Asian Arts Brighten Malaysia

By Fong, Peng Kuan | The World and I, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Asian Arts Brighten Malaysia


Fong, Peng Kuan, The World and I


Thanks to the contributions of immigrant Chinese, Hindu, and Islamic artists and artisans over the centuries, modern Malaysia is endowed with a colorful, unique, and remarkably free, creative culture.

With its unique geography and history, the Malay archipelago has long been a meeting place for diverse artistic traditions from different corners of the world. In particular, several broad influences come from this modern nation's major ethnoreligious traditions--born in Asia--and can be discerned in the field of arts. The first, Indianization, extended from the earliest centuries a.d. to the first Malay kingdom at the end of the fourteenth century. Another began around 1400 with the coming of Islam, Malaysia's official religion, and continues to this day. In between, a profound Chinese influence has left indelible features on the arts and created a colorful, multiethnic culture.

Chinese historical records mention tiny Indian states on the Malay Peninsula from the second century a.d., though Sanskrit inscriptions date only from the fourth century. Today, the Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum, located in a historic area in northwestern Malaysia, exhibits Buddha and elephant figurines, bronze statues, and jewelry recovered from excavations begun in 1936. Mostly of Indian origin, its colored glass, ceramics, and beads show the sophisticated craftsmanship of that age. Uncomfortable with the fact that the earliest signs of pre-Islamic civilization are Buddhist or Hindu, the government has denied the historic valley the publicity and recognition it deserves.

In 1980, the Sungai Mas excavation in Kedah uncovered coins, gold objects, beads, weapons, chinaware, and figurines dating back sixteen hundred years. Some of the items have been traced to the Tang and Sung dynasties of China, and others originated in West Asia. Indian textiles, spices and opium, Chinese silk and porcelain, and local produce--including ivory, timber, gold, and tin--passed through Sungai Mas, the port for the ancient state of Langkasuka in its heyday. Its decline started as Malacca emerged as an important port during the fifteenth century.

Thus, Indian influence on Malaysian arts is fairly well documented. Remnants of this historical heritage are still seen in Malay court life, instilling respect for the hierarchy of the royal family; elaborate wedding ceremonies featuring ornate clothing and exotic, sometimes golden, headresses; and the wayang kulit (shadow play) theater, based on the great Hindu epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

The Hindu shrine at Batu Caves in Selangor, about eight miles from Kuala Lumpur, is the epitome of Indian influence in present-day Malaysia. At the annual Thaipusam festival of penitence in February, thousands of devotees pray, fast, and form a long procession to honor Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of youth and justice. Women carry jugs of milk while men carry kavadis, large, symbolic chariots, on long poles. A steep flight of 272 steps leads up to the Temple Cave. Set in a towering limestone hill, it was discovered by an American naturalist in 1878.

Malaysia's association with China goes back centuries. Chinese porcelain, exported in the twelfth century, was discovered on Tioman Island in 1976, supporting the claim that sea trade expanded to the Malay archipelago in the thirteenth-century Yuan dynasty.

During the early nineteenth century, many Chinese fled to the peninsula to escape Manchu feudalism, floods, and famines; they brought with them their ancient customs. Their descendants celebrate Chinese festivals, value their family ties, and uphold Chinese religious beliefs centering on Confucian and Taoist codes of ethics.

Intermarriage between Chinese immigrants and local brides brought to Malacca and Penang a minority hybrid culture called the Straits Chinese, or peranakan (meaning "born here"). The peranakan lifestyle uniquely blended basic Chinese customs and local Malay ones, spawning new art forms such as intricate beadwork, embroidery, jewelry, and silverware. …

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