Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Kutai Inscriptions - Introduction

     The earliest inscriptions from Indo-Malaysia are generally considered to be the Kutai inscriptions from eastern Borneo (now a national park), dated on stylistic grounds to the fourth century CE. There are inscriptions in a similar script from West Java from around the same time, documenting the existence of the state of Taruma (or Tarumanegara), but they are generally considered to be slightly younger than the Kutai stones - from perhaps the fifth or sixth century, apparently. I'm not sure what evidence is used for this, as the scripts in both sets of inscriptions are similar, although I expect the experts are right.

      I'm going to have more to say about the inscriptions later on, but first I'll note their contents as they appear in Tineke Hellwig and Eric Tagliacozzo's The Indonesia Reader (2009, Duke). I'll use a better source another time for the translation and notes, but this is just to give a taste of what these early inscriptions are like. Arlo Griffiths has been working on an updated translation of the inscriptions, and I'm fairly sure his translations will interpret the material slightly differently, but these translations will do for now.
One of the Kutai stones in the new building of the Museum Nasional, Indonesia. I normally wouldn't put up my own photos of museum objects, but a lot of people have already done it with these particular objects and I was told that taking photos in the museum is okay when I was there. Hmm. (August 2014)

       A fair bit has been written about them, including Vogel (1918), Poerbatjaraka (1952) (in Indonesian), and a brief summary in Griffiths's article Early Indic inscriptions of Southeast Asia (2014) (see here for the article on if you don't mind using the site). Poerbatjaraka (1952) also contains a transcription of the texts. They were written in Sanskrit in the 'box-headed' form of Southern Brahmi, known in later examples as Pallava script, a fairly typical Indian abugida (an abugida is a kind of script that uses consonants with an inherent vowel and diacritics to mark variations in the vowel, so one letter can = kha or hi or some other combination).

       Most (all?) of the stones are in the Museum Nasional in Jakarta, some in the new air-conditioned building with good labels and others in the courtyard of the old building, exposed to the elements (and to the air pollution of central Jakarta). I seem to remember at least one of them being placed right near the toilets; certainly most visitors to the museum generally ignore the inscriptions, as they do with other important pieces, but that's presumably because no effort was made to highlight them.
The central courtyard of the Museum Nasional (old building). The famous statue of Adityavarman, tantric ruler of part of Sumatra in the fourteenth century, is through the doorway at the far end. You can also see the National Monument (Monas) outside the building. I like the space, don't get me wrong - but it's probably terrible for preservation long-term. h/t Gunawan Kartapranata.
        Five of the seven inscriptions are translated in The Indonesia Reader, and they're all short pieces that give some idea of the general contents. Here they are:
The illustrious lord-of-men, the mighty Kundung[g]a, had a famous son, Asvavarman by name, who like unto Amshumang, was the founder of a noble race. His were three eminent sons resembling three sacrificial fires. Foremost among these three and distinguished by austerity, strength, and self-restraint was the illustrious Mūlavarman, the lord-of-kings, who had a Bahusuvarnaka sacrifice performed. For that sacrifice this sacrificial post has been established by the eminent Brahmans.

When the illustrious and eminent prince King Mūlavarman had given a gift of twenty thousand cattle to the Brahmans who resemble the sacrificial fire, at the most sacred place, namely Vaprakeshvara, for that deed of merit this sacrificial post has been made by the priests who had come thither.

Let the foremost priests and whosoever other pious men [there be] hear of the meritorious deeds of Mūlavarman, king of illustrious and resplendent fame [let them hear] of his great gifts: Bahudāna, Jīvadāna, Kalpavrkshadāna, and Bhūmidāna. For these multitudes of pious deeds this sacrificial post has been set up by the priests.

Hail to the might king, the illustrious Mūlavarman of exalted rank, whose gifts have been recorded at this holy spot after he, the most excellent king, has bestowed on Brahmans the gifts of water, ghee, tawny cows, and sesame seeds, as well as eleven bulls.

The illustrious king Mūlavarman gave away in charity a heap of sesame seeds together with a multitude of lamps. This sacrificial pillar has been engraved upon [and set up in commemoration of] those two [gifts].
       The inscriptions record the gifts given by Mūlavarman to the priests and praise the king and his family. They record perhaps the first ever personal name in an Austronesian language, Kundungga, although it's not perhaps the first recorded Austronesian word, as the Đông Yên Châu inscription from central Vietnam is slightly older and mostly written in Old Cham, an Austronesian language that might have been mutually intelligible with Old Malay. All of the other names and concepts written on the stones are in Sanskrit and are fairly common names, suggesting a cultural break after Kundungga.
Another image of one of the stones in the National Museum. h/t Meursault2004

      We can see the apparent adoption of Indian concepts throughout the Kutai inscriptions: the language is Indic; the script is from southern India; the concepts of yūpa (sacrificial stones) and Brahmans are typical of Indian religion at this time; and the notion of generous gift-giving as an essential characteristic of the king is something that goes right back to the Vedas. But what's interesting about these inscriptions is that they try to keep Kundungga, clearly the non-Indianised antecedent of Mūlavarman, as a legitimising ancestor. Not only do we probably have a non-Indian name in the mix, we have the (probably) Malayo-Polynesian concept of ancestor veneration in there as well.

      I think the most interesting questions about the stones are: Why were they inscribed in eastern Borneo, reasonably far off the beaten track for trade and travel in the ancient period? Why are they the earliest inscriptions in Indonesia? Why, if they aren't the earliest ones, haven't more been discovered?


Poerbatjaraka, R. M. Ng. 1952. Riwajat Indonesia I. Jakarta: Yayasan pembangunan.

Vogel, J.Ph. 1918 The yūpa inscriptions of King Mūlavarman from Koetei (East Borneo). Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde. 74:216–218.

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