Sunday, 8 December 2013

Report on the First International Conference on Jambi Studies hosted by Seloko

By Dr. Barbara Watson Andaya

For three days, from 22-24 November, the city of Jambi was host to a unique occasion – the very first International Conference on Jambi Studies, organized by the journal Seloko [] and the Dewan Kesenian Jambi, with support from the Governor of Jambi, Bpk. Hasan Basri Agus, and the Dinas Budaya dan Pariwisata. This was also a special occasion for me personally, since I had not returned to Jambi since I carried out research in early 1987. It was amazing and heartening to see how the field has expanded since that time, and how this conference was able to bring together local scholars and researchers from all over the world.
Over the past twenty years Jambi has been host to a number of international conferences that have focused on specific topics, such as the historical significance of the Muarajambi archaeological complex and the relationship between modernity and Islamic values. Set against this background, the “First international Conference on Jambi Studies” was rather different. Rather than focusing on a particular topic, it was conceived as encompassing a broad range of scholars and practitioners in different disciplines and fields of knowledge who would share a common interest in the history and current condition of the place we call “Jambi.” This conception resulted in a unique gathering that provided a memorable experience for all participants. In a press meeting after the conference ended, my friend and colleague Professor John Miksic commented on how young the organizers were, and that was a particular delight – to see another generation emerging as leaders in promoting new writings and new research with Jambi as their focus. As far as participants could see, the “nuts and bolts” of the conference operated without a hitch – the hotel Novita provided an outstanding venue, the technology functioned perfectly, the accommodation and food was excellent, the programs and printed “Proceedings” were all available, and the seemingly tireless linguistic skills of the simultaneous translators aroused admiration from all.
It was on the academic level, however, that the exceptional nature of this conference was best demonstrated. Professor Miksic’s opening address set the stage for a reappraisal of existing knowledge of Jambi’s early history while opening the door to future possibilities for research. In this context we were repeatedly reminded that although Jambi has long been characterized by connections to wider economic and cultural worlds, these global connections are now expanding at an unprecedented rate. The collaboration between local and international scholarship, so clearly demonstrated in our three days together, is one fortunate offshoot of this shrinking world. Several presentations, for instance, focused on the Muarajambi site, especially its place in the history of Asian Buddhism and Sumatra’s early connections with India, China and possibly Tibet. Many scholars consider Muarajambi to be the most extensive and most important site in Sumatra, and I myself was amazed to see how far the temple complex extends and some of the finds that have been discovered, including several previously unknown prasasti. When I visited the site in 1987 it was far smaller, and only a few temples had been excavated. In addressing strategies necessary to protect the Muarajambi site, such as greater community and enhanced public education, several papers were particularly timely because of the threats that indiscriminate development poses to preservation of this unique national legacy.
An important theme running through the conference presentations was the nature of change, especially in regard to the maintenance of Malay culture. Malays now make up only around 30% of Jambi’s population, but their culture is significant and distinctive. The loss of local knowledge may be an inevitable aspect of increased globalization, whether we are speaking of the need to document specific dialects of Jambi Malay or the disappearance of traditional house styles. Yet historians and anthropologists can also point to continuities, such as the relationship of Islam to Malay culture, and the role of Islamic law and education in a changing world, which remain a focus for stimulating discussion and debate. Scholars can also identify features that set Jambi off from its neighbors, such as the animal seals used by rulers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, probably unique in the Muslim world. In contemporary times a sense of Jambi identity can be seen in the revival of local batik with its distinctive and Jambi-specific motifs, like the ship and the durian pecah, in the beautiful local embroidery in gold thread, in certain styles of performance, and in village rituals. Some local novels, especially those sponsored by the local branch of the national writing association, Forum Lingkar Pena, are located in a Jambi environment, and convey a persuasive picture of modern life. The recurring question, of course, concerns the maintenance of Malay culture, given the numbers of newcomers from other ethnic groups and their incorporation into Jambi society. Should the government take a stand in legislating to protect the Malay heritage? How effective would this be?
Some groups within the boundaries of modern Jambi have attracted particular attention. One notable area is the highland kabupaten of Kerinci, in part because its distance from major lowland centers allowed it to develop relatively independently while being linked to the wider network of early Malay culture. It was here, for instance, that the Tanjung Tanah “Code of Laws” was recently discovered. Dated to the 14th century, this pre-Islamic text is thought to be the oldest in the Malay language. Yet in Kerinci too change is evident, as seen in the ways in which inheritance and kinship relationships, especially matrilineality, have shifted, in part because an expanding economy has meant greater exposure to influences from neighboring societies and from the Indonesian state. More adversely affected by economic and political changes are the orang rimba and suku anak dalam, the groups who previously lived in the jungle or whose livelihood depended on unrestricted access to the forest environment. The extractive nature of the logging industry and the ruthless spread of palm oil plantations have resulted in the destruction of much of Jambi’s forested areas. In turn, the disappearance of the forest is endangering the preservation of the extraordinary knowledge possessed by these groups while undermining the relevance of many traditional rituals. In short, although the conference celebrated many achievements both in the past and in the present, participants did not forget presence of disturbing realties related to issues such as landlessness, unregulated development, environmental degradation, and transmigration.
Despite the unsettling messages of several papers, the three days ended on a high note (with a visit to Muarajambi and the usual round of photographs, some of which will appear on Facebook!). The presentations we heard spanned centuries of the Jambi experience, transcending the boundaries that so often divide disciplines and opening up possibilities for collaborative and interactive work in the future. Above all, the ICJS-1 showed how far the study of Jambi has moved over the past century. The priorities now are to maintain the momentum we established, to strengthen our international networking, to ensure that the Jambi-focused journal Seloko maintains its present high quality and above all, to begin planning for the second International Conference of Jambi Studies in two years’ time. We are all confident that our next reunion will be equally (if not more) successful as our first, and on behalf of all participants I express once again our heartfelt thanks to all those involved in organizing this memorable occasion. If you would like to contact the organizers, the email is