Malay Architecture & Traditional Houses

Istana Satu

by Aishah Nadirah

Istana Satu was reconstructed in 1974 of an original-sized old Terengganu palace belonging to the Terengganu royalty. It was part of Istana Dalam Kota (large palace complex), with 50 other similar buildings, some even bigger. With Istana Satu already grand enough on its own, we can only imagine how incredible the Terengganu palace complex was then! At first glance, one immediately notices how elevated Istana Satu is from the ground – easily seven feet high. Nadge noted that the stilts are half those of the Sarawakian Melanau houses, which are located high above the ground to avoid raiding pirates… but that’s a story for another day.

The first detail Nadge pointed out was the wooden beams: thick slabs of wood running through below the building and stilts, a feature common only in east coast architecture. This is due to the strong monsoon winds along the east coast. Architects and builders then would need to observe the common wind direction, and then assess where best to place the house. Thus, the construction of houses did not follow one particular direction. The local prevailing winds during the monsoon season played a key factor in this particular traditional Malay house construction.

Next, the gable ends of the roof. These gable ends are very heavy pieces designed to anchor the ends of the bumbung panjang (long roof). Again, it is noted how Malay east coast architecture is heavily influenced by the strong monsoon winds. Without the said gable ends, the roof is at risk of being blown away by powerful winds.

The distinct pointy ends of the roof many claim to be ‘Thai-influenced’ but Nadge pointed out that this feature is a classic characteristic of Malay east coast architecture. The narrow upper part of the gable ends thicken and expand towards the wider lower part; the gable ends were stylised in such a way that the lower thicker part prevents the lower roof tiles from being blown off. This shape is similar to that of an oar. Nadge then explained that this was why the wood used was known as kayu pemeleh (‘oar wood’ or ‘splash wood’, in Terengganu and Kelantanese dialect).

It is noted that traditional Malay houses have a lot of affinity to the sea and seafaring culture. One example Nadge pointed was that of the top single piece that covers the side of Istana Satu known as the ‘tebar layar‘ (‘unfurled sail’).

The focus then shifted to the wood panelling of the building: hectagonal pieces known as papan kembung (bloated planks) due to its more ‘bloated’ shape compared to others. Nadge keenly shares the panel’s other unique nickname: Janda berhias (‘decorated divorcée’), given due to its intricate construction. He explained how each panel had its own fitted slot, where nails are not needed due to its custom-made grooves for its mullions. This, too, is a slightly different feature than that of its simpler west coast counterparts.

Incredible workmanship can be seen throughout the building, where huge wood pieces seamlessly fit through pre-cut holes (as seen along the beams below the building). The overall result is one very solid and sound structure. Nadge quickly added that the metal bits we see on the Istana Satu now are modern add-ons, to reinforce its structure with high traffic from visitors.

Walking below the Istana Satu, Nadge pointed out the ever-so-slight natural gaps in between the floor planks. In west coast houses, traditional Malay houses would utilise overlapping methods (e.g. fishtail grooves or zigzag grooves) between planks. However, east coast houses had no need for this due to its rather thick wooden planks – nearly 1.5 inches thick! Nadge also added on how these wooden planks were painstakingly hand cut, and thus such imperfections allowed these gaps.

We were eager to hear more of Nadge’s talk regarding Istana Satu’s interior. Unfortunately, Istana Satu was closed at the time due to maintenance and/or SOP.

Nadge then pointed out a final but crucial detail of the traditional Malay house: the humble wedge – a wedge-shaped chunk of wood, which acts like a nail slotted into pre-cut holes to reinforce the entire structure of the building. We had learnt during his talk prior that this feat allowed for easy dismantling of the house, as well as providing sound reinforcement to the structure. However, the wedge was absent at Istana Satu, which Nadge mused that it showed how very confident the builder was with his workmanship.

It was a wonderful talk given by Nadge and we hope that there might be another one very soon.

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Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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