Monday 15 Jul 2024
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GEORGE TOWN: The recent uproar over the demolition of a historic structure in the Bujang Valley is opportune, as it gives a crucial nudge to remind us of an immense treasure most Malaysians are oblivious about or have conveniently neglected.

When writer Datuk V Nadarajan, who has chronicled many of the ancient buildings in the area, noticed that the structure labelled as Site 11 had disappeared and the land earmarked for development, he sounded the alarm.

Penang Deputy Chief Minister (II) Prof P Ramasamy, a former university academic, rushed to the place and was horrified.

"If this can happen to such an important structure which is supposed to be protected by the government, the fate of the rest brings a lot of worry," he said. "How can the local land office allow the demolition to take place?"

The structure was actually a reconstruction done by Muzium Negara in 1974 from the ruins discovered by British archaeologist H G Quaritch-Wales.

But what this episode has done is highlight the fragility of the precious Bujang Valley archaeological site where countless original buildings and artefacts are found.

It has also ignited much needed curiosity about the area, where an advanced civilisation lived from between100BC and 1300AD.

As a journalist I have had the rare opportunity to cover some thrilling discoveries of the Bujang Valley, including the unearthing of a monument in Sungai Batu dating back to110AD.

Each time my articles and photographs were published, acquaintances asked to find out what the place was about and how it can be reached.

There is a mystique and sense of inaccessibility attached to the Bujang Valley which need to be removed.

Before I review the significance and findings of the area -  and provide some directions to key sites - I would like to share an important memory of my early reporting on the Bujang Valley.

The demolition of Site 11 echoes another tragedy - a similar demoliton - that happened some 19 years ago.

In 1995, I followed-up on a similar incident that had occurred at the peak of Gunung Jerai where a 1,200-year-old shrine, located in an area controlled by Telekom Malaysia Bhd (TM), was torn down.

A team of historians from the University of Singapore had, some time in the 1960s, confirmed it as the remains of a structure from the 8th century AD.

With the approval of then Telecommunications Minister Tun V T Sambanthan, a small temple shed was built to house the ancient shrine. The then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had also visited the site.

However, in July 1995, the whole place was flattened without any notice or warning issued to the temple committee or to TM personnel who frequented the temple.

Several staff leaked the incident to the media and there was a short-lived uproar over the matter.

The then general manager of TM's northern division, Idris Ismail, reportedly admitted to signing the letter of intent for the demolition.

Fast forward to the present, the latest demolition at Site 11 reminds us of how delicate the remaining historic artefacts of the area are.

Many of these are scattered across fields and kampungs, very vulnerable to vandalism and pilferage.

With its majestic height overlooking the Merbok estuary, Gunung Jerai was actually the centre around which a civilisation had thrived some 2,000 years ago.

Up till the 1990s, more than 80 sites were uncovered with structures like the "candi" - a religious building with Hindu-Buddhist elements.

Of these, the famous Candi Bukit Batu Pahat still stands glorious, as it did more than a 1,000 years ago, near Lembah Bujang Museum in Merbok.

Together with these structures, archaeologists also found hundreds of pottery, implements, beads, ceramics and figurines.

Though the structures are not as large as other well-known monuments in Southeast Asia, the Bujang Valley is astounding for its sheer number of sites - more than 200 found since 1840 - spread over a huge area of 1,000 sq km.

However, there have been some sensational new discoveries.

Excavations in the last few years point to the Bujang Valley civilisation existing long before neighbouring empires such as Majapahit (1200 AD) and Sri Vijaya (700 AD).

Since 2009, archaeologists have found more than 100 sites around some oil palm estates in Sungai Batu near Sungai Petani town.

At the heart of these was an amazing ritualistic monument, made of clay brick, confirmed to have been built around 110 AD.

This makes it the oldest man-made building to be recorded in Southeast Asia.

If that was not enough, close to the monument were also found incredibly advanced metal foundries dating back to 50 BC, as well as remains of 2,000-year-old jetties.

Intriguingly, the system of metallurgy here was similar to techniques used in the Indus Valley civilisation of the Indian sub-continent.

Also found were various pottery placed ceremoniously around the monument - and an amazing Buddhist tablet with Pallava-Sanskrit inscriptions likely to have been made in the 5th century AD.

In terms of its archaeological worth, the Bujang Valley is priceless.

It is older than Indonesia's magnificent Borobudur (8th century AD) temple, Cambodia's Angkor Wat (11th century AD) and Vietnam's My Son ruins where the enigmatic Siva-Bhadresvara Temple (4th century AD) lies.

It is not as though the government has not recognised the historic value of the area.

The Sungai Batu site is being meticulously researched and managed by a very impressive team from the Centre for Global Archaeological Research of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).

When opening the USM Archaeology Gallery on April 3 last year, Heritage Commissioner Prof Emeritus Datuk Zuraina Majid had announced the government's allocation of RM20 million through the National Heritage Department for conservation of the Sungai Batu archaeological area.

In 2010, the department together with USM organised the International Conference on Bujang Valley and Early Civilisation in Southeast Asia attended by eminent foreign historians and which I also covered.

In fact, a highly enthused Tan Sri Rais Yatim, the then Information, Communications and Culture minister, had this to say: "If indeed the Sungai Batu find in the Bujang Valley factually revisits the civilisation that existed in the 1st century AD, then the history of this country will almost certainly have to be re-written in its proper civilisational context."

Indeed, the Bujang Valley civilisation is recorded by early travellers - including the legendary Chinese explorer I-Ching (who visited in 673 AD and 685 AD) and by Chola voyagers - as Kataha, Kidaram or Chieh-Cha.

The earliest writings about Bujang Valley are in a Tamil poem called Pattanopolai written between the second and third century AD.

The port settlement could have had trading and cultural ties with empires such as Funan and Champa in the Indo-Chinese region.

It is also likely to have been part of the Langkasuka empire which dominated much of the Malay Peninsula, and whose traces have also been found in Patani, South Thailand.

(There is a very similar archaeological place with "candi" structures in Yarang, Patani.)

Dr Stephen Oppenheimer of Oxford University's school of anthropology described the Bujang Valley as "the earliest monumental site" and "one of the most important finds in Southeast Asia over the last couple of decades.

Indeed, the Bujang Valley is an exquisite heritage of our nation.

It is a place that every Malaysian - regardless of ethnicity or walk of life - must be proud of and strive to protect from any further encroachment or loss.

How to get there:

There are two primary sites that are most informative and easily accessible.

The first is the Muzium Lembah Bujang in Merbok where an eye-opening display of numerous artefacts and some ample historical information are found. The original Candi Bukit Batu Pahat and a few other reconstructed structures are in the hilly compound behind the museum.

It is best to use the northern exit of Sungai Petani from the North-South Expressway (PLUS). Drive straight ahead after the toll, passing Laguna Merbok township on your right. Turn right a few minutes later at Jalan Taman Orkid, which links to Jalan Raya Semeling.

You will then cross a bridge over a river. Go straight until you reach a T-junction just after SJK (C) Ching Chong on your left. Turn left at the T-junction and head towards Merbok town.

Once you reach the town, locate the Merbok police station beside which is an uphill road that leads to the museum.

The second place is the active archaeological site in Sungai Batu where USM is now operating.

Go back to Jalan Raya Semeling, but pause at the four-road junction before the

bridge. Take the right and go straight until you see a series of canopies amidst the oil palm plantation on the right.

This is where the archaeological team is operating. There is information provided for visitors and the public are generally allowed to walk around, except for any delicate excavation areas indicated.

Entrance to Muzium Lembah Bujang is free, but it closes at 4.30pm. For details, visit the museum's site here: http://www.jmm.gov.my/en/museum/lembah-bujang-archaeological-museum


For more stories, go to www.fz.com, the website for freedom of expression and fairness in articulation.


This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on December 4, 2013.




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