Sumatra and the Island of Gold

Known in ancient times as the ‘Island of Gold’, Sumatra was an early point of arrival for trade, new religions and ideas in Southeast Asia. Gold and natural resources made it a land of wealthy chiefs and princes and home to the powerful ancient Srivijaya kingdom. These cross-cultural exchanges have created the unique and diverse Sumatra of today, known also for its natural attractions, such as Lake Toba. The exhibition of Sumatra Isle of Gold explored this rich heritage through over 300 works from the collections of the National Museum of Indonesia, the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, the Asian Civilisations Museum and private collections.

Sumatra at a Crossroads for Trade

Located between India and China, Sumatra is a natural crossroads for trade. Rich in natural resources, including gold, it was a land of wealthy chiefs, princes, and traders. The island was also the point of arrival for new religions and beliefs which spread across Southeast Asia. Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam all arrived via Chinese, Indian and Arab merchants and missionaries. The island’s strategic location and wealth of natural resources, including gold, pepper, and aromatics, naturally made it a busy entrepôt for trade. It also became the seat of power for one of Southeast Asia’s greatest maritime empires. Strengthened by close ties with China, the powerful Srivijaya kingdom (13th to 17th centuries) dominated much of Southeast Asia. This trade with foreign influences came via trade with India, with Hindu-Buddhist traditions and beliefs influencing the island’s coastal communities.

Early Trade in Sumatra Isle of Gold

As early as the 3rd century BC, Sumatra was known among Indian sources by its Sanskrit name, Suvarnadvipa, or ‘Gold Island’, in reference to its rich gold deposits, especially in the central Minangkabau highlands. The island’s strategic position along the Straits of Malacca and its wealth of natural resources attracted some of the earliest settlers and traders in Southeast Asia.

The legacy of these influences on Sumatra were all explored in the exhibition through objects ranging from Bronze Age artefacts of the early Austronesian communities, to Hindu-Buddhist materials from the maritime kingdom of Srivijaya. The Chinese presence increased during the 13th to 14th centuries and can be seen in the unique material cultures of the Peranakan (local born) communities. This influx of settlers continued and the Chinese, who had traded and lived in Sumatra for centuries, were soon an established part of the community, working as artisans, businessmen, administrators and tax collectors, amongst other professions.

The Islamic Sultanates in Indonesia

At the same time, Islamic sultanates, which had established themselves in the coastal areas, and developed their own traditions of court arts and royal regalia, were also on display. With the decline of the Srivijaya kingdom, the Islamic sultanates of Indonesia had begun to establish themselves from the 13th to 16th centuries and with the spread of Islam came cultural influences in architecture, textiles and clothing, and the courtly arts.

The Batak and Nias in Sumatra

Also part of the island mix of communities were the remote tribes, such as the Batak and Nias, who supplied natural resources to the coastal trading centres. The tribes also showed signs of interaction with and trade with their neighbours through their jewellery, ritual objects, and sculptures.

The European Influence

In the final section, European influence during the colonial period left its mark both on Sumatran courts and centres of trade, as well as the tribal communities. These foreigners sought pepper and gold, as well as camphor and benzoin, ingredients used in perfumery and incense-making. The Portuguese and the Dutch arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries respectively and a European influence left its mark on both the royal courts, as well as on the remote tribal communities who were converted to Christianity.

Indonesian Prehistory

In the introduction, ‘Prehistory’, the exhibition explored the hunter-gatherer communities that had arrived by boat from South China and settled in Sumatra about 6,500 years. These communities practised ancestor worship and created bronze-cast objects for ritual purposes. A large Bronze-Age vessel decorated with motifs such as hooks, spirals and plaited bands, indicating that it might have been used as a burial item, or as status goods. The iconic motifs found among many early Southeast-Asian artefacts found from that period. This vessel, from Jambi in East Sumatra, was the oldest object in the exhibition at over 2,000 years old.

Early coastal communities in Sumatra probably absorbed Hindu-Buddhist traditions from India during the early centuries of development, forming the basis for the Srivijaya kingdom, which eventually became an important centre for the study of Buddhism. A highlight from this section, entitled ‘Indian’, focused on a figure of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, which was particularly popular in Sumatra at the time. The stone sculpture displays the talents of local artists who integrated such imported Indian images successfully with local styles. The Hindu-Buddhist traditions of Sumatra’s Srivijayan rulers are reflected in a number of religious icons that came from Palembang, where the empire was first established.

Indonesian Textile Traditions

Trade with India also influenced Sumatra’s textile traditions, through imported fabrics and techniques adapted from Indian weaving traditions. Large 17th-century Indian trade cloths were worn by aristocrats, whilst the sumptuous songket weaving tradition produced luxurious gold cloths that are still treasured heirlooms today. Songket comes from the Malay verb menyongket, meaning ‘to embroider threads’ with gold or silver. These threads are wrapped with fine gold or silver tape and are woven on top of a woven material creating a design that appears to float above the surface.

A shoulder cloth from the exhibition featured a stylised garuda, a large bird-like mythical creature with Hindu-Buddhist origins. Evidence of early trade with China came to light with the discovery of a 9th-century shipwreck at Belitung Island off the southeast Sumatran coast. This Arab dhow carried a cargo of some 60,000 objects, mostly ceramics, as well as gold, silver and bronze, and is thought to have been bound for Persia with diplomatic gifts, with some of its cargo possibly intended for Sumatra, or elsewhere.

Chinese Influence in Sumatra

In later years, Chinese ceramics in Sumatra Isle of Gold became well-regarded foreign imports and were highly prized as status goods, heirlooms, and even used for rituals. Subsequent periods of trade and settlement in the region resulted in sizeable Chinese communities especially in coastal areas such as Palembang, where they became well-known for their skills such as lacquer-making. Using forms and designs inspired by Chinese porcelain and silverwork, the Chinese lacquer-makers traded their wares together with other local products. Their influence can be seen in the traditional Chinese symbols that were often adopted by other communities as decorative motifs, such as the phoenix and dragon (representing the empress and emperor), fish (fertility) and Buddhist emblems.

The Peranakans and Sumatra Isle of Gold

Peranakan or ‘local born’ communities were a result of inter-marriages between the Chinese and locals helped to spread their traditions, which can be seen through the cross-adoption of both Chinese and local designs and techniques in textiles, clothing, jewellery and other materials on display. The rebana, a type of local hand-drum, incorporates traditional Chinese symbols such as the Chinese phoenix and qilin (mythical beast) motifs.

The Crown of the Sultan of Siak

In the Islamic section, a highlight was a crown made for the Sultan of Siak. As the Islamic sultanates established themselves along Sumatra’s coastal areas, elaborate traditions were established alongside a rich variety of court arts. An important feature of the court was the royal regalia – which became treasured heirlooms, or pusaka, that enhanced the legitimacy of their rulers, as can be seen in the regalia of the Sultan of Siak. A famous crown embellished with three lotus flowers, rubies, and diamonds is thought to have been made for Sultan Assyaidis Syarief Kasyim I Abdul Jalil Syariffudin, who ruled until 1889.

European Trade in Sumatra Isle of Gold

Finally, with increasing European presence in Sumatra from the 19th century onwards, items displaying a curious mix of European influences and local motifs were created for local use and for export were also on display. In the last section was a watercolour painting from part of a series of illustrations depicting colourful ritual processions that is full of surprising details drawn from multiple cultures.

The buraq is a mythological creature said to have carried the Prophet Muhammad on his night journey to heaven, described as having a white body with the wings of an eagle and the tail of a peacock. In painting displayed, the buraq wears European shoes together with traditional anklets, and carries Islamic royal regalia in a canopy on its back. The flying birds above it are similar to the phoenix found in Chinese culture. The date palm tree on the left is reminiscent of the Tree of Life motif, commonly found in Southeast Asian and South Asian culture.

Sumatra: Isle of Gold, on show from 30 July to 7 November 2010 at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore,