Karimun Island is some 30 kilometres west of Singapore. Because of its strategic location right in the middle of the straits between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra ships passing between India and Java, Sumatra or even beyond to China, in ancient times passed by and often stopped at Karimun Island. On the northern tip of the island is the earliest evidence of both Buddhism and of Indians in the general Singapore region. On the 9th March myself and a few friends set off to have a look at this evidence.
The trip to Karimun takes an hour and a half and requires obtaining a one day Indonesian visa. After landing and passing through customs we piled into two taxis and drove the 25 kilometres to Pasi Panjang. The surprisingly high jungle-covered mountain at the end of the island is half eaten away by an immense quarry. The granite from this quarry is shipped all the way to Singapore for constructing breakwaters, foundations and retaining walls. Right at the foot of the mountain is a small shrine surrounded by a metal railing. On the sloping rock sheltered by this shrine is six Sanskrit words written in Devanagri script from about the 8th or 9th centuries CE. The inscription reads Mahayanika Golapanditasri Gautama Sripada. The meaning is clear enough and can be translated as “The sacred footprint of Gautama (was revered by) the Mahayanist scholar of Bengal.”
Mahayanika refers to someone of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. This school was the dominant one in the Malay world until the 12th /13th centuries when it started to give way to Islam. Gola is probably an Indonesianized version of gauda, the ancient name for Bengal, and pandita means a scholar, in this case almost certainly a Buddhist monk. Sri means holy or lustrous, and pada is a footprint. We know from ancient sources that Buddhists monks, mainly from the great universities of Nalanda in Bihar, and Somapura and Jagaddhala in Bengal, travelled and taught widely in Sumatra and Java. No doubt it was one such monk who had the Karimun inscription carved as a record of his visit. No estampage or tracing of the inscription has ever been published and it has been worn since it was first examined by archaeologists in the late 19th century so I made a rough eye-copy. One of our party had the bright idea of tipping water over the inscription and immediately the letters became much clearer.
The footprint referred to in the inscription is a natural indentation in the rock to the left of the shrine. A little further on is a rock pool, possibly filled by water flowing down the incline when it rains. It seems probable that ships originally stopped here to replenish their water. Eventually someone saw the footprint-shaped indentation, identified it with the symbolic Buddha footprints seen elsewhere, and that in time seamen, merchants and pilgrims stopped here to pray for a safe journey or to give thanks for one successfully completed. Then at some time in the 8th/9th a Bengali monk stopped here and left a record of his visit in big bold Sanskrit letters. Our interesting day excursion ended just after sunset with our arrival back in Singapore.