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Lembah Bujang's vast potential
Funds needed to preserve treasure trove of artifacts
KEDAH historian Ismail Salleh has expressed fear that a lot of artifacts discovered now by villagers at Lembah Bujang may be sold to unscrupulous dealers or destroyed through ignorance. "Antique dealers or their agents can be seen hanging around in coffee shops and making themselves readily accessible to villagers who may find valuable artifacts," he said. Many villagers, he said, were most reluctant to surrender artifacts they found to the museum authorities as they do not get any monetary benefit. "For example, can you imagine them handing over a gold figurine to the authorities? "Can anyone blame them if they head straight to the dealers or their agents with their find?" he said.
Ismail sympathised with the authorities whom he said lacked the funds as well as personnel and who were also racing against time. He also cited the example of the fort at Kuala Kedah which had remained neglected all these years.
Historical records show that early Chinese, Indian, Arab and Greek scholars have left accounts dating back to the third century about the fabled land of Kataha (Kedah), Srivijaya, and Trambalinga. They describe more or less what archaeologists today know for certain, that Lembah Bujang with its hundreds of temples and shrines, conceals the remains of the lost civilisation of the Hindu Kingdom, Srivijaya, dating from the first few centuries to the 12th century AD.
Srivijaya was essentially a maritime power which was not interested in acquiring more territory but its fleet established check-points, with small naval bases at strategic places to control the trade of the Straits of Malacca and the Sunda Straits, the two passages between India and China. Through these bases and the revenue they levied, Srivijaya became very powerful, and was overthrown only when its fleets became quarrelling packs of pirates in the 13th century.
The name "Bujang", it is believed, is derived from the Sanskrit word bhujanga which means serpent. Indians began coming to the Malay Peninsula primarily because they were sailing to the rich, cultured civilisation of China. They sold pepper and cotton there and bought silk, porcelain and precious objects. However, when they discovered that gold, the most precious object of all, could also be secured in the Malay Peninsula, the country then became not an obstruction to be sailed around or walked across, but a land attractive in itself.
To the merchants, travellers and seamen who for centuries had crossed the vast Indian Ocean, Gunung Jerai must have appeared to them like the seat of the Gods, which provided them with land, safety, food and fresh water. More than 50 individual temple sites have been excavated and to date, nine of them have been painstakingly reconstructed. However, more research is still needed to explain the ruins, says Ismail. They may have been more than just a religious centre where sailors, grateful for having crossed the Bay of Bengal, and guided over the last of it by the towering landfall of Gunung Jerai, came ashore in the sheltered Sungai Merbok and paid tribute to the Gods before venturing further south.
During the 1960s, some historians found it difficult to believe that any important settlement, other than an active fishing village supporting a religious centre, could be sustained in this swampy area close by a mountain, unless it was another Trans-peninsula terminus. "It must have been a big settlement due to the large number of artifacts found over the years. To be fair to the earlier historians, most of the artifacts were only found in the 1980s," he said. Ismail said further south within the Sungai Mas area, artifacts such as granite implements and building parts, semi-precious stones and beads are still being discovered. There must have been early settlements which flourished at Bukit Penjara, Bukit Meriam and Batu Lintang, all to the south of Sungai Merbok, he said.
As compared to Lembah Bujang where "finds"' were first made in pre-war days, the first discoveries of Sungai Mas were only made in the 1970s by researchers from Universiti Malaya and the Museums and Antiquities Department. It is believed that the department has plans to establish a museum in the Sungai Mas area in view of the many discoveries being made.
According to the Malay Annals, Rajendra I, King of Chola in India, attacked Srivijaya and Lembah Bujang in 1025 to smash the commercial monopoly of Srivijaya over the China trade route. Its king was captured together with his elephants, his capital was sacked, and his State treasures carried off to India. Painstaking excavation work by archaeologists has revealed that the Candi Bukit Batu Pahat in Lembah Bujang is not a tomb temple. They found within its enclosure six intact granite caskets with nine chambers. The chambers contained mainly Tantric symbols, gems and other small objects considered precious or magically powerful. Contrary to earlier assumptions, they did not contain the slightest trace of ashes or bones. The purpose of the multi-chambered caskets, with their foundation deposits, was to ensure by magical means. that the shrine, image or stupa built above them, had the power and attributes of a microcosm.
H.G. Quatritch Wales, the archaeologist, wrote that the apparently exceptional importance of the Bukit Batu Pahat 'temple can find sufficient explanation in its relation to the sacred character of Gunung, Jerai, which, in the eves of a very thoroughly Indianised people at this period, involved no cult of dead kings. The history of this Indianised period may be difficult to discover and relate, but its result, namely the cultural legacy passed on to Malaysia, is still evident all around us.
Reprinted from the New Straits Times,
Thursday August 10, 2000
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