by Rama Ramanathan
Twenty-three of us were on the JMM (Department of Museums Malaysia) bus as it departed Museum Negara for Melaka at 7.45 am on Tuesday 10 October 2017.
Apart from our trainers (Jega, Karen, and Jean-Marie) who accompanied us, most of us were from Batch 28 and had delivered or watched presentations in Gallery C about Melaka. Some of Batch 28 trainees are professional guides who’ve seen Melaka often, but most haven’t. We looked forward to seeing how what we said or heard about Melaka during our training would match-up with reality.
In Melaka, we were met by Lingam, a local guide, at 10.00. After introducing himself to us, he briskly took us to the riverside where he explained the origins of Melaka. We heard again about the Hindu king Parameswara from Indonesia who fled to Temasek (now Singapore) where he killed a noble and, fearful of vengeance by the King of Siam, fled to Melaka, about 600 years ago.
Our guide said Parameswara sailed to Melaka and, while resting under a tree, he observed – as we’d heard so often – a mouse deer (kancil) turn aggressor against hunting dogs, one of whom fell into the river and was consumed by a crocodile. To many of us this was a new version on an old story, a version now set in stone in a piece of art, which the local authority has put on display by the river. He continued, “the fighting spirit of the mouse deer made Parameswara choose to settle there.”
Our guide next walked us to the Church of St. Francis Xavier, built in 1856 by French missionaries on the site of an old Portuguese church. The architecture of the church is neo-Gothic, modelled on the Cathedral of St. Peter in Montpellier, France. It is worth observing that the French named the church after the Spanish monk known as the “Apostle of the East” and “Patron of Missionaries.” Like the famed Spaniard, the French were Jesuits, members of the Society of Jesus.
We also saw, on the church grounds, the statues of Francis and Anjiro, the Japanese convert whom Francis met in Melaka. Francis had Anjiro trained in India before commissioning him to do missionary work in Japan. (Anjiro translated the gospel of Matthew into Japanese before returning to Japan with Francis; Francis wrote it out in ‘Romanised’ form and often read it publicly in Japan).
We then walked along the Melaka River to the Protestant Christ Church, which sits on the town square. En route, the guide pointed out a Melaka tree. Many of us thought the Melaka tree was of the palm family, so we were surprised to see that it is tree, which provides ample shade and yields prolific quantities of an edible gooseberry. Of course, we insisted on sampling fruit from the tree. Most of us were disappointed, but some discovered a new fruit they enjoy.
Our guide told us the Tamil name for the gooseberry is ambalakka, and that over time this morphed into “Melaka.” This is a good story, which many of us will re-tell, though we know there are no records to support it! (Other suggestions are that “Melaka” is derived from mulagas, a salted fish exported from the state; also malakat which means “meeting” in Arabic.)
The old town square has a clock tower and a fountain.
The clock tower was gifted to Melaka in 1886 by Mr. Tan Jiak Kim in memory of his father, Mr. Tan Beng Swee. Originally, the tower had two clocks, imported from Britain. In 1982, the clocks were replaced with four units from Japan. This upset the older population because they did not favour doing business with the nation whose soldiers had caused them much hardship during the Second World War.
Said to be the only functioning colonial fountain in Malaysia, the Victoria fountain was built in 1901 to commemorate the longest reigning British monarch. It has the following inscription: “Victoria Regina 1837-1901, erected by the people of Melaka in memory of a great Queen.” Our guide said it was built with marble imported from Britain.
Next, we entered Christ Church, built by the Dutch as a Presbyterian church in 1753, now used by the Anglican denomination. The impressive roof structure is held up by 40-foot long beams of beautiful, hardy local wood. Behind the altar, is a representation of the Last Supper, a glazed ceramic artwork made abroad and shipped to Melaka. According to our guide, it was found broken into three pieces when it arrived, but was so skilfully assembled that the cracks can hardly be seen.
Christ Church has many notable features, but space only permits mention of one more: a “tombstone” (no body beneath) with a Kurdish-Armenian inscription which translates into:
Hail! You who read the tablet of this tomb in which I now sleep, give me the news, the freedom of my countrymen, for whom I wept much. Did there arise from among them one good guardian to govern them and to keep them? Was it in vain that I expected in the world to see a good shepherd come to look after the scattered sheep? I, Jacob, grandson of Shameer, an Armenian of a respectable family whose name I keep, was born in a foreign town in Persia, now Inefa, where my parents now forever sleep. Fortune brought me to this distant Melaka, which keeps my remains in bondage. I was separated from the world on the 7th July, in the year of our Lord 1774, at the age of 29. My mortal remains were deposited in this spot, in ground which I had purchased.
Cornell University digitised version of Robert Norman Bland, Historical Tombstones of Melaka, Paternoster, London, 1905; page 5.
We departed Christ Church and entered the Melaka Museum, which is housed in Stadthuys, the Dutch word for “Town Hall.” Built in 1650, it is the oldest surviving Dutch building in the East. It served as administrative centre and housed the Dutch governor and his deputy. We learned that the stones used on the stairway of the main entrance came from the Netherlands as ballast on ships.
Just past the paid entrance, the museum architects have exposed some of what lies beneath the floor: a section of the drainage system incorporated by the Dutch into the design to preserve the building from flooding and erosion.
There is much of interest in the museum, both objects and paintings, with descriptions in both Malay and English. Exhibits that caught my eye include a collection of tortoise coin currency (so bulky and heavy!), a watertight trunk for luggage, and a collection of crockery.
The museum includes a re-creation of the Dutch bakery, which was integral to the design of the building – the colonialists needed their bread! Outside the building are the remains of a well, which supplied water to the building and a large statue of Zheng He, the Chinese Muslim eunuch Admiral who was a frequent visitor to Melaka.
A museum buff should budget at least 3 hours to thoroughly interact with and digest the exhibits.
From the museum we walked up to what remains of St. Paul’s church. For Catholics, the main attraction of these ruins is that it is the place where the remains of St. Francis Xavier were housed for nine months from March to December 1553. Francis died in Sanchian Island south of mainland China in 1552. His body was buried there, then exhumed and re-buried in Melaka. Then it was exhumed again and taken to Goa where it still is – except for one or more parts which were removed and sent to one or other places. It’s complicated!
Many recovered tombstones are on display. The visitor is struck by the young ages at which these visitors from foreign lands, many of them missionaries, and their local-born infants died in Malaya. Perhaps the most striking tombstone is one dominated by a skull and crossbones.
The guide explained that according to researchers the “pirate symbol,” taken together with other markings upon it, indicates that the person buried under it was a Jesuit Cardinal.
St. Paul’s church is a place to ponder the vagaries of history. The Star, in an article dated 7 December 2013, well summarised its significance:
The St. Paul’s Hill Complex, now a Unesco Heritage Site, mirrors a different “complexion” for the state’s “conquerors” of those yesteryears whenever St. Paul’s Church is brought into focus. To the Portuguese, it was a place of worship and was the hallowed grounds where St Francis Xavier walked and preached. To the Dutch, it was a Protestant church, a burial ground for members of nobility as well as a fortress. While to the British, the church and hill was an artillery bastion and lookout point commanding a wide view of the Straits of Melaka.
According to our guide, the British removed the most of the roof of the building so that their lookouts could walk around the tall walls and spot potential attackers.
We then walked down the hill, past many Dutch and British graves, to A’Famosa gate. This is the only part of the Portuguese-Dutch fort of Melaka, which survived the dynamiting of the fort by the British beginning in August 1807. As we stood there, I remembered the response the British action awoke in Munshi Abdullah, one of the Malay world’s greatest writers: “The fort was the pride of Melaka, and after its destruction the place lost its glory like a woman bereaved of her husband.”
The Dutch entrusted Melaka to the British in 1795 for “safe-keeping” so they could focus on defending the Netherlands from the French. When they returned in 1818, they “got Melaka back,” minus its main fortification and “glory.”
The adventure continued after lunch and can be viewed here