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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Bujang Valley - 1,200 year old archaeological site being demolished to make way for housing estate...

If you had an 1,200 year old archaeological site in your country, would you not do everything to protect it? Apparently not in the case of Bujang Valley (Lembah Bujang) in Malaysia. I was shocked to find out that it was not even gazetted as a historical monument. And recently it seemed, a developer was allowed to demolish some of the chandi/temples to make way for a housing estate... the infamy of it is unbelievable.

In the last few days, researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) have announced that bricks from a newly excavated jetty complex, uncovered at the Bujang Valley have been dated to the 5th Century BCE. A report from the Korea Basic Science Institute in South Korea, which tested samples from four sections of the jetty using OSL dating technique, has dated them to 487 BC. OSL or Optically Stimulated Luminiscence dating technique is used to date items which are inorganic e.g. bricks, ceramics, glass, sediments etc as opposed to radiocarbon dating which is used to date organic remains such as wood, seeds, bones etc

This discovery makes the neglect and destruction of the candis at Bujang Valley even more appalling - this archaeological site may be the oldest settlement in Southeast Asia. The kingdom, which was based on Bujang Valley, could predate Champa (200 - 1500 AD), Sri Vijaya (800 - 1300 AD) and the Khmer Empire (800 - 1400 AD). However, there has been too much talk of the Cholas - the first influence was definitely the Gupta Dynasty (200 - 500 CE). Gupta brilliance made Southeast Asia fall in love with Hinduism. Later the Pala Dynasty (700 - 1200 CE) converted many to Buddhism. The Chola Dynasty (800 - 1300 CE) came much later and they were perhaps more interested in conquest and gold than trade and culture. They attacked Sri Vijaya at least twice in the 11th Century.
I've blogged about the Bujang Valley before in a post The League of Vampires on 10/8/2012. The oldest story of a vampire ever recorded, that of Raja Bersiong or the Fanged King, came from Malaysia as mentioned in the Chronicles of Merong Mahawangsa. Raja Ong Maha Perita Deria is also mentioned in the Genealogy of the Kedah Sultanate. I speculated that he probably lived in the Bujang Valley, as the concentration on candis here indicate that it must have been a cultural and political centre in the past. 

I first researched the Kedah Genealogy for a folktale entitled Princess Hidden Moon or Puteri Lindungan Bulan for my first book Timeless Tales of Malaysia. According to legend, the princess had white blood (!) a sign of faerie lineage. Apparently two characters from folklore - Raja Bersiong and Puteri Lindungan Bulan were ancient Kedah royalty.

I'm writing a new book based on Raja Bersiong as well. No worries, it's not going to be anything like the old P Ramlee film, Raja Bersiong, or the dance drama staged by the Petronas Performing Arts Group; although the notorious blood-tainted gulai bayam (spinach broth) does make an appearance. My forthcoming book will have an actual plot, in the lines of Twilight meets The Queen of the Damned!

Ornate entrance to a splendid Baba-Nyonya  House in Malacca

As for the Bujang Valley, one can only hope that the authorities finally recognise it for what it is: Malaysia's most ancient cultural heritage. Apparently, documentation have been completed to obtain  recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both Malacca and Georgetown, Penang were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 7 July 2008. They are the 'most complete surviving historic city centres on the Straits of Malacca...' Georgetown in particular has been described as 'a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia.'

Beautifully restored house (now serving as a guesthouse) in Georgetown, Penang

Surely the Bujang Valley deserves to be recognised as a unique UNESCO World Heritage Site as well? In fact, it should have been the first to obtain recognition. I hope this step is not a case of 'too little, too late' and that the largest chandis which were demolished by bulldozers will be restored and the entire site protected.


The more factual article below came from

The Bujang Valley or Lembah Bujang is a sprawling historical complex and has an area of approximately 224 square km. Situated near Merbok, Kedah, between Gunung Jerai in the north and Muda River in the south, it is the richest archaeological area in Malaysia.

These archaeological remains show that there was a 
Hindu-Buddhist polity here. The name itself is roughly translated into "Dragon Valley". The area consists of ruins that may date more than 2000 years old. More than fifty ancient tomb temples, called candi (pronounce "chandi"), have also been unearthed. The most impressive and well-preserved of these is located in Pengkalan Bujang, Merbok. The Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum is also located here. In the area of Bujang Valley known as Sungai Batu, excavation have revealed jetty remains, iron smelting sites, and a clay brick monument dating back to 110AD, making it the oldest man-made structure to be recorded in Southeast Asia.

Research also indicates that there was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom here possibly as early as 110 CE.

The local rulers adopted Indian cultural and political models earlier than those of Kutai in eastern Borneo, in southern Celebes or Tarumanegara in western Java, where remains showing Indian influence have been found dating from the early 5th century. Relics found in the Bujang Valley are now on display at the archaeological museum. Items include inscribed stone caskets and tablets, metal tools and ornaments, ceramics, pottery, and Hindu icons.

For the past two decades, students from universities around Malaysia have been invited for research and have done their graduate works at the Valley. Much of the historical links is still vague considering not many of the scriptures and writings survive. Even the temples did not survive the onslaught of age because their wooden roofing has rotted and withered over the past 1200 years. The museum itself is inadequate and not organized, much of the findings are elsewhere scattered from Museum Negara to Singapore (which once formed a part of Malaysia. Folk stories and oral history also provide place for a magnificent kingdom of jewels and gold. Outside peninsular and insular Southeast Asia, there is oral history in India that suggests the presence of golden chariots and jewels in hidden caves at Bujang Valley and Mount Jerai. Some visitors to the antiquity department at Muzium Negara has eye witness recollection of magnificent objects such as a 10 feet tall Raja Bersiung Throne and various idols and items from the Valley.

On 1 December 2013, it was reported that, a 1,200 year old Hindu Temple at the site, identified as Candi No. 11, had been demolished by a land developer.[4]

In the face of public criticism, the Kedah State Government sought to deflect blame by claiming that it was powerless to do anything because the land was privately owned and further, that the site had not been gazetted as a historical site.[5]

The Deputy Chief Minister II of Penang (a neighbouring state of Kedah), Dr P. Ramasamy, who visited the demolished ruins, was said to have learnt that the Merbok Land Office of Kedah had authorised the developer to clear the land after finding that there were "no historical sites" at the location.

As at the time the Temple was reported demolished, the Federal Tourism and Culture Minister had failed or neglected to respond to the situation, despite the fact that Lembah Bujang is Malaysia's richest archaeological site and home to South East Asia's oldest recorded man-made structure.

LEMBAH BUJANG: This is history destroyed in front of our eyes. History destroyed forever, says an emotional Datuk V. Nadarajan, chairman of the Bujang Valley Study Circle non-governmental organisation.
"What they did to Candi 11 is akin to murder," he added, leaving no doubt as to his passion for this cause.
In August, an ancient Hindu temple or candi believed to be more than 1,000 years old, located in Sungai Batu Estate, Lembah Bujang, was demolished by housing developers who claimed not to have known the historical significance of the stone edifice.
"How could they not have known what it was? It was a huge structure, so big that it could not be relocated to the Bujang Valley Archaeology Museum grounds," explained Nadarajan.
Candi 11 was one of the most ancient of the old Kedah kingdom and was amongst 17 registered candi. Registration, however, did not stop it from being levelled.
Somehow, one of the oldest surviving structures in Malaysia, one of our most concrete links to a distant yet tangible past, is now gone.
The site where the candi stood is now empty land, bulldozers having razed every bit of stone from the area.
In the 1960s and 1970s, 10 candi were reconstructed and some relocated to the museum where they were preserved. Sadly, not all the structures were as well kept.
"Many are gone, thanks to developers," said Nadarajan.
Originally, studies in the 1970s and 1980s located more than 50 candi within 87 archeological sites, but the number is much fewer now and many are unaccounted for.
The way forward must surely be to cordon off the area and prevent further encroachment.
"All these sites must be gazetted by the National Heritage Department with the help of the Kedah state government," said Nadarayan, who urged for the area to be classified as Unesco heritage sites.
"We must also introduce an archaeological impact assessment (AIA) to protect places which are heritage-sensitive," he added.
Relics excavated from Lembah Bujang date back to the 1st century AD and ranged from objects made of gold, ceramics and statues carved from various stones and irons. All the findings are further proof of the valley being a vast archaeological treasure trove.
Since research is still being conducted, the size of the archeological complex is inconclusive.
General belief is that the compound ranges 200 sq km. Others argue that it spans 400 sq km but Nadarajan believes it to be much bigger.
"From USM's satellite photography, I suspect it may be as large as 1,000 sq km," he claimed.
Prof Mokhtar Saidin from the USM Centre for Global Archaeological Research also spoke out against the demolishment of the 32 x 68 foot (995.7 x 2067.6 cm) candi.
"Evidence and archaeological finds of the ninth century are scarce. The candi represent the heritage of ancient Malaya and serve as priceless archaeological structures. It is important that we preserve these vestiges of antiquity, as the candi are some of the few historical remnants that we have left," Prof Mokhtar said.
The Kingdom of Kadaram
Contrary to popular belief, Lembah Bujang was not a valley teeming with bachelors. Rather, the name derives from the Sanskrit "bujangam", meaning serpant or dragon as a nod to the nearby meandering river.
"The kingdom that flourished within the valley was known in its time as 'Kadaram', Sanskrit for iron," said Nadarayan. His statement is substantiated by a recent Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) finding in the area which unearthed ancient furnaces and evidence of iron smelting activities dating back to the fourth century BC.
Due to its strategic location between China and India, Lembah Bujang served merchants from both the east and west, and had an especially strong Indian connection because of its proximity to India.
At first, the population of the time were animistic but later adopted Hindu and Buddhist religions before the advent of Islam to the peninsular.
"In the first century, Indian traders arrived and introduced their culture, way of life and political systems to the native inhabitants of Malaya," said Nadarajan, who said that ancient Lembah Bujang resembled an Indian polity.
When Hinduism and Buddhism began to grow, monuments of various sizes called candi (named after Candika, a manifestation of the Hindu goddess Durga) were constructed and used for religious rites.
All that can be seen from the preserved candi now are its large stone bases. Unlike the candi in Angkor Wat and Borabodur which are mainly carved out of rock from nearby mountains, the candi in Lembah Bujang were constructed out of mixed material.
Because of a flatter terrain, the stone bases were hewn out of rock from nearby river beds. Wooden columns were then fastened and clay roofs were erected. As the body, columns and roof of the candi wore out in time, the stone bases still remain as they were a thousand years ago before becoming victims of development.
Now a lawyer, Nadarajan, 68, is still pursuing his life-long fascination of Lembah Bujang and is the author of a book on the valley.
He spent 10 years as a secondary school history teacher, and made it a point to educate his students on Lembah Bujang even though the topic was not included within the school syllabus.
When news came to him of the demolishment of Candi 11, Nadarajan reacted by informing authorities, making a police report and calling on the media to highlight the plight.
"Although I am sad that candi 11 is no more, there is a silver lining to be had. People are now aware about the importance of the area. In a way, the demolition of one candi brought about the preservation of all the other candi that are still standing."