The folly of forgetting the past

IT WAS truly a sight to behold: structures built by the ancients more than a 1,000 years old, preserved unfortunately by time for a nation that would not treasure its own heritage.

As a student of history with an innate love for the old and irreplaceable, I had ventured forth one day to the Bujang Valley to investigate this story that was waiting to be told.

And I was not disappointed.

A friendly museum staff met me on arrival and proceeded to take me on a guided tour of an incline that housed a variety of Hindu candi (temples) that mesmerised me with their architecture.

Of course, many were in various stages of disrepair with some having little or no resemblance to the original temples. The very fact that I was standing amid structures that were an integral part of our common Malaysian heritage was an unexpected reward in itself.

I spent the better part of the sultry day walking from one relic to another, seeking out the subtle yet intrinsic differences between them that would only have held significance for the builders.

For the untrained eye, they held little of importance and could have been dismissed as just the foundations of temples that were no more, much like what an up and coming leader had recently stated.

Photographs were taken and notes written hurriedly for a story that I envisaged had the potential to be my magnum opus.

The article was despatched to the powers that be at headquarters post haste. It never saw print for reasons best known to them.

It appeared to me at that time that the Bujang Valley relics were a hushed national heritage that were best left as they were.

This is pure conjecture but could its Hindu nature have had anything to do with this apathy about giving it its due place in Malaysian history?

The year was 1981 and the nation was perhaps preoccupied with other issues of interest that bested a story about the ruins of Hindu temples.

I was also perhaps lulled into thinking that such a story would be of interest to mainstream Malaysian society that needed a change from the testy challenge of an impending economic downturn.

Today the issue is at the core of a maelstrom that has struck Kedah and by extension other parts of our nation with the debate centred on how candi number 11 could have been flattened by a housing developer who did not know the difference between historical ruins and a pile of rocks.

Suddenly, there is a sense of disbelief that something of such a horrendous nature had take place. What a tragi-comedy, perhaps one of untold proportions. Only time will tell.

A nation that does not recognise or appreciate its history, however alien it is to the contemporary understanding of things, is a nation that is incomplete.

I am extremely heartened by reports that the Tourism and Culture Ministry may preserve the 49 or so other candi scattered around the Bujang Valley. This is the way to go for a progressive country that prides itself on its ability to appreciate differences in faith and culture.

Also of immediate and urgent interest to us should be reports of ancient ruins in the deep forests of Johor called Kota Gelanggi that is said to have existed as a bustling Buddhist city between AD650 and AD900.

There have been sporadic reports over the years of this hidden treasure that jungles may have conquered over time.
The authorities should seek out these ruins and preserve them for posterity.

This will enable future generations of Malaysians to appreciate the diversity of Malaysian history and heritage.
Lest all this be misconstrued, equal effort should go towards restoring early Islamic (the Batu Bersurat of Terengganu that has established the entry of Islam into the country is a success story in point) and Chinese relics.

I am reminded of a similar scene like the Bujang Valley of yore when I flew into Pagan in Burma in 1990 or thereabouts. The Burmese, their restive politics notwithstanding, realised the worth of their stupas very early in the day.

On antiquities, I have to categorically state that more needs to be done to preserve the past in terms of heritage sites, old buildings and indeed memories of the past in the hearts and minds of octogenarians and nonagenarians.

There are beautiful structures in Kuala Lumpur including shophouses and old government structures like the Hundred Quarters in Brickfields which need to be preserved.

In Penang, there are scores of old buildings in little nooks and corners of George Town that are crumbling even as we discuss the topic.

A walk along these veritable vestiges of Malaysian history in several Malaysian towns will transport one to the days of yore when horse carriages trundled along narrow lanes.
But alas, many have been consigned to the dust heap of history as they do not appear to have much value in terms of dollars and cents.

Folks. Let's look beyond the dollar sign to the timeless and invaluable which do not bear a price tag.

From the tangible to the intangible, the elderly may not be with us for much longer and every effort must be made to record their experiences from the early part of the 20th century, a world apart from today.

It is incumbent on the government and private sector to equally bear the cost of preserving the past.
There is no other alternative.

Balan Moses, the executive editor (news) of theSun, believes that those who persist in ignoring history and its contribution to the nation should be accepted as part of the Malaysian milieu. I say forgive them for they know not what they do. On the part of those who do care (and I believe there are many in government who do), we should do our best to keep some of the past even as we develop our nation into a modern metropolis second to none. Is this possible? Let's chat. Email me at bmoses@thesundaily.com