We rarely look at the ground when we walk as our gaze is fixed on the horizon. But there’s history underfoot wherever we go. In northern Malaysia’s Kedah, though, you can hardly miss it. The ground seems literally stuffed with pottery shards and seashell fragments. If you’re particularly lucky you might even stumble across a bronze idol, generally of Hindu and Buddhist origin.  What these relics and artifacts tell us is a story of long ago and far away across the waters, from as far afield as the eastern coast of India.

Until recently, Kedah was regarded as a distant and uninteresting northern state in peninsular Malaysia. Its main claim to fame was that the country’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, belonged to Kedah. The relics and artifacts were curios, exciting to the historian or archaeologist but they left ordinary mortals cold. They reveal a time of intense human activity in this region in an era when the rest of the Malay peninsula, east or west, was virtually unbroken rainforest. The great discoveries of tin were undreamt of, far in the future. Kedah was the magnet for travellers and adventurers.    

There is a certain appropriateness about the term because what attracted people from across the waters was the iron deposits in the area. A huge iron-smelting site that archaeologists have been excavating since 2009 in Sungai Batu, Kedah, testifies to highly organised industrial activity that dates back to the 500 BCE.

Before the discovery the area was an oil palm plantation, indistinguishable from a myriad others across the peninsula. But it was once-in-a-lifetime stroke of fortune for the Chinese owner. The magnitude of the find moved the state government to buy the place at a stiff premium, making him a multi-millionaire. 

Lumps of slag left over from the smelting, some dating back to 535 BCE, provide evidence of the state of the art in smelting methodology. Remnants of clay furnaces, clay bricks, of tuyeres—a nozzle attached to a bellows for blowing oxygen or air into a furnace—have been found in the Sungai Batu settlement.

Over 30 ancient smelters have been identified so far at Sungai Batu, as well as a brick monument carbon-dated to 110 CE, making it one of the oldest man-made structures in Southeast Asia. These finds have made Kedah one of the most exciting sites in Southeast Asia for students of ancient history, especially archaeologists. It is likely that there is more lying under the surface waiting to be uncovered.  

The discovery of iron is one of the turning points of history, as iron and its downstream products have been at the heart of industrial development ever since. It was indispensable to weapons for armies, tools for farmers, reinforcement bars for temples and indeed for a myriad other uses.

Given the industrial quantities produced at Sungai Batu and the absence of any evidence of large-scale military activity in the area at the time, it is probable that the smelted iron was cast into ingots or some other form convenient for traders to transport over distances.

The remains of an ancient jetty along the Muda river strengthen the case for the area as a major trading post. Using Optically-Stimulated Luminescence (OSL measures the last time quartz sediment was exposed to light) technology, the jetty has been certified as dating to 582 BCE. That makes Sungai Batu the oldest industrial site in Southeast Asia and the jetty the oldest man-made structure. The level of organisation also makes it highly probable that this is the site of the oldest civilisations in Southeast Asia.

By way of comparison, the Sungai Batu ruins are about 1,200 and 1,600 years older than Borobudur on the island of Java (circa ninth century)  and Angkor Wat (circa 12th century), respectively. The difference is that Sungai Batu seems to have been extensively involved in refining iron. So far, no architectural marvels on the scale of Borobudur or Angkor Wat have been found. The Kedah Sultanate dates back to 1136 (according to the Kedah Annals whose accuracy is disputed).

There is one major oddity about the site. So far, archaeologists say, only one small iron blade has been found in all their excavations. It seems, then, that Sungai Batu only produced raw iron ingots and not ready-to-use products. Of course, there is much more to excavate and finished iron could still turn up in the inventory.

The Bujang complex lies six degrees north of the equator, the same latitude as Sri Lanka. So it was in a direct line east from the Chola and Pallava country in modern Tamil Nadu. 

The ingots they produced were not the uniform, block-shaped product of today. Countless iron “ingots” of various shapes and sizes have been unearthed. It appears the ancients were not particular about product shape. They were more concerned about the quality and purity of metal and Sungai Batu produced the best in this region.

But before the iron “ingots” and slag lumps, came the discovery of clay bricks. The archaeologists say these bricks are made from a mixture of clay, sand, husks of paddy and some organic matter. The freshly moulded bricks were sun-dried before being placed in the kiln for baking. Nearly all the bricks are well-made indicating that the Sungai Batu workers had mastered the science and art of controlling kiln temperature.

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ungai Batu is just a crow’s flight from the far better known Bujang Valley, first discovered by Lt Colonel James Low, colonial administrator of the neighbouring Penang Straits Settlement, in the 1830s. Systematic excavation of the earliest sites, however, began only just before World War I by H.G. Quaritch Wales and his wife Dorothy. Bujang Valley is variously named in literary sources as Kalagam, Kilagam, Kadaram and Kataha by Tamils in India, by the Chinese as Chieh-Cha, Chia-Cha, Chi-to, Chi-ta and Kie-tcha, and by the Persians as Kalah. These names are directly linked to its iron industry because those words mean iron in different languages.

Over the decades as the work progressed, it was definitively identified as an early culture with Indic features. The name Bujang, for instance, is believed to be a variant of Sanskrit “Bhujanga”, serpent. In other words, it is Serpent Valley.  More significantly, the large number of old temples (called candi) that dot the area establish its Hindu-Buddhist provenance. Finally, its location makes it highly likely that the original founders of the site were Indians, and from the south at that.   

The Bujang complex lies six degrees north of the equator, the same latitude as Sri Lanka (known to Rome as Serendivis, Arabs as Serandib, and Persians as Serendip). So it was in a direct line east from Chola and Pallava country in modern Tamil Nadu. These two kingdoms have had a profound influence upon the history of Southeast Asia and in turn been influenced by it.   

Bujang was a natural port of call as the nearest landfall from India, right at the northern entrance to the Straits of Malacca. This meant that seafarers crossing the Bay of Bengal, going either way, were in constant sight of land, with the Andaman archipelago slightly to the north and the hulk of Sumatra eastwards. The presence of these landmarks meant there was little danger of becoming lost. For its part, Bujang has the mass of Gunung (mount) Jerai as the backdrop, a spectacular landmark that can be seen from miles out at sea. As the northern gate to the strait it also had strategic significance, a point the Chola imperial fleets may have noted.

Moreover, as it is situated on the narrow neck of the peninsula, carriage of trade goods to the east coast, opening on the South China Sea, would have been easier. The Bujang complex has three rivers, Merbok, Batu and Muda. The last was the major carrier of goods.

As this route was part of the sea spice waterway from Persia to the Tamil country to China, the location of the Bujang entrepot makes sense. Early traders from the west most likely engaged porters to transport the goods by raft and elephant along the rivers. Taken together, the discoveries at Pengkalan Bujang (Bujang Port), Sungai Mas and Sungai Batu indicate that the Bujang Valley was the foremost entrepot of Southeast Asia in ancient times.

It seems to have been the mid-way house in the maritime silk route, says archaeologist Prof Dr Mokhtar Saidin, director of the Global Archaeological Research Centre at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang. He has been leading the team working on the over Sungai Batu site ever since it was discovered. Indeed, he is one of the discoverers of Sungai Batu.

Archaeologists at Sungai Batu. (Right) A Buddha statue at the Lembah Bujang Museum.

From the archaeological evidence, then, “Kedah” or that Hindu/Buddhist kingdom/trading post some 2,000 years ago was probably ruled by the Cholas, whether directly or through an agent. “Kadaram” “Kataha Nagara” “Kataha Dvipa” are all Sanskrit names shortened to “Kedah”.

Bujang Valley (in Malay, Lembah Bujang) boasts more than 50 ruins of ancient Hindu-Buddhist temples, candi, and related artifacts. The built works date from about the 500BCE-1300CE, making Kedah home to one of the earliest civilisations in Southeast Asia, certainly the region’s oldest Hindu-Buddhist complex.

Work on the Bujang Valley ruins of temples dates back to a century, since colonial days. Many of the early candi were accidental discoveries by the locals when they were clearing forested areas to plant crops back from the 1830s onwards. It is not clear if there is any community memory of the Bujang complex as it might have been in its heyday. In that sense this story is similar to Mohenjo-daro, which was lost to history until an officer of the Archaeological Survey of India visited it in 1920. 

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or history teacher and lawyer V. Nadarajan, Bujang Valley was where he grew up. “I played among the ruins of the candi. In Form Four, my teacher asked us students to visit the site.” That started his personal obsession with Bujang Valley history and his self-funded findings are documented in his book Bujang Valley—The Wonder that was Ancient Kedah.

Unfortunately, history rarely interests people in general. One candi was bulldozed by a developer in 2013. For decades, villagers in need of building materials have been taking away the bricks from these ancient temples, as well as other artifacts. It seems to be the fate of ancient sites in more than one place, for instance, the earlier Indus Valley site of Harappa, whose “hard, well-burnt bricks” became ballast for the Karachi-Lahore railway, laid in the 1850s.

I acknowledge the enemies of the contented King Ramaunibha and the wicked are ever afflicted. This is said by Manikatha, the protector of all great Buddhas.

It was in 1845 that Lt Col James Low, searching for other possible ruins in Province Wellesley (now called Seberang Perai), uncovered an inscribed rock tablet in a sandy pit near the ruins of an old Buddhist temple in the foothills near Kampung Cherok Tok Kun, on the state-line border with Kedah.

The tablet bore Pali or Pallava inscriptions and a representation of a stupa canopied by seven umbrellas in the centre. Dated to 500 CE, it is among the most ancient written messages from the past to still exist in Malaysia. The inscription is composed in the now defunct Pallava alphabet, which flourished under the Pallava dynasty of southern India about 1,500 years ago.

The Pallavas and the Cholas were the two major feuding powers along the southern coast for centuries, with the former dominant in the Andhra and north Tamil country and the latter further south. The Pallava metropolis of Mahabalipiuram is just 50 km from today’s Chennai.   


Low’s theory was that this area, so near to Lembah Bujang, served as a prominent landmark more than 1,000 years ago for seafarers from the Indian subcontinent. It is also surmised that Seberang Perai was part of ancient Kadaram. The stone tablet is housed, along with artifacts like Ganesha and Vishnu statues, at the Lembah Bujang Archaeological Museum.

According to the notes that accompany the tablet, Low sent copies of the inscription to Calcutta. The rock tablet, reads the museum inscription, was produced to mark a successful voyage made by an Indian sea captain called Buddhagupta. But we know nothing else about this enigmatic voyager who recorded his success but left no personal memoir whatsoever.

Back in Kampung Cherok Tok Kun in Bujang Valley lies a boulder called the Cherok To’kun Relic. On it is written in the Pallava script:  “I acknowledge the enemies of the contented King Ramaunibha and the wicked are ever afflicted. This is said by Manikatha, the protector of all great Buddhas. In every form of life knowledge becomes manifest everywhere and in every way. Karma, which sports with passions, is the cause of transmigration.”

The rock was certified in 2006 as a heritage monument by Malaysia’s then Heritage Commissioner Prof Emeritus Zuraina Majid. It can be seen in the grounds of St Anne’s Church in Bukit Mertajam, Penang.

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n 2015, satellite images showed sunken ships in the Sungai Batu area. The wrecks were detected by ground penetrating radar, enabling USM archaeologists to reveal the outlines of possibly five vessels buried five to 10 metres deep in the riverbed around the excavation site.

They are now lying in mud in the oil palm plantation, with the tops of their masts still visible. The first ship was identified in 2011 when the remains of its wooden mast were uncovered near the ruins of the jetty. The mast was two metres long, lying horizontally, but still in a good state of preservation.

But the pit dug by the USM archaeological team collapsed in 2012, and is now completely filled with water, although the archaeologists still dive down to the bottom to check the condition of the mast. 

It is believed that these ships, probably from India, weighed anchor at the Merbok estuary before unloading their cargo onto to smaller boats for onward transportation to the Bujang Valley settlement upstream.  

Lembah Bujang was a settled society and lasted a long time, as can be seen from the large quantities of Chinese and Middle Eastern earthenware shards discovered in the area.

At the Sungai Batu site, there are several buildings scattered between the jetties. Archaeologists speculate that they once functioned as administrative centres as well as storage areas. Evidently, the society at that time was very complex and the buildings reflected that complexity, with each containing individual rooms separated by vertical barriers as well as varying floor levels.

As Prof Mokhtar says, “We still have many unanswered questions about this place. Who were the people living here? Where are their burial grounds? What led to the rise and fall of their civilisation? We are hoping the clues can be found in the ground and as such, we need to monitor this place closely.”

Reconstruction of a candi near the museum.

The Lembah Bujang museum also has a diorama depicting an 8th century temple found near the top of Gunung Jerai, in Kedah. Also known as Site 9, it was discovered in 1894.

The main structure is made of brick and granite blocks. Excavations revealed large stone hearth foundations that could have been used to support huge burning pyres, meaning it also served as a lighthouse. The large fires from this temple, which was then positioned 1,300m above sea level, would have been like a beacon guiding ancient ships to the Merbok River estuary on the coast near Sungai Batu.

Lembah Bujang was a settled society and lasted a long time, as can be seen from the large quantities of Chinese and Middle Eastern earthenware shards discovered in the area, which ran from Bukit Choras in the north to Kampung Cherok Tok Kun in the south.

Prof Mokhtar thinks the area could have evolved from a prehistoric settlement–Sungai Batu—which subsequently developed into a port for ships coming in from India, and even further afield. Very little is known of the people, whether they were natives or outsiders, or where they came from. What is certain is a strong India connection and there is undeniable evidence of industrial and commercial activity.

Bujang Valley probably reached its peak around the seventh century. The museum artifacts showcase those from Bujang port (Site 21) and the Bendang Dalam temples. At Bujang port, Dr Quaritch Wales in 1936 found five Buddhist images, an eight-sided Buddhist stupa, a terracotta image of an elephant, several gold rings, iron nails and glass beads.

It was Wales and his wife Dorothy who, after extensive studies at the various excavation sites, concluded that many Bujang Valley candi were actually carbon copies of south Indian temples.

Prof Mokhtar says what was once a mighty river—and is now a piddling stream—linked  the Batu River (Sungai Batu) to the bigger Merbok River for traders from as far as India to sail in for the iron. “It’s part of a huge iron-smelting centre. It [the site] is not even one tenth of Kedah Tua, in this part of the world, called Kadaram.”

Bujang Valley began to lose its shine towards the end of the 14th century, about the time Malacca, now called Melaka, started to become important as a trading port. It became the entrepot of choice for the Chinese trade as the Middle Kingdom was starting to swing its weight westwards. Malacca’s central location was certainly more convenient for the Chinese, who had to round the peninsula at Singapore, than the northern terminus in Kedah.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Chola naval power was declining as Chinese naval power was nearing its zenith. In the 11th and 12th centuries the naval fleets of Rajendra Chola I roamed the Bay at will, carrying out raids on Pegu (Myanmar) and the city-states of Sumatra. A little less than a century later his successors were struggling to hold on to territory in south India. Apparently, the Malay name Raja Chulan is a corruption of  “Chola” and a measure of the impression he made on his Malay contemporaries. 

Artist's impression of a Chinese imperial treasure fleet.

Though late in coming, Chinese naval power was impressive. At its peak in the 15th century, its seagoing fleet numbered over 3,500, by far the greatest in the world. Voyages to Africa and back were very much in a season’s work. The imperial Treasure Fleet, as it was called, comprised practically unsinkable behemoths up to 120 metres in length (Christopher Columbus’ ships were about 20 metres in contrast), with multiple decks, crews of more than 1,000, carrying dozens of guests and imperial officials, virtual cities on the salt, not unlike the great ocean liners of the interwar years.       

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ho were the people responsible for the vast ironworks complex at Sungai Batu? Prof Mokhtar has often asked himself this question but he is reluctant to answer it, for lack of chronometric evidence. Despite all the digging they haven’t found a body, or even a bone. No artifacts of a personal nature have been found to support any provenance nor is there much evidence of people’s culture. They remain a mystery so far. But once they have evidence in the form of a skeletal structure or even an important remain such as a skull he says they will be in a position to say more.

In Sungai Batu, archaeologists keep finding only artifacts used strictly for iron smelting. We haven’t been able to find any artifacts of a personal or day-to-day nature.

Mokhtar’s reticence may also stem from a debate that arose during a global archaeology conference in Kuala Lumpur after he unearthed a distinctive monument at Sungai Batu.

The structure is a round tablet atop a rectangular one, with a staircase leading to what has been described as a temple. The staircase leading into the temple has a southerly direction, not a western or eastern one, and it is aligned precisely with Mount Jerai in the distance.

Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu archaeology expert Prof Derek Kennet of University of Durham noted that Indian temple architecture could still be seen in the brick layers of the square platform. While it was “highly unusual” to see a Hindu temple on top of the round base of a Buddhist stupa, it was not impossible either.

Kennet described the wall contours on the square platform, containing ledges, overhangs and a circular bulge, as the unmistakable wall architecture of ancient Indian temples.

Prof Dr Nasim Khan from Peshawar University, Pakistan, said the ritual site in Sungai Batu needed further excavations.

“The circular brick base of the ritual site was built in 110 CE and the square Hindu-Buddhist stupa remains on top of it date to about 500 CE. It is necessary to deconstruct the stupa platform and dig the soil beneath it to find more clues to the civilisation.”

Image of a dancer sculpted in high relief, found at Batu Lintang, south of Kedah.

But Dr Mokhtar stressed: “The temple ruins we unearthed are unlike any other known in the world. We haven’t found the places where these ancient people built their homes.

“In Sungai Batu, archaeologists keep finding only artifacts used strictly for iron smelting. We haven’t been able to find any artifacts of a personal or day-to-day nature, no burial sites, so it seems that this ancient civilisation was fully segregated where they worked and lived,” he said of the recently-gazetted national heritage site.

But he is confident Sungai Batu will provide the clue to more discoveries, leading the way up to Mount Jerai. Atop that mountain is an ancient temple that is still reportedly functioning.

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iven the profusion of artifacts dating to more than a millennium and a half ago, it is certain that Indian mariners came to Kedah. With them came Hinduism and Buddhism, together. The time line of the artifacts does crisscross. After the 13th century,  came Islam.

Ganesha statue found in Bujang Valley.

But these ancient mariners didn’t colonise the area though they established a presence. Rather, they influenced the locals who may have practised animism. This light touch is unusual because in other parts of Southeast Asia the Indian presence is not only discernible but at places dominant. The region includes Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam in addition to Malaysia and Indonesia. In short, all these countries show unmistakable historical evidence of Hindu-Buddhist influence. Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam were part of an Indian imperium of independent states that shared many cultural traits. A great many Thai names even today are variants of the original Sanskrit word. Present at the coronation of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej was a contingent of Brahmin priests who officiated at the royal ceremonies.

Both Java and Sumatra in modern Indonesia were Indic in culture and royal custom until Islam took over, most likely making its way through India, which was then the nearest country with a large Muslim population. Modern Bali is 90 per cent Hindu in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim in population. Only Malaysia has made a strenuous effort to lighten the weight of its Indian heritage.

An epigraphic record dated 657 CE, in reference to the foundation of Bhavapura, capital of Kambuja (Cambodia), says that a Brahmin prince named Kaundinya (possibly from Pallava lineage, but definitely the Indian east coast) married Soma, daughter of the Naga King, and from this union sprang the royal family of Kambuja. The Chams of Vietnam have a version that sees them claiming the same descent from these founders. This was also recorded by the Chinese in the middle of the third century in Fu-nan (the Khmer kingdom as we know it) and the hero, Huen-tien, is an exact reproduction of Kaundinya. The record was made by the Chinese ambassador K’ang T’ai who visited Fu-nan, probably between 245-250 CE. He refers to a number of kings who succeeded Kaundinya. The third ruler after him sent an embassy to China in 243. So Kaundiya may have reigned in the second century.

Brahmin priests had also presided over the coronation of Norodom Sihamoni, king of Cambodia, in 2004.

Similarly, the foundation of Ligor in southern Thailand on the Malay Peninsula is ascribed by tradition to a descendant of Asoka who fled Magadha, embarked on a vessel at Dantapura, and was wrecked on the coast of the peninsula. In the chronicles of Java, the island was first colonised by a prince of Hastinapura who sailed from Gujarat. These folktales are similar to the story of Alexander or Sikandar Zulkarnain founding nations in the most unlikely corners of the world, and a myriad royal dynasties claiming descent from Alexander in order to burnish their lineage.

Both Java and Sumatra were part of the arc of the spectacular Indian outreach—that spanned more than a millennium in time—through the Bay of Bengal.  Virtually every country along its rim, from modern Myanmar to the Indonesian archipelago, felt its influence. 

It is, however, well established that Odiya-Bengali mariners around 100 BCE were making the journey from the east coast to points around the Isthmus of Kra, from where goods were traded up the coasts of Vietnam towards China. And it is in the Mekong delta that spans both modern Cambodia and Vietnam that the first Indianised state in Southeast Asia. This was Fu-nan.   

So, not all the old stories are myth and fancy. Along with the tales found in Indian literary texts, the Burmese chronicles record a regular military expedition from India. Then we have the ancient mariners who may have started small settlements that grew into kingdoms. People from the lower courses of the Krishna and Godavari long ago crossed the sea and founded settlements in the Irrawady delta, and people from the Kalinga (modern Odisha) coast sailed east and set up in Java and other islands of the Indonesian archipelago. The local word for Indian in these parts is kling, which is believed to refer to their origin.

Merchants from India and Parthia (in ancient Persia) came to this region for trade and commerce, as stated in the Chinese chronicles. One such account, from an Indian who visited Java in the fifth century, stated that 500 Indian families of the mercantile class and more than 1,000 Brahmins lived there, near the marketplace.

They were settled in the country and the local people followed their religion and gave them their daughters in marriage. This is the short account of the kingdom of Tuen-siun. The accounts are found in the Older and Newer Tang History based on documents produced during the Tang Dynasty (618–907).

Both Java and Sumatra, the heartlands of Indonesian culture, were part of the arc of the spectacular Indian outreach—that spanned more than a millennium in time—through the Bay of Bengal. At that time it was probably an Indian pond, much as the South China Sea even today is described as a Chinese lake. Virtually every country along its rim, from modern Myanmar east and south up to the Indonesian archipelago, felt its influence, either in the form of direct rule by Indian overlords, or administrative organisation, or cultural colonisation, as Borobudur, Angkor Wat and a thousand other monuments show. The influence on custom and tradition has been profound. 

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hese city-states of Southeast Asia were known to the ancient Greeks, as Ptolemy had written about the “Golden Chersonese” (the Greek name for the Malay peninsula) in his Geography of the second century. This in turn indicates that the Greeks had trade links with the area since at least the first century, if not earlier.

The Chinese history of the Liang Dynasty mentions a country called Lang-ya-su (or Langkasuka) situated in the Malay peninsula. The history deals with the first half of the sixth century and it is written that the Langkasuka king put a high value on Sanskrit, evidence of an Indian settlement at the beginning of the second century. It was the start of the Christian era, but Hinduism and Buddhism were already entrenched in the region.

Historically, Chinese vessels did not proceed beyond northern Annam (modern Vietnam) till after the first century, so Indian vessels plied at least as far as Annam even in the second century. Champa, which is described as a collection of independent Cham states with distinct Indian characteristics across the Vietnam coast, came into being around the second century. Perhaps the original impetus came from the maritime traffic that would have brought large numbers of people of all stations from India. The Cham polities, as they are called, may have been thalassocracies (sea-based powers), similar to the early Sumatran and Javanese states. They endured in some form or other until the early 19th century, when they were annexed by the Vietnamese ruler Minh Mang.

Hinduism dominated both art and culture as evidenced by the many statues and temples scattered across the landscape. Even today, the Balamon (possibly derived from Brahmin) Cham retain their Hindu faith and rituals, making them one of only two non-Indic groups professing Hinduism. The other are the Balinese. 

Chinese texts mention the maritime superiority of these Indian seafarers as also their vessels, since the Chinese didn’t venture past the South China Sea (Periplus of the Erythraean Sea) into the blue waters. By this time, the monsoon winds had been discovered and sea voyages were consequently a great deal easier and more regular.

Ptolemy locates the Indian point of departure for ships bound for the Malay peninsula as immediately to the south of Paloura (near Gopalpur in Odisha) and Tamralipti (Tamluk in Bengal). This is also stated in Buddhist canonical literature. Ptolemy evidently means that this was the point from where vessels bound for the Malay peninsula entered the high seas. But there is no mention of the corresponding southern terminus although the main centres were probably Mahabalipuram and and the Chola port of Poompuhar to the south. The Greek diplomat and historian Megasthenes, writing in the time of the Mauryan Empire (322-187 BCE), says the Maurya ruler had a department for the admiralty.

The imperial Cholas in the 11th century fitted out naval expeditions and conquered a wide region in Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. There are many references to sea voyages between Indian ports and Suvarna-bhumi, in old Indian folklore in Sanskrit, as well as in Buddhist and Jain writings.

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hat these ancient mariners and traders left behind is a polity that is much influenced by Sanskrit in terms of phonemes, morphemes, vocabulary and the characteristics of scholarship, particularly when the words are closely related to Indian culture such as puja, kesatria, maharaja and raja, as well as to religion such as dosa, pahala, neraka, syurga or surga (used in Indonesia), puasa, sami and biara, which lasts even into today. 

Tourists at the Sungai Batu site.

The late Mubin Sheppard, one of the foremost students of Malay culture, estimated that up to 40 per cent of the Malay vocabulary could trace its origin to Sanskrit and that the dominant cultural influence at the Malay courts of the peninsula was Indian and Hindu. It endured long after they converted to Islam.

South Asia expert and museum curator John Guy said in a lecture that you can find inscriptions of early and medieval merchant guilds from the Deccan, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in Sumatra and Thailand. Around the first millennium, Tamil traders dominated the seas, inscriptions suggest, later giving way to Bengalis and Gujaratis.

The inscriptions suggest that the traders of south India wanted precious metals, even as they paid their debts with textiles such as painted cotton kalamkari and iron tools. The iron probably came from Kedah.

When the Dutch, Portuguese and British came over the centuries, they simply took over the routes and established links of these traders.

Clearly, the Tamils (together with other Indians as well as Thai, Funan and Champa) had a strong link with Bujang Valley from the early days, not just the Cholas whose most famous son Rajendra Chola did not arrive on the scene until the 11th century. Among the early Cholas, the most notable kings are Karikala Chola, Nalankilli and Nedunkilli. They belonged to the older dynasty between 200 BCE-300 CE.

This is mentioned in the Pillars of Ashoka (273-232 BCE), and the Hathigumpha Inscriptions (possibly from the second half of the second century BCE), which refers to the destruction of a “confederacy of Tamil powers”.

The Tamil poem Pattinappalai from the classical Sangam period (200 BCE-200 CE), provides an account of the glories and splendour of Puhar, an early Chola port city on the east coast, and the link early Cholas had with Kadaram. While Purananuru and Silappathikaram are other examples of Sangam literature that mention this, only Pattinappalai speaks of iron from Bujang Valley.

It refers to the import of Kazhakaththu Akkam at Puhar. The Tamil word “Kazhakam” refers to a place located in the northwestern part of the Malay peninsula which was known as Kadaram. (“Bujang Valley Civilization in Southeast Asia”, Journal Arkeologi Malaysia, Disember 2017, Vol 30).

Overseas settlements like Bujang Valley were not colonies but proto-states that took on the Indian systems—of religion and concepts of kingship—perhaps to enhance their position and status. The legacy left behind by these people from India is tangible in present-day Malaysian society.

Perhaps this is what draws a small group of 1,500 tourists every month to the Sungai Batu site, to look at the archaeo-tourism model built by the professor’s team.

Twelve local people have been trained as licensed tour guides, under the USM CGAR team. Says Prof Mokhtar: “They are able to conduct guided tours at the site and explain the significance of Sungai Batu.”

The package includes a guided tour to the ruins of the monument, jetty, iron smelting, administrative sites, and even a chance for visitors to try excavating artifacts, smelting iron and making bricks.

Those bricks are a little smaller than today’s version, but distinctly recognisable.

The sea bound the ancient people of Bujang Valley and Sungai Batu with India. While we today have yet to discover who these ancient people are, they left their artifacts and inscriptions in grammatically correct Sanskrit and Pallavi, leaving us with awe-inspiring links to a world a millennium ago.