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Ancients may have practised religious pluralism in Bujang Valley

COMMENT Prof Mokhtar Saidin, the head of the department of global archaeology, Universiti Sains Malaysia, has said that ancient civilisation in Bujang Valley more than three thousand years ago practiced animism rather than Hinduism or Buddhism.

He revealed this new but controversial finding in an international conference on Old Kedah in Sungei Petani recently.

The manner he said it somehow rather gave the impression that he negated the presence of Hinduism or Buddhism.

But he overlooked an important point that animism, Hinduism and Buddhism could have coexisted in the Bujang Valley during the early period.

Based on evidence gathered from the iron smelters, he said that temple entrance was not on the eastern or western side and but rather in the south, facing Mount Jerai.

Another expert on major religions of the world, Prof Derek Kennet, said that although the findings of Saidin were interesting, further discussion was necessary to prove conclusively that the practice of animism was widespread.

According to Kennet, it was rather unusual for a Hindu temple to be built on a Buddhist stupa, however, this was not impossible.

Those who attended the conference were taken for guided tour of the Sungei Batu archaeological site, a site proven to be older than Borobodur in Indonesia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

It was possible that animism could have coexisted during the early civilisation alongside the presence of Hinduism and Buddhism. However, to what extent was animism a dominant practice needs to be proven.

Those who have researched on the history of major religions of the world, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, have found that the emergence of a new faith does not necessarily supplant older beliefs overnight.

In fact, in the middle east, even with the rise of Judaism, Christianity and later Islam, pagan worship continued for a long time.

There is possibility that Saidin's discovery could have merely confirmed that animism or pagan worship in the Bujang Valley could have co-existed with Hinduism and Buddhism for a considerable period of time.

The way temples were constructed, and the nature of the entrance and the close connectivity between Hindu and Buddist practices, reveal among other things, the nature of religious pluralism in early civilisation.

Further evidence needed

Saidin might be wrong and he needs further evidence to prove that the presence of religious pluralism in the early Bujang Valley civilisation, and how different religious structures co-existed with one another.

Even if there are methodological problems with his findings, Saidin should be credited for bringing up this important point.

To date, research on Bujang Valley based on archaeological evidence merely focuses on religious practices but very little has been done on its early political structures.

Long before the Chola invasion about one thousand years ago, Bujang Valley in the present day Kedah, boasted an elaborate Malay political, social and economic structure.

In fact, it was Kedah rather Malacca, that should be given the credit for establishing the first Malay political system long before the arrival of the Cholas, the British and others.

But unfortunately our historians are silent on going too much into the early history of Kedah for reasons best known to themselves.

Further research on Bujang Valley is hampered by financial allocations and more importantly, the sprawling place is yet to be gazetted as heritage site.

Hopefully the recent conference could spur both the state and federal governments not to delay the gazetting of this rich historical heritage site.

P RAMASAMY is Deputy Chief Minister II of Penang and the DAP state assemblyperson for Perai.

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