A 8th Century Voyage in Borubudur!

When you visit Borubudur in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, you go with expectations of exploring ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples. What you don’t expect is a chance to vicariously relive an 8th century voyage in the 3rd millennium!

The unexpected always thrills. Especially when you learn of one man’s amazing enterprise to recreate an 8th century voyage from Indonesia across the Indian Ocean, past Seychelles, Madagascar, and South Africa to Ghana.

In 1982, a 21-year-old Englishman by the name of Philip Beale visited the Borubudur monument to study the reliefs adorning the temple. Beale had served in the British Royal Navy and was in Indonesia to study traditional ships and the maritime history of the region.

Imagine then his delight and interest when he found 10 panels on the Borubudur temple depicting sea vessels? Beale learnt of the ancient spice trade route from Indonesia to Africa. Fascinated, he decided to recreate a ship, as depicted on the temple walls, and sail it on the very same sea route followed by the Indonesian people in the 8th century.

What data did he have? Negligible. Because as far as I know, Asian countries have long relied on oral methods of teaching with little or no attempt to preserve knowledge in the written form.

What Beale did was contact Nick Burningham, a known expert in Indonesian watercraft and maritime archaeology. He also connected with local Indonesian ship builders. Together, with the help of a balsa wood model created by Burningham, this group of people built the Samudra Raksa (Samudra means Sea and Raksa means protection). The words Samudra Raksa are of Indian origin, revealing the long standing cultural links between Indonesia and India. But as per Indonesian script, I understand raksa means ‘guardian’. So, the ship was called Guardian of the Sea.

The Samudra Raksa was built by Assad Abdullah al-Madani and his men in 2002. It took Beale some 20 years to start realising his dream!

The ship sailed in August 2003, following the same trade route undertaken by those brave, ancient Indonesian people in the 8th century. The entire voyage took around 6 months.

Today, the Samudra Raksa and its accoutrements are housed in a museum located within the Borubudur complex grounds.

Thinking about the whole enterprise, one can’t but help marvel at the interest and passion involved to retrace the footsteps (or should I be saying sea steps) of those brave, adventurous, ancient maritimers.

I don my hat to Philip Beale, Nick Burningham, the late Assad Abdullah al-Madani and his Indonesian team of shipbuilders. Not to forget the crew who signed up for the voyage.

What interest. What passion. What courage.

By the way, I read something very interesting in the voyage literature displayed in the ship museum. It said that the Indonesian team insisted on using an odd number in fitting the ship’s planks. The philosophy underlying the belief in an odd number was that a ship has to seek it’s own perfection when sailing on the seas. The principle of evolution at work!

I found these interesting quotes on the subject in an article by Duncan Graham titled Assad, master shipbuilder who charmed the world (Jakarta Post dated May 22, 2009):

“Longitudinal symmetry was scrupulously avoided because of the philosophy that Assad called ganjil. If there was symmetry, there would be a kind of perfection and wholeness, so the ship would be content in itself and would have nothing to seek – it would not be eager to find friends, cargo, income, fish, new lands or anything else.”

“Assad’s role was also imbuing and amplifying semangat, the life force, in the developing hull.”

Wow! That’s the only word that comes to mind for a man like Assad who apparently rarely looked at Burningham’s model while supervising the construction of the ship.

Here was a man with basic education who played a key role in recreating an ancient ship to sail the high seas again.

As for Beale, Duncan Graham’s article informs that in 2009, he was at sea with the Phoenician Ship Expedition, which is trying to recreate the first circumnavigation of Africa in 600 B.C.

Interested in what you have read here today? If yes, I would suggest a visit to Borubudur is in order. But in the meantime, here is a picture my friend and I took of the actual ship at the museum.

The Actual Ship Borubudur Museum - Image by Lata Subramanian
The Actual Ship Borubudur Museum – Image by Lata Subramanian


#Borubudur #Yogyakarta

Featured Cover Image Credit: Borobudur ship by Michael J. Lowe. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons


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