Rediscovering the Malay Hindu-Buddhist civilisation of Lembah Bujang
By Vinod Nair
I first came to know of Bujang Valley‚ discovered in 1930s‚ from an article I read in Time magazine entitled, On the Road from Sapporo to Surabaya‚ in 2000. The section on Malaysia was subtitled, ‘Heritage Denied’.
When I realised there were ruins in Kedah that suggested the existence of a Malay Hindu-Buddhist civilisation, I was fascinated. Images of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Sri Satchanalai in Thailand came to mind. But the ruins of Bujang Valley predate Angkor Wat and are something quite different.
Although not as grand and monumental as Angkor Wat, the evidence points to this older civilisation being a vast network of nodes. Its excavation is still ongoing, and would requires state and federal governments to set aside funds for research, collaboration, the hiring of experts and technology to identify, restore and preserve the artifacts and structures.
Its historic significance is surely as epic as the tourist meccas of Cambodia and Bagan, but the Malaysian historical narrative is now a touchy political subject. The Bujang Valley was mentioned in the Tawarikh and Sejarah textbooks of the 1970s and 80s; it predates the Islamic Malacca Sultanate by at least 1,000 years, but Malaysian politics recognises time immemorial as the year 1400, when Malacca was founded by an Indian prince called Parameswara who later converted to Islam.
My first visit‚ if memory serves‚ was in 2003 and my second, 2006. I visited the museum on both occasions; there wasn’t any discernible change to it on the second visit. On my second trip, I had wanted to visit the actual sites being excavated, but I was unfamiliar with the area and didn’t have any contacts. After the infamous demolition of Candi 11 (tap sidebar next page), I made my third trip but this time I managed to secure the contact of one Mr Gokilan of Kadaram Bujang Valley Services. He referred me to Mr P. Selva, a part-time student of History in USM in Penang. With his help, I was able to visit several areas of importance in the Bujang Valley.
In touring the place, it was clear that the civilisation covered a large area. As I had only one day to spare, we visited the areas that were the closest. I had wanted to visit the mouth of the Merbok river where many trading vessels from India and China would have come through and so we made our way to Tanjung Dawai now famous for its dried seafood. Today, the geography of the area has changed; some areas have become land while others are now submerged. I was told that many traders would use Gunung Jerai as a landmark when navigating and so I tried to stand at the different points of the river and the road to see what they might have seen. Mr Selva had mentioned that some of the ground the roads runs on, was previously sea or river hence the presence of sea shells when the area is excavated.
Much is still to be ascertained about the Bujang Valley civilisation including its society, its power structure, the harbour. Did it have a city area or a trading centre? Some of the clues come from Indian historical documents, and others from Chinese sources. But much work still needs to be done to unearth the history of the civilisation. It has been mooted that the very numerous sites should be gazetted as historic monuments and the Bujang Valley could possibly be recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site. What is certain (to my mind) is that if the powers-that-be are willing to overcome their political inhibitions, it is quite possible for the people of the area to reap the economic benefits that will follow if the site is indeed declared a Unesco Heritage site. An immense amount of work lies ahead.
At present in Sungai Batu, Kedah, excavations are ongoing and it would seem that every mound in the oil palm plantation next to the river seems to have a historical site under it. According to Haji Jalil, an archaeologist and ex-museum staff who came all the way from Malacca‚ a very exciting discovery has been made (but can’t be confirmed as yet) of an sea-going vessel, through the use of satellite services, by the team led by Encik Mokthar Saidin. The vessel, I was told is submerged in water and mud, and any attempt to raise it would ruin the structure.
The potential gains in historical knowledge, self-knowledge, global prominence and tourism could convince those in power to grant funds to explore, research, reconstruct and preserve the area. The multiplier effect in tourist dollars and in the richness of our shared history make the patient and sensitive exploration of Bujang Valley a ‘win-win situation’, the phrase du jour of those in power.
Candi connotes a place of worship, in this case Hindu or Buddhist and is an abbreviation of Chandigarh (literally, the fort of Chandi, the goddess). Candi 11 was excavated by HG Quaritch Wales and Dorothy Wales between 1936 and 1937. Reconstruction happened in the 1974 when local experts rebuilt the now infamous Candi 11 which was demolished in November 2013 by a property developer. It is said that detailed drawings of the site can be obtained from the Merbok Museum in Bujang Valley, Kedah and so there is a possibility of rebuilding the site if all the materials can be salvaged. The developer that demolished the ancient site has since offered to bear the cost of its reconstruction.
The furore was fuelled when the first-term Menteri Besar of Kedah, Mukhriz Mahathir, played down the destruction on Twitter, drawing an unfavourable comparison between Candi 11 and Borobodur and Angkor Wat. After a meeting with USM academic Mokhtar Saidin who leads the present excavation in Sungei Batu in the Bujang Valley, the Menteri Besar then proposed that the Tourism and Culture Minister Nazri Abdul Aziz develop the civilisation site as an international tourist attraction and suggested using satellites and remote sensing to detect and identify artifacts or other areas of historical value. There remain serious reservations, however, about the proposal of the Mukhriz to relocate the historical sites from their original locations.
V Nadarajan, the author of the book Bujang Valley: The Wonder that was Ancient Kedah, described the destruction of the site as ‘murder’ to the news portal, Free Malaysia Today. He welcomed the announcement of the reconstruction albeit with a loss of the carefully reconstructed site’s authenticity. One thing is for sure: the world has been put on notice of the Bujang Valley and how Malaysia considers its national story. – Vinod J Nair