvarnabhumi as a physical location. I am not saying we should stop studying Suvarnabhumi, but perhaps it is time we stop treating it as a piece of empirical source material.

Source: Lost in literature: why we need to stop the quest for Suvarnabhumi [Part 1] – New Mandala

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)

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)

The Many Places of Singapura – Part 1

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It all began when someone posted an obscure 100-year-old newspaper article on the Singapore Heritage email list, about how a member of the Archaeological Society in England pointed out the origins of the name Singapore. Singhapura, or the city of the lion, was obviously one of Indic influence, and also a very powerful name at that: considering lions are only found in the extreme west of India the symbol of the lion must have considerable strength to have travelled all the way to Southeast Asia. Throughout history, there have been more than one place claiming the name of the Lion City, said archaeologist Lim Chen Sian, including Sri Lanka and parts of India. In Southeast Asia, there have been “Singapores”, or more accurately Lion Cities in Vietnam and Indonesia.

Probably the first recorded mention -and thus the original – Lion City is Simhapura, in what is today Tra Kieu, Quang Nam province in Vietnam. Simhapura, or the Lion Citadel served as the first capital of the Champa from the 4th to the 9th centuries. The kingdom of Champa – in the sense that kingdom is a loose collective of smaller principalities. Nonetheless, Champa maintained an important role in the trade routes between China, the Malay archipelago and beyond, to India and Persia. Typical of many of the trading communities in Southeast Asia in the first millenium, religion in Champa was mainly Shaivist and later Buddhist.

In the 9th century, the new northern state of Dai Viet invaded Quang Nam and occupied it until the end of the 10th century. Not much of Simhapura remains today, save for bits of the wall, some stone banisters and rectangular ramparts. Today, the top of Tra Kieu hill is home to a Catholic Church, first built by the French during their occupation. One can still the ancient city’s outline from the mountain church.

Tra Kieu Mountain Church
The Mountain Church of Tra Kieu

The nearby My Son Sanctuary (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) stood as Champa’s intellectual and spiritual capital during the same period – fortunately, that has survived, despite recent bombing by the Americans during the US-Vietnam war.

So what other places in Southeast Asia might have claimed the name of Singapura/Singhapura/Simhapura? Part 2 should be out later in the week!

Related Books:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by I. Glover and P. S. Bellwood (Eds)
The Art of Champa by J. Hubert
Hindu-Buddhist Art Of Vietnam: Treasures From Champa by E. Guillon

Kediri archeological discovery offers clues on ancient kingdom

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24 March 2007 (Jakarta Post) – I’ve just been reading about the Kadiri (Kediri) kingdom, which existed between the 11 and 13 centuries. King Prabu Joyoboyo might correspond with the King Sri Maharaja Sang Jayabhaya Sri Vermesvara, who reigned between 1134 – 1144, under whom the Kediri Kingdom reached its height. The rest of the article describes peculiarities of the Tondowongso site, in particular some exceptional statues that have been uncovered and their placement in the excavated temple complex that seem to differ from the other regional temples of the same period.

Jakarta Post, 24 Mar 2007

Kediri archeological discovery offers clues on ancient kingdom

Recent archeological discoveries at a Tondowongso excavation site in the East Java town of Kediri have opened the possibility that the once-glorious Kadiri Kingdom was located in a nearby region.

West of Gayam village in Pagu district, archeologists also discovered the personal remnants of Kadiri King Prabu Joyoboyo. Archeologists believe the site, said to be a temple, which has since been converted into a meditation area by locals, is closely linked with Gayam village.

An epigraphist at BP3, Ririet Suryandani, said a toponymic analysis could be used to uncover the exact location of the Kadiri Kingdom.

“We can determine the exact location of the kingdom from studying the hundreds of historical statues found,” said Ririet at the excavation site.

Ririet believes the discovery of an ancient inscription at the Tondowongso site could also explain the function, name and purpose of the historical building, adding it could be presented in various forms, such as on an encrypted stone, bronze or gold plate.