Ancient gravestones in Brunei Darussalam


Darul Aqsha

DURING the month of Sya’ban, many Muslims in countries around the region such as Brunei Darussalam begin to visit (ziarah) their ancestors’s graves, especially after Nisfu Sya’ban (the middle of Sya’ban).

Sya’ban is the eighth month of the Islamic calendar of Hijrah which is considered good for Muslims to

conduct functions such as khatam Al-Quran, chanting zikir and cleaning their ancestors’s graves and its surrounding areas prior to the fasting month of Ramadhan.

One of their activities to the cemetery is to repaint the gravestones or inscribe their ancestors’s names and brief biographies unto the tombstones.

When I first arrived in Brunei, I was told that there are some ancient gravestones in some of the graveyards near the capital city. They are mostly found in several areas close to the downtown area of Bandar Seri Begawan. The graveyards are usually located at the slopes of hilly areas which are hard for old people to climb them such as the ones at Jalan Residency in Kampung Batu and Kampung Kianggeh.

It’s interesting to note that many of the ancient graveyards in Brunei are located in hilly areas. The designs of these old gravestones reminded me of the gravestones of great religious teachers in neighbouring countries such as the gravestones of Sunan Muria and Sunan Giri in Java, Indonesia, for an example.

Certain ancient gravestones were carved with inscriptions. For archaeologists or historians, these inscriptions on local old gravestones here are very helpful when compiling the historiography of Brunei. The earliest gravestone in the country dated back to 1048 AD with its inscription in Jawi writing. Brunei’s Batu Tarsilah — the stone tablet containing the genealogical lineage of the Brunei Sultanate, is written in Jawi and was inscribed in 1804.

According to Dato Paduka Awang Haji Matussin Omar, a Brunei historian, the ancient gravestones in Brunei consist of two types, namely plain type (budai) and inscriptive/decorative type. Both types were made of sandstone or granite. The plain types usually are rectangular in shape but they do not have any inscription. Meanwhile, the rather bigger size tombstones inscriptions with different stylish level of Jawi writing.

The inscriptions on the gravestones did not only in use Malay, but also used other languages such as Sanskrit and dialects such as Bugis, a language which is communicated by Bugis ethnic group that hails from South Sulawesi in Indonesia. The people of Bugis were known for their skills in traditional ship-building and navigation. With their sailing ships, they crossed through the oceans for trading to Australia in the East and Madagascar in the West. Any inscription in decorative designs at the ancient gravestones, although they were not designed for a historical evidence, normally could give some information, particularly about someone’s names and dates.

In his article entitled Batu Nisan: Inskripsi dan Fakta Dalam Pengkajian Sejarah Brunei (Gravestone: Inscription and Fact in Brunei History Studies) (1999), Dato Paduka Haji Matussin wrote that further analysis about these ancient gravestones revealed some information such as introducing historical figures (the names of Sultans of Brunei such as Sultan Sharif Ali, Sultan Bolkiah, Sultan Muhammad Tajuddin, Sultan Muhammad Jamalul Alam I and Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien II, high officials and prominent persons in the sultanate).

The ancient gravestones can assist historians/archaeologists in revealing the dates of an era and describing the level of national civilisation.

“The gravestones’s complexity and beauty of the inscriptions and decorations bore testimony of the Brunei’s artistic skillful and technology in the past,” Haji Matussin said.

They also can give a description of historical events. The inscription in Jawi writing showed when Islam first came to Brunei such as that found at the gravestone of Tuan Pu Kong in the Rengas Besar cemetery which dated back to 1264 AD.

Besides that some old gravestones were able to give a description on foreign relations and process of cultural diffusion. Some gravestones belonging to foreigners are also found in Brunei such as that of an Aceh in Sungai Kianggeh cemetery as well as Arabs and Bugis in the Kota Batu, Tumasek, and other graveyards.

Haji Matussin also noted that these ancient gravestones are important and all care should be given to ensure that they are preserved for the posterity of future generations.

“These gravestones have historical value which are very meaningful for the next generation of Brunei who wished to know their origins.

The Brunei Times
Tuesday, August 10, 2010


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