The Singapore Stone

Oct 31, 2023 0 comments

At the mouth of the Singapore River, at a promontory known variously as Rocky Point and Artillery Point, there once stood a massive boulder 3 meters wide and 3 meters tall. The boulder was first discovered in 1819 by laborers clearing jungles at the behest of British officer Sir Stamford Raffles, who secured control over the island of Singapore in order to strengthen British’s presence in the region. One of the faces of the boulder was inscribed with several lines by a mysterious script that neither the local population nor foreign antiquarians and other enthusiasts could decipher. This attracted great interest over the boulder and the mysterious inscription it held. Unfortunately, the boulder was blown up in 1848 by East India Company engineers as part of works to widen the mouth of the river. Only a few fragments of the boulder were saved.

The legend

According to local folk lore, the massive stone was thrown to the mouth of the Singapore River by the legendary strongman Badang, who lived sometime during the reign of Raja Sri Rana Wikrama of the Kingdom of Singapura, in the 14th century. Badang was born a normal boy in the northern part of the Sultanate of Johor, in present-day Malaysia. As a young man, he worked as a slave to a rich farmer, toiling in the fields and clearing jungles. At night he would catch fish on a small stream with a trap. One night, when he went to collect fish, he found a demon wolfing down the fish from his trap. Badang got so mad with rage that he seized the demon and tied its hair to a rock. The demon begged for mercy and promised to grant Badang any wish if he spared his life. Badang wished for strength so that he would not tire working. The demon agreed but on one condition—he would have to eat the demon’s vomit. The thought of having to swallow vomit made Badang sick in the stomach but he desperately wanted the power. So he fulfilled the task, and set the demon free.

Back on the farm, Badang eagerly made use of his newfound strength and cleared the forest in a short amount of time. The other slaves and his master were amazed. Soon, news about his mighty power spread across the kingdom and neighboring lands. It was not long before the King of Singapore, Sri Rama Wira Kerma, heard about Badang and summoned him to his court. To test Badang’s strength, the King ordered him to push a newly constructed boat into the sea. With a gentle push Badang launched the boat. The King was so pleased with Badang that he made him the Champion of his court.

When the King of Kalinga in India heard about Badang, he sent for him and organized a series of contest with other strongmen of his kingdom. Badang competed against the King’s favorite strongman in several contests of strength and wrestling but the result was always tied. Finally, it was suggested that whoever can lift the large rock in front of the palace shall be declared the winner. Badang not only lifted the rock above his head but threw it, where it landed at the mouth of the Singapore River.

An 1825 map of Singapore showing the location of Rocky Point at the mouth of the Singapore River, where the sandstone slab stood. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore

Destruction of the boulder

In 1843, the boulder was blown up to clear and widen the passageway at the mouth of the Singapore River, and to provide space for Fort Fullerton and its living quarters. Lieutenant-Colonel James Low, a military officer with the East India Company, tied to save the stone from destruction but his requests were ignored. After the rock was blasted, he collected several fragments containing the most legible parts of the inscription and sent them to the Royal Asiatic Society's museum in Calcutta for safe keeping. In 1918, the Raffles Museum, today the National Museum of Singapore, requested the return of the fragments, for which they received one. The fate of the other fragments remains unknown.

A fragment of the original boulder, now known as the Singapore Stone.

The inscription

Over the past century and a half, significant curiosity has surrounded the fate of the missing fragments and the enigmatic inscription they bear. Numerous endeavors have been made to decode the stone, resulting in a range of proposed interpretations and languages.

Sir Stamford Raffles was one of the first to make an attempt to decipher the inscriptions on the original sandstone slab before it was destroyed. He was under the impression that the writing was “Hindu”, the Hindus being the oldest of all immigrant races in the East, reaching Java and Bali and Siam, the inhabitants of which are all descended from them.

A certain Dr. William Bland also took interest in the stone slab before it was blown up. He used dough to take impression of the chiseled writing and with the help of a native writer, deduced that the writing was ancient Ceylonese, or Pali. James Prinsep, an Anglo-Indian scholar concurred saying that he recognized several alphabets, although he could not put together any connected sentences or even words.

According to Captain Peter James Begbie of the East India Company's Madras Artillery, the inscription was in an obsolete dialect of Tamil and described the exploits of Badang and the story of the stone itself.

According to yet another interpretation, the script on the stone is Kawi, an old language from the islands of Java, Bali and Lombok based on Old Javanese. Modern research agree that the script is most likely Kawi, although it is impossible to decipher what the inscription said. As recently as December 2019, an Australian researcher Dr. Iain Sinclair wrote in a paper that he was able to identify a part of the word “parakesarivarman”, which was a title used by several kings of the Tamil Chola dynasty in India. This discovery implies a Tamil association with the Strait of Singapore dating back around a millennium, potentially reshaping the historical chronology of the island. Sinclair proposes that the stone's origin could trace back to the early 11th century, consequently revising Singapore's origins to more than 300 years earlier than the presently acknowledged founding date of 1299.

The Singapore Stone

One of the fragments of the original sandstone slab that was saved by Lieutenant-Colonel Low, which was later returned to what was then the Raffles Museum in Singapore, is today known as the Singapore Stone. It is currently displayed in the Singapore History Gallery of the National Museum of Singapore.


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