Tuesday, July 13, 2010

S-E Asia’s oldest monument in Bujang Valley

The oldest building to be recorded in Southeast Asia has been discovered in the Bujang Valley. It is a clay brick ritualistic monument that has been dated back to 110 AD.

Hismanshu Bhatt
has the story in theSun:
The Bujang Valley rises at last
THE next time you happen to be anywhere near the northern side of Penang or the southwestern stretch of Kedah, turn your gaze northward; you will see in the horizon the silhouette of a large mountain with a sharp peak.
Most of us have taken Gunung Jerai, also known as Kedah Peak, the highest mountain in northern Malaysia, for granted. However, a few of us are conscious that some of the most historic discoveries in Southeast Asia are now being made around the mountain’s surroundings.
Almost every country in Southeast Asia has at least one ancient monument that has served as a source of pride for its people who view it in awe, as an important part of their roots. Indonesia, for example, has the magnificent Borobudur (8th century AD), Cambodia has the Angkor Wat (11th century AD) and Vietnam has the Siva-Bhadresvara Temple in My Son (4th century AD).
Little do we know that peninsular Malaysia has also been home to an incredible set of age-old structures, which though not as large as the other well-known monuments in the region, are impressive enough for their sheer numbers in the area named the Bujang Valley.
Since as far back as the 1840s, archaeologists have been unearthing remnants of a civilised settlement that existed in the Bujang Valley from around the 8th century AD to the 13th century. More than 80 sites have been uncovered with structures like the candi, a religious building with Hindu-Buddhist elements, most prominent among the findings.
Of these, the famous Candi Batu Pahat still stands glorious, as it did more than a thousand years back, near the Muzium Lembah Bujang in Merbok. Together with the structures, archaeologists also found hundreds of pottery, implements, beads and figurines.
Incredibly enough, although the archaeological works have been extensive and intense, little is known or even told about this ancient civilisation, veritably the cradle of Malaysia.
But a new discovery made about two years ago is set to change the invisibility of the Bujang Valley among our public. Archaeologists have discovered at least 97 ancient sites around some oil palm estates in Sungai Batu. So far only 10 have been uncovered.
And what they have revealed are propelling the rewriting our land’s recorded history and what is being taught to our children in schools. The discoveries point to evidence that the Bujang Valley civilisation existed 2,000 years ago, long before neighbouring empires such as Majapahit (AD1200) and Sri Vijaya (AD700).
At the heart of the findings is a perplexing clay brick ritualistic monument that has been dated back to AD110, making it the oldest man-made building to be recorded in Southeast Asia.
The Sungai Batu monument and its surrounding structures – including ancient jetties and iron smelting workshops – point to an advanced culture pre-dating many Indianised kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Also found with the monument were various pottery placed ceremoniously around, and a Buddhist tablet with Pallava-Sanskrit inscriptions likely to have been made in the 5th century AD.
An extensive research is being done by the Centre for Global Archaeological Research (CGAR) of Universiti Sains Malaysia to determine how advanced the little-known civilisation – known variously in historic annals as Kataha, Kidaram and Chieh-Cha – was. Just this week scholars from around the world converged at the Bujang Valley to express amazement at the discovery and how it is reshaping understanding of the region’s history.
Long before the empire of Malacca, there was already this powerful trading settlement in Kedah, which just happened to mysteriously disappear. But the secret of its existence cannot be held back any longer. The legacy of the Bujang Valley has risen at last. And it now promises to fully gain our attention, to reclaim its stature that is long overdue; just as it did among the early people of this land who lived around the majestic Gunung Jerai many centuries ago.
Himanshu is theSun’s Penang bureau chief.