The Koboi Returns 2023 – 4

According to Malay folklore, in the far depths of the ocean, there is a great whirlpool known as the Pusat Tasek’ or the ‘navel of the seas’. At the centre of this whirlpool, there is an enormous tree known as the Pokok Pauh Janggi. At this place, identified in Malay Cosmology as the Pusat Tasik Pauh Janggi, is inhabited by Nagas, Jins, Garudas and other such creatures. One of these creatures sits on the ocean floor, at the base of the tree blocking the a gigantic opening opening in the roots of the tree. This opening leads further down to the nether world of the Dasar Laut inhabited by Raja Lebis. Further, according to Anker Rentse, it is from the Dasar Laut, that the swirl of the Pusat Tasek rises in the course of ocean water draining down the opening. In some versions of this cosmology, a dragon guards this hole and its body also blocks the hole, preventing the ocean from running dry. In other accounts it is not a dragon but a giant crab that holds the waters up. It is the daily movements of this crab, unblocking and reblocking the hole, that cause the movement of the waters that we humans expirence as currents and tides. The above Kelantan Wayang Kulit puppets of the Pokok Pauh Janggi and the giant crab were collected by Walter William Skeat from a Tok Dalang in the late 19th Century.

Koboi in Lumut 2019

The Dari Pusat Tasek performance took place on the Lumut Waterfront, Perak under the auspices of the Percha Artspace on 25th Dec 2019. Sang Nabil Utama and I raised a 15 ft banner image of Anwar Ibrahim in a performance that was loosely based on a Perak Malay cleansing ritual using cut limes. I rubbed 7 points of my body with lime, then faced East and spat 7 times. I threw the remains of the limes towards the West direction saying, “Pergi-lah semua sial jambalang daripada badan aku dan dari tubuh negara, pergilah ke Pusat Tasek Pauh Janggi (‘Misfortune and spirits of evil begone from my body and from the body of the nation, begone to the Navel of the Seas!). Water was then poured over me in order to complete the cleansing.

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Ariffin Mohd Dahlan with some of the flags representing Jins he found on the Beting Beras Basah

According to researcher Ariffin Mohd Dahlan, in 1528, on the request of some Perak nobles, Sultan Mahmud Shah, the deposed Sultan of Malacca, sent his son Raja Muzaffar to take over the Sultanate. As he made his way with the Malacca Royal accoutrements such as the nobat (drum), naifiri (woodwind), pedang Chura Simanjakini (sword) and the cop mohor halilintar (seal) and several other tools his vessel was hit by a storm as passed Pusat Tasek  (Navel of the Seas) which was near the Beting Beras Basah at the mouth of the Perak river, and his vessel ran aground on the sandbank. They discarded all many weighty items and even the acctruments, but the vessel would not move. Finally, the Jin of the Navel of the Seas instructed the Raja to, throw his crown to the sea. Only when the Raja obliged the Jin, did the storm subside and the vessel move on to its destination.

According to some versions of this dynastic legend, the Raja had to dive into the sea at the Pusat Tasek and spend 7 days and 7 nights in negotiations with the Jins and other supernatural beings before this arrangement was arrived at. The prince was installed as Sultan and to this day the air to the throne of Perak is known as the Raja Muda (Young Raja) and not the Raja Mahkota (Crown Prince). It is also known that mysteries still abound in the area of the Beting Beras Basah which is a place where any new Sultan of Perak must perform a rite of passage (Istiadat Mencecah Kaki) in order to take up the throne.

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Could that be Haji Batu (on the right) climbing up the Pokok Pauh Janggi on this Wayang Kulit puppet?

In the Selangor Malay tale of Haji Batu, a man, journeying to perform the Haj, had to cross the fearsome Pusat Tasek (Navel of the Seas), a dangerous and fiendish place (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).

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The Dari Pusat Tasek, exhibition at Percha Art Space runs till 19 JAN 2020.

The enormous tree at the centre the ‘Pusat Tasek’. is an known as the Pokok Pauh Janggi. While I have been insisting that this is a mango tree, I have to acknowledge that the more commonly held view is that it is a coco de mer palm. Still, pauh is the Malay word for ‘mango’ and as Paul Kekai Manansala suggests janggi, probably, derives from the Toroja word ‘djjandji’ which, like the Malay ‘buah’, means ‘fruit’.

The Toraja are a people from the Sulawesi island, to the Southeast of Borneo, whose ancestral myths seem to claim origins from an island somewhere to the north where there is a powerful current, which could possibly be the Pusat Tasek. In the Taroja language taripa djandji means ‘mango tree,’ where or taripa  means ‘mango’ and djandji , derived from djampu means ‘fruit’. In suggesting that the Toraja taripa djandji is the more original form of Pauh Janggi , Manansala points out that among the Bare’e people, also from Sulawesi, taripa djandji is the common way of saying ‘mango tree.’

Manasala also notes that Antonio Pigafetta, a mariner on Ferdinand Magellan’s  pioneering voyage of ‘discovery’ (1518-1522), mentions local tales of an island surrounded by whirlpools, somewhere north or south of Java Major (Borneo), called Puzathaer (Pusat air?) on which there was a very large tree in whose branches perch enormous birds called Garuda. The fruit of this tree was said to be ‘larger than a cucumber.’ This size comparison, which must surely be with the in terms of the chayote cucumber from the Americas, suggests that the tree concerned was, indeed, a mango tree. The nut of the coco de mer is very much larger.

In Malay, of course, Pokok Pauh Janggi refers only to the mythical tree. A quotidian Mango tree would be pokok pauh and the coco de mer is referred as kelapa laut. While none of this is conclusive, in my understanding of language and of myth, the fact that, even when the signifier ‘Pauh Janggi‘, is understood as an index for the signified ‘coco de mer‘, the fact that it is indexed via the word ‘pauh‘, confirms that the root of chain of signifieds or similes is, indeed, the ‘mango’.

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“Itu pasal lah air pasang surut. Bodoh!”

The Dari Pusat Tasek exhibition will run at Percha Artspace, Lumut Waterfront till 19 Jan 2020. The performance for this event arises from the myth of the ‘navel of the seas’ or the Pusat Tasik Pauh Janggi. It is held in Malay folklore that somewhere in the proximity of the island of Borneo, or alternatively, somewhere off the mouth of the Perak river, there is a massive whirlpool that swirls down to the depths, draining the waters into the earth. At this nexus, rooted on the ocean floor, is the fabulous Pokok Pauh Janggi that reaches up to the heavens. At the base of this tree, at the bottom of the swirl of the ‘pusat tasek’, there is said to sit a giant crab, blocking the opening of the drain of the waters. 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.  

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In connection with my show at Percha Artspace titled Dari Pusat Tasek, which runs till 5 Jan 2020, I ask the obvious question – where is the Pusat Tasek Pauh Janggi (Navel of the Seas)? The performance carried out on the Lumut Waterfront was based on a Perak Malay cleansing ritual that purports to wash all the sial jambalang (ill luck and malevolent spirits) away to the Navel of the Seas.. Many sources on the location of the Pusat Tasek place it somewhere in the South China Sea or Southwest thereof. According to Antonio Pigafetta, a mariner on Ferdinand Magellan’s pioneering voyage of ‘discovery’ (1518-1522), there were local tales of an island surrounded by whirlpools, somewhere north or south of Java Major (Borneo), called Puzathaer  (Pusat air?) .​ The location of this Pusat Tasek varies, however, with the source of the myth. According to a Perak legend associated with the installation of its first Sultan, Mudzaffar Shah I, the Pusat Tasek is located somewhere off the mouth of the Perak river, beyond the extensive sandbanks there. This area, named Beting Beras Basah or Beras Basah Sandbank, is known as a deeply magical place – one filled with all manner of makhluk ghaib (supernatural beings).

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1. Dunia; 2. Pusat Tasik Pauh Janggi; 3. Padang Jauh dan Puncak Gunung; 4. Pulau Buah; 5. Kayangan; 6. Dasar Laut.  Diagram by Md. Salleh Yaspar in Malaysian world-view by Taib Osman

The Koboi Project exhibition and performance titled Dari Pusat Tasek will open at the Percha Art Space in Lumut on 25th Dec 2019. There will be an impromptu street performance, carried out as part of this exhibition, based on the malay myth of the ‘navel of the seas’ or the pusat tasik pauh janggi. The combined downward spiral of the Pusat Tasek and the upward thrust of the enormous Pokok Pauh Janggi combine to create an axis of the world, one that analogous with the Tiang Seri of the traditional Malay House. In the Malay Ontology or cosmos – 1. Dunia is inhabited by Man, animals, plants, objects, spirits; 2. Pusat Tasik Pauh Janggi is inhabited by Nagas, Jins, Garudas; 3. Padang Jauh dan Puncak Gunung is inhabited by Giants, jins; 4. Pulau Buah is inhabited by Ancestral spirits; 5. Kayangan is inhabited by Dewa, Perman; 6. Dasar Laut is inhabited by Raja Lebis. 

The Pusat Tasik Pauh Janggi appears to exemplify more general Southeast Asian structural and relational principles in which – 1. The Navel of the Seas drains the waters of the world; 2. A submarine tree or world pillar at the navel links the human realm to both the underworld and the skyworld; 3. There are mythic creatures dwelling at the navel of the seas at the base of the tree or pillar; 4. The ebb and flow of tides are due to the movements of the creature blocking the drain at the navel; 5; The ocean currents are due to water flowing in and out of the drain at the navel; 6. Earthquakes are caused by creature at navel of the sea shaking the world pillar; 7. There are relationship between these flows to the movement of the Sun and Moon and events like eclipses; 8. Rising sea levels and flooding are associated with the navel of the sea.