Fig. 1: Southeast Asia

Although the catastrophic tsunami that struck Southern Asia on 27 December 2004 may have seemed to some as if it had been unleashed right out of the blue, historical accounts from around the region suggest it would be dangerous to dismiss last year’s natural disaster as a one-time fluke.

The violent eruption of Krakatoa that took place in 1883 had likewise triggered a devastating tsunami. Moreover, the eruption of Sumbawa Island’s Mount Tambora in 1815 ranks as the most explosive volcanic event known to have taken place over the course of the past 10,000 years. Ancient Sri Lankan chronicles such as the Mahavamsa and the Rajavaliya also tell us that India’s island neighbor had borne the brunt of cataclysmic floods as far back as 2,200 years ago.

But what is not generally appreciated is that an Old Javanese manuscript kept in the royal palace of the Sultan of Surakarta describes yet another natural catastrophe of gargantuan proportions ? one that may very well have played a pivotal role in shaping the development of ancient civilizations across a swath of Southeast Asia extending from Java and Sumatra to the Isthmus of Kra on the Malay Peninsula. It is this last record which so poignantly reminds us of the adage that warns: “Those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Central Java’s Book Of Ancient Kings

In Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World, David Keys draws our attention to Java’s Book of Ancient Kings (Pustaka Raja Purwa), which appears in two distinct versions ? one compiled in 1869 and a second that dates from the mid- to late-1880’s. Both documents describe a volcanic eruption on Java that was centered on Mount Batuwara near modern-day Pulosari. The horrendous tsunami that followed in its wake reportedly devastated an area that had ranged from Java’s Mount Kamula (Mount Gede) to Mount Rajabasa in southwest Sumatra.

Until recently, many scholars viewed Java’s Book of Ancient Kings as nothing more than a veiled attempt on the part of a 19th century Javanese intellectual to remold the island’s history in opposition to Dutch colonial rule. Moreover, some early western historians even thought that the writings of Ranggawarsita III ? the complier of both text versions ? had been influenced by the mammoth Krakatoa eruption that took place in 1883. In light of last year’s devastating tsunami, however, these purported records from the archipelago’s distant past are now demanding a careful reexamination.

“A great glaring fire which reached to the sky came out of the mountain,” states one version of the text. “There was a furious shaking of the earth, total darkness, thunder and lightning. Then came forth a furious gale together with torrential rain and a deadly storm darkened the entire world,” says the other account. In addition, the younger of the two documents tells us that “not only did this heavy rain not extinguish the eruption of fire, but it made it worse.”

The volcanic eruption described in the text appears to have unleashed boiling tidal waves of steam, sulfur, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide, which subsequently spread outward in all directions. The volcano subsequently collapsed and sank into the earth with a tremendous roar.

Sunda Strait
Fig. 2: Sunda Strait

The explosion was so massive that it also caused large areas of land to sink below sea level. Afterwards, “when the waters subsided it could be seen that the island of Java had been split in two, thus creating the island of Sumatra.”

This last report is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first glance. According to the British consul in Batavia Alexander Cameron, the explosive eruption of Krakatoa that occurred in 1883 had triggered the tsunami that submerged Poeloe Teemposa as well as other small islands in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. Moreover, a reef subsequently formed in “the channel usually taken by steamers” between Krakatoa and the Sibesie Islands. Cameron also believed that the entire southeast coast of Sumatra “must have suffered severely from the effects of the sudden influx of the sea, and thousands of natives inhabiting the villages on the coast must have almost certainly perished.”

A Curious Historical Discontinuity

Malay Peninsula
Fig. 3: Malay Peninsula

In The Golden Khersonese, the historian Paul Wheatley presents a list of the known tribute missions that the Malay Peninsula city-states sent to China during the 6th century of the Common Era (CE). These tiny Malay kingdoms were economically important to China because they stood in the vicinity of the Isthmus of Kra – the shortest route for sending goods across the Malay Peninsula from one coastline to the other. Indeed, China’s History of the Liang Dynasty (502-556) reports that over 10,000 men came from both directions to meet in the city-state of Tun-sun on each and every market day.

It is not too difficult to understand why at least one tribute mission from the Malay city-states is known to have arrived at the court of the Chinese emperor during each of the years between 529 and 536 CE. The Chinese emperor always made a point of sending valuable gifts to the rulers of the Malay city-states that rendered him annual tribute. The local Malay kings also obtained official recognition as well as other diplomatic advantages by sending their trade representatives to China.

Isthmus of Kra
Fig. 4: Isthmus of Kra

Then for no apparent reason, these highly lucrative annual events ground to a complete halt after the departure of the Malay trade mission of 536. The ensuing four-year gap in visits to the Chinese royal court is most curious given the importance of these exchanges to both sides. However, a possible resolution of this mystery is to be found in China’s History of the Southern Kingdoms. In the year 535, two roars of thunder emanating from the southwest were heard as far away as Nan-king. Clouds of yellow dust soon followed that “rained down like snow” for an entire year, by which time it had accumulated to such an extent that the Chinese could “scoop it up by the handfuls.”

Back in the days of monsoon-regulated sailing, ship-captains departing the Malay Peninsula for China scheduled their voyages so that they would coincide with the rainy season that began in late May or early June ? when the prevailing winds blew out of the southwest. It is therefore entirely possible that the Malay trade mission that arrived at the Chinese emperor’s court in 536 had departed prior to the occurrence of the twin explosions that were heard in China during the previous year.

The Chinese accounts cited above compel us to recall the Mount Tambora eruption that devastated Sumbawa Island in 1815. This modern volcanic event was responsible for releasing about 20 cubic miles of ejecta into the earth’s atmosphere, cooling temperatures globally over the course of a “year without a summer” violently punctuated by crop failures, famines and plagues. A documentary film which recently aired on National Geographic TV suggests that the effects of the Tambora eruption in Europe had exerted far more dramatic effects on the continent’s societies than the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. Scientists calculate that the Tambora eruption was responsible for the loss of 80,000 lives globally.

Trace Remains Of An Ancient Cataclysm

What is particularly noteworthy about Central Java’s Book of Ancient Kings is that it incorporates elements which are entirely consistent with what modern-day geologists have been able to deduce scientifically about volcanic eruptions. Although these Old Javanese documents date the catastrophe they describe as having occurred more a century before the year 535, this discrepancy in chronology can plausibly be explained as the result of copying and compilation errors. Palm-leaf manuscripts did not survive for very long in Java’s unforgiving tropical environment; for this reason they had to be hand-copied from time to time in order to preserve their original information. Moreover, the Old Javanese Book of Ancient Kings could very well have been based on any number of earlier documents. As one of the leading Javanese writers of his day, Ranggawarsita III most certainly would have had access to earlier chronicles compiled by his illustrious forbearers at the Sultan’s royal court.

However, before attempting to arrive at any conclusions we must first turn our attention to the geological evidence at hand. Scientists have discovered the trace remains of a mammoth volcanic eruption in ice core samples taken from both the Arctic and Antarctic regions – samples that in each case contain high levels of sulfuric acid in the very core strata that corresponds with the 535-536 time period. In fact, the sulfuric acid amounts recorded for this specific period were higher than for any other time span within the past 2,000 years, which strongly suggests that the event in question had indeed been of cataclysmic proportions. Furthermore, the gathering of similar samples from both polar ice caps is a very good indication that the release of sulfuric acid must have occurred in the earth’s tropical zone, which is located midway between the globe’s two polar regions.

The Malaysian geologist Dr. T. T. Khoo has reported several interesting facts that have come to light during his 25 years of geological fieldwork along the western coastline of the Malay Peninsula. His geological inspections in the vicinity of the Malacca Strait turned over coral blocks as large as 1 cubic meter as well as large stones of a similar size that might represent broken beach-rock formations. Those with yellowish, powdery surfaces appeared to him to be 6,000 years old. However, Khoo believes that at least some of the coral blocks may be considerably younger.

The fresher-looking blocks were found at the same places where coral build-ups are currently found offshore, such as Pulau Payar off Kedah as well as Cape Rachado and Pulau Upeh near Malacca. This is just what we would expect to find if huge tidal waves had deposited large chunks of coral along the coastline at some point during the past 2,000 years. However, additional geological and morphological studies in both South Sumatra and West Java will need to be conducted before we can be certain.

Like A Phoenix Arising From The Ashes

The Javanese have traditionally regarded the occurrence of natural catastrophes as a sure sign that the “magic powers” (kasekten) of the ruler had diminished to such an extent that he no longer possessed the inner strength to unite all cosmic forces within his own person. As the sociologist Franz Magnis-Suseno has pointed out, natural calamities were inevitably interpreted as an indication that a change of ruler was immanent. Moreover, such events were believed to herald an ensuing period of unrest, a so-called “crazy time” (jaman edan) that would only come to an end when a “just king” (ratu adil) finally appeared to restore order, peace and prosperity. It would only have been natural for the region’s rulers to have recalled tales concerning “the storm that darkened the entire world” and then taken the necessary steps to ensure that the kingdoms they built would not suffer the same tragic consequences.

The archaeologist Daigoro Chihara has distinguished two different phases of Southeast Asia’s integration of Hindu-Buddhist culture: an early period in which most buildings were constructed out of wood and bamboo and a later period characterized by remarkable developments with respect to the use of stone. It is entirely possible that the advent of stone structures represent a logical human response for ensuring that religious shrines and other important structures would be able to withstand future catastrophic events. This might help to account for the abrupt change in the history of Central Java, which featured the emergence of royal dynasties that heavily invested in the construction of stone monuments such as the Borobudur as well as a great number of other magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples.

The earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis that have occurred throughout the entire Indian Ocean zone for millennia have been very unevenly distributed with respect to both time and location, which makes their prediction very difficult. However, governments from around the world are now taking recent events to heart and embracing measures which will ensure that the tragic loss of life that occurred on 27 December 2004 will not be repeated. It is for this reason that UNESCO, acting on behalf of the United Nations, has decided to establish a Tsunami Observation and Early Warning System for the Indian Ocean region, similar to the Tsunami Observation and Early Warning System established a few decades ago for the Pacific Ocean region, which has its international coordination center on the island of Hawaii.

Born in the city of Magelang on Java, Dr. Caesar Voûte is Professor Emeritus of the International Institute for Aerospace Surveys and Earth Sciences (ITC) in The Netherlands. As a specialist in the fields of hydrogeology and engineering geology, Dr. Voûte served as UNESCO’s manager in residence during the early stages of the Borobudur Reconstruction Project. Mark Long is the author of a dozen books on science and technology subjects as well as the Webmaster of online. Voûte and Long are also the co-authors of Borobudur: Pyramid of the Cosmic Buddha to be published by D.K. Printworld of New Delhi.