OCEANS OF STORIES OF OCEANS
Brian E. Colless
For Roy E. Jordaan
In his valuable research on early Indonesian history, Roy Jordaan has constantly been breaking new ground, though some of it is actually water: he has promoted the idea that an old monument in Java (Prambanan) had been purposefully flooded, to represent the primeval ocean of Hindu mythology. (Incidentally, I have a feeling that the great pyramid and the Sphinx had a similar sea around them.) This gives me my cue to mention the Kathasaritsagara (The ocean of streams of story), a massive collection of tales (ten volumes in its English translation by C. H. Tawney, The Ocean of Story, 1924); it was compiled in the eleventh century by the Brahman Somadeva, a poet at the court of King Ananta of Kashmir, for the entertainment of the royal consort Suryavati. An interesting detail in two of the stories is the sea voyage across the Indian Ocean to Kataha, including a shipwreck suffered by a Princess Gunavati on the coast of Suvarnadvipa. We know that Kataha is Kedah (the Malay Peninsula) and Suvarnadvipa (the Gold Land) is Sumatra, the two main constituents of the Srivijaya empire under the Sailendra dynasty. This is a subject that we are both interested in.
Roy was in Renkum in Nederland, and I was in Palmerston North in New Zealand, separated by vast oceans, namely the Atlantic, the Indian, and the Pacific; but by air- mail letters he sought me out, because he thinks I am a scholar who has original ideas (what in some circles is known as a maverick) as he himself is.
I had published articles on the historical geography of South-East Asia, as I had long been playing with the sources (yes, it was like playing a poker machine, matching up the Chinese, Arab, Indian, and Malay versions of the toponyms, and hitting the jackpot time after time).
Eventually Roy asked me to join him in producing a book on Srivijaya and the Sailendras. This is something I had dreamed of doing many years before, and I had already thought of a title for such a monograph: Maharajas of the Isles. My obsession then was that all my substantial publications should have evocative titles with five syllables and no definite article at the beginning: “Traders of the Pearl” showed the pattern; but then I permitted seven syllables, hence “Traders of the Precious Pearl” for a study of West Asian merchants and missionaries in South-East Asia, and “Merchants of the Peerless Pearl” for Armenians in that same region . My handbook on Syriac Christian mysticism was to be “Treasury of Mystic Pearls”, but when published it became “The Wisdom of the Pearlers” . I had tried to avoid the use of the definite article in book titles because it implies that this is the definitive study, but our monograph came out as The Maharajas of the Isles, though the subtitle, The Sailendras and the problem of Srivijaya, showed that we were not laying claim to having said the last word on the subject, but we were certainly presenting a new synthesis of the fragmentary data.
The labour exerted on the production of our book was not funded by one of those big research grants that scientific endeavour thrives on; not at all, we had to make our own arrangements, regarding reference books, stationery, computers, printers, time, and travel (Roy did the trekking to archaeological sites and academic conferences). However, in the past I had received a modest amount of money to purchase relevant material for my research, and it was to be housed in the library of Massey University, though it was not earmarked for my personal use (even though nobody else was ever wanting to borrow any of it). They have probably thrown it all out now, as this is not really a research library; indeed, in the town of Palmerston North the only local collection of books and journals relating to my fields of study are in my own home (in almost every room of the dwelling, including the garage with its dozen bookstands).
As an exponent of Religionswissenschaft, the scientific study of religion (involving such disciplines as the history, phenomenology, sociology, psychology, and geography of religion) my research field is vast: it covers the whole universe. However, with regard to planet Earth, I have tended to focus on cultural exchange between Orient and Occident, or relations and connections between East and West. These are slippery entities, because the planet turns continually, and East becomes West every hour. Consequently, my eastern and western realms are to be found on either edge of various oceans. So let me say that I have a particular interest in the transmission of objects and ideas across oceans.
The Pacific Ocean is my “native sea”, so to speak, and my “native land” is the continent and island known as Australia; but my homeland is now Aotearoa, a Maaori name meaning “long (roa) white (tea) cloud (ao) land ”, which also has a pseudo-Dutch moniker, New Zealand, ever since Abel Tasman “discovered” this new sea land in 1642. When I began teaching “religious studies” at Massey University (NZ) in 1970, my introductory course had two parts: (1) phenomenology of universal religions, studying the beliefs and practices of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, through reading their scriptures; (2) history of these religions in Indochina, Indonesia, and Polynesia, examining how they were brought to these regions, and what changes they made in these societies, and also what alterations were made to them in these new settings. For Polynesia (including Aotearoa), this involved navigation in the Pacific Ocean, and for Indonesia it was the Indian Ocean.
My research on voyagers who traversed the Indian Ocean on trading or raiding expeditions, or as bearers of civilization, linked Eurasia and South Asia with South-East Asia and East Asia. That interchange was basic to our book on the Sailendras: it concerned the Indianization of the Malay Archipelago (including the Malay Peninsula). The adoption of the title Maharaja and the erecting of monuments like the Borobudur in Java are examples of this influence from South Asia.
Because of my devotion to the Bible, I have long studied the lands and islands of the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Sea (including the Persian Gulf). As a teacher of ancient and modern languages, I have always had a strong interest in the development and spread of writing around this “Middle East”, from Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and Mesopotamian cuneiform script to the Canaanian syllabary, which was represented at Gubla (Byblos) and elsewhere, and which became the model for other writing systems, notably the Anatolian (Luwian) and the Aegean (Cretan and Cyprian). And then the Canaanian consonantary, which was essentially a simplification of the Egyptian system, employing signs from the Canaanian syllabary, which were mostly borrowed Egyptian characters; its pictographic phonograms eventually became the letters of the alphabet.
On the back cover of our book, I am described as “an expert on the evolution of the Canaanite alphabet”. Roy knows this, and he sends relevant material to me: for example, the first Dutch report on the oldest known proto-alphabetic inscription, found at the Wadi el-Hol in southern Egypt; it took me several years to arrive at a satisfactory interpretation of this significant graffito, but it fits in nicely with the adjacent Egyptian texts, which reveal the area as a place where celebrations were held for the Goddess, with drinking of wine (wn), and this is also the earliest known occurrence of this word . When visiting Crete, Roy thought of me and took photos of the Phaistos Disc, which exhibits one of the pictophonetic syllabic scripts of the island; stamps were used for imprinting the signs on the clay; I have these pictures propped up in front of my computer for constant reference .
Recently, I have found a new ocean to conquer. Through my “Cryptcracker” website, people send me their inscriptions to examine. One of the most exciting is a copper cup from Jamaica, with a Canaanian syllabic inscription, which would date from the Bronze Age, before 1200 BCE . This would indicate that Mediterranean voyagers reached the West Indies some 3000 years before Christopher Columbus, and presumably they likewise went on to a landfall on the coast of America. This object, which seems to have the word for wine (wanu) in its text, could be the missing link in the problem of the sudden emergence of high culture in Mesoamerica (Mexico) around 1500 BCE.
The brilliant Olmec civilization appeared abruptly, with no apparent precursor, nor gradual evolution, in central isthmian America, on the West side of the Atlantic Ocean. Diffusionism has a bad name, but when the same distinctive cultural features are found in two distinct and distant places, it is reasonable to look for a connection.
Here is a list of some Olmec culture traits that have counterparts in the Mediterranean world, that is, the East side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Writing: Olmec inscriptions have not been deciphered yet, but the subsequent Maya writing uses the same acrophonic principle as the Canaanian syllabary, for the formation of its syllabograms.
Stamps: flat stamps, and roller stamps (cylinder seals in the East)
Pottery: earliest Olmec ceramics are sophisticated
Stelas with rounded top
Monumental stone carving: no known precedent
Graves under house-floors
Calendar of 365 days
We know that South-East Asia acquired its civilization (pardon this value-laden term) through bearers of esteemed culture from South Asia, who crossed the Indian Ocean and turned chiefs into rajas and maharajas, and who taught writing, art, and architecture (for erecting magnificent monuments and temples). A similar process ensued when Europeans infiltrated the islands of the Pacific Ocean, and Mesoamerica appears to have benefited from Phoenician presence.
The Babylonian writer Berossos (3rd century BCE) told of a being named Oannes, who rose up from the Erythrian Sea (the Persian Gulf and the ocean beyond it) and taught humankind all the arts of civilization. Knowledge and wisdom certainly come up from the deep.
I am running out of oceans, though they are increasing in size as humans relentlessly pollute land, sea, and sky; the surface of our globe is in danger of becoming a shoreless sea. Since I first heard the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, and the story of David and Goliath, I have liked the idea of killing bad giants; and although the beans I planted this season did not climb up to heaven, they certainly produced a goodly crop (I am still eating them); and I would like to report that according to my reading of an ostracon found in Khirbet Qeiyafa, a fortress overlooking the Elah Valley, where David slew Goliath (2 Samuel 17), we have an oracle of a prophet who was apparently an eyewitness of this historic historical (sic!) encounter: David and Yah have together “judged” Goliath . Some of the giants of academia, who have dismissed this Bible story as legend, might be in danger of tumbling down off their fragile beanstalk.
We have had the same trouble with such literature as the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). Can we extract historical fact from it? Dutch scholars say “Nay”, English scholars (notably Wolters) say “Yea”. Whatever! (That is the post-post-modernist response.) One detail that appeals to me is found in the Sejarah Melayu (Singapura section), the T’ang History (on central Java), and Marignolli’s account of Majapahit Java: the ruler was wont to climb mountains so as to see the sea (melihat laut), that is, in accordance with my theme, to view the ocean.