The ancient East-West maritime trade surrounding the Malay archipelago brought imported cultures to the local people. Islamization of the Malay world has influenced Malay culture since the 13th century CE. In the 15th century CE, Melaka became the centre of Islamic learning for the region. As Muslims, the Malays are guided by the Holy Quran, Hadith and sunnah. There are two handwritten copies of the Quran in Gallery B. This article highlights artefacts relating to the Hadith.
Hadith is translated as ‘tradition’ referring to the narration, account and record of actions and sayings of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Sunnah denotes the actual actions, practices and sayings of the Prophet. The chain of narrators of ahadith (the plural of hadith) has been meticulously traced to ensure authenticity. The Prophet’s tradition has given practical examples for Muslims to follow.
The first type of zakat (charity tax) ordered by Allah was zakat fitrah on every individual Muslim with the means to give. It is taken mainly for the poor before the end of fasting in the holy month of Ramadan. Based on Hadith 1511 of the Book of Zakat from Sahih al-Bukhari, ‘Ibn Umar said, The Prophet SAW made incumbent on every male or female, free man or slave, the payment of one sa’ of dates or barley as zakat-ul-fitr’.
The Arabic word sa’ translates to ‘small container’. In the Malay world, the gantang is a traditional unit of volume and the container for measuring it. There are two such containers in Gallery B – a copper one and a wooden one. The copper container is inscribed in Jawi with the words ‘This is a Brunei government gantang, the Just King, 1322 AH’. This dates it to 1904 CE when Brunei was ruled by Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin. The copper container is 17cm high with a diameter of 19cm. The wooden gantang is from the Malay Peninsula and doubles up as a pounding mortar for rice flour. It is made from jackfruit wood and has been slightly decorated with a projecting ring at the top. It has the same height as the copper container but is smaller in diameter at only 13cm.
In the Malay world, dates or barley mentioned in the Hadith above may be substituted with rice, as the staple food of the region. The gantang differs in definition between Malay states. Azman et al (2015) explains the difference in gantang capacity is due to its various sizes and the different types of rice (density and size) used in the weighing process. It is worth noting that in the past, there had been studies on the differences in equivalent weight of sa’ by Baghdad and Madinah jurists. Ibn Malik had said that the sa’ is a measure of capacity and it cannot be converted into weight. This is similar to the English ‘bushel’ e.g. one bushel of oats equals 32 pounds whereas one bushel of malt equals 34 pounds.
In modern Malaysia, the traditional measure of gantang has been converted to the metric system with different results. The zakat fitrah in Selangor is calculated based on one Baghdad gantang of rice at 2.7kg whereas in Johor it is at 2.6kg. Malaysia adopted the Hanafi school opinion to pay zakat in currency value instead of using food. Each state religious authority in Malaysia sets its own zakat fitrah rates, ranging from RM5 to RM21 in 2020 CE. The main factor for these different rates is the type of rice consumed. Most people pay RM7 and those who pay above this rate may consider the balance as sedekah (charity). Hence, the spirit of giving as an obligation on every able Muslim is observed in keeping with the Prophet’s tradition.
Muslims follow the Prophet’s tradition of burning incense in mosques and homes for purification. Censers are incense burners used in religious context. In the Malay archipelago, usually kemenyan (benzoin) is placed on hot coals to release fragrance. Most Malay households use brass incense burners. Both incense burners on display in Gallery B are from China.
The cylindrical blue and white incense vase is marked with the seal of Emperor Cheng Hua of the Ming dynasty, who ruled from 1465 to 1487 CE. Chinese Muslim eunuchs were influential at court during the Ming era. This porcelain censer is decorated with three medallions enclosing Arabic inscriptions in underglaze blue. It is without a cover for use with stick incense, popular in China. The ‘Mohammedan’ blue (also known as hui hui qing) is a cobalt blue obtained from Persia. Blue and white porcelain was produced at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen, South China from the early 14th century CE. It is believed that high quality Jingdezhen porcelain was for use at court and Chinese Muslims there. Some Jingdezhen pieces were exported to important Muslims outside of China. Most ceramics exported to Southeast Asia were of lower quality produced at Fujian, called Swatow ware. These were often imitations of blue and white porcelain, mass-produced for the middle class export market.
Our porcelain censer is likely to be a Swatow, with the main clue being the Emperor’s mark. Arabic or Persian inscriptions were introduced during the late reign of Emperor Hongzhi and early reign of Emperor Zhengde. Emperor Cheng Hua’s reign precedes this period. In addition, its inscription is not easy to read since the Fujian potters were unlikely to be well versed in Arabic and therefore, susceptible to mistakes when copying.
The colourful incense burner on display is estimated to be from the 18th century CE Qing dynasty. It is made of metal and enamelled with cloisonné decoration. Cloisonné, also known as Muslim ware (Dashi Yao), was probably crafted by the Arab settlers of Western Yunnan. The technique involves the application of coloured-glass pastes within pattern-shaping cells made of copper or bronze wires soldered on metal. It was introduced during the 14th century CE Yuan dynasty and peaked under the Xuande reign era of the Ming dynasty (1426-1436).
The calligraphic inscriptions (la ilaha illallah) on the burner and its cover means ‘there is no God but God’. Its design is a combination of the Sini script of the Hui Muslims with the motifs and symbolisms of the Han Chinese (notice the ruyi borders and imperial guardian lion knob). This artefact shows the synthesis of the two cultures.
Incense was sold in specialised markets of the perfumers (suq at-attariyyin) in and around the medieval Islamic world. Frankincense and myrrh were among the trade goods along the Silk Road. The Arabs had written about aloeswood and camphor from Tiyumah (Tioman) island off the Malay Peninsula from their 9th century travels. The Chinese used galangal, sage and Chinese weeping cypress in their censers. To this day, scent promotes a sense of well-being and is encouraged by the Prophet’s tradition.
A. R. Azman et al (2015), Calibration of Gantang (Sa’) Based on Metric System for Agricultural Zakat in Malaysia, ASM Science Journal Volume 9(2)
IAMM (2009) Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia Volume II
IAMM (2020) Mirrors of Beauty: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia Guide
L. de Guise & Z. Sutarwala (2006) Spice Journeys: Taste and Trade in Islamic World, IAMM
MAIS (2014) Az-Zakah; Spirit, Realisation and Obligation, IAMM
M. Uthman El-Muhammady (1998) The Quran and the Hadith, The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Religions and Beliefs Vol. 10, KL Ed. Didier Millet
Othman Yatim (1989) Warisan Kesenian Dalam Tamadun Islam, KL Dewan Bahasa Pustaka
Othman Yatim (1998) The Early Islamic Period. The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Early History Vol. 4, KL: Ed. Didier Millet
Wikipedia, Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia & Muzium Negara Gallery storyboards
A name may be just a term used for identification of a person, object or place, but studies have questioned the psychological effect names have on the bearer. To some, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, while to others a name defines a place or person’s life. So vital is the significance of a name that many communities have traditions surrounding its selection.
There must be a reason why there are at least three different places in Indonesia named Gunung Kawi (Mount Kawi). It may be an eponym for ‘Kawi’, the ancient sacred language of Java, which existed in the 8th century CE, and still used to some extent as a literary language. The word, in Sanskrit-derived forms can mean ‘poetry, wisdom or sculpture’, leading to the surmise that it may mean ‘Mountain of Wisdom/Poets’ or ‘carved out of mountain’.
Gunung Kawi, East Java
My first encounter with Gunung Kawi was when I was on a round island tour of Java in 1991. My co-travellers were mainly Indonesian Chinese from different parts of Java and as far as Medan in north Sumatra, who had joined the tour because Gunung Kawi was on the itinerary. They related (to me) the hagiasmos or sanctification ritual of this mist-shrouded mountain, which is the resting place of two of Indonesia’s legendary figures.
Gunung Kawi, located in the administrative area of Wonosari Village in the Malang Regency of East Java, is a stratovolcano with no eruption in recorded history. It gained fame because of matters relating to pesugihan often held there. Many do so because of the quest for infinite wealth. Pesugihan is derived from the Javanese word ‘sugih’ meaning ‘rich’. It is a ritual performed as a means to get rich instantly. In exchange, the seekers must sacrifice something.
At 2500 metres above sea level on the slope of Gunung Kawi is Pesarean Gunung Kawi – a cemetery containing the sacred twin tombs of Mbah Djoego and Iman Soedjono, revered historical figures in Indonesia. Iman Soedjono was one of the seventy noblemen who took arms against the Dutch occupation led by Prince Diponegoro from 1825 to 1830. Next to his grave is the tomb of Mbah Djoego or Kiai Zakaria II, a local figure who pioneered a new technology in farming at that time. He was a brave fighter and spiritual adviser to Diponegoro. Both were descendants of the kingdom of Mataram, loyal to Pangeran Diponegoro. Though the tombs are of Muslim deceased, this place has a magical appeal to Chinese, Madurese and indigenous communities of Indonesia who are in search of spiritual blessings.
The cemetery is located at the top of the village and along the way are several gates with reliefs that tell the story of how Mbah Djoego fought the war with Prince Diponegoro. The reliefs were carved by his followers in 1871 to commemorate his heroic deeds. Near the cemetery is the holy sian tho (sacred fruit) tree, also known as the dewandaru tree, believed to have sprung from Djoego’s stick, which was stuck to the ground for protection of the Wonosari area. Pilgrims wait around the tree for the fruit, leaves or even twigs to fall to be kept as a wealth-giving talisman.
Adjacent to the tomb house is a mosque. Within the pesarean complex is also a Confucian/Buddhist temple with Kwan Im as the main lord. In years past, some people from the local Chinese community who conducted the rituals here were believed to have become fabulously rich or healed from their sickness after the rituals. News spread, and more Chinese resettled at Mount Kawi. In time, the village became known to other Chinese communities and the Buddhist temple was built near the pesarean.
Some distance away is a building, once the hermitage belonging to Prabu Kameswara, a prince from the Kingdom of Kediri who was Hindu. He was a deeply religious person who preferred to live in meditative seclusion. It was said that after the prabu finished meditating in that place, he succeeded in resolving the political turmoil in his kingdom. This is now a place for worship and the practice of pesugihan.
On this mountain refuge, the sanctuaries of three different faiths exist harmoniously side-by-side, which is not unusual among Indonesians. Though this is a good place for photography, its uniqueness as well has attracted many to Gunung Kawi; they come not only for a vacation but also, for believers of animism, this is a pilgrimage site. Visitors believe that the pilgrimage will bring them success in their careers, good health and prosperity. The best time to visit the sacred sepulchres is on Thursday evening, Jumaat Legi according to the Javanese Calendar. Gunung Kawi is one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations for Indonesian Chinese, with the Jumat Legi before the Lunar New Year being especially busy.
The smell of incense pervades the air; patrons come to have their fortunes revealed through the ancient Confucian/Taoist ritual known as kau ciam si (roughly translated from the Hokkien dialect to mean ‘seek/consult bamboo oracle’), a method of fortune revealing. It involves shaking a cylindrical container filled with oracle sticks made of bamboo, numbered 1 – 100, in such a manner that an oracle stick will mysteriously jump out. The number on the stick will be matched with the interpretation of the oracle on the divination slip of the same number, and therein lays the fortune you seek. The divination message may be an aphorism, epigram or proverb; it is cryptic and enigmatic. It is usually deciphered by a temple staff, its accuracy dependent on the knowledge of the interpreter. The practice of kau ciam si dates back to the Jin Dynasty, and is still prevalent in Taoist temples in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia.
In recent years, Mount Kawi not only functions as a sacred space (the pesarean) for pilgrims and visitors, but it also has a ‘profane space’ for other visitors who come to enjoy the natural beauty and the cultural and inter-faith performances of the region. These are initiatives of the government of Malang Regency in its attempt to change the image of Gunung Kawi and erase the stigma of Mount Kawi as a Pesarean.
Pura Gunung Kawi, Bali
Down in a valley through which runs a stream near Tampaksiring in Ubud, Bali, is an interesting archaeological complex – an antiquated sanctuary of edifices – Pura Gunung Kawi.
Unlike other temples in Bali, this mist and mystery-shrouded one is rather laid-back with few foreign visitors, but was on former President Obama’s itinerary when he and his family holidayed in Bali in 2017. I visited in August 2019 on the suggestion of the manager of the Ubud resort where I was spending a week. The complex radiates a certain mystique; legends of long-forgotten gods, kings and heroes have been told about its origin. But then, isn’t Bali a land of legends?
As you make your way down to the temple, a descent of 270 steps, you are met with beautiful vistas of luxuriant paddy fields, and finally welcomed by the sound of running water. Where the stairs end, there is an archway with pillars holding basins of holy water, which visitors sprinkle to cleanse themselves before entering the complex.
Pura Gunung Kawi’s setting among rice terraces and natural jungle makes its location quite stunning. The ancient artwork carved onto the cliff are of four candi or shrines on the west side and another five on the eastern side of the river, while another is hidden to the south across the valley. Evidence suggests that these candi were probably once protected between two massive rock-hewn cloisters. Each candi is believed to be a memorial to a member of the 11th-century Balinese royalty, but little is known of this. Legends relate that the whole group of memorials was carved out of the rock face in a single night by the mighty fingernails of the mythical giant Kebo Iwo.
The five candi on the eastern side are dedicated to King Udaya, Queen Mahendradatta and their sons Airlangga, Anak Wangsu and Marakata. When Anak Wangsu was ruler of Bali, Airlangga ruled eastern Java and became the legendary king of Singhasari (Singosari). The other four are for Anak Wangsu’s chief concubines and the remote tenth candi is for a royal minister. Another theory states that the whole complex is dedicated to Anak Wangsu, his wives and concubines, and a royal minister.
As the temple is held sacred, proper attire consisting of a sarong tied around the waist is required for all visitors. Image credit: Annie Chuah
These candi (niches) are not tombs and they have never contained any human remains, but their function has not been ascertained. Their shape resembles small buildings with three-tiered roofs bearing nine stylised lingam-yoni symbols. The doorway seems to be going nowhere. There is a small chamber beneath each candi for offerings of food and metal objects representing earthly necessities.
Within the complex are small stone caves and cells hewn out of rock that serve as meditation sites to complement shrines where Buddhist monks used to sit and contemplate. In Bali, Hinduism and Buddhism have coexisted and fused in harmony since ancient times. As you wander between monuments, shrines, fountains and streams, there is a feeling of ancient majesty.
Gunung Kawi Sebatu, Bali
About 10km away in Gianyar, is another sacred temple – Gunung Kawi Sebatu, a Hindu water temple dedicated to Vishnu. This 11th century temple complex, built on a natural spring, comprises a collection of ancient shrines, bathing pools and fountains. The architectural interest is in its split gates, richly carved walls and the variety of shrines and pavilions.
Entry into the main temple is reserved for Hindu devotees but other pavilions and shrines for ancestral spirits can be explored. Artisans in the mountain village of Sebatu were skilled wood carvers and sculptors. Carved beams and depictions of deities and demons in stone can be seen throughout the temple.
There is a shrine dedicated to the Javanese sage Mpu Kuturan, a priest instrumental in the establishment of Balinese Hinduism. To the right of the central court is the temple of the Pasek Gelgel clan where the ancestral deities are honoured in nine shrines.
The reflecting pool with a floating pavilion is in the outer courtyard; further beyond is the performance pavilion. Some pools are for purification ritual baths while shoals of carps are reared in others. Fowls roam around the jungle setting. The Gunung Kawi Sebatu temple is a gem, one of the prettiest temples in Bali, so visit before the crowds come to know about it!
Elaborate ceremonies are held to celebrate the temple anniversary, Purnama Sasih Kasa, on the first full moon of the Balinese calendar and attended by Balinese Hindu pilgrims from all over the island.
The Balinese are expected to participate in the temple anniversaries of their clan temples to reinforce their clan identities. This is the time their ancestors come down for visits to be welcomed with dance and food.
Throughout the world people look up to mountains as sources of blessings and healing, as in these spiritual Gunung Kawi sites in Java and Bali. Sacred mountains incite reverence and are the subject of legends. Spirituality provides a sense of peace and helps us understand why these Gunung Kawi remote locations are held in such mystical regard by the natives of the land.
Along Federal Route 74, at the sharp bend leading to Kuala Sepetang, is a house that cannot be missed for its stark contrast to its rural surroundings. Originally a fortified residence, this building has in turn acted as a court house, the administration centre of the Japanese in Perak, a teacher training college, a Malay primary school, and most significant of all, a museum under the Department of Museums Malaysia.
At one time, the residence of one of Perak’s most prominent historical figures, this house with its enclosed walls, sections of which have crumbled, is Kota Ngah Ibrahim. Considered an imposing physical legacy of 19th century Perak, it was built in 1854 by Ngah Ibrahim.
Ngah Ibrahim was the son of Long Jaafar, a Perak-born minor Malay chief historically credited with the discovery of tin deposits in Larut in 1848 (although the Malays had been panning alluvial tin many years earlier). Long Jaafar was the first to recognise the potential for tin mining and initially employed three Chinese men to extract the tin ore. He soon collaborated with Chinese financiers in Penang to bring in more Chinese immigrant coolies. His tin mining operations prospered, and his wealth was said to have exceeded that of the Sultan, who made him the administrator of the district of Larut, Matang and Selama in 1850.
Long Jaafar saw the need for a fort (kota) to ward off attacks from Kedah which was under the protection of Siam. The Acehnese were also attempting to attack Bukit Gantang nearby, with the intention of acquiring Long Jaafar’s wealth. However, Long Jaafar did not live to see his fort competed as he died in 1857. He was buried within its compound, and his tomb is preserved as a historical site – Kota Long Jaafar.
The construction of the fort of Long Jaafar was then left to his son, Ngah Ibrahim, who decided that the fort at Bukit Gantang was no longer feasible as it was too far from any waterway and the distance was quite formidable for his elephants to transport tin to the nearest port. Instead, Ngah Ibrahim pursued the construction of his own fort, which he had begun in 1852.
Ngah Ibrahim was recognised by the Sultan as the ruler of Larut (succeeding his father) and he was granted powers even greater than what his father had – by bestowing on him the title of Tengku Menteri. Ngah Ibrahim is credited with establishing the first modern system of administration in Perak, which comprised a police force, a judge, a magistrate, a treasurer and a clerk.
In the Larut mines, rich with deposits of tin ore, the animosity between rival clans over mining rights resulted in fights that turned into bitter feuds. Ngah Ibrahim did not have the means to control the large Chinese population. He enlisted Captain Tristram Speedy, Superintendent of Police in Penang, to help his police force quell the clan conflicts. Speedy brought over a troop of sepoys from Calcutta to restore order.
It was tin that spurred the beginning of road building in Malaya in the 1860s. Ngah Ibrahim lashed together timber with strips of rattan to form rudimentary roads to facilitate the transport of tin from Kamunting (Kelian Bahru) to Port Weld; this happened 25 years before the first railway arrived.
Despite these achievements, Ngah Ibrahim is best remembered as a resistance fighter. Together with his father-in-law, Mohamad Amin, and Sultan Abdullah they were implicated in the assassination of J.W.W. Birch, the first British Resident of Perak, on 2 November 1875. While the other local chiefs led by Maharaja Lela were found guilty and sentenced to death, Sultan Abdullah, Ngah Ibrahim and Mohamad Amin were exiled to the Seychelles in 1877. After his exile years, Ngah Ibrahim moved to Sarawak and then Singapore where he died in 1887. His remains were discovered at the Pusara Al-Junid in Singapore in 2006 and re-interred in the compound of Kota Ngah Ibrahim/Matang Museum.
Ironically, Ngah Ibrahim’s fort was turned into the courthouse for the Birch murder trial. The British later converted the building into the Matang Malay Teachers College (1913-1922). It was then used as a Malay school (1923-1941). The Japanese Imperial Army made the fort its headquarters from 1942-1945.
In 1985, the fort was handed over to the Department of Museums and Antiquities and converted into the Matang Historical Complex. Two years later, the Perak Museum Department took over and listed it as a state historical site. Today it is the Matang Museum with collections of artefacts related to the glory days of Ngah Ibrahim and events which took place during the turbulent tin mining years, including accounts of the conflicts of the warring Cantonese Ghee Hin and Hakka Hai San factions.
Visitors to the Matang Museum today will not only learn about the story of Malay chieftain Ngah Ibrahim, but will also walk through major events that took place in the Larut, Matang and Selama district. Sadly, today the museum sees few visitors despite its historical contributions to Perak’s history.
In April 2019, 264 heirs of Long Jaafar and Ngah Ibrahim united through a special gathering organised by the family at the Matang Museum to review the historical exhibition of their forebears. The Chief of Larut Matang and Selama, Datuk Wan Mohd Isa, who is a fourth-generation descendant, said the special assembly was held for the second time after twelve years. Family representatives covering the seven generations of the family from various parts of the country gathered to commemorate the lives of their ancestors. The pilgrimage programme included a tahlil ceremony and Yasin recitation at the makam of Ngah Ibrahim in the museum grounds.
“We will continue to trace the remains of historical relics or documentation related to our ancestors to be submitted to the museum to be immortalized for future generations,”
Wan Mohd Isa (Sinar Harian, 15 April 2019)
The First Railway
It was the extraction and transportation of tin that provided the original reason for the building of railways in Malaya. Conceived with the objective to serve the tin mines, the first railways were not planned for integrated development nor were they regarded as a means to facilitate inter-state communication.
The then new Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Frederick Weld, visited Taiping in 1881. Impressed with what he saw, Weld mooted the idea for the construction of a railway from Taiping to the port, which was later renamed Port Weld in his honour, as among the next most necessary works to be undertaken in Perak.
Sir Hugh Low, Resident of Perak (1877-1889) raised the capital for the construction of the railway line linking the mines to the port. This he did by an additional levy on tin export duties, with the support of the Chinese mining community. Construction of the first railway line began in 1882 and it was completed in 1885. The line, starting from Port Weld, passed Jebong, Simpang Halt and finally Taiping, the heart of tin-rich Larut. It was a passenger and freight light rail, operated by Perak State Railway.
Only thirteen kilometres in length, it served the needs for transporting tin ore from the mines to the coastal port. The railway also facilitated the entry and exit of workers and miners to the work place. The train was also often loaded with mangrove timber, which was widely used as firewood in the mines. The advent of the railway was a boon for the inhabitants of the towns. Travelling on the rough bridle roads of 1885 was hazardous because of notorious gangs. The railway was faster, safer and brought significant growth to the tin industry and the town of Taiping. Sadly, this was not to last!
By the 1890s, the rising water table in the Larut mines made mining difficult. Chinese miners began moving to the Kinta Valley, which soon took over as the new mining centre of Perak. In 1902, the Taiping-Prai line opened. By 1920, Port Weld was no longer a tin-exporting port.
This rail service ceased operation in 1941 due to a decline in tin output and the inability of the silted port at Port Weld to enable larger ships to dock. The tracks of the line no longer exist as they were dismantled in the 1980s.
Little effort has been made to preserve the historical value of the country’s first railway line. The Port Weld station signboard is said to have been removed from its original position on the platform after the rusted stand collapsed. Locals took the initiative to erect a new concrete one and placed it in front of the coffee shop, about 20 years ago.
This shop sits on the actual location of the Port Weld Railway Station housing office rooms and a ticket counter. All railway tracks have been demolished, the remnants sunk in the construction cement of fishing warehouses and rows of shophouses in the small town of Kuala Sepetang.
The second Taiping railway station, the oldest still standing, is a heritage building and is preserved as part of the town’s history. The current station is on the West Coast Line and a stop for both the KTM ETS services as well as the Bukit Mertajam-Padang Rengas route of the KTM Komuter Northern Sector Line.
In Taiping today there is little evidence the line ever existed. At the King Edward VII Primary School, there are no signboards marking the historical spot where the first railway station stood. Staff at the school point out the remnants of what they think was a railway track, in a classroom. In the gardener’s shed was a rusty object uncovered during renovations, believed to be a spring that was once part of a locomotive.
The first railway line is no more than a memory!
…and what of the land where the track once was?
Federal Route 74 or Jalan Taiping-Kuala Sepetang was built on the former site of the first railway line from Taiping to Port Weld. At most sections, Federal Route 74 was built under the JKR R5 road standard, allowing maximum speed limit of up to 90 km/h.
At the Simpang Halt junction are two Hindu temples adjacent to each other, conspicuous for their size and grandeur in a rural setting. They are located along the old railway line, beside Federal Route 74. These temples started as simple sheds under a tree; the current temple structures date to 2005. The site of the temples is probably where the railway staff quarters or labour lines used to be.
After the Simpang Halt junction, the road leads to Aulong, formerly a ‘Briggs Plan New Village’. Here houses have been built smack on the former tracks, avoiding the signal/telegraph posts of the railway line. See pictures below. Follow these signal posts and you will arrive at the Taiping railway station.
Growth of a Mining Town
After the signing of the Treaty of Pangkor, J.W.W. Birch was appointed the British Resident of Perak, with Captain Speedy as the Assistant British Resident. There was relative peace in Larut and the town of Klian Pauh was renamed ‘Tai ping’ meaning ‘Great Peace’, while Klian Bahru took the Malay name of Kamunting.
The early residents of the old mining village of Kelian Pauh were mainly shopkeepers who dealt primarily in goods destined for the surrounding tin mines. The world’s richest alluvial tin deposits at around Taiping enabled its rapid growth.
The British administration collected large revenues from Larut. Speedy was tasked with developing the towns of Taiping and Kamunting in 1874 and 1875. Keen to establish direct communications with Penang, he set about building new roads to replace the inferior corduroy type of roads to connect Taiping and Kamunting to the road from Province Wellesley. The establishment of government departments grew in tandem with the growth of Taiping. Key positions such as Inspector of Mines, Harbour Master and Treasurer were held by Europeans while the Malays and Chinese held the junior posts.
Taiping grew rapidly as a supply centre for the mines and became the administrative capital of Perak in 1889. Many impressive buildings were constructed, the District Office among them. Another was the Telegraph Office built in 1876 with a 43.2 km long telegraph line installed across the forest from the residence of the British Resident in Kuala Kangsar to the office building of the Assistant Resident in Taiping.
The Taiping Gaol was established in 1879, at a time when Chinese gangs running the tin mines were engaged in open conflict and the state was fairly lawless. Convict labour helped build much of Taiping and ran various trades from within the prison such as a laundry and bakery. It is still an active prison and even from the exterior, you can see that it is a well-preserved example of a Victorian gaol.
Opposite the gaol is the Perak Museum, the oldest museum in Peninsular Malaysia. It was set up by Sir Hugh Low when he was Resident of Perak (1877-1889). The building dates from 1883 and is worth a visit.
The Taiping Lake Gardens, the oldest public park in Malaysia, was an abandoned mining ground before it was established as a public garden in 1880. The garden was developed by Charles Crompton Reade who also laid the garden city plan for Kuala Kubu Baru. The disused mine was donated by Chung Thye Phin to be used for public recreation. The gardens were planted with rain trees, bamboo and palms, and remains a favourite recreation spot for the townsfolk to this day. Nearby, Maxwell Hill (Bukit Larut) was opened in 1884.
Taiping Hospital, formerly Yeng Wah Hospital built in 1880, is recognised as the oldest in Malaysia. The All Saints Church was the first Anglican Church to be consecrated in the Federated Malay States, in 1887. The gothic wooden structure is of meranti hardwood and its bell tower contains four tubular bells. The stained-glass window, which was installed in 1911, is still intact. The headstones in the graveyard make for interesting reading.
The Old Market was built in 1884 and the New Market in 1885. Both buildings stood 220 feet in length and 60 feet in width are separated by Kota Road. The buildings were built with timber pillars, concrete slab and iron roof.
The Police Station and Fire Brigade complex was built in 1890. Only a corner section of it with the clock tower remains. The Taiping branch of Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, now Standard Chartered, is the Taiping Library. By 1900, the town had the first English school, later named King Edward VII School, and a newspaper. The 16.1-hectare Taiping Aerodrome, built by the British in 1929, is reputedly the first airport in South East Asia.
In the 1880s, Taiping was the most advanced urban centre in Malaya, but it stagnated in the 20th century as the mines in Larut were gradually worked out. The state capital was planned to be moved to Ipoh in 1937 as the Kinta Valley had overshadowed Larut in tin production. However, this plan was only effected in 1942 by the Japanese administration.
New Straits Times, June 4th 1992; Berita Harian October 28th 1994). Rodzyah|Shamsury |Yacob Omar|Abdul Halim|Usman I.M.S A Heritage Study On Kota Long Jaafar Volume 2, 2009 13 ISSN: 1985-6881
Recently, a reader of this blog wrote in asking for the actual site of Sir Henry Gurney’s assassination. Prior to this, I had been asked the same question by my ex-classmate’s husband while doing a guided tour at the National Museum last year. In addition, recently there was a news report on the development of a new multi-storey hotel resort in Fraser’s Hill and Badan Warisan Malaysia, a national heritage NGO, had initiated a petition to stop the demolition of heritage buildings on Fraser’s Hill.
These events are closely related to Federal Route 55. Sir Henry Gurney was assassinated on 6 October 1951 by communist terrorists (CT) at Mile 56 ½, Kuala Kubu Road (90.91 km, distance measured from Kuala Lumpur), about 8 miles (12.87 km) from Fraser’s Hill and about 2 miles (3.22 km) before The Gap. Federal Route 55 is the main access route to Fraser’s Hill, whether from Pahang or Selangor.
This stretch of road was the first federal route constructed in Pahang, thus putting the final jigsaw in linking all four states in the Federal Malay States (FMS). It was opened on 13 January 1899, and it initially connected Kuala Kubu to Kuala Lipis, the then capital of Pahang. Today, Federal Route 55 starts at the intersection of Federal Route 1, the main North-South trunk road, with Kuala Kubu Bharu and ends at Teranum in Raub district.
With these two issues on my mind, I decided to drive up to Fraser’s Hill using Federal Route 55 from the Selangor side. My last trip to our country’s third hill station was for a tai chi retreat many years ago. The drive was a breeze on a Saturday early morning except for the occasional braking and overtaking of cyclists. On weekends, particularly, Federal Route 55 is a favourite with cyclists, who challenge themselves on its uphill, downhill and winding circuit.
I do recall seeing on the internet, a photo of a signboard that was erected at the site of Gurney’s assassination. Hence, as I approached The Gap, I slowed down to look for it but alas, I could not locate it even though I went back and forth several times. Since it was still early, I decided to pull over at The Gap, to check the old Rest House. Incidentally, The Gap is still in the state of Selangor. What once used to be a fine stone Tudor style rest house where visitors could drop by for scones and tea, relax and admire the flowers and as well as enjoy the mountain fresh air before continuing their journey to Fraser’s Hill, it is now in decrepit condition. In 2008, it underwent refurbishment with a budget of RM 500,000. A second phase costing RM 1.5 million was planned for 2011 but the project was cancelled. Since then, the building has been left untouched and is under threat from the elements and vandalism. Looks like the glory days of the Rest House would not be making a return for a long time to come.
The trend of losing heritage buildings continued to rear its ugly head when I reached the site of the proposed 15-storey resort and spa in Fraser’s Hill. Two colonial bungalows, Maybank Lodge and Jelai Resort, had been completely demolished two weeks earlier as part of the project. The project is expected to be completed in 2026. When the Silver Park Resort was built, another two bungalows namely Mentakab Bungalow and Bishop House (earlier called The Retreat) were destroyed to make way for that project. Another important landmark in Fraser’s Hill is the Jeriau Waterfall. It is now a pale shadow of its former glory after the development of an 18-hole golf course nearby. The golf course did not survive for long and it has been abandoned for many years now.
Moving away from the news of destruction to a more positive note, I have succeeded in locating the photograph of the memorial signboard. In addition, I also found photographs of Gurney’s Rolls Royce that was riddled by bullet holes (a total of 35 bullet holes were counted), Gurney’s funeral procession held on 8 October 1951 and the news headline of the killing. I discovered these at the Shahzan Inn on Fraser’s Hill.
In retaliation for the killing of the highest ranking British officer in the country, the entire population of the village of Tras near Fraser’s Hill, almost all Chinese, was rounded up onto lorries and sent to a detention camp in Ipoh. They were suspected of supporting the CTs. Thirty seven of them were arrested for possible involvement and the rest were released in batches but they were not allowed to return to Tras. They were finally permitted to return home in 1958, by which time, Tras looked more like a ghost town! Tras is also located on Federal Route 55, near Teranum.
Again, it looked like an easy and quiet ride leaving Fraser’s Hill. However, not for long as I could see a chasing pack of cyclists behind me. I stepped on the accelerator and I went speeding down the hill and round the hairpin bends but they were still close on my tail. It was like in the movies. When I finally broke free, it was close to the Sungai Selangor Dam and I decided to stop at the Lookout Point to view the massive lake. Treated water from the dam is supplied to Selangor and Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya.
As I was about to return to my car, I saw the cyclists speeding by and soon they were out of sight. It was a good race for them and a good day for my adventure on Federal Route 55.
Book / The Towns of Malaya : An illustrated urban history of the Peninsula up to 1957. By Dr Neil Khor, Mariana Isa and Maganjeet Kaur.
Henry Gurney’s final flight by Alan Teh Lean Seng / 7 October 2018 New Straits Time. www.nst.com > lifestyle >sunday-vibes
As you enter Gallery B through the portal of a door from the Palace of Setul, you will be transported to the first millennium of the Common Era (CE) when small polities dotted the Malay World, some of which grew to become empires and shaped the world we know today.
Historical records and surviving artefacts provide evidence that these early Malay kingdoms possessed organised systems of government; they participated in the Indian Ocean trade and they had established relations with Arabia, China, India and Persia. The society was cosmopolitan, more so than what we would have imagined.
Welcome to the Malay World
What and where is the Malay World where these kingdoms flourished? Jim Baker aptly describes it as archipelago South East Asia – comprising present day Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, southern Philippines and south Thailand.
The people who founded these maritime polities and kingdoms were descended from the Malayic-speaking Austronesians. The kingdoms started as coastal city-states, developing as emporia to service traders from east and west. Their lifeline revolved around trade and each sought to dominate the region. The archipelago was rich in natural resources and its products, such as tortoise shells, gharuwood, rhinoceros horns and camphor were highly sought after in China, India and beyond. The strategic location of the region, between its key markets in the east and west, made it a suitable meeting place for traders from outside the region. The cultures of their trading partners, initially Hinduism and Buddhism and, later, Islam would also play a large part in shaping the local societies.
A notable early kingdom on the Malay peninsula was Langkasuka (2nd – 6th century CE). This name is of Sanskrit origin, and the kingdom was closely tied to the Indianised kingdom of Funan in Cambodia. Langkasuka, believed to be located in the Pattani-Songkla area, traded with China through ports on the east coast but it also had links with trading communities on the west coast, just across the isthmus. It was a rich and prosperous state and it may have founded the early settlements in the Bujang Valley. There are scant records on Langkasuka; its demise could possibly be linked to the rise of polities in Sumatra and Java.
The Bujang Valley civilisation was a significant trading kingdom in Kedah with iron smelting as its main activity. By 800 CE, Bujang Valley had come under the influence of Buddhist Srivijaya and, by the early 11th century, the Indian Chola Empire. We can see vestiges of this civilisation at excavation sites and in a museum at Merbok, Kedah; some artefacts are also displayed in Galleries A and B.
According to the Malay Annals, a Khmer prince founded the kingdom of Gangga Negara in the 8th century. Its location is uncertain, but believed to be at modern-day Beruas, Perak, through findings of various significant Buddhist bronzes in the Kinta Valley. The kingdom fell after the Chola attacks in the 11th century.
Into the Second Millennium
Srivijaya was a dominant maritime empire based in Sumatra, but influenced much of Southeast Asia. It was founded in the 7th century after the demise of Funan. The Chola attacks destroyed its capital at present-day Palembang, but its centre moved further north to Jambi where it lasted until the 13th century.
Majapahit was founded by Raden Wijaya in around 1293. It was the last major Hindu empire in the region and among the most powerful empires in the history of the archipelago. Majapahit society developed a high degree of sophistication in both commercial and artistic activities. Its capital was inhabited by a cosmopolitan population among whom literature and the arts flourished. Its power began to wane in the 15th century when Islam spread in the region. Sumatra resented Majapahit’s control, so the conversion to Islam was an opportunity to extricate from Hindu Majapahit. The Majapahit Empire was unable to compete with its Muslim neighbours, and began to disintegrate, finally collapsing in early 16th century. After the fall of the empire, Majapahit kings and nobles, priests and artisans took refuge in the interior mountains of East Java and across the narrow straits to Bali. It can be said that the kingdom of Bali was the successor of Majapahit.
The grandeur of some early kingdoms is evident in the monuments they left behind. Among these are Candi Borobodur, a 9th-century Buddhist temple in Central Java, the world’s largest Buddhist temple; and Candi Prambanan, the largest temple complex dedicated to the Hindu Trimurti, (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) also in Java, built in the 10th century.
Melaka Sultanate, a later Malay Kingdom, was a celebrated Malay empire. Melaka was founded around 1400 by Parameswara, a prince who fled from Sumatra and established a port in the Straits of Malacca, which attracted trading ships from China, India and Arabia. It was a popular port as it was well administered by the Bendahara, Shahbandar, Laksmana and Temenggong. At around this time, the Ming Emperor was sending out fleets to expand trade. Admiral Zheng He called at the port of Melaka on each of his seven voyages. In exchange for regular tribute, the Ming emperor offered Melaka protection from the constant threat of Siamese and Javanese attacks. The court of Melaka gave prestige to the Malay language and the language became the lingua franca of the region.
By the late 15th century, Islam became integrated in the daily life of the people in Melaka. The palace, mosques and religious schools became centres for the study of Islam. The Jawi script became widely used in the Malay Archipelago. Melaka’s growing commercial and political influence helped spread Islam to Melaka’s dependent territories. The Melaka kingdom lasted little more than a century, but during this time it became the established centre of Malay culture and identity, and of Islam.
Brunei existed as early as the 6th/7th century; its power waxed and waned throughout the centuries. Once subjected by Java, it later became a vassal of Majapahit. Brunei was an independent kingdom from the 15th to the 17th century, reaching its height of power under its 6th Sultan, Sultan Bolkiah (1485 – 1524), when its domains included Sulu and southern Philippines.
When Melaka fell in 1511, traders who formerly traded in Melaka turned to Brunei, resulting in it becoming more prosperous. Brunei had influence over Sulu until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Brunei’s power began to decline in the 18th century and it lost a great deal of its territory – North Borneo and Sarawak – due to internal power struggles and foreign intervention, especially by the British.
SetulMambang Segara, was among the last of the kingdoms in the Malay peninsula. It was a traditional Malay kingdom founded in the northern coast in 1808 because of the partition between the rulers of the Royal House of Kedah. It was governed by the Malay Sultanate of Kedah from 1843 until 1909 when it was ceded to Thailand. The sovereignty of the kingdom ended in 1916, following the dissolution by the Siamese government. The state border was inherited by Satun, the successive province.
In this third millennium, the sovereign nations of archipelago South East Asia are the beneficiaries of the Malay kingdoms. The cultural blending of the different beliefs and practices of the Malay World has created a cultural compromise. The traditions that were brought into contact throughout the years of co-existence and assimilation have resulted in a common heritage which we see in the Kris, WayangKulit , TepakSireh, Batik –Sarong, among others. These are the shared heritage of the region, so should the people fight over their origins and ownership?
Evolution of Demographic Composition
The demographic composition of Malaysia is represented by the multiple ethnic groups that exist in the country as a result of the migration and intermingling of the people in the archipelago through the past two millennia.
In the first, there was significant migration from Sumatra and movement from outside, in the form of Indian and Arab traders, many of whom intermarried and settled along the west coast.
The second millennium saw further migration of Malays to the peninsula from central Sumatra and the eastern archipelago. Muslim and Indian traders from India, the Arabs, Persians and Chinese, European missionaries, the Portuguese and Dutch of the colonial years, some of whom inevitably married local women, have all left their mark in the country. Indian Muslims, Baba-Nyonya, Chitties and Kristangs, Dutch and European Eurasians and Jawi Pekan have added to the demographic composition of multi-racial Malaysia.
Videos: My South East Asia with Dr Farish
Book: Didier Millet Editions ̈Noor, Farish A: What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You, (2009)
Book: Crossroads (1st Edition): A popular history of Malaysia & Singapore by Jim Baker
Book: The Encyclopaedia of Malaysia: Volume 4 Early History (1998);
Article: GLIMPSES INTO THE HISTORY OF MALAYSIA, New Nation, 22 February 1973, Page 8
The late Rehman Rashid wrote the book ‘Small town’, his personal tribute to Kuala Kubu Bharu (KKB). He spent his last few years nestling in this small town located in the Hulu Selangor district. For this article, I am going to pen some snippets on other small towns in the Hulu Selangor district, specifically Kerling, Rasa, Batang Kali and Serendah. I would also like to draw your attention to two articles previously published on this blog, discussing two other towns located in Hulu Selangor: KKBand Kalumpang.
The early development of Kerling can be attributed to Syed Mashhor, who hailed from Kalimantan. He moved to Sarawak during the time of James Brooke, where he proved his prowess as a fighter. He then came to Selangor and served loyally under Raja Mahadi during the Klang War. He was twice beaten by Tengku Kudin and Yap Ah Loy, at the Battle of Ampang (September-October 1870) and Battle of Rawang (March-June 1871) but finally succeeded in capturing Kuala Lumpur in 1872. It was a short-lived victory as Tengku Kudin and Yap Ah Loy mounted an attack in February 1873 and recaptured Kuala Lumpur. Outside Kuala Lumpur, Pahang forces continued their onslaught on Syed Mashhor’s camps at Kanching and Ulu Yam; the civil war ended when the stronghold at Kuala Selangor fell on 8 November 1873. Syed Mashhor retreated to Perak and served under the British during the Perak War. He was pardoned by Sultan Abdul Samad and, on 12 December 1883, he was appointed as the Penghulu of Ulu Kerling. He developed Kerling by opening up lands for tin mining. He died in 1917 and he was buried at the local Islamic cemetery.
Rasa started as a small mining settlement and grew in the 1900s. At its peak, it had 20 open mines and 5 tin dredge mines, with the population reaching 4000. The constant flooding in nearby Kuala Kubu was getting very serious, prompting the British government to move its district headquarters to Rasa in 1921. They also shifted the railway track away from Kuala Kubu town and built the station at Kuala Kubu road with the track ending at Rasa. This station was opened in 1924.
The most influential tin miner in Rasa was Tan Boon Chia (Chen Wensheng in Mandarin).Unlike the majority of the townsfolk who were Hui Zhou (Fei Chow) from Guangdong, Boon Chia was a Hokkien from the Penglai township in the Anxi Province, China. His was a typical rags-to-riches tale, and in 1918, when he was just 26, he built the largest structure in the township, a huge mansion with 51 rooms on a five-hectare land. When he died in October 1931, his two sons took over his business. The Tan family’s good fortune was abruptly disrupted during the Japanese Occupation. They left hurriedly and never returned to Rasa. There was talk of converting the mansion into a museum but hitherto, nothing concrete has come out of it.
An event that happened in 1948 has placed Batang Kali in the history books. The event was dubbed ‘Batang Kali massacre’and it took place at Sungai Remok Estate, just outside of Batang Kali. On the weekend of 11 and 12 December, the Second Battalion of the Scots Guards composed of National Servicemen in their late teens and led by a 22- year-old Sergeant raided the rubber estate in a counter-insurgency operation against Chinese Malayan communists. On the morning of 12 December, 24 Chinese estate workers were killed. Those killed had been unarmed and they had not tried to escape. In addition, the ‘kongsi’ houses were burnt to the ground. Chin Peng stated in his book, ‘My side of history’, that no one in the village was linked to the guerrillas. In 1970, an inquiry was launched in Britain but it was terminated. Likewise in 1990’s, investigations in Malaysia was aborted when Foreign Office officials intervened. It then went up to the European Court of Human Rights and ended at this court on 4 October 2018, when the Court delivered its decision to uphold the refusal of the British Government to hold an inquiry.
In the Malay language, ‘serendah’ means ‘low’. This aptly describes Serendah, a township situated in a low-lying landscape surrounded by hills. The Sumatrans were the earliest settlers here, arriving in the 1870’s, and they built their homes along Sungai Telachi and Sungai Serendah. After the end of the Klang War, Sultan Abdul Samad started to open mines in Ulu Selangor and that saw an influx of migrant Chinese miners in Serendah in the 1880s.
By the 1890s, rapid developments within the town centre saw the construction of a hospital, rest house, post office, police station and a market. It had a clubhouse called the Bowing Club and a rifle range used by the Ulu Selangor Rifle Club, which was formed in October 1897. Concurrently, places of worship were built: a Sikh Gudwara in 1897; the Sze Si Ya Temple in 1898; a Hokkien temple, Hock Leng Keng, in 1899; and in that same year, a new mosque, Masjid Sultan, replaced the old one with funds for its construction coming from Sultan Abdul Samad, Foong Wah and Tok Pinang. A small Chinese school was set up in 1895. Then in 1900, Loke Chow Thye proposed the establishment of an English school; the British Resident approved it but the school was not built because the local community preferred Chinese education. A piece of land requested for a Chinese school was gazetted in 1924, and the school still exists at the present site, now known as SRJK (C) Serendah.
As with many mining towns, floods were major issues and in 1932, the bunds guiding Sungai Serendah broke causing massive flooding to the trunk road. A Committee was set up and, in 1934, it approved the construction of a dam. This dam has seven abutments, which are fed by water through seven spillways/sinkholes. It has been effective in preventing floods in Serendah. The site is now a major attraction, popularly known as ‘The Seven Wells’.
During World War II, the Japanese army arrived at Serendah on 10 January 1942 and the next day, they overwhelmed Kuala Lumpur. Two incidents were recorded during the Emergency. On 13 December 1948 (one day after the Batang Kali massacre), the communist burnt down Serendah Boys Home (now known as Pusat Perkembangan Kemahiran Kebangsaan / PPKK) and the home of the headmaster. The charred body of the headmaster was found inside. On 25 January 1949, two European miners were killed at a tin mine.
Syed Masahor becomes Head of Kerling 23/06/2015 / www. Pekhabar.com
The Selangor Civil war – The history of Yap Ah Loy / yapahloy.tripod.com
Chinese houses of SEA : The eclectic architecture of sojourners and settlers by Ronald G. Knapp / books.google.com.my
Batang Kali Massacre 1948 – the lesson of truth by Dato Quek Ngee Meng / nhq.com.my > social > bkm 1948
Kajang, the capital of the Hulu Langat district, is located around 21 km south from Kuala Lumpur. There are a number of theories on how the name Kajang came about. The Malay dictionary defines kajang as ‘stuffed objects from leaves of nipah (bamboo, mengkuang or palm leaves) that are used as rooftop or awning’. The Temuan had already been exploring the area since at least the 16th century and they found an abundance of bamboo and palm leaves, which they folded to make rooftops. Thus, they called the place Kajang. Two other theories date from the time of the Austronesian migration. We look at the word as used by two different ethnic groups –for the Mandailing, berkajang means ‘to take shelter’; and for the Bugis, it means ‘to stab / to fight’. Raja Alang, a Mandailing, was cruising along the Langat River with his followers when half way they decided to stop and berkajang. He then called the place Kajang. The Mandailing and Bugis were trying to escape from the Selangor Civil War and both arrived near Kajang. They then fought each other because of the misunderstanding of the meaning of the word to them. After the event, the place was called Kajang.
In 1848, Raja Berayun, a Mandailing, wanted to claim ‘blood money’ from Datoh Klana Sendeng, a Rawa, for the killing of one of his friends. He brought 500 men and invaded Sungai Ujong but they were defeated and they retreated to the north of the Langat River where they established a village called Rekoh. The current name for Rekoh is Sungai Tangkas; it is about 4 km from Kajang. It was to be the earliest settlement around Kajang.
Kajang, like many towns on the west coast of the Peninsular, started as a mining settlement. An American prospector started a tin mine at Rekoh in 1855. However, the locals objected as he did not possess any consent and the venture was abandoned. The tin boom in the district occurred in the middle of 1890’s, when Chinese businessmen made huge investments in the district. One of the Chinese miners was Goh Ah Ngee,who was active in Balau (Broga today). He even built a church for a small group of Chinese Christians in the area. The first mine at Semenyih was opened by a Hokkien named Cheah King. Other Chinese miners were Khoo Seah, who had mines at Sungai Cheow (Sungai Chua today) Road (1896), Loke Yew at Sungai Merbau in Hulu Langat (1896) and Sungai Kachau in Semenyih (1897), Low Boon Kim at Sungai Jebat (1897) and Chan Yoke who operated a mine at Kajang (present Metro Kajang site). Tin was also found just outside of Kajang where Hakka coolies called it Xi Mi Shan (Tin Ore Hill).This site is the only mining pool left in Kajang. Recently, the Kajang Municipal Council converted the site into a recreational park.
Tin mining industry in the district turned out to be a relatively minor enterprise, paling in comparison to other towns in the state. This prompted the District Office to suggest moving to agriculture. Tobacco had been planted in 1890 on a trial basis in Semenyih but the project failed. Coffee was next and it gained interest amongst European planters who were applying for land for coffee planting. Chinese businessmen were equally interested and joined in the demand for land. However, at the turn of the 20th century, faced with strong competition from Brazilian coffee producers, fluctuation of coffee prices and the appearance of a fungal disease called H. vastatrix and further assisted by the outbreaks of Cephonodes hylas moth that threatened to cripple the local coffee production, the industry soon vanished from the scene.
Rubberwas the next big crop. The Inch Kenneth Estate located just outside Kajang became the first estate to plant rubber on a commercial scale in Malaya. Among the Chinese planters who obtained land in Kajang for rubber plantation were Choo Kia Peng with 182ha in 1910, Loke Yew with 41ha in 1912 and Low Ti Kok with 24ha. Goh Ah Ngee, who had tin mines in Balau, also ventured into rubber plantation in Semenyih after his failed ventures in coffee planting. The development of the rubber industry was also helped by the extension of the railway track southwards from Kuala Lumpur to Kajang in 1897. Before that, Kajang was connected to Kuala Lumpur via a cart road built in 1888.
A prominent person in Kajang was Raja Alang, son of Raja Berayun. He attended Malay schools in Malacca and Singapore and, upon his return, worked as a Forest Ranger in 1883. When Raja Alang ended his working career, he was made an aide to the District Officer and was his right hand man in Malay affairs. He rose to become a very influential man in Kajang. In his honour, two roads in the town were named after him but both roads have since been expunged. He also became very rich; in fact, it is said that he was the richest man in Selangor in the early 20th century. He built a mosque in Beranang, which is named after him. In his later years, he moved to Kuala Lumpur and stayed at his residence at 13, Jalan Raja Laut (present day Jalan Ipoh Kecil), in front of the former Capitol and Federal cinemas. Raja Alang died on 11 December 1927 and he was buried at the Ampang Islamic Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur. His dream of a road to be named after him became a reality when his son, Raja Muhammad was the given the privilege to rename Perkins Road in recognition for his services in the struggle to achieve independence for the Federation of Malaya. Raja Muhammad chose to rename the road after his father.
Ulu Langat District Office was set up in 1883 and records of that time show that the Ulu Langat village was the largest settlement in the district but Kajang was chosen as the district capital because of its central location. An early census of Kajang is interesting – one police clerk (indicating that the police station was already established), one ranger (most definitely Raja Alang), twenty-two shopkeepers (of which sixteen were Sumatrans) and one gambler (most likely a Chinese!). The district office building was built in the 1910s and was in operations until it was demolished and a new building (Bangunan Dato Nazir) constructed in 1970. Situated nearby, across Jalan Cheras, is the Police Station, which was established in 1875, after the British succeeded in crushing Sutan Puasa’s suspected uprising. Across Jalan Hishammudin is the Post Office, which was also built at about the same time as the former Ulu Langat District Office; it is still in operation until today.
Located between Jalan Tukang and Jalan Mendaling is the Sin Sze Si Ya temple, the oldest Chinese temple in Kajang. The temple was initially located at Rekoh but was later moved to its current site in Kajang in 1892. It went through some construction work in 1898 and a grand ceremony was held in 1899. Today, the temple is among thirteen Sin Sze Si Ya temples that can be found in major tin mining towns in Perak, Selangor and Negri Sembilan.
Rev. Fr. Francois Terrein MEP started a Catholic mission in Kajang and a church was built on a former rubber estate donated by Goh Ah Nee. The Church of the Holy Family was consecrated on 24 February 1901and it had a bell and three stained glass windows each depicting a member of the Holy Family. Goh Ah Nee also donated a piece of land for the purpose of a burial ground in 1903, which is still in existence. Later, the parish administrator allowed the Infant Jesus Sisters to start a girl’s school in Kajang. In 1939, the new Convent School (present site of SK Convent Kajang) was ready for the school year. During the Japanese Occupation, Japanese warplanes bombed Kajang on 12 January 1942; their target was the old railway station but unfortunately the bombs landed on the church and school compound. The church was damaged but somehow the three stained glass window panels suffered only minor damage. Today, the panels can be seen at the back of the altar.
The first English school in Kajang was opened by Reverend William Edward Horley in 1905. It was to be a private school and limited only to residents in Kajang. Since then, there were no further records of the school. Thanks to the efforts of a group of local community leaders, saw the resumption of English education in the district with the setting up of the Kajang Government English School, which was officially opened on 1 April 1919. The old Rest House building at Jalan Semenyih had been converted to accommodate the school premises. The school started with an enrolment of 100 students and grew to 129 the following year, with 10 female students. When Ng Seo Buck became the first Malayan Headmaster of the school in 1923, he was forced to turn the kitchen of the old Rest House into a classroom. By 1926, the school was overcrowded and the building had dilapidated. Ng left the school in 1927 and started a campaign to seek a new site and building for a new school. He was joined by Low Ti Kok, Raja Muhammad (son of Raja Alang), Haji Abdul Jalil and Ronald CM Kindersley (of Inch Kenneth Estate) and they succeeded in securing a site, which was a hillock along Jalan Semenyih. The school was named Kajang High School. Sultan Sir Alaiddin Sulaiman Shah officiated at the opening ceremony on 19 March 1930. Among the first batch of students was Tan Chee Koon, who went on to become a major figure in our country’s politics and was nicknamed ‘Mr Opposition’. The first Headmaster for the new school wasC.E. Gates and he turned out to be a great inspiration to the students. When he returned to England in 1936, the Kajang Town Board named the road near his residence Gates Road. During the Japanese Occupation, the school became the headquarters of the Japanese army and it was called Toa Seinan Gakko. After the war, the boys from the school made two interesting discoveries – they found a skull and skeleton, which were later used as authentic visual aid during Biology classes, and they discovered a tunnel linking the school to the nearby cemetery!
Chinese education came at about the same time as English education. Boon HuaChinese School started in the 1910s and, by 1917, the school was attached to the Merchant Club at a shop lot located at Main Street. It then shifted to two shop lots at No.2 & 4, Sulaiman Street when enrolment increased. The Chairman of the school, Low Ti Kok, and the Headmaster, Tan Yi Hoh, had applied for a piece of land in town as a site for the school. It was granted and works to build the school started in 1918; by the following year, the school operated from the new site. The school was renamed Yu Hua School. The school acquired the adjoining land in 1935 for its expansion. In 1958, the school was separated into Yu Hua Middle School and Yu Hua Primary School. To honour the contributions of Low Ti Kok to education in Kajang, the road in front of Yu Hua School is named after him. Low Ti Kok died during the war in 1943 and his residence, which is located near Yu Hua School, has been converted into the Hulu Langat Hokkien Association.
Another site that brings back fond memories to the people of Kajang is Stadium Kajang. It was built in the 1970s and, over the years, the stadium was the training ground for football legends such as Arumugam, Santokh Singh, Soh Chin Aun and Mokhtar Dahari. In 2014, it was turned into a public area called Kajang Square. Finally yet importantly, when one mentions ‘satay’, Kajang automatically springs to mind. Satay Kajang was first introduced by Wak Tasmin Bin Saiban who came from Java in the 1910s. Haji Samuri who married the granddaughter of Wak Tasmin, took Satay Kajang to new heights by expanding outside of Kajang and started operating a satay factory. Today, Haji Samuri satay restaurant is housed at the former site of Ulu Langat District Office. In front of the restaurant is the Stadium Kajang MRT station. The MRT line to Kajang was opened on 17 July 2017 and it has greatly improved public transportation and accessibility to KL city centre and beyond.
To end this article, here is a look at some current street names that still carry the names of people linked to the history of Kajang.
Once lords over a great empire known as Champa, the Chams have been relegated to ethnic minority status in the very lands over which they once lorded. Today, they inhabit parts of southern Vietnam and Cambodia.
The Chams are an Austronesian group and the history of Champa begins with their migration to mainland South East Asia. Patterns and chronology of migration suggest that the Cham arrived via Borneo (this assumption is still being debated) in the early centuries CE. What is today the South China Sea was known to ancient navigators as the Champa Sea, named for the great empire that controlled the seas off central and south Vietnam. Existing between the 2nd and 15th century CE, Champa was actually a collection of polities; at the peak of its power, Champa lands included parts of eastern Cambodia and Laos.
Their culture was heavily influenced by Hinduism, mainly Shaivism, represented by a linga with temple carvings depicting Hindu deities. Later, Hindu doctrines were blended with local beliefs and Buddhism.
The Chams have left traces of their existence in the lands they occupied. Archaeologists have identified Cham citadels and temple sites along Vietnam’s coast. Recent explorations suggest that hundreds of ruined sites may line rivers leading into the Central Highlands and beyond, to eastern Cambodia.
I have always been fascinated by lost kingdoms and ancient civilisations. I first came across the Chams when I was travelling in central Vietnam in 2006, and again in 2007. Although most Chams now live in Cambodia, the kingdom of Champa flourished in southern Vietnam and this is where the architectural legacy of the Cham people is located.
The Chams were greatly influenced by Funan (precursor to the Khmer Empire) from whom they adopted the Hindu religion and art. Sandstone pillars and red brick flooring of temples and royal burial sites are features of Cham architecture. The oldest artefacts with these distinct characteristics found together with pottery in Tra Kieu, date to the 2nd century CE.
The people of Champa kept written records in Sanskrit and the old Cham language. They wrote on palm leaves and inscribed on stone steles. Their records on perishable materials are all gone but numerous stone inscriptions have been preserved and transcribed.
Cham culture is believed to have started thriving from the 4th century CE. Its spiritual centre was at My Son, which was established by King Bhadravarman. Over 70 temples – red brick structures – have been excavated here. The buildings within the My Son temple complex were constructed over a period of 1000 years, from the 4th to 14th century CE, making this complex one of the longest-occupied archaeological sites in the world. My Son is located about 70 kilometres southwest of Da Nang and close to Champa’s ancient capitals Simhapura (Tra Kieu) and Indrapura (close to Dong Duong). Within these three locations, more than 30 stelas dated between the 5th to 12th centuries CE have been discovered. The stele inscriptions focus mainly on political and religious topics, written from the perspective of kings to affirm their legitimacy and their relationship with the divine.
My Son was discovered during the construction of telegraph lines in Central Vietnam in 1889 when Camille Paris stumbled upon its ruins. Decades of research revealed it as the religious centre of the long-forgotten Champa Kingdom. Sadly, much of this site was devastated by B52 bombing from 1969 to 1972 during the Vietnam War as the Viet Cong had set up base there. What is left was saved when President Nixon declared the area off-limits on the advice and urging of a Chan art expert, Philippe Stern. Bomb craters still punctuate the monument grounds, and land mines lurk beneath the surrounding jungle. However, many structures have been restored, giving visitors a glimpse into the spiritual life of the ancient Chams.
My Son Sanctuary, the ancient architectural ruins in the middle of a forest near Hoi An, is preserved as a World Cultural Heritage site. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999, it is worth visiting for those seeking the exotic, away from mainstream Asian tourist destinations. During my visit in 2006, a ride in an archaic military vehicle, a war relic left behind by the Americans after the Vietnam War, took us through rough terrain to the lush valley, overshadowed by the holy mountain, Mount Mahaparvata (known to the locals as Cat’s Tooth Mountain). Visitors today can now expect easier access – it has been more than a decade since my visit.
Several international organisations have backed restoration projects, painstakingly re-assembling the bombed-out monuments and planning for increased on-site security. Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient (EFEO) of which Henri Parmentier, a prominent archaeologist was a member, was responsible for the establishment of the Danang Museum of Champa Sculpture, which opened in 1919. This museum, though small, has the best collection of Cham art that survived looting and decay. These masterpieces are a wonderful complement to My Son and Po Nager.
My travels in 2007 across Indo-China, approximately along the 18th parallel, took me from Nong Khai in northeast Thailand to Hue in Central Vietnam and back to Thailand, to Mukdahan in Nakhon Phanom, crossing the then completed Thai-Laos Friendship Bridges across the Mekong. Along the journey were pockets of Cham villages and ruins, the most significant being Wat Phu in Champasak in southern Laos.
Between the first and ninth centuries CE, Champasak Province was part of Funan (which influenced early Champa) and then the Chenla Kingdoms before falling to the Khmers. Archaeological research has identified the ancient city as Shrestrapura, a 5th-century CE, pre-Khmer site. The city was at one time the capital of the Chenla and Champa Kingdoms.
Although Wat Phu is considered Khmer, elements of Champa art, culture and architecture are recognisable within the temple complex. The UNESCO site includes Phu Kao mountain and the remains of the ancient cities of Lingapura and Shrestrapura. Wat Phu, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 was an important Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. During the 13th century CE, it became a centre of Theravada Buddhism and remains so until today.
The final annihilation of Champa by Minh Mang’s troops in 1835 marked the end of two millennia of continuous Champ existence. The remnants of Champa in Kauthara (Nha Trang) and nearby Panduranga were fully incorporated into the Vietnamese realm. The marginalised Cham communities of Indo-China today are the last vestiges of Champa.
During the purge by Minh Mang, large groups of mainly Muslim Chams fled to Cambodia where they were given refuge. They settled around the area now known as Kampong/Kompong Cham and along the shores of the Tonle Sap. However, they struggled to retain their culture and language. The Chams were again severely persecuted, this time by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. It is estimated that as many as half a million Chams were murdered to ‘ethnically cleanse Cambodia’.
In Phnom Penh, a small community of Chams still live on boats and stilted houses but with rapid land development in Cambodia’s capital, they are under constant threat of eviction. Today, there is a small Cham Muslim (some practising a blend of Hindu-Buddhist practices) community in Thailand and in Laos as well.
The majority of the 120,000 Chams who remained in Vietnam retained their Hindu faith but those who later converted to Islam still worship their gods at Po NagarCham Towersin Nha Trang during the religious festival of Thap Ba, which falls around April/May. The two major enclaves of Chams in Vietnam are in Nha Trang (ancient Cham city of Kauthara) and the highlands around Da Nang.
In the 8th century CE, the political centre of Champa moved from My Son south to Kauthara. At the site of modern Nha Trang, a temple was built in honour of Po Nagar, the indigenous Earth Goddess whom the Chams believed was the ‘Mother of the Country’ who taught agricultural and weaving skills to the Chams. Later historians identified Po Nagar with the Hindu goddesses Bhagavati, wife of Shiva, and with Durga, the buffalo-demon slayer.
Pirates from Java burned the temple of Po Nagar and carried off the image of Shiva. Cham king Satyavarman pursued the raiders and defeated them in a naval battle in 781. This victory over the ‘dark-skinned savages who feed on cadavers’ was recorded on a stele erected by Satyavarman at Po Nagar. The Chams continued building – the tallest tower was completed in 817 CE. Further expansion continued until the 17th century CE when the Chams were gradually displaced by the Viets.
The building techniques from 8th century to 13th century remain a mystery. Scholars still do not understand how the Cham people placed 20×20 cm bricks in close proximity without any adhesive. This unique feature attracts interest in the towers. My guide drew my attention to the Chams’ ingenuous use of red bricks without any binding mortar in the construction of these octagonal pillars, a technique that still baffles engineers and archaeologists.
The kalan was the brick sanctuary, typically in the form of a tower, used to house the deity. The religious life of the Chams is evident from these extant monuments, which have syncretized elements of Shaivism, Buddhism and indigenous religious practices.
There were once ten towers, each dedicated to a different deity, but today only four remain to provide a fascinating glimpse into the region’s past and the locals’ present-day spiritual beliefs as pilgrims still come here to pray and offer incense.
I spent half a day at this site in December 2019, admiring the temples, wandering around and finally sitting in the shadows of the soaring temple towers. I felt the serenity of the hillock and the greatness of antiquity while pondering over the past splendour of the Cham culture, much of it long lost to the world … but comforted by the thought that I had ventured on the trail of the Chams.
Nestled almost out of sight with attention diverted to the tin dredge in Gallery C, is a Jinrickshaw. Today, it may get passing mention during a guided tour but this solitary artefact used to be an institution in early Malaya. Known also as Jinricksha or simply as rickshaw, it was a key mode of transportation for many decades until it was literally ‘overtaken’ and ‘driven off the road’ by faster vehicles.
The rickshaw was a two-wheeled buggy-like cart pulled by a runner with the passenger seated in the cart. It was ubiquitous in Kuala Lumpur up to the late fifties, as it was cheap, easily available and comfortable. They could be seen plying the streets of old central Kuala Lumpur rain or shine, day and night catering to many users throughout the day.
It seems that a form of the rickshaw was actually developed in France as far back as the 17th century. However, it is generally accepted that around 1869, the Japanese developed the rickshaw, giving it the name through which we know it today. Others have also laid claim to having invented it. After all, it is not a complicated vehicle and specific needs would have led a simple handcart evolving to this type of vehicle. Nevertheless, the form that we know today is from Japan.
Outside of Japan, the rickshaw was used in many parts of the world including China and parts of Africa. It could be seen in India and it became iconic in Kolkata. Over the years, the rickshaw were either motorised or just phased out, with pockets remaining particularly for tourism. This article focuses on Kuala Lumpur although it was common in many of the other larger towns in Malaysia as well.
The rickshaw consists of a buggy-like cart with a seat resting on two thin wheels. Two long shafts, of around 1.5 metres, extended from the sides of the cart. The ends of the shafts were connected by a bar, used as a handle. The puller, or Rickshaw man, stood between the shafts and ran pushing the bar and therefore pulling the cart. The wheels were thin and made originally of iron; rubber-tyres came later.
The seat itself could have either been a simple wooden one or cushioned and it seated two at a time. It extended down to form a footrest, on which packages could also be placed. Some rickshaws had a cubbyhole under the seat that was used as storage. Attached to the back of the seat was an adjustable hood that could be lifted to provide protection against the scorching sun or rain; it lay collapsed otherwise. In addition, if it rained, a canvas sheet would be used to cover the front. Although simple and basic, some rickshaws were highly decorated with designs on the sides of the cart. They were generally clean and comfortable.
Before World War 1, the rickshaws were imported from Japan. After the war, with the advent of Depression, they were locally made. Cost of these rickshaws is not found. In most cases, an individual owned the rickshaws and hired them out to pullers. Rates of hire are available for Singapore – it was 35 cents per day in 1938. Well-to-do people are said to have owed their own rickshaws with hired pullers if they did not keep a carriage.
It is uncertain when the rickshaw was first imported into Malaya but by 1912, the rubber-tyre rickshaw was reported to be in use in Kuala Lumpur together with the iron-wheeled type. However, by the mid-1920s only the former was in common use. These operated in what was known as central Kuala Lumpur, which covered Petaling Street, Sultan Street, Central Market and extended around three kilometres outward. This is a flat area, easy for the puller to navigate. Many people lived within the city in those days.
Anyone and almost everyone used the rickshaw. Ladies and men used it to get around town. Children went to school on a contracted rickshaw, much like school buses today. Women went to the market and back in these. Even the British officers would use them, perhaps more as a novelty. Later in the evening, rickshaw pullers had certain ladies as customers who would sit in the rickshaw in certain parts of town, waiting for their own customers. In fact I was told that ladies and young girls never used the rickshaw alone at night. If they had to, they were accompanied by a male, even a young boy if need be.
The fare paid, of course, varied by distance but the figures for Kuala Lumpur are not known – it is simply stated as a few cents for short trips. A 1914 schedule of jinrikisha fares for the Straits Settlements, show fares of 3 cents for every half mile, 20 cents for an hour and detention (waiting) fee of 5 cents per hour. These fees are for the second class. First class fares were double. These first class rickshaws had superior ‘English wooden seating’ and rubber tyres. First class rickshaws also had a runner trotting behind the rickshaw for the safety of passengers. These runners were rare, if any, in Kuala Lumpur.
Fares of course went up in time. For comparison, the fare in 1920 in Singapore was set at 15 cents a mile (1.6 km.). The industry in Singapore was regulated – there was a Registrar of Rickshaws as well as a union.
The rickshaw pullers were a breed apart. They were mostly immigrants from China and they lived in lodging houses, which were popular then as many immigrants came alone. Most, if not all, smoked opium supplied by the lodging houses or in opium dens. Opium was made illegal after World War II but hard-core addicts still managed to get their supply. Some pullers only wore shorts while others wore dark shin-length shorts with, perhaps, a shirt. Almost all wore a hat made of matted straw or palm leaf. Some did not wear shoes. For those who did, old rubber tyres were cut to fit and tied to the feet with string. While waiting for fares, they would squat between the shafts or sit on the footrest.
In their day, rickshaws ruled the roads. They would weave in and out of traffic, pulling out to the centre of the road when they felt necessary; the passengers sat coolly in their seats, being used to this. When looking for passengers, they would dash from one side of the road to the other to grab the passenger before another rickshaw did. Other vehicles had to look out for them.
They faced many risks – being scolded by passengers, arguments on the fare, accidents, drunken night passengers and passengers running off without paying. Many suffered bad health; there are reported cases of some collapsing and dying on the road while pulling. Despite the rickshaw being looked back on as a novelty, the pullers led a hard life for meagre earnings. They did not seem to be able to break out of rickshaw pulling, unlike some Chinese mining coolies who managed to move out into starting small businesses.
In our younger days, it was common for parents or teachers to scold us when we sat sloppily “sit up straight, don’t sit like a rickshaw puller!” Or, “you better study hard or you will end up being a rickshaw puller.”
The rickshaw pullers drew some sympathy and attention from travellers to Malaya as can be seen with the below two references.
“The jinricksha, pulled by Chinese coolies, is the conveyance usually hired for short runs in and around the neighbourhood of the towns. They are comfortable, and usually fairly clean, but as the coolie who pulls it seldom understands any language but his own dialect, and is as a rule supremely ignorant of the rule of the road, it is well to keep a wary eye on his movements.”
The Handbook of the Federated Malay States, compiled by H. Conway Belfield
“Chinese coolies toiling in the shafts of jinrickshas occupied by fares sitting inside, and quite unconcerned at the efforts of these human horses, who are often sickly, and always striving to reach the end of their journey as quickly as possible, mopping their faces as they run along, and audibly panting from their exertions.”
Ambrose B. Rathborne in Camping and Tramping in Malaya
By the mid-1950s, trishaws started replacing the rickshaws. The trishaw is a tricycle with the passenger cart placed on its side. Some, particularly in Penang, had the passenger cart in front. The advent of buses, as well as growing affluence that afforded people cars and taxis sounded the death knell for both the rickshaw and the trishaw. By the mid-sixties, both had almost disappeared, although the Penang trishaws ruled the roads until the eighties.
While trishaws can still be seen on the streets today in places like Melaka, catering to the tourist industry, the jinrickshas are only found in museums. However, they are a part of our history and the stories they tell should not be forgotten.
What emotions do the above masks evoke in you? Intriguing and intimidating, they did not appeal to me initially for I did not then realise whence they had come or the mysteries attached to them. However, I was curious and wanted to find out the reason for their ubiquitous presence in advertisements and tourist literature on Sichuan.
… so in May 2017, my sister and I hired a car with a driver from Chengdu to take us to Guanghan, the archaeological site of these Bronze Age relics, 40 km north of Chengdu. The SanXingDui Museum is the current home of artefacts unearthed in Guanghan County and they are valued as Grade 1 Treasures of the People’s Republic of China.
The main museum building, on the excavated site of San Xing Dui (three-star mound: san –three, xing – stars, dui – mound) was completed in 1992 and opened to the public in 1997. It is not easy to get to due to its remote location. San Xing Dui is the ruins of the capital of the ancient Shu Kingdom that existed over 4000 years ago.
Before the excavations, there were no reliable written materials recording the ancient Shu civilization. There is hardly any mention of Shu in early Chinese historical records until the fourth century BCE, thereby shrouding this society in mystery. With the excavation of these cultural relics, the mystery has only deepened.
Discovered in 1929, and re-discovered in 1986, the famous discoveries in two sacrificial pits included animal- and human-faced sculptures and masks, a five-metre tall bronze tree, the best-preserved bronze human figure at 2.62 metres and hundreds of other unique items, each exceedingly exquisite. These relics are believed to be remnants of the Shu Kingdom, which can be dated to 2600 years to 4800 years ago. The discovery surprised archaeologists and historians alike and opened up a world of intrigue as it indicated a semi-Chinese culture that was previously unknown.
It is said that SanXingDui slept for three thousand years and has just woken up to astound the world with its mystique. These 20th century finds caught the world’s attention and the site is considered one with great historical and scientific significance.
The cache of religious bronze sculptures excavated at SanXingDui manifests the sophistication of the Shu culture. The bold lines and forceful contours of the masks combine to create magnificent images, which feature the union of humanity and divinity. The ritual objects reflect the spiritual pursuit of the Shu people. For more than half a century, archaeologists from Sichuan have been investigating the finds and forming theories of the Shu culture.
The large exhibition halls, filled with hundreds of artefacts, are dimly lit. It feels surreal to be inside, especially the first hall I entered, being surrounded by case after case of large masks and human heads, but visitors just move on with their audio guides to gaze upon and marvel at the mysteries of this once-forgotten civilisation. If they could talk, what secrets would these strange human heads reveal?
Exaggerated eyes and ears are the hallmark of SanXingDui masks, but the enormous masks have stalked eye balls (like extended protruding rods) and they seem to represent Can Cong, founder of the Kingdom of Shu. Cynics have commented that if this is true, then Can Cong must be half-insect! The Chinese character for insect, 虫 appears in both Can Cong’s name and the character for Shu, 蜀. The big eyes and ears symbolise the great powers of seeing and hearing from afar. It is believed that Can Cong had protruding eyes and ears.
The sacrificial life and religious rituals of the ancient Shu people are represented through bronze god statues and wares of gold, bronze, jade and stone. Among them is a 2.62 metres tall statue (Bronze Standing Man) wearing a crown and ceremonial garb, standing upright and barefoot on a cloud-patterned base supported by four elephant heads. His two large hands seem to hold a sacred vessel as if commanding a sacrifice. In the minds of the ancient people, he is a combination of god, wizard and king.
Most academicians believe the religious worship was a complex system involving a mix of many types, including nature worship, ancestor worship and god worship. The main function of the holy tree was to act as the axis for ascension to heaven. They connected heaven and earth, gods and humans. These Shamanistic trees were popularly used by shamans to communicate with the universe.
The spiritual world of the Shu people who believed that everything had a soul is shown not only through the magical bronze trees but also through animal-shaped objects such as fish and, more notably, birds. Bronze animal sculptures reflect the ancient Shu people’s ideology that all animals have spirits and their faith in the spirits of birds is the core of this belief.
Some of the artefacts are so large that they have to be seen to be appreciated. Standing at five metres, the Sacred Tree of SanXingDui, the most prized relic, gets pride of place in the central lobby of the museum. The spiral feature of the building’s architecture must have been designed for its display. Overseas display of this valued artefact is prohibited.
I no longer regard the masks of SanXingDui as menacing nor grotesque, but rather as stunning artefacts with deep symbolism guarding secrets of a glorious past. They are objects to be admired, and from which to draw upon for confirmation of hypotheses. How did the bronze smelting technique and the culture symbolized by the Sanxingdui bronze ware come into being? New research may solve the mystery of SanXingDui.
Earlier studies theorised that the disappearance of SanXingDui was due to floods or war but these theories are speculative. LiveScience reports that a mighty earthquake that occurred 3000 years ago decimated the ancient metropolis that was SanXingDui, but this theory is also speculative.
There is still much to learn about this mysterious civilisation. Excavations at the Three Star Mounds continue, the various projects involving researchers from China and abroad aim to discover more items from this lost civilisation. Tang Fei, head of the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, believes there are more sacrifice and worship sites, and aristocratic tombs to be unearthed.
The puzzle of the Three Star Mounds is a puzzle of the ages, but I hope it will eventually be unravelled.
SanXingDui Museum bi-lingual explanatory notes for some of the exhibits