The Lost Kingdoms Exhibition @ Muzium Negara, Kuala Lumpur

Southeast Asia was once home to many Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, such as Angkor in Cambodia, Kedah Tua in modern-day Malaysia, as well as the mighty Srivijaya, Sailendra and Majapahit empires in what is today Indonesia. Their legacies can be seen in the form of ancient temples, relics and artefacts that have survived through the ages. Good news for history buffs – you can see them for yourself at The Lost Kingdoms exhibition, currently running at Muzium Negara in Kuala Lumpur until the end of April 2020. The entrance fee to the main section of the museum is just RM2, and covers entry to this exhibition as well!

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Working with the National Museum of Indonesia and the National Museum of Cambodia, Lost Kingdoms maps out 12 ancient Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Southeast Asia, featuring 103 items that are a mix of real artefacts as well as replicas. Through these items, one can see that there are many similarities between the cultures of the region, from the techniques used to create beautifully carved statues of the gods, to the elaborate decorations found on the hilts of traditional weaponry.

Here are just some of the exhibits that visitors will get to see at the exhibition:

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A 9th century statue of the Hindu god Vishnu, from pre-Angkorian times (on loan from the National Museum of Cambodia).

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Angkorian/Banteay Srei style seated garuda from the late 10th century, carved from red sandstone. Half man and half bird, the garuda is an important mythical figure in Hindu folklore, being the bearer of the Hindu god Vishnu. The garuda features heavily in Javanese and Balinese culture, and is also featured on the Indonesian crest.

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Another statue of Vishnu, this one from the pre-Angkorian period in the Prei Khmeng Style. The statue is made from sandstone and dates back to the mid 7th century. The full, round forms of the face demonstrate the strong Indian influence in the region. Vishnu holds a conch in his raised left hand, a war discus (chakra) in his right, while his lowered left hand rests on the remains of a mace.

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If I’m not mistaken, this is the head of a Kala, a common sight at many Hindu/Buddhist temples in Central Java. The Kala is a mythical lion-like creature – its name in Sanskrit also symbolises ‘time’, which is why the kala is said to devour everything, just as time does.

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One of my favourite pieces from the exhibition is an elaborate relief of Vishnu riding the Garuda, dedicated to the king of Airlangga from the Kahuripan kingdom (9th to 10th century). The image of Vishnu was made in the king’s likeness, to honour his contribution to rescuing and rebuilding Java after the kingdom almost collapsed from war with a neighbouring empire. This is on loan from the National Museum of Indonesia.

 

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Statue of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha made from granite stone, from the Kedah Tua (Kataha) kingdom, 6th to 7th century. Unlike the Hindu Buddhist kingdoms in Java, Indonesia, or even Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, not much remains of the Kataha kingdom in Kedah, other than a couple of candis (shrines).

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Prajnaparamita Statue from the Singhasari Kingdom, 13th century. Prajnaparamita is the goddess of transcendental wisdom in Buddhist tradition, and this particular statue is said to have been modeled after the beauty of Ken Dedes, an ancient Javanese princess who was the consort of Ken Arok, the first king of the Singhasari Kingdom. It is said that the kings that ruled from the Srivijayan to Majapahit eras were direct descendants of Ken Dedes, making her the literal mother of kings.

The Lost Kingdoms Exhibition is running until April 30 at Muzium Negara’s Gallery 2.  Entrance is RM2 for Malaysians (included with the ticket to the main museum).

Museum opening hours are from 9AM – 6PM.

Why You Shouldn’t Miss The Ramayana Ballet @ Prambanan, Yogyakarta

If you’re big on culture and the arts, then the Ramayana Ballet @ Prambanan is a MUST-SEE when visiting Yogyakarta in Indonesia.  A unique blend of Javanese dance and Hindu mythology, the performance is based on the Hindu epic Ramayana – and chronicles the tale of Rama, the Hindu prince on a quest to save his wife Sita from the clutches of an evil demon king. The show is held in an open-air amphitheatre against a gorgeous backdrop of the Prambanan Hindu temple – a UNESCO World Heritage site – which adds to the mystery and exotic allure of the entire performance.

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The majestic Prambanan temple complex dates back to the 9th century and is dedicated to Trimurti, the expression of God as the Creator, the Preserver and the Transformer (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva). There are hundreds of smaller shrines within the compound, but the main one towers over 47 metres into the air and features intricate reliefs and carvings – one of which is the epic Ramayana, of which the ballet is based on.

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The 2-hour show is divided into two parts, with an intermission. Although it doesn’t have dialogue, there are screens explaining the ‘scene’ on both sides of the amphitheatre.

The massive production features over 200 actors, all of whom are skilled in the art of Javanese dance, which emphasises precise yet graceful movements that are spellbinding to watch.

Video: 

Synopsis: 

The story starts with Rama Wijaya, the prince of Ayodya Kingdom, winning the hand of a beautiful princess named Dewi Sita, through an archery competition. However, the evil ruler of Alengkadiraja, Prabu Rawana, is eager to marry Sita himself. The scene transitions to Dandaka Forest, where Rama, Sita and Rama’s younger brother, Laksmana, are out on an adventure. Rawana sees this as the perfect chance to capture Sita, so he orders one of his followers to change into a golden deer to attract her attention. Sita is awed by its beauty and asks Rama to catch it, which he obliges. After waiting for a long time, she grows worried and begs Laksmana to look for him. Before leaving, he draws a magic circle to protect her. As soon as she is left alone, Rawana disguises himself as a beggar and lures the innocent, kind Sita out before capturing her and flying off to his own kingdom.

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Rama eventually realises he has been tricked when the deer transforms back into an evil giant. He manages to kill it, and upon rushing back, realises that Sita has gone missing. The brothers set off to search for her.

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Meanwhile, Rawana carrying Sita meets a mystical bird, Jatayu, who realises she is being kidnapped. There is a fight to save her but ultimately, the bird falls prey to the demon king. As he lay dying, the brothers arrive and find out that it is Rawana who has spirited Sita away.

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Moments later, a white monkey named Hanuman arrives. Hanuman is searching for heroes to help kill Subali, a member of his tribe who has taken his uncle’s woman by force. Rama decides to help, and after helping the monkey kingdom solve their problems, Hanuman is sent to help Rama in his quest.

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In the kingdom of Alengka, Sita is being held against her will. Rawana’s niece, Trijata, comes to comfort her in the garden. Rawana arrives and asks Sita to be his wife, which she refuses. This drives him into a fit of rage, but Trijata convinces him to spare her, after which he leaves. As Sita laments her predicament, she hears a song sung by Hanuman, who explains that he is there on the orders of her husband. Hanuman destroys the garden, but is no match for Rawana’s son Indrajit, who captures him and sentences him to be burnt alive.

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Just before Hanuman is set on fire, he escapes and turns the tide, burning down the kingdom.

(This was one of my favourite scenes in the production! The actors were using real fire, and even seated at a distance, I could feel the heat coming from the stage)

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A large statue of Hanuman rising up from back stage, flanked by burning ‘buildings’ (straw structures that represented houses)

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Hanuman makes his way just outside the burning kingdom, where Rama and the rest of the ape troops are waiting. After receiving the report on troop strength, Rama commands Hanuman and other monkey generals to lead the troop on an attack on the kingdom of Alengka.

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The war results in the deaths of both Rawana’s son, Indarjit, and his younger brother Kumbakarna. Rawana finally leads his troops to face Rama and a battle ensues. Of course, the hero triumphs, killing the evil demon king with an arrow, before Hanuman drops a mountain (yes, a mountain – Mount Sumawana) on Rawana’s body.

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Sita is finally rescued, but Rama refuses to accept her (kinda lol since he came all this way to save her and all, wut) until she proves her purity. To show her innocence, Sita burns herself, and with the help of the God of Fire, walks out unscathed. Her proof makes Rama happy and the pair lived happily ever after.

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I was truly awed by the grace and beauty of the dance, as well as how they recreated the Ramayana epic into such a mesmerising show. It’s something I admire greatly in Indonesia – they work hard to protect their culture and keep it alive, unlike in Malaysia where rising religious conservatism has resulted in some authorities ‘banning’ traditional arts, deeming them “against religion” (like the Mak Yong in Kelantan, a pre-Islamic Malay dance).  A majority of Yogyakartans are Muslim, and they have two of the grandest ancient Buddhist and Hindu monuments in Southeast Asia, which are well maintained and kept as national treasures. I believe carrying on tradition and being proud of your heritage has no bearing on what you believe in, if you are truly a follower of the faith.

The Ramayana Ballet at Prambanan is held every alternate day. Tickets start from 125,000 IDR (RM35 – USD8 ) USD to 400,000 IDR (RM113 – USD27) depending on seating.

For the full schedule and to make reservations, go to visitramayana.com  

 

*Photos not watermarked are courtesy of PT Taman Wisata Candi Borobudur

Liv in KL – Batu Caves Temple, Kuala Lumpur

Back when I was in uni, I used to go on this social networking site called Stickam, which is kind of like Omegle minus the perverts and with more awesome people. While the online world has its fair share of trolls, I have never since found another site that has forged so many meaningful and lasting friendships with people from all over the world. Some of the Stickam community that I used to be close to have gotten out of touch, but I still chat with many of them. Recently, one of them visited me while she was in Kuala Lumpur over the weekend, and we had a really awesome time.

Meet Livinda, my friend from Bandung, Indonesia whom I have been chatting with for over two years.

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There’s always a worry that you might not be able to click with someone coz they act differently online and irl, but we got along just fine. I picked her up from her hotel in Bukit Bintang and we went to Batu Caves in Sentul. It’s not my first time here – I have been coming here over the years for both prayers and later on, as a tourist. If you’re wondering why prayers, my family used to pray to the patron deity here, Lord Murugan, when I was a kid. We really stood out from the crowd, being Chinese and all (Chinese in Malaysia are usually Christian, Taoist or Buddhist) from the sea of Indian-Hindu devotees.

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The traffic jam was terrible so we got here later than expected and it was already afternoon. Liv said it was really hot because apparently Bandung is a mountainous region and has temperatures hovering around a cool 25 degrees. How lucky! She also commented that KL looks more similar to Jakarta rather than Bandung. I must pay a visit soon.

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Batu Caves is a beautiful cluster of limestone hills housing old Hindu temples dating back to the late 1800s. It is primarily dedicated to Lord Murugan, The Hindu God of War, also known by the names Kartikeya, Skanda and Subryamaniam. The Temple Cave houses the original deity statue, which can be reached by a steep 272 steps climb. As the place developed into a prominent tourist attractions, various other shrines have been added at the foot of the caves, along with a lake and small park area, as well as traders selling trinkets, souvenirs and food mushrooming all along the boulevard.

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Beautiful gold painted detail on the roof of one of the shrines.

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A shrine for Hanuman, the Monkey God. Some old Hindu texts have claimed that Hanuman is a vanara, or ‘forest man’. He appears in many epics such asRamayana and the Mahabharata.

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The temple committee has also opened a new section that wasn’t there on my previous visit. We paid a RM2 entry fee to visit the Ramayana caves. A statue of a deity with horses pulling the chariot greets visitors.

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The cave itself is impressive. It has statues depicting scenes from the famous Hindu epic, Ramayana. It would be great if they had accompanying placards to tell the story though.. but I think they haven’t installed them yet because the section is quite new.

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The limestone caves here date back to 400mil years ago and are very beautiful when illuminated by various coloured lights.

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Shops selling everything from clothing to fresh coconuts, crowded with tourists and flocks of pigeons.

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Climbing up the stairs had me wheezing like a burst balloon… but we finally made it! To the first time visitor, be careful with your belongings while making your ascent/descent because there are resident monkeys who won’t think twice about grabbing stuff from you. Also, visitors wearing shorts should cover up with a rented cloth before proceeding to the temple at the top.

Stories have it that the founder of the temples, an Indian trader called K.Thamboosamy Pillai, found the entrance to the caves shaped like a ‘vel’, or spear, which is also what Lord Murugan uses – hence the site of the temple.

To culture geeks, visit during the Thaipusam festival if you’re not afraid of really, really large crowds. Thaipusam is a religious Hindu festival dedicated to Lord Murugan, and it is celebrated with much pomp in Malaysia at Batu Caves, with visitors even travelling from India to experience it. During the event, devotees take part in an eight hour procession from another temple, carrying milk pitchers and colourful kavadis (carriers). The kavadi bearers often pierce themselves with hooks in various parts of the body as a show of devotion and faith, while priests attend to them. The story goes that there is no blood, but I can’t say for sure because I have never been there during the festival.

 

I think Batu Caves is a beautiful place that is rich in culture, religion, spirituality and natural beauty. So if you’re ever in KL, do pay a visit! You’ll take back lots of knowledge and memories