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Save M'sia's vale of ancient history

Publication Date : 04-12-2013


If the callous demolition of an ancient temple in Kedah’s Bujang Valley is a sacrilege, the ignorance of its significance is a pathetic excuse.

It beggars belief that the ruins (referred to as “candi” in Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia) were reduced to a pile of rubble by a housing developer.

The management of Bandar Saujana Sdn Bhd, which had bought over the 36ha of land from another firm, claimed it was not aware that the site was historical.

The project was apparently approved by the Sungai Petani municipal council and endorsed by the state government between 1994 and 1995.

The new company claimed it had done searches and found no caveats or encumbrances on the land.

Kedah state exco member Mohd Rawi Abd Hamid said he did not know how the plan was approved and that council officers could have overlooked the value of the site.

Maybe so, since most Malaysians don’t know much about the country’s oldest historical site.

British colonial officer Lt Col James Low, who stumbled upon it in 1840, wrote about the “undoubted relics of a Hindoo colony, with ruins of temples and mutilated images extending along the talus (sloping mass of rocky fragments) of the Kedda mountain Jerrei”.

Archaeological digs, however, only began 14 years later in 1854.

Over the years, vestiges of about 80 candi, stupas and other structures were discovered over an area stretching from Gunung Jerai to Sungai Muda along with potshards, pieces of porcelain and beads — all evidence of a thriving area of trade.

The main remnants were taken apart and rebuilt around the Lembah Bujang Archaeological Museum.

About 1,000 pieces of artefacts, iron implements and relics dating back to the time when Hinduism and Buddhism were the main religions in the region are displayed in and around the museum.

In 2009, an archaeological team from Universiti Sains Malaysia led by leader Professor Dr Mokhtar Saidin discovered the main site of an ancient Hindu kingdom from the third century. It predated the Angkor temples of Cambodia, making it the oldest civilisation in the region.

The team found remains of iron ore furnaces, forges and slag, proving that the people there had already acquired the technology of large-scale iron smelting.

Oxford University’s Professor Stephen James Oppenheimer, an expert in the synthesis of DNA studies with archaeological evidence, said South-East Asian history might need to be rewritten after the findings.

He said for the last 2,000 years, the story was that Indonesia was predominant with its Sri Vijaya and Majapahit empires, along with kingdoms in Vietnam and Thailand.

Records show that there were already several Chinese and Indian kingdoms north of the peninsula in the second and third centuries, linked to rich maritime trade routes.

Kedah was known to early Tamils as Kedaram or Kataha in Sanskrit and Cheh-Cha to the Chinese.

The name Bujang is most likely linked to Bhunjanga (serpent or cobra in Sanskrit, probably because of the shape of the river running through the valley where the kingdom of Kedaram was situated).

Trading helped to forge closer links between the people and familiarity with Hinduism and Buddhism, while cultural and religious practices and languages such as Sanskrit and Tamil widened across the region.

The Pallava dynasty introduced its writing to South-East Asia, resulting in many communities using modified versions of the script such as the Kawi used by the Balinese, Bugis, Javanese and Sundanese, Lanna, Tham and Khom of Thailand, the Pyu in Burma, the Khmer in Cambodia and the Cham in Vietnam.

In Malaysia, an endless number of words in Malay can be traced to Sanskrit and Tamil, including the formal terms used for royalty, the Prime Minister, ministers, names of places and even the citizenship classification of bumiputra.

But when it comes to the country’s pre-Islamic heritage and cultural roots, the perception is the powers that may be are rather reticent in giving it due attention, especially since the 1980s.

It becomes apparent if we compare the situation in Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world.

The entrances of many buildings are decorated with statues of Bhima, the second of the Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata.

The logo of the Bandung Institute of Technology, one of the oldest universities in Indonesia, has the image of Ganesha, the elephant-faced deity in the centre. The deity has also been featured on the republic’s 20,000 rupiah note.

Perhaps the Indonesians are less sensitive when it comes to separating their religion from their inherited culture, customs and history.

But coming back to Kedah and the Bujang Valley, besides the well-maintained and informative museum, there is not much to show the importance of the site.

Over the past three decades, questions have also been asked about the actual number of relics recovered.

As pointed out by Warisan Malaysia executive director Elizabeth Cardosa, only some of the monuments have been gazetted under the National Heritage Act while the rest have no legal protection.

It’s a crying shame for a potential World Heritage Site which has attracted much global attention.


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