T is for Tiles

by Farida Jamal

According to a 2003 publication, 40 Tahun Muzium Negara 1963-2003, construction of the National Museum was initiated in 1958 by the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, YTM Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra. It was to be a showcase of the heritage and history of the nation, incorporating Malay architectural traditions and motifs. The third Yang di Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Syed Putra Al- Haj ibni Almarhum Syed Hassan Jamalullail, officially opened the museum on 31 August 1963. Over the years, it has expanded and undergone several renovations. The single-storied original building currently comprises the entrance hall to the four main galleries. Its original tiled floor has also been preserved and is a stunning tapestry in ceramic. Although an integral part of the overall ambience of the museum, the floor tiles speak of their foreign origin.

Exquisitely hand crafted, the eggshell white tiles with azure and ink blue motifs measure 12 by 12 inches. They are laid out in repeated square motifs formed by four tiles and each motif measures 2 by 2 feet. Within the hall, there are thirty- four motifs lengthwise and twenty-four motifs along the width, covering 3264 square feet of the floor. The remaining original stretch of the floor has been incorporated in the landing platform outside of the front entrance. This is a rectangular space, which is partitioned into three sections by two latticed brick- walls. The tiles cover 240 square feet of the floor area, and each section displays twenty motifs. Beneath the two-latticed walls, one can discover the origin of the tiles through marble plaques laid out on the floor, in Bahasa Malaysia and in English. The tiles were a gift from the Government of Pakistan.

Nawabzada General Sher Ali Khan Pataudi was the first High Commissioner of Pakistan to Malaysia (1957-1962). As the construction of the museum began during the same period, it is likely that he was instrumental in facilitating the gift of floor tiles from his government. National gestures of goodwill are a part and parcel of diplomacy, but often involves special people and special relationships. A Google search on Sher Ali Khan Pataudi revealed a remarkable personality and an extraordinary life. Born an Indian prince, he had studied at Sandhurst, was in the Indian armed forces and had opted to move to Pakistan when India was partitioned in 1947. Ten years later, aged 43, Sher Ali Khan retired from the army and he was appointed Pakistan’s first High Commissioner to the newly liberated country, Malaysia.

In one of his books, The Story of Soldiering and Politics in India and Pakistan, the retired general turned scholar described his years as a diplomat. He and his family had made many friends in Malaysia and developed special friendships with YTM Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra and members of Malaysian royalty. Sher Ali Khan does not mention the gift of museum tiles in his book, though. Documents pertaining to the construction of the National Museum at the National Archives may contain some information. In the meantime, the floor tiles of the museum foyer remain a token of this special relationship and continue to delight and surprise visitors.


Farida Jamal. (2016, 18 September). Beyond a Gift of Friendship Plush Heritage, New Sunday Times, pp. 6-7.

Jabatan Muzium dan Antikuiti. (2003). 40 Tahun Muzium Negara 1963-2003.

Nawabzada Sher Ali Khan Patuadi. (1988). The Story of Soldiering and Politics in India and Pakistan (3rd Edition). Syed Mobin Mahumud & Co.

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

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