The Lost Kingdoms exhibition at Muzium Negara in Kuala Lumpur is not your average ancient artefacts show.
It took senior curator Mohd Nasrulamiazam Mohd Nasir (Nasrul) and his team nearly two years to put together, complete with regional research work.
The exhibition, which features 103 exhibits (a mixture of real artefacts and replicas), is a collaboration between the Department of Museums Malaysia, the National Museum of Indonesia and the National Museum of Cambodia.
From beautiful sandstone statues of Hindu gods to rare collections of keris with intricately carved hilts, the artefacts are truly a reflection of the ancient Malay kingdoms which once ruled the Malay Archipelago or as it is known now, South-East Asia.
“This exhibition is called The Lost Kingdoms because these kingdoms don’t exist anymore. All that is left are their names and archaeological sites or candi sites
“So, our primary source to track the existence of these kingdoms are inscription stones and steles which talk about the kingdoms of that time, ” says Nasrul during a recent interview at the museum.
The exhibition, which runs until April 30, is neatly organised at Muzium Negara’s Gallery 2.
Twelve lost kingdoms are represented in this exhibition, namely the kingdoms of Funan, Chenla/Zhenla, Angkor/Khmer, Pyu, Dravaravati, Champa, Langkasuka, Kedah Tua/Chieh Cha/Kataha, Srivijaya, Sailendra, Mataram/Medang and Majapahit.
Nasrul sees this as an important exhibition as it would grant visitors, especially Malaysians, a “historical awareness” as it shows that even before foreign powers colonised this region, there was already a rich, vibrant and advanced civilisation here.
“It is also an educational platform as visitors would be able to see for themselves these artefacts which many would have learned about in their history classes back in school.
“Reading about something is one thing but seeing with your own eyes what you have read about gives you a better perspective of history,” shares Nasrul.
The rich archaeological finds were discovered, among others, in Lembah Bujang and Sungai Batu in Kedah, Malaysia, Angkor Wat, Preah Vihear and Sambor Preikok in Cambodia, Candi Prambanan and Candi Burobudor in Indonesia and Vijayapura and Singhapura in Vietnam.
Although the artefacts span over 14 centuries (first to the 14th century AD), before the colonial powers began to forage this region, and 12 kingdoms, they seem to share something in common.
“We need to understand the concept of these early kingdoms. The South-East Asia that we see today exists in the form of modern states.
“But in the ancient city-state concept, all these kingdoms had a shared nationhood in terms of civilisation, beliefs, race and economic activities, ” explains Nasrul, 43.
He adds: “And during that period, there was a strong influence of Hinduism and Buddhism in this region which can clearly be seen in most of the artefacts here.”
Indeed, one of the finest artefacts on exhibit is a Ganesha statue made out of granite stone.
Masterfully carved, this artefact of the Hindu deity was in fact found in the Bujang Valley in Kedah, arguably the richest archaeological site in Malaysia.
This Ganesha statue, from the Kedah Tua kingdom, dates back to the sixth or seventh century AD, making it the oldest artefact of the exhibition.
In keeping things accessible, the exhibition is divided into five sections – Introduction, Evidence & Early Written Sources, City-State In Ancient Nusantara, City-State Kingdom In The Maritime Cultural Context and Local Wisdom.
Head over first to the Evidence & Early Written Sources section to get a better understanding of these ancient kingdoms. With various inscription stones written in Sanskrit or Old Malay and Old Javanese, visitors are given a glimpse into the affairs of some of these lost kingdoms.
The Tugu inscription stone from the fifth century Tarumanegara Kingdom, loaned from the National Museum of Indonesia, tells the story of river excavations carried out by two kings.
These excavations show the kingdom’s early plans to prevent natural disasters such as floods and droughts, which was common during the reign of Purnawarman.
The City-State In Ancient Nusantara section forms a bulk of the exhibition, featuring some intricately carved statues of deities or god-kings made from sandstone or bronze.
Nasrul says the concept of god-kings was a revered belief in these ancient kingdoms, influenced by Hinduism, as this solidifies the king’s power and rule, similar to the Egyptian pharaohs who were believed to be manifestation of the sun god, Ra.
One of the most sophisticated statues is the Wishnu and Garuda statue, loaned from the National Museum of Indonesia.
Dating back to AD 1043, this statue of Wishnu riding the garuda, found at the Temple of Belahan, is a depiction of King Airlangga, the founder of the Kahuripan Kingdom.
“This is inspired by the Garudeya story from the Mahabharata epic. But interestingly, you can’t find something like this in India. This was only found in the Nusantara region," reveals Nasrul.
An interesting highlight at the City-State Kingdom In The Maritime Cultural Context section is the Petala Indera Boat, an almost life-sized replica of the real thing.
The shape and style of the boat is taken from the original model of the Royal Kelantanese boat named Petala Sera, whose figurehead was a head of a garuda.
The garuda is a mythological bird which was said to be the vehicle of the gods and this motif is commonly used when it comes to items related to the kings, as a symbol of power and high status.
In the Local Wisdom section, expect to see interesting everyday items used in these ancient kingdoms, whose design elements were very much influenced by local beliefs, from ancient coconut grinders to quail traps, which have decorative motifs based on Malay cosmology.
The Lost Kingdoms exhibition is on at Gallery 2, Muzium Negara, Jalan Damansara in Kuala Lumpur till April 30. Gallery is open daily, 9am-6pm. Museum fees apply. For more information, visit www.jmm.gov.my.