The Laguna Copperplate Inscription: An Ancient Text That Changed the Perception of the History of the Philippines
The Laguna Copperplate Inscription is the name of an inscription written on an artifact that has great significance for the understanding of the history of the Philippines during the 10th century AD – a time when many scholars believed that the area was isolated from the rest of Southeast Asia.
Political Entities in Southeast Asia in the 10th Century
During the 10th century, a number of political entities were in existence in Southeast Asia. One of the most famous of these was the Khmer Empire, which dominated much of the Southeast Asian mainland. To its east, the modern country of Vietnam was divided between the Chinese in the north, and the Kingdom of Champa in the south. The seas below the Southeast Asian mainland were beyond the reach of the Khmers and were largely controlled by a maritime empire known as Srivijaya.
The maximum extent of the Srivijaya Empire during the 8th century. (CC BY SA 3.0)
However, there is little information on the area in the part of this region where the modern country of the Philippines is now situated. This lack of information led many scholars to believe that it was isolated from the rest of the region. Thus, the Laguna Copperplate Inscription is an important artifact, as it has allowed scholars to re-evaluate the situation in this part of Southeast Asia during the 10th century AD.
Characteristics of the Laguna Copperplate
The Laguna Copperplate is a thin piece of copper sheet measuring about 20 x 20 cm (7.9 x 7.9 inches), which was discovered around 1987. It has been reported that this artifact was found during dredging activities with a mechanical conveyor in the Lumbang River, which is situated in the Province of Laguna. This province is located to the east of Manila, the capital of the Philippines.
It is interesting to note that the Laguna Copperplate only came to the attention of scholars in 1990, when it was offered for sale to the National Museum in Manila, after attempts to sell it in the antiques market had been met with little interest.
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An Incomplete Artifact
Investigations by Antoon Postma, a Dutch anthropologist, have revealed that the inscription on the Laguna Copperplate is incomplete, and it is highly likely that there was another similar piece of copperplate with inscriptions on it that has been lost. In an article published in 1992, Postma wrote that:
“Moreover, certain persons, after viewing a photo of the LCI (Laguna Copperplate Inscription), alleged, without being asked, that they had seen a similar piece of copperplate with inscriptions around the same time (1987). Its importance, however, was not realized then, and the possible second page of the LCI might have ended up in a local junk yard and been irretrievably lost to posterity.”
Origins of the Inscription on the Laguna Copperplate
The inscription on the surviving copperplate is in itself intriguing, and has provided enough material for scholars to analyze. For instance, the type of script used in the Laguna Copperplate Inscription has been identified as the so-called ‘Early Kawi Script,’ a writing system that originated in the Indonesian island of Java, and was used across much of maritime Southeast Asia during the 10th century AD.
In fact, this script is said to have been derived from the Pallava script, which has its origins in India. As for the language of the inscription, it has been found to be heavily influenced linguistically by Sanskrit, Old Malay, and Old Javanese. Both the type script, and the language of the Laguna Copperplate Inscription, therefore, shows that this area was not actually isolated from the rest of Southeast Asia, as had been previously assumed.
Places mentioned in the Laguna Copperplate Inscription. (Hector Santos)
The inscription begins by providing a date:
“Hail! In the Saka-year 822; the month of March-April; according to the astronomer: the fourth day of the dark half of the moon; on Monday.”
The Saka era has its origins in India (supposedly marking the ascension of the Kushan emperor Kanishka), and the year 822 is said to correspond with the year 900 AD in the Gregorian calendar. The use of this calendrical system is further evidence that there were cultural links between this area of Southeast Asia and its neighbors, which at that time, were largely under the cultural influence of India.
As for the subject matter of the Laguna Copperplate Inscription, it has been suggested that the inscription is a “semi-official certificate of acquittal of a debt incurred by a person in high office, together with his whole family, all relatives and descendants.”
A high-contrast copy of the Laguna Copperplate Inscription. (Public Domain)
This acquittal is also said to be confirmed by other officials/leaders, some of whom have been mentioned by name, along with their area of jurisdiction. These officials include “His Honor the Leader of Puliran, Kasumuran; His Honor the Leader of Pailah, representing Ganasakti; (and) His Honor the Leader of Binwangan, representing Bisruta.” The recording of these names suggests that there was some sort of political and social organization in the Philippines of the 10th century AD.
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To conclude, the Laguna Copperplate, which would probably not attract instant public attention as gold or silver artifacts would, is in fact an immensely important object. This seemingly insignificant artifact has sparked a re-assessment of the history of the Philippines prior to the coming of the Spanish, in particular the 10th century AD, and the archipelago’s relationship with the rest of Southeast Asia.
Featured image: The Laguna Copperplate Inscription. Photo source: (Paul Morrow)
Cryer, A. B., 2015. Laguna Copperplate Inscription Explained. [Online]
Available at: http://everything.explained.today/Laguna_Copperplate_Inscription/
Morrow, P., 2006. The Laguna Copperplate Inscription. [Online]
Available at: http://www.mts.net/~pmorrow/lcieng.htm
Postma, A., 1992. The Laguna Copper-Plate Inscription: Text and Commentary. Philippine Studies, 40(2), p. 183–203.
Santos, H., 1996. The Laguna Copperplate Inscription. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bibingka.com/dahon/lci/lci.htm