Forging History: Metals in the Crucible of ASEAN’s Transformation

ASEAN launches the ACHDA exhibition series with Forging History to bring focus on the enduring roles of metals, in their myriad forms, in transforming the region’s history and cultures. The lustre, strength, and malleability of metals have made them a versatile material for various purposes across history. They have been used to craft objects with spiritual, political, and artistic meanings that have and continue to underpin the lives of ASEAN peoples.



The ASEAN region’s history is forged with metals as evinced by the wealth of its material cultures made of gold, iron, copper, bronze, silver, among others. These metals - fashioned into various instruments, tools, weapons, and regalia - have been actively shaped by Southeast Asian peoples and civilisations, and have likewise shaped the region’s history.


Mainland Southeast Asians are thought to have engaged in copper and bronze metallurgical production and distribution by the mid to the late 2nd millennium BCE (Stark, 2015). The discovery of metal artefacts at archaeological sites that once were the location of prehistoric settlements indicate that metallurgy in early Southeast Asian civilisations not only produced tools used in daily life, but also prestige items and ritual paraphernalia.


Forging History: Metals in the Crucible of ASEAN’s Transformation takes us on a journey of discovery into the varied roles metals have played in ASEAN history and cultures, with a focus on Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. How have metals figured in the spirituality of the diverse belief systems of their peoples? How have they been appropriated to accord prestige and authority on traditional holders of power? How have they catalysed the advancement of conquest and global trade? And how are metals crafted to express artistic visions and imaginations?


To help us in these enquiries, we will enter the museums, libraries, and galleries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand through the ASEAN Cultural Heritage Digital Archive (ACHDA). A number of key cultural institutions of the three ASEAN Member States have kindly shared a sample of their prodigious collections for us to better understand and appreciate Southeast Asian heritage through a user-friendly digital platform.


Forging History is the inaugural curated exhibition under the ACHDA. Not only does the series of online exhibitions present the ACHDA collections with more conceptual focus and coherence, but it also highlights the immense value of the digitisation of heritage moving forward as access to and engagement with museums and libraries continuously evolve in these changing times.

Golden Tales

The small deposits of gold in Southeast Asia have earned it the name Suvarnabhumi (Land of Gold) to refer to parts of the mainland, and Suvarnadvipa (Islands of Gold) that corresponds to some areas of its archipelagoes. Deemed as a luxury material, gold is historically reserved only for special purposes. In some of the spiritual practices of the peoples of Southeast Asia, gold is used in religious objects to signify their significance and distinguish them from the profane.


This section is dedicated to the application of gold leaf in manuscript cabinets and chests from the collection of the National Library of Thailand. Manuscript cabinets were often placed in Thai monasteries where they served as repositories of sacred Buddhist scriptures made of palm leaves (Bhirasri, 2015). The cabinets are decorated with gold inlay where black lacquer with real gold leaf is applied to the item’s surface (Goss, 2018). The production of thin gold leaf is made possible because gold is one of the most ductile and malleable of metals. Through ornate and intricate details, the manuscript cabinets depict mostly the stories of the Buddha’s life, episodes of the Ramayana, and jataka tales (which are about the many past lives of the Buddha).

Possessions with Power

The production of metal objects requires sophisticated skills, technology, and extended time. High-quality items made of metals, such as crowns, accoutrements, and bells, are therefore bestowed with value as prestige objects. These items are infused with intrinsic importance as perceived by a certain society because these may be utilised to strengthen alliances in the form of gifts, and these possess spiritual meanings in rituals (Baretto-Tesoro, 2003: 299, 302).


The two crowns featured in this section bear witness to the traditional structures of power in the Indonesian archipelago, and how such structures have been subjected to shifts in power.


The crown of the Sultan of Siak Sri Indrapura is made of gold, adorned with diamonds and rubies, with a filigree (kerawang) motif. Upon Indonesia’s declaration of independence in 1945, Sultan Syarif Kasim II, the last Sultan of Siak Sri Indrapura who ruled from 1915-1949, gave the crown to the Republic of Indonesia as a sign of acknowledgement of the Republic’s sovereignty, and to affirm the merging of the Sultanate to the Republic.


The crown of the Banten Sultan is a gold and silver crown embellished with rubies and other precious gems. The Sultanate of Banten was an important kingdom in the western tip of Java, which ran the spice trade between the spice islands of the Moluccas in the east through the Malacca Strait to the world. In its heyday in the 17th century, the cosmopolitan city of Banten was crowded with multiethnic traders. Banten was sacked by internal fighting and the VOC in bloody war by the end of the 17th century. The crown is strongly suspected to have been taken by the Dutch as a trophy in the final battle and put in a museum in Batavia in the late 18th century.

Mediums of Expansion

The ASEAN region has been at the crossroads of global commerce for millennia. Trade has historically not only facilitated the exchange of goods but has also catalysed the percolation of cultural influences that have profoundly shaped Southeast Asian societies over time.


It is believed that Islam was brought by traders from the Arabian Peninsula active in the commercial networks of the maritime Silk Road. Islamic culture left a mark on the medium of economic exchange itself as demonstrated by the two gold coins featured in this section. Imprinted on these coins are Jawi scripts, an Arabic-based writing system for the Malay language (among other Southeast Asian languages).


First is the Kijang Emas (barking deer) gold coin. Its obverse side carries an image of kijang, or barking deer whilst the reverse of the coin in inscribed with the words “Malik Al-Adil” (a just ruler) in Jawi. This coin originates from Kelantan, one of the oldest states in Malay Peninsula. None of the coins in the kijang series was dated, hence it is difficult to ascertain their exact date.


For the second gold coin, its obverse carries the Jawi inscription of ‘Sultan Alau’ddin”, whilst the reverse side is inscribed with Jawi inscription of “Khalifatul Mu’minin” (meaning Ruler of the Faithful of the religion of Islam). It originated from Johore in Malaysia, and was used during the reign of Sultan Alau’ddin Riayat Shah (1527/28-1564). The sultan promoted foreign trade and was able to attract a fair amount of commerce. Indeed, a trade coinage in gold for the state of Johor first appeared in his reign (Singh,1986).


Similar to their Arabian counterparts, the promise of wealth was, for the most part, also the initial motivation for the arrival of the Europeans on Southeast Asian shores starting in the 16th century until these evolved into colonisation projects. Guns and cannons formed part of the colonisers’ arsenal to subjugate the local population and fend off external threats.


The fabled Cannon of Si Jagur, which is currently displayed in Fatahillah Square in Jakarta, is an example of such weaponry. It is made of cast iron and weighs around 3.5 tonnes. Its size is 3-4 times bigger than most cannons of the time. Forged by the Portuguese in Macao, it was transferred to Malacca in the 16th century. When Malacca fell to the Dutch in 1641, the VOC took it as a trophy and positioned the cannon in the Batavia Fortress.


The Sultanate of Banten possessed a cannon named Ki Amuk that was similar in shape and size to Si Jagur. Both were treated as sacred objects, akin to the kris (dagger), by the Javanese in Banten, Mataram, and other kingdoms. Until now, there are people who still present offerings to the Si Jagur cannon.

Into the furnace of Creativity

Metal has proved to be a key material used by Southeast Asian artists to realise their creative visions. Sculptors have been drawn to its robust but malleable qualities to match their pursuit of breaking the boundaries set by the usual sculpting materials of clay and wood. The use of metals seems to declare that these artists have reached the modern era, one that goes in sync with the modernisation of their societies.


In this section, we look closely at the metal works by two Malaysian artists. The first is the highly recognisable Ayam Jantan (which means cockerel) by Anthony Lau (b. 1933). Lau is considered as one of the pioneers of modern art in Malaysia, and he has influenced many young Malaysian artists and art teachers since the 1950s. With Ayam Jantan, the artist uses an industrial welding technique to produce an interpretation of an animal bearing images of traditional kampung (village) life. It is also this approach of synthesising traditional themes with modern techniques and medium that enlivens Raja Shahriman’s (b. 1967) Nafas 36 . Part of his Nafas (breath) series, this piece takes inspiration from the traditional Malay martial arts of silat. Through deft manipulation of metal as his medium, it epitomises the strong yet graceful posture of a fighter who is about to strike.


Barretto-Tesoro, G (2003). Burial Goods in the Philippines: An Attempt to Quantify Prestige Values. Southeast Asian Studies, 41(3), 299-315.
Bhirasri, S. (2015). Thai Lacquer Works (8 ed.). Bangkok: The Fine Arts Department.
Goss, F. B. (2018). Literature in Gold: The Rama Story as Depicted on Thai Lacquerware Cabinets. The Journal of the Thai Khadi Research Institute, 2.
Singh, S. (1986). The Encyclopaedia of the Coins of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei 1400-1986. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia Numismatic Society Publication.
Stark, M. T. (2015). Southeast Asia, Archaeology of. In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition) (pp. 63-69). Elsevier.

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Girard Philip E. Bonotan

Girard Philip E. Bonotan was the Senior Officer of the Culture and Information Division, ASEAN Secretariat from 2015 to 2020, during which he facilitated the development and implementation of the ACHDA project. He is currently taking an MA programme in museum and gallery studies. For this exhibition, he chose metals as the running theme for the selected objects because of their enduring quality. Metals have defined some of the epochs of humankind, and to this day have shaped industry and creativity.

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Project Officer, Sofiany

Sofiany is the Project officer working on the ASEAN Cultural Heritage Digital Archive initiative since 2018. In her view, Forging History aptly kicks off the ACHDA e-exhibition series that showcases the rich tapestry of Southeast Asia’s shared identity and history that celebrate ASEAN’s togetherness and identity. 

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Communication Officer, Gladys Respati

Gladys Respati is the Communication Officer of the ASEAN Cultural Heritage Digital Archive Project and coordinator of the ACHDA e-exhibition series. As the co-contributor of Forging History, she believes that the e-exhibition can bring to light the historical links connecting ASEAN long before it became the thriving regional community that we know today. She hopes that through the inaugural e-exhibition, visitors can gain a better understanding of ASEAN’s rich and diverse culture, heritage, and history.


Forging History is made possible through the support of the Ministry of Education and Culture of the Republic of Indonesia, the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture of Malaysia, the Ministry of Culture of Thailand, and the Participating Institutions of the ASEAN Cultural Heritage Digital Archive (ACHDA) project’s first phase. The ACHDA project is supported by the Government of Japan through the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund (JAIF).

Special thanks to:
Mr. Desse Yussubrasta, Planner at Directorate of Cultural Protection, Ministry of Education and Culture, Indonesia
Mr. Khanifudin Malik, Country Coordinator, Directorate of Cultural Heritage Preservation and Museum, Ministry of Education and Culture, Indonesia
Mr. Yosua Adrian Pasaribu, Technical Staff and Archaeologist of National Registration of Cultural Heritage, Ministry of Education and Culture, Indonesia
Ms. Rucitra Deasy Fadila, Jakarta Maritime Museum, Indonesia
Mr. Mohd. Zamzuri AB Ghani, Principle Assistant Secretary, International Relations Division, Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Malaysia
Ms. Kiew Yeng Meng, Senior Curator, Collection Management Division, Department of Museums, Malaysia
Ms. Nirmala Sharipuddin, Curator, Department of Museums, Malaysia
Mrs. Wirayar Chamnanpol, Senior Computer Technical Officer, Senior Professional Level, Fine Arts Department, Ministry of Culture, Thailand
Ms. Punnapa Suksakorn, Librarian, Professional Level, Fine Arts Department, Ministry of Culture, Thailand
Ms. Gladys Respati, Communication Officer, ASEAN Cultural Heritage Digital Archive