Ancient Indonesian ship returns

Ancient Indonesian carving has inspired three men to set sail on a 1000-year-old trade route in a replica ship they built themselves.

From Borobudur carving toocean-faring vessel in twenty years

Briton Philip Beale dreamed of the adventure 20 years ago after visiting the giant Buddhist temple of Borobudur in central Java in 1982.

He says he was inspired when he “stumbled across the relief of a ship and at that point, something clicked”.

There were six depictions of large sailing ships, equipped with outriggers and with two or three masts.

Beale decided to build a replica of the vessels that sailed vast distances across the Indian Ocean in the first millennium.

Making a dream come true

His dream began to become reality when he met marine archeologist Nick Burningham, a fellow Briton who shared his passion for ancient craft, and Saad Abd Allah, a traditional shipbuilder from Kangean island off the coast of East Java.

They began building a Borobudur ship based on the temple relief.

Burningham said the Borobudur ships were local in origin since they had “a whole range of features only found in Indonesia”.

These included triangular masts, distinctive hulls and short outriggers that were not there to provide balance, but to give rowers additional space.

It took a team of 26 people in Kangean almost six months to construct the 18.3-meter-long wood and bamboo ship, without using a single nail.


Designing the Borobudur ship, Burningham said, was “one of the greatest challenges I have faced”. He had no blueprint and no similar ships are still in existence.

The marine archeologist, who designed the model, had previously planned four replicas of ancient ships, including the 16th century Dutch ship “Duyfkens” that was the first vessel recorded as visiting Australia.

The builder, Saad Abd Allah, brought back to life a ship that has not been seen for hundreds of years.

“Saad not only built from the model but he also interpreted the model,” Burningham said. The Indonesian boatbuilder helped to turn “such a strange-looking ship” into a “lioness with a certain majesty about her”.

The mission to Africa will highlight the cultural influences that were transmitted from Indonesia to Africa by mariners and traders who sailed the Indian Ocean during the seventh and eighth centuries.

Beale, who formerly served in the Royal Navy, said the ships on the temple’s walls reflected the power of ancient Indonesians’ maritime skills and their incredible achievements in world trade.

“For hundreds of years Indonesians were known as superior seafarers, traders and yes, also pirates…but Indonesia has since been undergoing a steady decline as a maritime power,” said Culture and Tourism Minister Gede Ardika.

The Borobudur expedition, that will see the ship sail from Jakarta to  Ghana, will be launched by President Megawati Sukarnoputri on 15 August.

Captained by an Indonesian navy captain and with Beale as the expedition leader, the ship is expected to reach the Maldives in September and transit Madagascar and Cape Town before reaching Ghana in December.

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