Was Bujang Valley culture the beginning of Malayness?

loading A model of the Bujang Valley estuary civilisation.

FACT 1: The Bujang Valley civilisation, which stretches back to possibly as early as the year 110, is the oldest in South- East Asia, predating Angkor Wat (12th century), Sri Vijaya (seventh century), Majapahit (13th century), Borobudur (ninth century) and the Malacca Sultanate (15th century).

FACT 2: “Valley” is actually a misnomer. The territory spans 1,000sqkm from Bukit Choras in Kota Sarang Semut in the north to Cherok Tekun in Bukit Mertajam in the south, with its eastern flank stretching to Jeriang.

Scholarly interest increased when some 90 mounds were unearthed in Sungai Batu (particularly sites SB1B/SB1D) in 2009. Evidence of advanced iron-smelting furnaces (with air-blowing tuyeres and iron slags), remnants of jetties (as an intermediate “feeder port” between the land mass and water) and an unusual monolith comprising a round base, a square midsection and a hollowed circle in the middle has identified the Bujang Valley as much more than just a random satellite of Hindu-Buddhist candi (small shrines or tombs) often with only the bases extant1.

For all the hullabaloo, it took the revelation in December 2013 of a housing developer’s wanton destruction of a 1,200-year-old Hindu temple of the Sri Vijayan era, candi No. 11 (rebuilt in-situ in 1974), to trigger a massive public furore and bring renewed interest to the site. The whistleblower of the latest desecration was Datuk V. Nadarajan, 70, the amateur archaeology sleuth and historian-turned-lawyer who wrote the comprehensive book, Bujang Valley: The Wonder That Was Ancient Kedah (English editions of 1,500 copies each in November 2011/December 2012; with three editions in Tamil).

Candi Pengkalan Bujang reconstructed on the museum grounds in 1976.

Sungai Batu SB1B site: a very unique square clay monument on a round base with a round centre.

Apparently, it was because No. 11 was not gazetted as a historical site that the state government, then under the Islamist PAS, had approved the housing project.

Nadarajah said that a recent Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) study (satellite photography) revealed that there are some 127 candi sites in Kedah, including some 90 concentrated in Bujang Valley itself. Post-2008 excavations done by the USM’s Centre for Global Archaeological Research (CGAR) under Assoc Prof Mokhtar Saidin, together with the National Heritage Department, have built on pre-1970 findings by Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman and Europeans such as H.G. Quaritch, Dorothy Wales, Alistair Lamb and J.H.N. Evans. In 1840, Captain James Low had discovered 20 such shrines.

The most imposing candi is the granite Bukit Batu Pahat (No. 8, reconstructed in-situ in 1959-1960) in Pengkalan Bayang Merbok, some 18km from Sungai Petani where the Bujang Valley Archaeology Museum (established in 1978) stands. Three other candi were moved and reconstructed there – Kampung Pendiat (No. 16, moved in 1974), Pengkalan Bujang (No. 21, moved in 1976) and Bendang Dalam (No. 50, moved in 1983).

The candi consist of a sacred square Vimana (shrine, usually of Durga, the consort of Shiva) and a rectangular Mandaba (pillared outdoor hall), which are either joined (Bukit Batu Pahat) or separated and made of granite (Kampung Pendiat) or laterite (Bukit Choras), with precious stones, gold foil or ashes of Hindu kings or Buddhist monks in the cavities. Roofs and wooden pillars are only evidenced from base marks, including one with cruciform perforation, somasutra (drain) and remnant tiles.

CA lid of a bronze artefact in the shape of a wagon roof (Site 4), similar to one at a temple in the Mahabalipuram Pallava Kingdom.

Buddhagupta stone inscription discovered in Seberang Prai in 1845 in Sanskrit, with Pallava script dating back to the fifth century.

Eight-sided perforation of flag base pedestal (found at Tikam Batu), dubbed the Raja Bersiong Flagstaff (Site 24), that was moved to the museum site.

Kedah was called Kadaram (fifth century), Kidaram and Kalagam by the Chola Indians who fanned out from the southern ports of Kaveripattinam and Mahabalipuram. To the Arabs, Kedah was known as Kalah, Kalahbar or Qaqullah.

Reference sources were also culled from Tamil literature with a dossier on the invasion of Kadaram by Rajendra Chola (1014-1044) and the writings of Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk Yi-Jing who visited Chieh-cha, as the Chinese called Kedah, in 672 and 685. Kedah had in fact dispatched a plenipotentiary to China in 638.

Some artefacts displayed outside the museum.

The base of a flagstaff.

Interesting developments included the discovery of the tomb of Sultan Muzaffar Shah I (1136-1179, the former Maharaja Derba Raja II or Phra Ong Mahawangsa) in Kampung Langgar; Sungai Mas being the cradle of beads-making (seeds, seashells, animal bones, resin, wax, glass) said to derive from Arikamedu in India; the nine-foot boulder with Sanskrit inscriptions in Pallava script at Cherok Tekun; and the “Raja ‘Vampire King’ Bersiong” Flag-Staff decorated pedestal at Tikam Batu (No. 24).

Some 1,000 pieces of artefacts and reliquaries have also been discovered. They include coins from the Abbasid Caliphate (848), ceramic shards from the Tang (618-907) and early Sung (960-1279), a Gupta bronze standing Buddha of the Sarnath School with pleatless uttrarang and varada mudra, a partly broken greenstone head of Buddha, a seventh to ninth century terracotta Hariti statue, a headless terracotta Ganesha, Persian ceramics, votive tablets, Middle-Eastern glass and gemstones, a granite nandi (vehicle for Lord Shiva) and a miniature wagon-shaped bronze lid similar to the temple roof of Mahabalipuram of the Pallava Kingdom.

Inside the Bujang Valley Archaeology Museum in Merbok, some 20 minutes from Sungai Petani in Kedah.

There is also a large granite circlet probably to secure a pillar or for making signal fires for seafarers, who used the 1,217m-tall Gunung Jerai (to signify the mythical Mount Meru) as a beacon.

“It has been said that if you were to throw a log in Chennai in India, it could reach the Kedah estuary,” says Nadarajan. He postulated that Kadaram was the “Suvarnabhumi” (Golden Land) referred to in the reign of Emperor Asoka (304BC-232BC) when he sent out the Buddhist missionary Sohn Utara Stavira to South-East Asia. Other countries, including Thailand, Myanmar and even Sumatra, had claimed to be “Suvarnabhumi”, although it was the Greek geographer-astronomer Ptolemy (c. 90-168) who had called the Malay Peninsula itself the “Golden Chersonese.”

Scale model of the Candi Bukit Batu Pahat with the stump studs indicating pillar posts.

Candi Bukit Batu Pahat.

Even as more “Lost World” candi sites are being unearthed in Kedah with heady talk of golden chariots and jewels in hidden caves, the myth of the Johor-based Kota Gelanggi kingdom (650-990, said to be the genesis of the Sri Vijaya empire) and recent findings of prehistoric shell middens and mounds in Guar Kepah on mainland Penang are tantalising archeao-tourism goldmines to further develop, what with renewed interest in the mysterious “Perak Man” of Lenggong Valley.

Nadarajan observes in his book, “Archaeologists have yet to establish the political structure, social life, clothing, tools, eating habits and the way of life of the people of Bujang Valley”(p89).

He stresses, “From the first century to 13th century BC, the Bujang Valley was a flourishing and vibrant entrepot, and a prominent Hindu-Buddhist Malay Kingdom in South-East Asia.

“It’s a Malay civilisation built by the Malays who were Hindus and Buddhists then. Like Suryavarman II who built the Angkor Wat was a Cambodian, a Hindu but not an Indian. They behaved like Indians, spoke Indian with a religion and culture that were Indian, but they were not Indian. The Bujang Valley is the birthplace of Malay civilisation.”

Nadarajan, author of the self-published book, Bujang Valley: The Wonder That Was Ancient Kedah, and the one who exposed the wanton destruction of Candi No. 11. For details of the book, Nadarajan can be contacted at nylaw@hotmail.my or +6012 450 1611.

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 30 years.

1 Iklil Izzati Zakaria, Mokhtar Saidin and Jeffrey Abdullah,“Ancient Jetty at Sungai Batu Complex”, www.academia.edu/2232845/ Ancient_jetty_at_Sungai_Batu_Complex_ Bujang_Valley_Kedah

Related Articles

Aug 2017

Remembering Tan Choon Ghee in Ink and Watercolour

His large collection is now at the Penang State Art Gallery.

Apr 2014

Top 12 earners at art auctions

Who are the artists that rake in the dough today?

Jul 2011

Toya: Stretching batik to its limits

At 68, batik painter Toya is still pushing himself and his art. But he may end up being the last of his kind.

Jun 2015

Art thefts are big business

Malaysian art gets stolen more often than you might think.