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