The Koboi Project is an expression of my search for an integral identity, across the gaps of an inter-generational diasporic experience, within the context of the contemporary crisis of globalization. Among the imperatives of this photo-performative project is the development of a deep engagement with place and people. This involves an immersion in the social history, popular culture, language, and religion of the places involved. The Koboi Project integrates its own abiding tropes – the ‘black hat cowboy and the ‘SUPERSTAR’ with the idioms, myths, and contemporary issues of each place of performance or presentation. An important aspect of the work is the circulation of its messages via a range of media, beginning with the megaphone and the banner as primordial transmitters of word and image. The Koboi Project is realized and disseminated by way of photographic prints, performances, installations, and online images/ social media.
The Shajarat al-Tûba, or the Tree of Bliss is described in the hadîth as giving such shade that “a rider could travel for a hundred years without crossing it.”Ibn Arabî places this tree at the centre of a cosmology, inverted and rooted in the the primum mobile, where sits the Throne of Allah. The Tree of Bliss is thus, “rooted in the ground of Being and fed by the water of Essence.” The sphere of Earth is at the centre of the concentric cosmos, followed by the stellar sphere of the physical cosmos, and then various heavens. Beyond the Seventh Paradise, that of Eden, is the primum mobile. The Tree of Bliss is rooted in this Abode of Allah, with its trunk rising through Eden and spanning the levels of Paradise. While the Shajarat al-Tûba is not mentioned in the Holy Koran, its ontological significance might be understood in terms of the metaphysics of the Olive Tree which is mentioned. The Olive Tree stands “neither of the East nor West” and its “oil would almost glow forth (of itself) though no fire touched it.” In geometric terms, this tree seems to mark a centre and, in causal terms, an origin. The oil iof this tree is the source and being of earthly light, just as Allâh is the light of all that is the heavens and on the earth.
The Pohon Beringinrepresents the three levels to the Malay cosmos, with fishes, serpents, or crocodiles at the bottom level representing the lower Waterworld; land animals like monkeys or elephants in the middle level representing the earth; birds at the top level representing the Skyworld. This tripartite division maps on to 5. Kayangan (Skyworld), 1 Dunia (earth) and 6 Dasar Laut (Waterworld) of the more complex Malay Cosmology as laid out by Md. Salleh Yaspar. In this syncretic premodern Malay Cosmology that integrates all previous ontologies with that of Islam, 5. Kayangan is consonant with Syurga and 6 Dasar Laut with Neraka, above and below the 1 Dunia,respectively.
This structure arguably underpins the story of Haji Batu whose ship went down while crossing the fearsome Pusat Tasek, as he was journeying to perform the Haj, Haji Batu clung to the Pokok Pauh Janggi and drew himself up on 7 nails that he drove into the tree. When he reached the top, he attached himself to the Burong Roc (Garuda) and flew Westward on his Journey to Mecca. (see Walter William Skeat’s Malay Magic). The climbing up the 7 nails can be seen as being an analogy for rising from the seven realms of Hell (the 7 nails could equally represent the seven levels of Heaven of course, or both – seven is a number of multilayered cosmological significance) and the flight of the Burong Roc, for an ascent into the Skyworld.
This diagram can be seen as a representation of the metaphysics and the physics of the traditional Malay cosmos. The Pokok Pauh Janggi is the axis mundi of the 1 Dunia (world) connecting the depths of the 6 Dasar Laut (Underworld) to the heights if the 5. Kayangan (Skyworld). Its location at the 2 Pusat Tasik Pauh Janggi puts it directly above the ‘Underworld’. In the tale of Haji Batu, the drew 7 nails that the Haji drove into the tree to make his way up might be a reference to the 7 levels of Hell as understood in Islam. His passage to from the top of the Pokok Pauh Janggi to Mecca by clinging to the mythical Burong Roc (Garuda) might conversley signify his ascent towards the Heavens. If the Pokok Pauh Janggi anchors the metaphical model of the Malay cosmos, the physis of this world is represented by Giant crab that lives at its base. This crab blocks the opening of the drain of the waters at the botton of the Pusat Tasik (whirlpool or navel of the seas) and it is the daily movements of this crab, that cause the oceans to rise and fall cyclically, giving us both the currents and the tides. (see Walter William Skeat’s Malay Magic).
According to Malay folklore, far out in in the deep ocean somewhere, there is said to be a momentus whirlpool, known as Pusat Tasik, that swirls down to the depths, draining the waters into the earth. Rooted to the ocean floor at this nexus, is the fabulous Pokok Pauh Janggi that reaches up to the heavens. In the Selangor Malay tale of Haji Batu, a man, journeying to perform the Haj, had to cross the fearsome Pusat Tasek (Siapa terjatuh atau tergelincir, tersuruplah ia ke dalam pusar. Tempat menanti segala mara bahaya. Tempat duduk menantinya Nenek Sepit Pentala Naga di Laut Buih Gelombang Tujuh. Kalau si lemah yang sampai, maka hilang ghaiblah ia di mulut Raja Naga yang maha bisa). As Haji Batu’s ship went down, he clung to the Pokok Pauh Janggi in the middle of the swirl of the Pusat Tasek, and following instructions he had received in a dream, drew himself up on 7 nails that he drove into the tree. When he reached the top, he found the nest of the mythical gigantic Burong Roc (Garuda) that lived there. He waited therein and when the Roc returned, he attached himself to the bird and flew Westward on his Journey to Mecca. (see Walter William Skeat’s Malay Magic). The above diagram presents the outline of a Pokok Pauh Janggi Wayang Kulit puppet collected by Walter William Skeatfrom a Tok Dalang from Kelantan in the late 19th Century. Could the figure in the tree possibly be this Haji Batu about to be attach himself to the Burong Roc, or could it be the great bird itself (note the aquline features of the figure’s head)? Perhaps it is a composite figure combining the two entities?
The Pohon Beringin puppet of Kelantan Wayang Kulit is closely related to the Gunungan puppet from the Javanese Wayang, which as Fiona Wong E Chiong and Ghulam-Sarwar Yousofexplain, is used by the Dalang to bring a whole cosmos of gods, demons, humans and other creatures to life for the time of the performance. While this magical function is understated in the Kelantan tradition, the Pohon Beringin puppet is used to mark the opening and closing of the performance. The Pohon Beringin is a microcosm of the universe, with a central tree motif surrounded by flora and fauna, sky, water, flame, and mountain motifs. There are three levels to this cosmos, with fishes, serpents, or crocodiles at the bottom level representing the lower Waterworld; land animals like monkeys or elephants in the middle level representing the earth; birds at the top level representing the Skyworld. The Pohon Beringian is associated with the universal Tree of Life motif, which, in Islam, is called the Tree of Immortality.
In the Malay cosmology, 5. Kayangan is located above the Pokok Pauh Janggi which rises through the2.Pusat Tasik Pauh Janggi, which is directly above the 6 Dasar Laut or ‘underworld’. The downward spiral of the Pusat Tasek and the upward thrust of the enormous Pokok Pauh Janggi both pass through the 1. Dunia, combining to create the axis mundi of the Malay cosmos. In the Islamic cosmos (see Jachimowicz) the force of creation moved down from the Throne of God, through the planetary spheres to the sublunary realm where its moment stirs the elements into becoming the manifest world. A line of force is drawn from the highest heaven down to the sublunary region echoing the axial function and dynamics of the Pokok Pauh Janggi.
Image: Diagram of the physical cosmos from Jachimowicz, Edith (1975). Islamic Cosmology/ The Malay Cosmos diagram is adapted after Md. Salleh Yaspar in Malaysian World View edited by Mohd Taib Osman.
Jachimowicz, Edith (1975). Islamic Cosmology. In Carmen Blacker, Michael Loewe & J. Martin Plumley (eds.), Ancient Cosmologies. Allen & Unwin.
I would like to suggest that the Pokok Pauh Janggi can be seen as a single tree that serves similar functions to the various Holy Trees of Islam. Anker Rentse offers an insight into the syncretic assimilation of the local Malay Cosmology with the Islamic one. “Shurga, Heaven, is on the top of Pauh Janggi, and Nuraka, Hell, is down below its roots. A gigantic hole between the roots causes the ocean water to disappear into hell’s big boiling-pot, kawah nufaka, whence the whirl-pool. Underneath the pot burns everlasting fire. A dragon guards the hole, the gate to hell (pintu nuraka) with its body in order to prevent the ocean from running dry.
Image: Eighteenth century Ottoman diagram from the Causus/ The Malay Cosmos diagram is adapted after Md. Salleh Yaspar in Malaysian World View edited by Mohd Taib Osman.
According to Edith Jachimowiczhe, Islamic cosmology echoew the geocentricity of the Aristotalian/ Ptolemaic Cosmos. The space between the surface of the earth and the sphere of the Moon is known as the sub-lunary region. It is the realm of the elements, of minerals, plants, and animals, and of generation and corruption. In addition to the eight Ptolemaic spheres (Moon or falak al-kamar, Mercury or falak al-utarid, Venus or falak al- zuhra, Sun or falak al- shams, Mars or falak al-Mirrikh, Jupiter or falak al-Mushtari, Saturn or falak al-Zuhal, Fixed Stars or falak al-burudj), the Islamic cosmos has a ninth Sphere, the Sphere of Spheres or falak al-aflak. This astronomical (physical) model of the cosmos is integrated with a theological (metaphysical) cosmology.
In the explaining the relationship of the structure of the Islamic cosmos to the process of the primordial Creation, Jachimowiczhe cites theTasawwurat of Nasir al-Din Tusi, in which it is said that the creative force “reached the Throne of God, from the Throne reached the pedestal and, from the Pedestal again, descended to the sphere of Saturn and became attached to it. Again, it descended further, from one sphere to the other, until it reached the sphere of the moon. Then the exaltations and the rays of the stars, by the force of that energy and through the mediation of the sphere of the moon, fell upon the elements. This was certainly the cause which stirred the elements …” A line of force is drawn from the highest heaven down to the sublunary region and, given the notion of the ‘stirring’ of the elements, we might impute a turning movement to this force. In my own imagination, this line of force echoes the axial function and dynamics of the Pokok Pauh Janggi which links Dasar laut to Kayangan in the Malay cosmos.
Image: Jachimowicz, Edith (1975). Islamic Cosmology. In Carmen Blacker, Michael Loewe & J. Martin Plumley (eds.), Ancient Cosmologies. Allen & Unwin.
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