Spirits and Ships

Patrick van den Berghe

While reading Spirits and Ships: Cultural Transfers in Early Monsoon Asia I could not help being reminded of William Golding’s highly acclaimed novel Lord of the Flies, especially when engaged with the first chapters of Spirits and Ships that deal with fierce gods, blood sacrifices and tremor. As most of us will know, central in Golding’s novel is a mysterious being called ‘Lord of the flies’. While its existence is primordially a result of fantasy and imagination, it has a magnificent influence on the mindset of those that ‘believe’. Spirits and Ships starts with the story of Nkuu, the thunder god of the Malay Semai, which is related to Rudra, the outsider god in Vedic texts. It is probably no coincidence that the Christian version of this lord of the flies, i.e. Belzebub, shares with Rudra and Nkuu, that it appears in occult and tantric religious spheres. In times when spirituality was not as much challenged by ratio as today, these gods gave voice to man’s fear of the unknown.

Spirits and Ships is a compilation of seven papers that were presented at ‘Cultural Transfer in Early Monsoon Asia: Austronesian-Indic encounters’, a conference held in 2013. Added to this volume are four more articles from invited specialists. All articles reinvestigate the long-standing concept of ‘Monsoon Asia’ (lands and coasts in South, East and Southeast Asia that have a long, shared history of being connected through maritime channels). The contributions explore ancient cultural exchange and other forms of dynamics and interaction, from early history until the present, in this part of the world. Despite the rich diversity in this vast area, there seem to be enough ground to propose a pattern of shared values, habits and models. New in this approach is that Spirits and Ships does not limit its scope to one discipline (be it religion, culture or archaeology), but that it brings together specialists from a wide range of areas (linguistics, ethnography, archaeology, art history, religion, etc.). While this is an asset, it is a threat as well, since not every discipline engaged with, offers enough evidence for this proposition. Let me give a brief overview of the most important contributions.

Spirits and Ships starts with two related articles that engage in the idea of a shared religious matrix. Drawing on personal experiences and interaction with Malaysian tribes Robert Dentan sees many similarities between their god Nkuu and the Vedic, this is pre-Hindu, God Rudra. These similarities may account for some kind of interaction between two distant people in a period before Indian thought spread over Southeast Asia. It is fooled by an article written by Andrea Acri’s who raises the question if Tantrism may represent a phenomenon with roots in a larger area and in a past that predates the common era. Focal point of attention is again Rudra. Andrea Acri points at the presence of a shared vocabulary that may result from a complex process of exchange.

While conclusions from these articles may be highly hypothetical, this is even more the case in a very theoretical contribution by Alexandra Landmann in which she tries, but to my opinion does not succeed, in positing an ethno-linguistic Malayo-Javanic cultural and law area. More on this shared history is to be found in an article by Roger Blench who brings together linguistic convergences with material evidence. He refers amongst others to both music instruments and a musical tradition, to housing types and clothing, all typical of large parts of Asia. By doing so, Blench stresses that language and material culture are relatively objective markers that can be represented on a map and may point to some ‘cultural’ region which may reflect structural and psychological borders.

More material evidence from a shared cultural history is to be taken from the weaving tradition. By focusing on the distribution of the body-tensioned loom and the ikat-weaving technology and comparing them to archaeological records, Chris Buckley tries to show where these traditions originate from and how they were dispersed over a vast area. I was surprised to learn how this study may lead to contradict the familiar ‘Out of Taiwan’ model on how prehistoric man moved. As for the weaving and looms it seems more appropriate to look for their origin on mainland Asia. This may raise questions about the origin and distribution of other cultural and linguistic (and human) features.

Maritime history plays a central role in Waruno Mahdi’s contribution. His research does provide evidence that insular Southeast Asia played a bigger role in maritime interaction and in seafaring than is usually acknowledged. This article argues that populations of Taiwan and insular Asia are closer to each other than either of them to that of Chinese mainland. This may indicate how maritime knowledge was acquired from people from Southeast Asia and travelled to mainland Asia. These people may be at the basis of early maritime networks that covered a huge maritime space.

A similar idea is to be found in an article written by Alexander Adelaar who points at similarities between members of the Barito language family and the Malagasy. Linguistic findings may tell us something of the original socio-economic situation of the people that were the ancestors of the Malagasy. At the same time they can provide us with a clue as to when Malagasy became a separate language. It is fascinating to see how linguistics can help us in understanding models and evolutions when other disciplines, such as archaeology, fail. It is probably one of the most striking ideas in this publication.

Finally, as by coincidence referring to Golding’s novel again, the last article turns around ‘the lord of the land’, a figure whose position is that of a being to whom the inhabited and cultivated land once belonged. This lord may be a spirit, the original inhabitant, a king, the founder of a dynasty. Robert Wessing sees a common practice of referring to this ‘lord’ in many parts of Southeast Asia.

Spirits and Ships is a challenging publication for those interested in the ‘oldest’ history of South and Southeast Asia. The editors did a great job in bringing together many experts on the field, but as already said before, not every contribution is convincing. So, this is a volume that will no doubt polarise, since it contains some exceedingly speculative chapters. Still, it provides food for thought, and a stimulus to undertake further, and more integrated, research. As a final note, I would like to add that the publication might have benefitted from the inclusion of some more maps and that in the index I lacked some references.