Malay Architecture in Terengganu

by Ong Li Ling

I attended a talk on Malay Architecture at Petronas Gallery recently. I was so impressed by the slides shown by Mr Alex Lee that I decided to visit his resort – Terrapuri (The Land of Palaces) at Pantai Penarik, Terengganu.

Mr Alex is a Peranakan who grew up in Marang. He has been collecting old Malay houses since he was 20 years old. In order to build Terrapuri Heritage Village, he secured an 8-acres piece of freehold land in Setiu in 2005. Alex took 4.5 years to build this resort. The resort has 22 villas but only 15 are open at present. The resort usually has full occupancy in the months of July and August. Alan Hoh was employed as the conceptual artist and Oon Soon designed the logo of the resort based on the ancient Istana arch.

Kampung Kuala Baru is part of the Setiu wetlands, which is why the climate is so hot. There are nine ecosystems present including mangrove forest, beach, lagoon and BRIS forest.

The local ulama chooses the suitable location for the house. Old Malay houses are constructed using traditional Malay Geomancy principles. The house is based on the length of the matriarch’s outstretched arms, which is called a depa (wingspan). For example, a house can be 10 depa wide. The owner needs to take accurate measurements; “crow measurements” may result in the owner falling sick. On the other hand, prosperity will ensue if the ular cinta mani measurement is followed, i.e. the height of the main pillar (tiang seri) is an exact round number.

I flew to Kuala Terengganu airport and my Grabcar took around 45 minutes to get to Setiu. After ringing the bell, the resort staff opened the gate to let us in.

The first thing I noticed was the Double Gater layout, a typical architecture during the Langkasuka period. The Langkasuka Kingdom is believed to have been established in the 2nd century CE. It lasted till the 15th century when it was replaced by the Pattani Kingdom.

I admired the sobek (filigree-like woodcarving with old floral carving), which was popular back then. In the old days Kala was used to ward off evil. I also saw several stupa influenced by Buddhism.

I checked into my villa, known as Rumah Binjai Rendah. The typical Terengganu house is known as the Rumah Bujang. It has a gable roof and the outline of a makara. The makara is a mythical half terrestrial, half aquatic animal and it is the vehicle of Ganga, the River Goddess. It is also a symbol of fertility. The Singgora roofs represent the scales of the Makara. Grooved windows are usually reserved for royalty.

The number of steps of the staircase is always an odd number. You step with your right foot first and want to end up on your right foot. This is also the belief in Hinduism.

There are 6 units of Malay houses in the central courtyard. The resort can organise makyong, wayang kulit, main puteri (trance) and gamelan performances upon request.

The Rumah Berang (from Kuala Berang) houses a table used by Tunku Abdul Rahman. The 8-seater hardwood table was the very same one used by our first prime minister when he chaired a meeting with folks from Kampung Atas Tol in Kuala Terengganu.

The Resort Gallery is housed in Rumah Teluk Pasu which is a Rumah Tiang Enam (6 pillars). All houses in this resort are more than 100 years old.

It is customary for the owner to place a needle or coin made of iron under the main pillar (tiang seri) of the house as it is a symbol of semangat waja (courage, strength). This is an old practice. The bangau or egret carving has two faces. In the Mahabharata, the bangau is a makara and it is a symbol of money. The Perahu Bangau is carved with images of characters from the Mahabharata epic. The sanga can be found at the back of boat and it is carved in the shape of a bangau.

The kotak kelaut is where fishermen place their cigarettes and other personal items. This box can be used as a flotation device or safety tool should the boat capsize.

A laksa maker. In addition, brass-ware can be seen at the bottom of the stand.

This mould was used to make Singgora roof tiles.

This cloth is called the bunga halang or bendera pendekar (warrior flag). It protects the house from evil spirits. Every pillar has this cloth tied at its top. Later, due to Islamic influence, Arabic words were inscribed on top of the white cloth.

The carving on the left is geometrical. It has the bunga cina motif. The unduk unduk (seahorse) motif at the bottom protects the house from bad spirits. The carving on the right resembles two eyes and a mouth. It is a kala motif.

A few other design elements can be seen below.

The Baris Laksamana originates from the Ramayana epic in which it protects Sita from dangers. It is now used as a pagar rumah and has the lam alif Islamic wording (there is only one God).
This is a Pagar Musang. It looks like a door but we cannot walk out.
This beautiful wall is known as Dinding Janda Berhias.
Some houses have bamboo walls or dinding pelupuh.

Rumah Tanjung is an 8-pillar house. It was used for the shooting of the movie Merung Mahawangsa and Legenda Budak Setan. The kerecut grass installation in front of the house was designed by famous water colour artist Chang Fee Ming. He called this artwork Standing Proud. Kerecut grass can be used to make mats.

The Kisaran Semangat installation looks like a grinder or mill wheel.

I admired the orange pandan fruit (right). It is called Pandan Laut as it grows by the sea. The white Bunga Keledang or Bunga Kerak Nasi can be found on the resort. In Terengganu it is called Bunga Tikam Seladang.

The Rumah Jeram has a Chinese Peranakan interior design. It is believed that Cheng Ho on his 4th journey to Malaya instructed his men to go into Kampung Jeram to get water.

Boats, the main form of transportation in the past, were stored below the house.

This is a Baloh rice barn to store paddy.

An arch from the Istana at Jalan Kota in Kuala Terengganu.

A spa house where guests can enjoy mandi bunga and massage. Notice the stupa at the top; it indicates Buddhist origins.

Jawi inscription related to the Wali Tujuh.

Salted fish and preserved mangoes were stored in urns. There were no freezers back then and salt was expensive.

The tiang seri is usually the middle pillar underneath the rumah ibu. Minyak Canuar Kampung or Minyak Seri is placed at this pillar. It is made from coconut oil. It serves to bring radiance (berseri) to the people in the house.

The houses are constructed with bendul beams. Nails are not used in the construction of the houses.

Terrapuri in the evening. A big thank-you to Mr Alex Lee for showing me around his lovely resort.

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Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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