By Leslie Muri
(Batch 28’s trip to Melaka – after lunch)
Were we walking in the footsteps of Parameswara? Had Admiral Cheng Ho passed this way? Did Princess Hang Li Po grace this riverbank with her 500 maidens on their way to Bukit Cina? Did Laksamana Hang Tuah sail by this spot on his voyage to Majapahit? Fast-forward over 500 years and after lunch we found ourselves walking along the river pathway beside Hard Rock Café, turning the corner at Jalan Tukang Besi along side Kiehl’s. Obviously, Melaka is still a centre of commerce today, but now for consumers.
This narrow old street is now a haven for backpackers, with scant evidence of its namesakes, tinsmiths. Within a block its name magically transforms to Jalan Tukang Emas with even fewer signs of goldsmiths. However it has acquired another popular name, Harmony Street, for important places of worship of several different religions are found close to each other on the street.
Along the way, we were treated to a delightful detour to see whimsical street art in an alleyway. We met a charging water buffalo who had left his padi fields behind, a Chinese girl at her window with her woven and lacquered basket, a demure Malay girl draped in a sarong opening a shutter, a Chettiar money changer, an escaping Sang Kancil leaping from a window, a pair of rambunctious orang utan who have just tossed banana peels onto the road, a tin smith bent over his fire and children pulling each other on upi, the fallen palm fronds.
Craftsmen still ply their trades along narrow streets, many of which Lingam described to us as ‘dying trades.’ The rattan shop sported dim sum steamers, marketing baskets, back scratchers and the infamous rattan stick, sometimes used to beat the dust out of mats and pillows and sometimes the sillies out of wayward children. The plants in pots growing right in front of his shop formed a modest at-hand medicine chest as there were cures for coughs, centipede stings and flavourings for curry. Another common tradesman of old was the tinsmith who fashioned pots and pans, kerosene lamps and mended leaking containers. Craftsmen who make the carved Chinese name boards were at work. Calligraphers and tombstone makers were there. There were funeral shops, where hell money and possessions for the afterlife are produced and paraphernalia for prayers are sold, popular on All Souls’ Day once a year. As Lingam pointed out, the next generation does not want to do these jobs anymore. The skills may die, but we hope their values do not fade away.
The first house of worship we came upon was Sri Poyyatha Vinayaga Moorthy Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia. It was erected on land given to the Chitty community by the Dutch in 1781 and built by Kapitan Thaivanayagam Chitty, head of the community. Being dedicated to Vinayaga or Ganesha, it features a sculpture of the elephant deity, with altars honouring his mother, father and Lord Murugan, his brother. Interestingly some aspects of Dutch influence are found in its design, as it does not have a round tower covered with carved deities but a flat one with three niches for relief images. Our guide, Mr. Lingam, showed us the place at the temple entrance, where coconuts, which are pure, are offered to fulfill vows. Good events, such as marriages or births, involve offerings of fruit, while sad events like funerals are without fruit.
The Kampong Kling Mosque, so named because of the South Indian Muslims who built it during the Dutch era, was our next stop. The mosque, at the corner of Jalan Tukang Mas (or Jalan Tokong) and Jalan Hang Lekiu was first built of wood in 1748 and later reconstructed in brick and cement in 1872. Although not the oldest mosque in Malaysia it is one the earliest and reflects Sumatran, Chinese, Hindu and Malay architectural aspects, just as Melaka of old was home to many cultures. The three-tiered roof is typical of Melaka mosques, while the minaret resembles a pagoda. English and Portuguese glazed tiles were used and the columns are Corinthian in style. Mr. Lingam showed us the structure used in slaughtering livestock during the Hari Raya Korban or Aidil Adha observations.
Lastly, we came to the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, where Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are all practiced. The building of the temple, in 1645, was under the patronage of Kapitan Cina, appointed by the Dutch to oversee the Chinese Hokkien community. The beautiful corners of its roof soaring heavenward tie in with the Chinese name, Merciful Cloud Temple. The elaborate building materials and experienced craftsmen were all brought from China. Additions and refurbishments were made in 1704 and 1801. The central prayer hall honours goddess Kwan Yin while smaller surrounding chambers are devoted to scholars, ancestors and other deities. Traditionally an empty lot is found across the street from temples for the temporary staging of Chinese operas, but this temple is fortunate to have a permanent building for operas across the road.
Beside the opera house is a Malay kampong house, which was rescued from certain oblivion and restored. Features of such wooden houses have been preserved here such as; stilts which; keep the occupants above floods, allow a protected storage place for rice on the ground, provide a cool place to sleep on a hot afternoon and allow cooling breezes to pass under the floor. Typical of Malay houses but found only in Melaka are the concreted front entry steps decorated in colourful tiles. Three sections of the house provide a visiting area in the front verandah, a sleeping area in the slightly higher centre and a kitchen/cooking area in the lower back area.
Our last stop was a visit to the Chitty Museum on Jalan Gajah Berang. The origins of this fascinating community were among the Hindu traders from South India who arrived during the period of the Melaka Sultanate. Having to depend on the monsoon winds, they have to stay in Melaka for about six months between changes in the monsoons. This extended layover allowed for intermarriage with the local women, thus producing the group known as Indian Peranakans or Chitties. They soon adopted Malay food, dress, some customs and language, while retaining their Hindu religion. They flourished during the Sultanate and under the Portuguese, but not under the Dutch who maintained a trade monopoly for themselves. They then turned to various crafts such as gold smithing and eventually to agriculture. Today many Chitties work as clerks and technicians. To this day they speak Malay infused with Tamil and words from other languages and maintain many of their elaborate rituals, such as complex wedding observations and extended ceremonies related to childbirth and girls’ coming of age. Beef is not part of their diet. They are not to be confused with Chettiars, who were more recent Indian immigrants from a mercantile community, involved in money changing, money lending and land businesses.
We applaud the MV trainers, for arranging this trip, which gave us so much insight into Melaka of the past and present. Having experienced so much first hand we will definitely remember what we saw, heard and learned. Who can forget the searing memory of reading the gravestone in Christ Church of the mother and her three children who all died of diphtheria within 15 days of each other in the 1850s? Lingam was an ever-respectful guide who willingly shared his knowledge of all things Melakan. He also set a standard for us to live up to. It was a great day and a good time was had by all.
Click here to view Part 1 of this story.