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The National Museum Of Indonesia


Excellent cannons inside and out were the finest I have seen, preserved in perfect condition with many varied motifs now legible, most interesting of which was the intermingled letters of the VOC below a capital A of unknown significance. Others made locally after the introduction of that technology in the 17th century were inscribed with an indefinable language, perhaps Thai, and others had been forged to resemble dragons. Of particular note here was the saddle and spear reputedly used by national hero Pangeran Diponegoro in his most famous of all wars against the Dutch 1825-30. In opposition stood a portrait and bust of a certain Conrad Theodor van Deventer 1857-1915, some colonial bigwig no doubt, but no explanation was rendered as to his importance.

From that small historical section I entered an ethnogeographical section boasting tremendous maps of the archipeligo, some relating the fantastic ethnic diversity to be found in this country. Complimenting it were portraits of people deemed to represent typical regional features in traditional dress. Sumatra was revealed like I had never known it, with the Batak people having 6 subgroups for example, yet the massive expanse of homogenous Maning Kabau culture surprisingly covered almost a third of the island. Melayu culture reserved the whole of the East coast. Java was ethnically split into 3, with the Sundanese populating the West where I was now, true Javanese inhabited the centre, then the Madurese in the East. Most striking was the diversity of the Eastern provinces however. I had fully expected it in Irian Jaya in line with the many remote isolated tribes of Papua New Guinea, but even more so was the intricate patchwork of different linguistic regions in Sulawesi. A third map detailed population density, revealing Java's sizeable average to be remarkably variable, the Eastern third was surprisingly sparse with less than 100 people per square kilometre. In the remainder of the island that averaged about 800, peaking predictably in Jakarta to a whopping 14,000. A massive relief map then related Indonesia's topography superbly, the long continuous curve of the "Crescent of Fire" was excellent in helping me realise my past escapades in greater succinctity. The very rugged mountains of Sumatra contrasted with the many distinct volcanic cones of Java, and Lombok for example appeared to be just a single massive cone. North and East of the Sumatran range the island was like a billiard table by comparison, and it looked like it too I recalled with its carpet of rice fields. Then I was blown away all over again with a gigantic relief map of Java longer than a bus, which showed its fantastic volcanic wonders with much more perceptible clarity. Gunung Bromo was revealed for what it was, a very wide caldera in which a city could have been swallowed, other cones stretched almost vertically to the sky in unlikely peaks like teets on a pigs belly. An unnamed peak in north eastern West Java near the city of Cirebon was amazing in its perfect abrupt symmetry, and in the east Gunung Semeral was similar. Most spectacular though appeared to be the Gunung Merapi range in the far East, even the massive conurbation of Jakarta was nothing on this scale.

From here I just let the rest of the museum wash over me since it was quickly clear that I could spend days trying to deduce every last possible lesson from its massive superb collection. Particularly unusual points of interest which stuck out though were a hobby horse resembling the ones used in the paganism of The Whickerman, used in central Java in a trance inducing dance ceremony. Next to it were many "Debus", implements with lethal spikes of baffling dimensions used for demonstrating ones invulnerability. Originating from the Banten region, mystics would enter a trance then variously stab and pierce themselves as they do in parts of India, purportedly without showing blood or pain. The mysticism continued in Javanese culture in learning that there had arisen a rice goddess named Dewi Sri. In the houses of village headmen, a bedroom dedicated to her named a Pasren was maintained for blessings and purification of harvested crops.

Then there was a massive Chinese dragon dancing costume originating form Bali, but the extravaganza of very colourful and exotic Balinese culture was too much to absorb, even terracotta roof tiles from there were tremendously worked objects of art. Totems from Sulawesi were unusual in being especially tall and slender, consisting of human effigies standing on each others shoulders with a difficult to describe phallic cum spear like projection thrusting out from its height at an angle. A generous collection of Hindu and Buddhist bronzes taught me that Hinduism arrived in Indonesia some 2000 years ago, and also in bronze were Kentongan, hollow cylindrical drums used for communication between villages, such as to warn of attack. Giant very ornately scribed kettle drums were another wonder.

Then came the anthropological standard displays of skulls, and it was very pleasing to see Darwinian theory finding its place here where other Islamic countries might omit it. Java Man also found his place here of course, it was explained that the Solo River valley on Java had revealed some of the worlds richest hominid fossil finds, man having arrived there over 1 million years ago. The lower sea levels of that time meant that there was a land bridge all the way from Europe to Bali, with cooler climes making this part of the world a vast savannah. Java Man AKA Homo Erectus was discovered for the first time here by a young Dutch doctor Eugene Dubois who had arrived here in direct response to Darwin's theories, finding 2 skulls at a spot known as Wajak near Tulungagung, East Java in 1889. This was the hoped for "missing link" to the earliest fossil finds here, more robust specimens dating back as far as 1.7 million years.

The contemporary Indonesian people originate from 2 main races, the Mongoloid of the Asian mainland and in the East the Australomelanesoid. From around 4000BC the Mongoloids began to dominate throughout the Nusantara archipeligo. Separated in islands, many distinct ethnic groups developed diverse cultures which have later become more heterogeneous through migration and trade links developing, thus the rich tapestry of the very diverse people of Indonesia. Again I came across a map of the land bridge which had once connected Sumatra, Java, Borneo and Nusa Tengara just short of Timor to the Asian mainland, ending with the recession of the last ice age and rising of sea levels with the start of the Holocene era 11,000 years ago. It was also incidentally explained that a similar contiguity had once connected Papua to Australia and Tasmania, what was known as the Sahul Plateau. Similarl to early man, faunal migration had descended from Southern China, bringing gibbons, orang utans and other primates amongst many other species to the archipeligo, and the presence of marsupials for example in the Eastern islands showed similar Australian influence too. The boundary of these spheres of influence were subsequently investigated in the 19th century and demarcated with a boundary known as the Wallis Line after its discoverer. Though I already knew that much, unfortunately it was no further explained here than that, save that Sulawesi is interesting in now being considered a transient zone with species related to those of both continents.


Located in Teras village, Kampung Teras, Manggarai Regency, Flores Island. Digs since 1953 have revealed neolithic pieces, seashells, bronze axes, iron and bone tools as well as human and faunal skeletons. In 2003 this is where fossil remains of the dwarfish Homo Floresiensis were famously discovered, since dubbed variously as Flores Man or "The Hobbit". It is now tentatively being considered as another missing link in the human evolutionary chain, since the skulls retrieved indicate commonality with both Homo Erectus and modern man. The youngest Erectus finds date to 200,000-100,000 years ago but then a gap intercedes to the earliest Homo Sapien finds of 20,000BC, found on Borneo. Homo Floresiensis from the 7 skulls so far found has been estimated to date back to between 18-30,000 years ago, so the story board said, but that left me wondering about the claim of mutual derivation. As has been postulated, it would seem to me more likely to be a unique separate lineage if that timescale is correct. Adjacent, the best ever Homo Erectus finds discovered were on display, most importantly a complete femur indicating an upright stature as long ago as 500,000BC.

Moving onto inscribed stones, an excellent megalith from Kalimantan bearing Pallawa script is deemed to date back as far as the 5th century. Later examples tend towards both Pallawa and old Malay script together, later changing to old Javanese in Kawi script. Sanskrit pervades throughout this era. An inscribed tombstone in Arabic here also revealed the oldest indication of Islam in Indonesia, found in East Java and dated to the 11th century. Local modifications of Arabic script subsequently created "Pegon", with Javanese pronounciation, and "Jawi" was a Malay influenced equivelant. Chinese influence is reckoned to have started around the 5th century up to a peak in the 14th, but the difficulty of Chinese characters meant that it did not notably pervade. The Javanese, Balinese and Bataks all developed their own calendars, mainly used to determine auspicious and unfavourable days, just as I had already learned in Danau Toba. In the absence of contemporary charts local knowledge of ancient navigation is unfathomable, but it is known that Alfonso da Albequerque did send a map in Javanese script home to Portugal in the early 16th century, alas the ship carrying it was lost en route. Islamisation was encouraged from Aceh (I later learned that Aceh is Chinese for Arab), what had been the hitherto unheard of Kingdom of Sumatra Pasai, after the Majapahits disintegrated into smaller local Islamic states at the end of the 15th century. Currency was also introduced by them from the end of the 13th century, tellingly named the Derham (Dirham). In juxtaposition, Hindu-Buddhist culture also prevailed in the country between the 4th to 15th centuries.

The history then jumped to the brief and similarly unforetold British administration under Raffles (1811-15), who with a new legal policy abolished forced labour and restrictions on crop selection imposed by the Dutch, they secured more power however by repealling the right of local regents to raise taxes, also appropriating all land to the state, with farmers becoming tenants liable for rent. Upon Dutch supercession they continued this policy until 1830, whereupon plantations were reinvoked in order to curb massive Dutch domestic debt, a policy known as the Cultivation System. Though normally I might have resisted the treasure house containing centuries of amassed gold, a hunt for Helen who had accompanied me that day revealed an interesting insight into colonial strategy. Storyboards related how the Dutch campaign of dominance had been executed piecemeal, appropriating these regency treasures as and when they found or created an excuse for recourse in particular parts of the archipeligo. One campaign ended with the abolition of the Banjai Sultanate of Kalimantan in 1860 for example, and then the Mataram Kingdom of Lombok was similarly usurped by a military expedition in 1894. As well as moves to take Aceh in 1901 and again in 1904, the evolution of steam power allowed further forays from Java with an eye to securing the farthestmost islands, expanding eastwards from a regional hub established at Makassar. And though Bali had hitherto been investigated but deemed unprofitable, it was attacked in 1908 in order to seal the Dutch monopoly on the opium trade.

I bought myself a yellow T-shirt on the way back home to replace my similar favourite one that day, which had by now succumbed to permanent grime and disfiguration due to walking with my bag and one cold laundry too many. Helen had been tied up that day with her visa pushing and with a full on day of note taking it wasnt until dark that I hooked up with her for what transpired to be another quiet night of just her and me.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Indonesia

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