My Jakarta: National Museum’s Silent Guardian
Antonny Saputra & Dominic G. Diongson
My Jakarta is being expanded to include short features about the landmarks, art and architecture of Jakarta that may have escaped your notice. We hope to broaden your knowledge of the nation’s capital.
Thousands of cars pass by it each day. It has stood there for more than a century.
Instead of a lion that might guard the front of a royal palace or a building like the New York Public Library, a formidable-looking bronze elephant looks over the gates of the National Museum of Indonesia on Jalan Merdeka Barat.
“If you take a taxi and ask the driver to take you to ‘Museum Nasional,’ most of them would just give you a confused look. But mention ‘Museum Gajah’ and they’ll drive you straight to us,” said Nusi Lisabilla, head of the educational department at the National Museum — gajah is the Indonesian word for elephant.
Given by 17-year-old King Chulalongkorn of Siam (now Thailand) shortly after his first visit to Java and to the museum in 1871, the bronze statue was intended as a symbol of improving diplomatic relations between Siam and the Colonial Dutch who ruled Nusantara, the former name of Indonesia, meaning archipelago.
In a possible gesture of courtesy in return for the king’s gift, Nusi said, the colonial Dutch rulers shipped dozens of relics taken from the Borobudur temple to Siam in 1896, and those are now placed in the compound that houses Wat Phra Kaew, known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, in Bangkok. A sculpture of ganesha — the elephant deity in Hinduism — was taken from the Singhasari temple and was later placed in the Bangkok National Museum.
Elephants are considered a sacred animal in Thailand, and are a symbol of wisdom and strength. In particular, a white elephant — linked with the birth of the Buddha — is rare, and used by the Thai monarchy to convey power in ceremonial processions.
Their size and strength give elephants an advantage in carrying heavy loads. In times of battle during a charge, elephants were used to break up opponents’ formations.
The National Museum’s elephant stands about a meter high. It rests atop a white pedestal with inscriptions in Indonesian, Arabic, Thai and Dutch commemorating the gift from King Chulalongkorn, who is revered by many Thais for helping to bring the nation into the modern world and for preventing his kingdom from being colonized by Western powers.
The inscription reads: “A gift from His Majesty the King of Siam Chulalongkorn, given to the city government of Batavia during his visit to the city in the month of May 1871.” Batavia is the old name of Jakarta.
The base also includes a garuda-like relief on each side.
King Chulalongkorn, known by Thais as Rama V, made his extensive trip abroad in 1871 —the first by a Siamese monarch — and the monarch’s subsequent visits to Java in 1896 and 1901 were part of the start of diplomatic relations between Thailand and Indonesia.
The National Museum itself was built in 1862, and it now houses more than 140,000 objects. One of the largest statues overlooks the courtyard, in the rear of the building. The stone carving of King Malayu Adityavarman, who ruled in the 14th century, is more than three meters tall and originated from West Sumatra. It is part of the museum’s extensive collection of Hindu-Buddhist artifacts.
Still, the National Museum’s statue may not be the only famous bronze elephant outside Thailand.
An elephant statue of the same size was also cast and donated by King Chulalongkorn. That one rests not far from Indonesia.
“An identical elephant sculpture was also given to Singapore by the king a year after his first Java visit,” Nusi said.
The king had also visited Singapore in March 1871 and the statue was first placed in front of Victoria Memorial Hall in June 1872, in gratitude for his hosts’ hospitality. That statue now rests at the Old Parliament House, where it is one of the most popular landmarks of the city state.
In Jakarta, the National Museum’s management once had a casual discussion about moving the statue from its current position to the inner section of the museum complex so that people wouldn’t refer to the building as “Museum Gajah,” Nusi said.
“The museum was never officially meant to be called Museum Gajah,” she added.
But the informal name endures, and the elephant statue stands as the museum’s silent guardian and as a memorial to one of Thailand’s most revered rulers.