Pasemah Megalithic Highlands, Sumatra

The Pasemah plateau is located in the Pasemah Highlands in the Bukit Barisan Range, South Sumatra. This megalithic site is considered to be one of the most remote and mysterious sites of Southeast Asia. In the area between Lahat and Pagaralam, there are about 26 sites that include chamber tombs, carved boulders and terraced sanctuaries. The structures which are dated back to AD 100 are a collection of the monumental symbolic culture of the Sumatran. The stone art in this area is unique and consists of heroic figures with dramatic facial expressions.

One of the strangest, most remote and mysterious archaeological sites in all of Southeast Asia is found in the 70-kilometer-long Pasemah Highlands of the Bukit Barisan range in southern Sumatra. Located between Lahat and Pagaralam are 26 sites consisting of carved boulders, chamber tombs and terraced sanctuaries.

Two millenium ago, the area around Pasemah’s present-day administrative capital of Pagar Alam was home to a highly developed indigenous culture that carved and erected large stone monuments. According to leading Pasemah historian, Bellwood,these monuments include groups and avenues of upright stones (menhirs), stone blocks with mortars, troughs with human heads and figures carved on them, terraced platforms, three-legged ‘dolmen’, stone burial chambers, and many dynamic stone carvings of humans and animals.All this amounts to one of the most impressive and intriguing megalithic complexes in all of Indonesia.

These remains, which may date as far back as A.D. 100, are said to be the most concentrated collection of monumental symbolic culture in Indonesia, a treasure trove of permanent late prehistoric Sumatran culture. Pasemah stone art is significant because the region developed its own unilinear techniques and styles before coastal Indianized influences made inroads. Possibly during the 6th and 7th centuries this unique highland culture had political and economic ties with the Sriwijaya Empire centered on Palembang to which it is linked by river.

Huge queerly-shaped stones are carved into heroic figures with dramatic facial figures: warriors mounted on elephants and buffaloes, men wrestling a huge snake, animals copulating, boars, frogs, owls, freestanding tigers, a footprint, waterwheel, even ocean waves.

A great number of these extraordinary artworks, menhir, dolmens and subterranean stone cist graves were erected at a time when metals were already known in the area. Figures carry swords and sport helmets, rings and anklets. They also hold giant bronze Dong Son-style kettledrums – artefacts and implements all belonging to the Bronze Age of 2000-2500 years ago.

Regrettably, because there’s nothing like seeing the carvings in situ, the most exquisite Pasemah specimens are displayed in the yard of Museum Balaputradewa, about 5.5 kilometers from downtown Palembang. Their purpose yet unknown, the carvings are crude but powerful. Some chamber walls display zoomorphic paintings with pigments of yellow and red clay and charcoal.

Many of the figures appear at first to be three-dimensional but are in fact bas-reliefs, the illusion created by the skilful use of the curved surface of the boulders. Although ostensibly following the Muslim faith, some modern-day Pasemahans still use some statuary as vow-redemption shrines, calling upon their ancestors to bestow blessings and stave off ill-fortune.

Getting There
Palembang, the provincial capital of South Sumatra Province and the island’s second largest city, is accessible by air, sea and land. Pasemah sculptures can be seen at the Museum Balaputradewa, at Km 5.5 Jl. Jend. Sudirman. The museum, managed by the Department of Education and Culture, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. except Mondays; 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays.

Bengkulu is another jumping off point. The minibus to Pagaralam takes five hours (175 km) on a scenic road via Kepahiang and Tebingtinggi. Or get yourself to Lahat, just off the Trans-Sumatran Highway, then it’s 67 kilometers to the southwest.

If traveling south from Medan, North Sumatra, it’s infinitely more convenient to simply employ the services of a professional tour company.

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