Western Java's history written on stones
By Ida Indawati Khouw
Many may be unaware that flood problems in the capital date back to ancient times. The evidence is on ancient boulders, which also show that Jakarta was part of the Tarumanagara kingdom. This is the 32nd article in a special series on Jakarta and its historical sites and buildings, appearing in the Saturday edition of The Jakarta Post.
JAKARTA (JP): The capital, along with neighboring Bogor and the Banten area, once formed part of Tarumanagara, the oldest kingdom in Java.
Jakarta was the site of the most important ancient monument, the Tugu, one of seven stone monuments dating back to the kingdom.
Tarumanagara existed between the fifth century and the seventh century. The area where the substantial monument was found was a village of Batu Tumbuh in present-day Tugu subdistrict in North Jakarta.
Besides praising the revered Tarumanagara King Purnawarman, the opal-shaped Tugu boulder told of the digging of a water channel, called Gomati, near the place where the monument was found.
The stone also described another water channel, Candrabhaga, also built during the era of the kingdom. It is believed the two channels were near the present Cakung River in the Tugu area.
The story, which was written in the South Indian Pallava script of the Sanskrit language, said the digging of the 11- kilometer Gomati "river" which passed through the Brahman priests' lodgings was completed within 21 days and the priests were rewarded with 1,000 sheep.
The boulder does not tell the purpose of the project, but experts surmise it was to cope with flooding or an irrigation system for crops.
Experts say the historical evidence makes it unsurprising that modern-day Jakarta is drenched by devastating floods during the annual rainy season.
The evidence is slim, but archeologist Hasan Djafar from the University of Indonesia said the two ideas about the use of the channels seemed the most reasonable.
"The surface of Jakarta's land is one meter to two meters lower than the sea level, compared to centuries ago when some areas were equal to the level. So, it's reasonable to assume that flooding also occurred in the fifth century like this year."
He speculated that residents were also involved in farming during the kingdom era.
"Hulls of rice used as a mixture for bricks of ancient temples were found at the archeological sites of Cibuaya and Batujaya villages in Bogor (West Java)," he said.
"It indicates that hulls of rice were abundant, meaning that paddy fields existed at that time."
Historian Adolf Heuken questioned whether the original construction was a river.
"It's so surprising that an 11-kilometer river could be built within only 21 days, or it is just a ditch?" he said in his book Sumber-sumber Asli Sejarah Jakarta (The Original Sources of Jakarta History).
But the king's prize of 1,000 sheep indicated that the project was a great achievement, he said.
Heuken said the project showed that people at the time had the capability of digging long water channels, and were also able to breed livestock.
Besides the Pallava scripts, a picture of a priest's trident rod was also carved in the monument, functioning to separate the beginning and the end of lines, Heuken said.
"It could be that the rod has symbolic or magical meaning," he said.
The stone was found in 1879 at Batu Tumbuh, which literally means "emerging stone".
"It is said that the stone appeared suddenly after a monthlong period of rain. I think the monument appeared after the soil was eroded by rain," said a resident of the Tugu area, Samuel Quico.
Hasan said Tugu subdistrict, and thus the present Jakarta area, was only part of the kingdom, which spanned over much of present day Jakarta -- ranging from Banten in the west, Karawang in the east and Sukabumi in the south.
Experts are still searching for the kingdom's capital as no archeological proof has been uncovered. Many believe it was at the Tugu area but others consider the likely site in Bekasi, about 40 kilometers east of Jakarta.
It is also notable that the seven monuments dating back to the third century only mention one king, Purnawarman.
Four other monuments at Bogor's Ciaruteun, Kebon Kopi and Jambu, and Cidanghiang in the Pandeglang area about 120 kilometers southwest of Jakarta, also praise Purnawarman as a great and powerful king.
Images on two other stones, the Muara Cianten and Pasir Awi monuments of Bogor, remain indecipherable up to the present.
The eight-ton Ciaruteun stone was named after the river where it was found in 1863. It is now well protected by the Bogor administration, which built a structure to protect the stone from the elements.
It is not easy to reach remote Kampung Muara village -- visitors must use a muddy, unpaved road, and pass along a wooden bridge with some of its slats missing.
The four lines written in Pallava tell of two footprints carved in it, and note their similarity to those of the Hindu god Vishnu, "These are the footprints of His Majesty Purnawarman, the brave king," the inscription reads.
Unfortunately, inscriptions bearing no relation to history -- such as "Ina, I love you" -- have been written on the stone.
Located nearby is the Kebon Kopi stone with the engraving of a couple of big footprints of Purnawarman, akin to those of the strong Airwata elephant.
Footprints and more praise of Purnawarman are also at the Jambu monument. The Cidanghiang stone bears only two lines of inscription about Purnawarman, who is proclaimed the standard for rulers around the world.
Hasan said the footprints found at almost of the monuments have been interpreted by some as a seal, while others believed they were a fertility symbol.
He said Purnawarman's identification with Vishnu showed that the king was Hindu.
"Based on reports from China, written by traveler Fa Hsien, it was known that the Tarumanagara people followed Hindu and Buddhist teachings. But he also found some professed 'dirty' religion, probably referring to prehistoric beliefs."
Another interesting aspect is that the scripts were written in Pallava/Sanskrit, proving that Tarumanagara was exposed to foreign cultures.
It is unclear what language was used by the local population, of Mongoloid and Australoid-Melanoid extraction.
"The local language is probably what developed into the Sundanese or Javanese languages," Hasan said.
Research has failed to reveal exactly when Tarumanagara came to an end.
"At present it is believed that the kingdom finally related to the expansion of the Buddhist Sriwijaya kingdom from Sumatra, as shown by Kota Kapur monument of Bangka island," Hasan said. "It dates back to year 686 and says that Sriwijaya did its utmost to subjugate Java which did not bow to Sriwijaya."