Friday, January 21, 2005

The Laguna Copper Plate Inscription

The Laguna Copper Plate Inscription

Posted 02:23am (Mla time) Jan 21, 2005
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the January 21, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

ONE of the rewards of teaching is when a student comes to consult you to clarify something they have heard in a lecture or something they have come across in the assigned readings. When a student is disturbed by the subject matter and moved to seek an explanation, I think the teacher has done his job.

When students ask questions or e-mail me regarding their assignments, I have to remind them that I am not Ernie Baron, and that I cannot hope to know everything. This may be disappointing to some, but I think dealing with one's ignorance is always fertile. Knowing everything or being a so-called "walking encyclopedia" is definitely sterile.

While I have ready answers for FAQs like: "Is Rizal the father of Adolf Hitler?" or "Do you think Andres Bonifacio dreamed in color?" there are times when I don't have answers. When I sit down briefly with a student to explore the different angles of a question, it often ends in desperation (or maybe inspiration) and I throw up my hands and declare that sometimes it is not so important to get an answer. Sometimes, the mere process of problem solving provides the pleasure. Sometimes grappling with a question and thinking are their own reward.

Having large classes can be an obstacle because students don't want to appear clueless in front of their peers. Thus, some ask their questions during the break, others send slips of paper up front, and others send text messages or e-mail. All questions are entertained because the impertinent ones or the really odd questions can be quite stimulating. At the end of each semester, I thank my students first, for enduring my lectures (higher education is supposed to equip the student to deal with boredom); second, because I learned a lot more from them than they did from me.

This week a student came up to inquire about the status of the "Laguna Copper Plate Inscription" or "LCI." This is an artifact that is considered one of our pre-colonial cultural treasures and is now displayed in the National Museum. Contrary to what the student learned in an earlier history class, I explained that while I would very much want to accept this artifact 100 percent, there is a shade of doubt hanging over it because we do not quite know where the artifact actually came from. It is not of an impressive size, measuring a mere 20 x 30 cm, leading most museum visitors to pass by without noticing one of the earliest examples of pre-colonial writing. The problem is that this slim copper artifact was not uncovered as a result of a controlled and official archaeological excavation by the National Museum, but was purchased from an antique dealer in 1990. Before that, it was offered to me and, not knowing its importance, I rejected it. That is one decision I will regret the rest of my life. Hundreds of similar copper plates with similar writing engraved on them can be found in Indonesia, so I wondered what it was doing in Laguna.

To cut a long story short, the text was deciphered by Antoon Postma, in consultation with Johan de Casparis who noted that the language was technically Sanskrit, with some words in Old Javanese, but mainly in Old Malay similar to Old Tagalog. The Postma translation reads:

(1) Hail! In the Saka-year 822; the month of March-April; according to the astronomer: the fourth day of the dark half of the moon; on

(2) Monday. At that time lady Angkatan together with her relative, Bukah by name,

(3) the child of His Honor Manwaran, was given, as a special favor, a document of full acquittal, by the chief and Commander of Tundun

(4) represented by the leader of Pailah, jayadewa. This means that His Honor Namwaran through the Honorable Scribe

(5) is totally cleared of a salary-related debt of one kati and eight suwarna, in the presence of his Honor the leader of Puliran,

(6) Kasumuran: His Honor the Leader of Pailah, represented by Ganasakit; His Honor the leader

(7) of Binwangan, represented by Bisruta. And, with his whole family, on orders of the chief of Dewata

(8) represented by the chief of Mdang, because of his loyalty as a subject of the Chief therefore all the decendants

(9) of His Honor Namwaran are cleared of the whole debt that His Honor owed the Chief of Dewata. This in case

(10) there is someone, whosoever, sometime in the future, who will state that the debt is not yet acquitted of His Honor...

The artifact has resulted in more questions than answers. Is the copper plate Philippine? Or is it imported from Indonesia, Thailand, or Vietnam where similar pieces have been found? If it was made in the Philippines, why isn't the text in the “baybayin” or early Philippine syllabary? Was the LCI made in the Philippines by a Javanese scribe?

The eminent Indologist Dr. Juan Francisco, who has spent a lifetime studying Indian influences in our pre-colonial culture, says that some words in the LCI are truly Philippine and he believes the LCI is Philippine. I guess I will have to take his word for it and imagine that in 9th-century Laguna a debt of gold weighing one “kati” and eight “suwarna” was paid. Unlike other receipts that are oral or written on leaf, tree bark, or paper, this was placed on permanent non-corrosive material and survived to remind us of a pre-colonial past.


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