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Unlocking the mysteries: Challenges on the ground as Indonesia seeks to restore ancient Sumatra temple complex

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JAMBI, Sumatra: In the canopied peatlands of a low-lying plain in Sumatra, Indonesian archaeologists have been surveying more than 100 sites said to contain the ruins of an ancient civilisation.

So far, they have uncovered Buddhist temples and religious structures along with numerous artefacts scattered along the Batang Hari River in the Muaro Jambi region.

These structures and compounds – built between the 7th and 13th century and connected to one another via a system of canals and footpaths – were found within a 39 sq km area, the size of a small city. 

Indonesian scientists believe that Muaro Jambi was once a thriving civilisation and possibly the capital of the ancient Srivijaya Kingdom, which ruled over much of Sumatra for six centuries.

The Muaro Jambi area was also referenced in a number of ancient texts as a place where thousands of Buddhist scholars from different parts of Asia came to study.

If scientists can confirm these theories, Muaro Jambi could well be one of the biggest and most important religious complexes in Southeast Asia.

“This was a very important place at the time,” said Asyhadi Mufsi Sadzali, an archaeology lecturer from Jambi University.

But despite its vastness and historical significance, not many people have heard – let alone visited – the Muaro Jambi temple complex, including Indonesians themselves.

The Jambi provincial government is determined to change this and put Muaro Jambi on the map as one of the country’s top tourism hotspots. But there are many hurdles before this goal is achieved.

For one, the temples and religious structures in Muaro Jambi lack the captivating details found in Java’s Borobudur or Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, both of which serve as tourist magnets and icons. 

Instead, the structures found in Muaro Jambi are smaller in scale, fashioned out of bricks into simple geometric form. Intricate stone carvings are not commonly found throughout the complex.

Indonesia is hoping that World Heritage status from UNESCO would bring much-needed attention and investment into the area.

However, more than 13 years after the government first applied for the status, Muaro Jambi is still in the first phase of the five-stage nomination process with no clear roadmap on when it will progress on to the next stage.

A SPECIAL PLACE

For those involved in unlocking the mysteries of the Muaro Jambi complex, it has been a slow and deliberate process.

Of the 101 mounds surveyed by archaeologists, only 24 have been excavated since the complex was first discovered by British soldiers in 1824. Due to funding constraints, only eight mounds have been fully restored and are now open to the public.

One of the restored temples is Kedaton, believed to be the location where Buddhist monks from across Asia were trained.

“Those who were trained here were no ordinary (Buddhist) monks,” archaeologist Sadzali said. “There are theories that this place was where the teachers were trained.”

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