The Historical and Ecological Significance of Ujung Kulon and Panaitan Island

Ujung Kulon, a national park on the western tip of Java, is renowned for its rich biodiversity and historical significance. Its establishment dates back to the Dutch East Indies era, spearheaded by the pioneering work of Frederick Wilhelm Junghuhn, a German botanist. His extensive studies and travel reports published in 1846 captivated European scientists, fostering a wave of research interest in Ujung Kulon. Among these scientists was Sijfert Hendrik Koorders, who passionately advocated for the conservation of the Javan rhinoceros, ultimately leading to the creation of the Dutch East Indies Nature Protection Society in 1912. Koorders’ efforts culminated in the official designation of Ujung Kulon and Panaitan Island as natural monuments in 1921.

Beyond its ecological treasures, Ujung Kulon holds a deep historical and cultural legacy, particularly centered on Panaitan Island. This island, also known as Sanghyang Mahapawitra, is steeped in legends and historical significance. Its strategic location in the Sunda Strait made it a crucial hub for international maritime routes, fostering a vibrant civilization long before it became a conservation area.

Archaeological evidence on Panaitan Island points to its significance dating back to the Sunda Kingdom (9th to 16th centuries AD) and possibly earlier. The island is home to two remarkable Hindu statues, the Ganesha and Shiva statues, discovered on Mount Raksa. First reported in 1894 by Raden Adipati Koesoemaningrat, these statues gained scholarly attention in the 1970s. Research led by Padjadjaran University in 1977 unearthed additional artifacts, including a Polynesian-type statue, underscoring the island’s diverse cultural influences.

The Ganesha and Shiva statues stand out for their unique iconography. As noted by Agus A. Munandar, these statues deviate from conventional sculptural norms, blending megalithic and early Hindu-Buddhist art styles influenced by the Gupta Dynasty of India in the 7th century AD. This fusion suggests that Panaitan’s statues are among Java’s oldest Hindu artifacts, alongside significant finds in Batang and Cibuaya.

Panaitan Island’s significance extends to its role as a religious and scholarly center. Dani Sunjana posits that Mount Raksa was a sacred site for worship and a scriptorium, supported by references in the Bujangga Manik manuscript, which lists sacred Sunda mountains, including Panaitan. Other manuscripts, such as Carita Raden Jayakeling and Tutur Bwana, confirm the island as a residence for revered teachers and a sacred site established by deities at the world’s creation. One notable manuscript produced on the island is Sanghyang Sasana Mahaguru, an Old Sundanese-Javanese text that offers didactic religious teachings and venerates Ganesha as the patron deity of knowledge.

The island’s historical narrative continued into the Islamic-Colonial period, albeit with decreasing clarity. The Sajarah Banten manuscript highlights the connection between Panaitan’s and Pulosari’s monastic communities, both of which pledged allegiance to Maulana Hasanudin during his 16th-century political consolidation of Banten. Over time, some monks converted to Islam or left the island, as evidenced by English sailor James Cook’s 1667 account of a Muslim Sundanese community on Panaitan.

By the 19th century, Panaitan Island’s population had relocated to Peucang Island, accelerated by events such as the road construction expedition under H.W. Daendels and the catastrophic eruption of Mount Krakatoa in 1883.

Today, Ujung Kulon and Panaitan Island stand as testaments to Indonesia’s rich ecological and cultural heritage. Their conservation not only protects unique wildlife, such as the critically endangered Javan rhinoceros, but also preserves the historical narratives that have shaped this remarkable region.