Head over to the renowned Lembah Bujang Archeological Museum to learn more about the state’s early Hindu-Buddhist civilisation, writes Alan Teh Leam Seng
THE cool morning air is unbelievably crisp and fresh. Coupled with the lush greenery and serene surroundings, the hustle and bustle of city life and its countless sources of stress seem like a lifetime away.
Gone are work load and deadline worries and in their stead are just carefree thoughts about ways of making this pleasant situation last as long as possible.
I continue my relaxing walk up the cobblestone steps lining the grass-covered slope, often punctuating my ascent with intermittent stops to enjoy the picture perfect view of the surrounding countryside down below.
All alone in this wide open space, I suddenly begin to feel small and insignificant. At times feeling like I am nothing more than a tiny speck of dust floating aimlessly in the wind.
The hill slopes of Gunung Jerai is an awe inspiring place. The feelings I have at this moment must have been felt by other visitors to this secluded part of Kedah as well, for this special place was once considered
sacred to the people who lived here more than a thousand years ago.
I had intentionally left home early and imed my journey to perfection, arriving at Lembah Bujang Archeological Museum exactly at its opening time. I am sure the security guard tasked with opening the main gate was pleasantly surprised to see me waiting impatiently in my car on the other side of the divide.
I can hardly contain the excitement building up inside as I gaze longingly at the imposing Gunung Jerai looming majestically in the distance. Finally, at the end of the steps, I arrive at a plateau dotted with relocated ancient stupas or reliquary shrines.
The sight that greets me is breathtaking. Coupled with the earlier awe inspiring walk, I am now starting to understand the reasons why these undulating hill slopes of Gunung Jerai and the fertile plains surrounding it were specially singled out by the people to build their temples and make offerings to their deities.
Their decision to reside here more than 15 centuries ago has placed Kedah on the world map as home to one of the earliest and greatest Hindu-Buddhist civilisations in this region.
Accompanied by the melodious cacophony of cicadas singing from the forest fringe nearby, I study the shrines in detail. Many of the early ones were actually accidental discoveries made by the locals when they cleared forested areas near their homes to plant crops. Reports of such discoveries date as far back as the 1830s.
Within a short period of time, news of the extraordinary finds soon reached Lieutenant Col. James Low, Acting Resident Councillor of Penang. Acting on a hunch, he began searching for possible sites in Province Wellesley. In 1845, Low made spectacular discovery that rocked the archeological world.
He uncovered an inscribed rock tablet in a sandy pit near the ruins of an old Buddhist temple located near the foothills of Kampung Cherok Tok Kun, close to the old St Anne’s Church.
The discovery of this inscribed stone, bearing Pali inscriptions and a representation of a stupa canopied by seven umbrellas in the centre, lends weight to Low’s theory that Bukit Mertajam, just like Gunung Jerai, was used as a prominent landmark more than a thousand years ago by ancient seafarers seeking to find dry land after their long voyage from the Indian subcontinent.
I manage to see this famous tablet after making my way into the museum building.
According to the description, Low sent copies of the inscription to Calcutta soon after his discovery. The English interpretation states that the rock tablet was produced to commemorate a successful voyage made by an Indian sea captain by the name of Buddhagupta.
Based on the type of Pali script used, experts estimate the age of the tablet to be around the 5th century.
The artefacts in the museum are well displayed and their bilingual explanatory notes are useful in helping me travel back in time and learn more about Kedah’s interesting early history.
A well-made diorama depicting a temple found near the peak of Gunung Jerai quickly attracts my attention. Also known as Site 9, it was discovered in 1894 but, like many other sites, proper excavations only began after the British had established a firm foothold in Kedah in the early 20th century.
Apart from the main structure which was made of bricks and granite blocks, experts also found large stone hearth foundations that could have been used to support huge burning pyres. The large fires from this eighth century temple, positioned at a commanding height of 1,300m above sea level, served as guiding beacons for ancient ships entering the Merbok estuary.
The thought that perhaps this could be the earliest form of a lighthouse in our country did cross my mind at that time!
The large Indian dhows, taking advantage of Kedah’s strategic position along the highly lucrative trade route between China and India, then weighed anchor at the Pengkalan Bujang port before unloading their precious cargo onto to smaller boats for onward transportation to the Lembah Bujang settlement further upstream.
Large quantities of Chinese and Middle Eastern earthenware shards discovered in his area point to the existence of a flourishing and well-structured society living in Lembah Bujang, a large area covering an area of more than 400sq km, extending all the way from Bukit Choras, Kedah in the north, to Kampung Cherok Tok Kun, Province Wellesley in the south.
Experts believe that the people living in this region could have evolved from a prehistoric settlement which subsequently developed into a kind of convenient landfall port for ships coming in from India.
As a result of increased intra-regional and long distance trade, Lembah Bujang continued to expand further into a collecting centre for local products. It reached its zenith around the 7th century, becoming the premier entreport in the region and placed Kedah on the international trade map earlier than any other place in the country.
Among the prominent sites that contributed heavily to the large quantity of artefacts in the museum were the Pengkalan Bujang and Bendang Dalam temples. The former, which is also known as Site 21 on the eastern bank of the Bujang River, yielded five Buddhist images, a terracotta image of an elephant, several gold rings, iron nails and glass beads, when excavated by renowned archeologist Dr Quaritch Wales in 1936.
After extensive studies at the various excavation sites, Wales and his wife, Dorothy, eventually came to the conclusion that many of the ancient structures in Lembah Bujang were actually carbon copies of South Indian temples.
A good case in point is the the Pengkalan Bujang eight-sided Buddhist stupa.
Together with several other notable examples, it was relocated to the plateau behind the Lembah Bujang Archeological Museum in 1976.
As I edge towards the last few display in the museum, it becomes obvious that the civilisation in Lembah Bujang began to slowly lose its prominence towards the end of the 14th century, right at the time when the Malay Kingdom in Melaka was beginning to blossom.
Within a decade, Melaka overtook Kedah as the region’s premier trading post. Many archaeologists and historians also believe that the spread of Islam from the Melaka Sultanate contributed significantly to Lembah Bujang’s rapid decline.
I make a quick stop at the museum gift shop before leaving, giving into temptation when I see the wide array of historical books on sale. While waiting to pay for the books, I strikea conversation with the friendly sales employee. Impressed with my keen interest in the local history, he promptly suggests that I make plans to return in future to explore the popular forest trail.
The scenic trail links the museum right up to the summit ofGunung Jerai. Visitors, however, have to register themselves at the museum and hire a guide as the walk includes a combination of several forest trails which may be quite confusing. Estimated to take five hours to complete, the walk covers both the Tapah Forest Reserve Trail and the Singkir Forest Reserve Trail before terminating at the Broadcasting Station at the peak.
My interest is piqued when told that I will get to see trench remnants made by the British soldiers when they tried to stop the advancing Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Wow! I must make plans to come back here again soon and uncover more of Lembah Bujang’s secrets.
LEMBAH BUJANG ARCHAELOGICAL MUSEUM
TEL: 04-457 2005
WEBSTIE: www.jmm.gov.my/ en/museum/lembah-bujangarchaeological-museum
HOURS: Daily from 9am to 5pm except Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji
HOW TO GET THERE Merbok is 60km from Alor Star. Those using the North South Expressway can exit at the Gurun Interchange and follow the main trunk road towards Bedong. Then, just follow the ample signages to reach Merbok town. After that, turn right after the Police Station. The museum is 2.5km up the slopes of Gunung Jerai.
PICTURES BY ALAN TEH LEAM SENG