J for Jawi Peranakan

Jawi Peranakan of Penang

by Shafinaz Ahmad Shaharir

Image credit: Dennis Ong

Jawi Peranakan, or previously known as Jawi Pekan, refers to a community that originated from social amalgamation and assimilation – a product of intermarriage between local Malay women and Muslim men from Southern India. Although this community has long existed especially in Kedah, Melaka and Perak, it is believed that the Jawi Peranakan in Penang grew in number when Captain Francis Light established Penang in 1786, which attracted numerous merchants and migrants from the Malay Archipelago, China, India, Arabia and Europe. The merchants and migrants from India and Arabia established a new society in Penang known as Jawi Pekan. Many of the merchants established their businesses in George Town and settled down; some of them married local women, others brought their wives, and the sojourners eventually turned into settlers.

Weld Quay in the Port of Penang, George Town circa 1910. Image credit: Leiden University Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KITLV_-80020Kleingrothe,_C.J.MedanQuay_in_Penang-_circa_1910.tif

Back then, the term Jawi Pekan referred to the interracial marriage between Malay women and Arabians, Tamils, Bengalis, Punjabis, Gujaratis, or Afghans, leading to assimilation with Malay culture. Additionally, the term was also used for Muslim people not of local Malay descent. However, in 1871, the term Jawi Pekan was dropped by the British in the Census of Straits Settlements and replaced with Jawi Peranakan; the reason being the said term was not specific and did not use the term ‘Peranakan, which supposedly referred to locally born people with mixed local and foreign ancestries.

At first, the intermarriages only took place between wealthy merchants and aristocratic Malay women. However, a change happened in Penang when intermarriages also began to involve non-aristocrats Indian Muslims and local Malay women. This was because many Indian Muslims migrated to Penang under the British and with the opening of Georgetown as a port of call under the East India Company (EIC). Apart from mixed marriages with Indian Muslims, Malay women in Penang also married Jawi Peranakan from Kedah who migrated to Penang. In addition, the Indian Muslim migrants married local Malay women since they shared the Islamic faith. It is believed that because of the shared religious belief system, it enabled the affluent Indian Muslim tradesmen and merchants to be accepted among the locals, and this resulted in the intermarriages. The long process of amalgamation and assimilation of Malay culture experienced by this society over the years had caused most of the new generation of Jawi Peranakan to adopt many Malay customs and traditions, and no longer maintain their cultures from South India. They were also fluent in speaking the Malay dialect of Penang (Tanjong), while also being able to converse fluently in both English and Tamil languages.

A group of Tamil Muslims in Penang, early 20th century. Image credit: Penang State Museum via http://islamicartsmagazine.com/magazine/view/the_chulia_in_penang/

Jawi Peranakan was an elite group during the early decades of Penang’s establishment; they were highly educated and wealthy as well as successful merchants. They also published the first Malay newspaper in Malaysia known as Jawi Peranakkan. In fact, it is reported that Malay journalism history started in 1876 with the publication of the Jawi Peranakkan newspaper in Singapore. The newspaper was founded by Muhammad Said Dada Muhyiddin, who was of Jawi Peranakan descent. When he passed away in 1888, the management together with the printing press passed to his widow. However, the newspaper eventually ceased publication in 1895. During the time when the weekly newspaper was still in print, it was published every Monday and initially sold for 30 cents per copy. It was written in Jawi, covering local and foreign news. Jawi is derived from the Arabic script and it was used widely by the Malays before the Rumi (Romanized) alphabet was introduced.

Image of the front page of a Jawi Peranakkan newspaper at Gallery D, Muzium Negara. Note that the newspaper is spelled with double ‘k’.

In conclusion, the Jawi Peranakan in Penang is a unique society with a rich culture and heritage that reflect the vast diversity of ethnic groups in Malaysia. In fact, the people of Jawi Peranakan are now largely identified as Malay due to the social amalgamation and assimilation with Malay cultures since a long time ago. They have adopted a plethora of Malay cultures such as food, dress, rite of passage ceremonies such as wedding, and they also use the Malay language. The communal strength of this community is that they are a hybrid of Malay and Indian identities, which make them special and different from the rest of Malay community in Penang and Malaysia as a whole.

Jawi Pekan children of Tamil ethnicity. Image credit: Wade Collection via http://islamicartsmagazine.com/magazine/view/the_chulia_in_penang/


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I is for Iban

by Shafinaz Ahmad Shaharir

Image credit: Dennis Ong

Sarawak, Land of Hornbills, is the largest state in Malaysia. It is located on the northwest coast of Borneo Island. Sarawak is a stunning state with unique and diverse cultures, along with wild and ravishing rainforests. Before 1841, the Brunei Sultanate reigned over the state, before the Brooke era from 1841 to 1941 and before the Japanese Occupation from 1941 to 1945. After the Japanese sought peace in August 1945, Sarawak was placed under British Military Rule until April 1946. On July 1, 1946, Sarawak became a British Crown Colony before it eventually joined Malaysia in 1963.

Map of Borneo: This island of Borneo that consists of three different countries, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Image source: Peter Fitzgerald, minor amendments by Joelf, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Borneo_map.png

Sarawak is a diverse state, consisting of 26 different ethnic groups including Malay, Chinese, and Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau and other indigenous tribes collectively known as Orang Ulu. Each group has its own language and unique culture. Generally, the indigenous peoples of Sarawak continue to show reverence towards their rainforests even until today. Despite the prolonged exposure to the outside world, the indigenous peoples of Sarawak retain their ancestors’ culture and traditions.

Formerly known as Sea Dayaks, the Iban is one of the most populous ethnic groups in Sarawak. They were known as Sea Dayaks by the British because they were often seen patrolling the sea to help Malays fight against pirates. Furthermore, the ancestors of Iban Sarawak are believed to have come from the Kapuas River region in western Kalimantan; their move into Sarawak was to search for new swidden land and to expand their territories. The earliest Iban migrations to the thinly populated Sarawak can be categorized as an establishment of pioneer settlements along the tributaries of the Batang Lupar and Saribas rivers. The migration during that time is the beginning of the first major movement, which took about sixteenth generations, approximately during the middle of the sixteenth century. Since then, the Iban gradually travelled northward and eastward through the Rejang Valley; today, they are present in every district and division of Sarawak, be it in the countryside or urban areas.

An Iban war perahu (bangkong) on Skerang river. Image credit: Henry Ling Roth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iban_Prahu.jpg

The Iban have a special and unique residence namely the longhouse where the villagers live under one roof. Back then, most the Iban longhouses were situated by the river as it was their main mode of transportation. In addition, there are variations of longhouse designs between different ethnic groups However, the Iban village would normally have only one longhouse, which is in straight-line with a rectangular shape, built using heavy hardwood posts and beam structures. The floors and walls are constructed using bamboos, sometimes with wood barks and palm thatch roofs. It is almost conceptually similar to that of terrace row houses, with each compartment or home separated by walls and sharing a common street. Each family has its own personal compartment known as bilek, which is equipped with sleeping and cooking areas. The cooking area is the area where the ‘ladies of the house’ clean and cook, as well as socialize with other women. Simply said, it is an area only for the females in the house.

An illustration of an Iban Longhouse. Image credit: Henry Ling Roth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iban_Langhaus.jpg

Additionally, the covered corridor known as ruai and located at the front of the bilek, running along the longhouse, can be considered as the men’s domain. The ruai is an area where community meetings, major ritual performances and wedding receptions are held, apart from it being a hall to entertain guests. Here, men also gather for daily chores such as mending fishnets and traps. In essence, while the bilek is a private and domestic space for the family, ruai is a public space dedicated for the longhouse members and guests; it is on the upper floor of the longhouse known as sadau in Iban. The distance between the ground and the base of the house can be several feet. It is assumed that the style of the house, gathered in one common structure, is convenient in order to protect the villagers. Furthermore, its high structure helps prevent effects of flooding and provides protection from wild beasts. In essence, the longhouse structures were developed as a defensive measure to protect the villagers from tribal ambushes, particularly during the old headhunting days, considering the longhouse is difficult to access, especially as the ladders were removed at night as a security measure.

The ruai, where people gather. Image credit: Seth Peli via https://www.expatgo.com/my/2017/01/18/headhunting-in-borneo/

The ancient Iban are well known as fearless and brave warriors, very determined in securing desirable land for swidden agriculture, They will fight enemies or other tribes that intercept their movement or during their mission in extending their lands. The way they fight is different from other Borneans since they are fearless when it comes to displaying their bravery and full-frontal attacks. They also showcase their strength through headhunting or ngayau. It was a custom of Iban warriors to cut off the heads of their enemies after their battles, which were brought back to the longhouse. During the time when ngayau was still practised, it was considered as the symbol of bravery and heroism as well as used to determine an individual’s social status or social rank in the tribe. It is believed that ngayau started when their lands were intruded upon by other tribes and because of the arrival of outsiders that occupied lands belonging to them.

Punan heads taken by the Iban. Image source: https://robinsonmike.blogspot.com/2014_08_01_archive.html

Typically, the Iban warrior possessing strong skills and effective techniques in battles will be the one appointed as the tribal chief, praised by others, as well as feared among the tribes. This explains why, the Sarawak Iban are famously known as warriors and have been called as ‘the wickedest head-hunters’ even though their headhunting days ended a very long time ago. Additionally, because of their bravery, the Iban were recruited as part of the military known as Sarawak Rangers. The Sarawak Rangers played a vital role in fighting the Japanese during Japanese Occupation (1941-1945) and against the communists during Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).

The sword used by the Iban during headhunting is known as Parang Ilang. The sword represents the symbol of courage and their excellent fighting skills. Most Iban men would usually own a Parang Ilang as it is an essential weapon used for hunting and protecting their family from enemies. Apart from that, the same sword would also be used for rituals and traditional medications, which include a cure for shingles (kayap). In the past, the hilt of the sword would be decorated with human hairs obtained through ngayau. Iban hold a strong belief that if the warrior passed away and owned the Parang Ilang, then the sword shall be inherited by the heir of his family because as it is believed that the warrior’s soul remains with the sword despite his demise. Therefore, it shall not be easily passed onto other people except their legal heir. In essence, Parang Ilang is the traditional weapon of Iban where the sword remains important in the Iban community, making it a part of tangible heritage that is still being preserved among the Iban cultures until today.

A beautifully carved hilt of a parang ilang from Muzium Negara’s collection. Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur

Like most of the indigenous people, the Iban are traditionally animists, who believe that everything, be it animate or inanimate, has a spirit that can influence the events in their life. One of the many rituals still being practiced by the Iban is Miring, an offering ceremony aimed to honour the gods, spirits and souls of dead ancestors. This belief seeks their ancestors’ help and blessing before any important event is held. According to the old faith of the Iban, it is believed that if the supernatural is not fed, they will not obtain the blessing, which will cause disasters and misfortunes. The miring ritual is still practiced whenever the Iban celebrate their annual harvest festival known as Gawai Dayak, in order to thank the rice spirits that have blessed their community with good harvests. Gawai Dayak is a major festival not only for the Iban, but also for other indigenous people in Sarawak.

Animistic rituals have been practiced by the indigenous people for a long time but over time, some communities have embraced other religions and changed their lifestyles; majority have embraced Christianity. Nowadays, the Iban have successfully adapted to the modernisation and globalization era, their longhouses are completely equipped with modern facilities and essential necessities such as electricity and water supplies, the Internet, telephone line and roads. Most of the younger generation can also be found living in the urban areas, yet they always return to their hometown especially during the festive seasons to visit families. Furthermore, they also live peacefully with other tribes and races such as Bidayuh, Malays and Chinese. Although, the Iban today have been exposed to modernization and globalisation, yet they have impressively managed to preserve their ancestors’ customs, ritual and traditional beliefs including their traditional costumes, the Ngajat dance, Pua Kumbu, Parang Ilang, traditional foods, the longhouse, Gawai Dayak festival and many more.

The boy is in traditional costume accessorised with headgear and Parang Ilang. The girl is wearing the rawai, a corset of rattan hoops secured by small brass rings stiffened around the torso, with sugu tinggi (silver headgear) and tumpa (bangles). Image credit: Charles Hose, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Young_Ibans,_or_Sea_Dayaks.jpg


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H is for Hercules

by V. Jegatheesan

Image credit: Dennis Ong

“The Finest Bicycle Built Today”

… So read the advertisements for the Hercules bicycle in the newspapers of the late 1940’s.

A British Hercules bicycle can be seen in Gallery C in the section describing the rubber industry in Malaysia in the early days. The latex containers on the sides are a clear example of how this bicycle was used as a transport workhorse of various goods in estates, businesses and elsewhere, now replaced by the motorcycle. Though Raleigh was the most popular as a regular bicycle, Hercules was the utility bicycle seen in towns and villages. Other Hercules models included those for racing purposes.

One never learned to ride bicycles using a Hercules due to its size and weight. The Hercules was bigger and higher than the regular brands, had larger handlebars with a flat carrier added at the back, sometimes also with a metal basket in front. This carrier is known to have transported, among others, sacks of lallang by cowherds, milk containers or a box for various things by tradesmen and of course latex containers for the smallholding rubber tapper.

At Gallery C. Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur

How exactly were these bicycles used in the estates? The trees would have been cut at a slant in the very early morning so that it does not coagulate as it flows into the collecting cups or harden too fast on the cut. Usually about 9 or 10 am, the smallholder would make the rounds on the bicycle, pouring the latex into the metal containers fixed on the sides. Depending on the size of the estate, more trips would be made by the smallholder or collection made by a team of workers. When the containers are full, these are taken to the smallholder’s shed where the latex is coagulated with formic acid and processed to make sheet rubber or block rubber. Larger estates used bullock carts with very large metal tanks while tappers used the ‘kender’ or kandar stick on their shoulder with two containers hanging at the ends, all later replaced by trucks. Other competitor brands of bicycles would also have been used such as the Hopper, another bicycle of somewhat similar build.

Using bullock cart (left) and kandar (right) to transport latex. Credit for both images: Arabis

Old newspaper advertisements up to the mid-1950s reveal that a T. V. Mitchell and Co., of Singapore and Penang, were the representatives who imported, distributed and or sold these bicycles. They also sold through authorised agents in Malaya, Singapore and elsewhere, among which was the familiar Dunlop Rubber Company. They sold the bicycles, as well as spares and accessories via numerous dealers in Singapore and Malaya. Almost every town and village had a bicycle repair shop of some sort, as bicycles were a common mode of transport. Interestingly, a newspaper report in the Straits Times of 5th December 1952, quotes a Mr. P.J. D. Munns, the overseas representative of the Hercules Cycle and Motor Company Ltd., as saying that Muslims preferred dark green bicycles, possibly referring to the Malayan market at that time.

Advertisement in the Sunday Tribune (Singapore), 4 April 1948, page 11, col. 2

Few people remember the exact prices of bicycles; they only remember the price of a new bicycle to be in the region of 100 to 150 Dollars (of that time) in the 1940s and early 1950s. Most who bought paid by instalments usually to the bicycle shop while some saved up for theirs. Handing down used bicycles to children or relatives was also common. Newspaper advertisements in the late 1940s in Singapore reveal a healthy second-hand market with the bicycles selling for about 25 Dollars (of that time).

Hercules bicycles were manufactured by the Hercules Cycle and Motor Company and named for their robustness and durability. The company started in Birmingham in 1911. It was very successful and efficient, but, after 1946, it gradually lost out to competitors’ better-streamlined production processes. By 1960, the company was part of TI Raleigh Industries which made Hercules in its own design. In 2003, the original Hercules Company finally dissolved. However, the brand lives on in India by arrangement with TI Cycles of India.

Hercules logo on the bicycle at Muzium Negara


The Finest Bicycle Built to-day [advertisement]. (1948, 4 April). Sunday Tribune (Singapore), p. 11 col. 2.

Spore is eastern hub of bicycle market. (1952, 5 December). The Straits Times, p. 12.

British bicycles find increasing sales in Malaya. (1956, 15 June). The Straits Times, p. 14.

Personal recollections and conversations with relatives & friends.

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G is for Gawai

by Casper Kaun

Image credit: Dennis Ong; background image courtesy of JMM

“Gawai, the harvest festival was and remains like Christmas and New Year’s rolled into one.”

Anthony Bourdain, while in Entulau Sawawak, 2015.

Gawai, or Gawai Dayak, is a major social and religious festival in Sarawak that is celebrated annually on the 1st of June. The late Anthony Bourdain summed up perfectly the importance of Gawai as he remarked, “Gawai is a big deal in the Iban calendar when friends and relatives return to the longhouse”. There are many variants of Gawai, though the widely celebrated one is the ‘harvest festival’ as the word ‘Gawai’ literally means festival. For the Ibans, Gawai is called Ari Gawai while for the Bidayuhs, in the Bidayuh language, it is called Andu Gawai. In 1965, the Sarawak Government decided to make Gawai Dayak as a public holiday. Gawai Dayak is widely celebrated among the Iban and Bidayuh people or colloquially known as Sea and Land Dayaks. Although it is celebrated in Sarawak, the festival is also celebrated by the Sarawakian diaspora abroad.

Image credit: Travel Triangle

The preparation of Gawai begins days in advance as the main alcoholic beverage served for Gawai called tuak, takes days to be made. It is served during Gawai Eve and on the day itself. Tuak is a form of rice wine, unique amongst the Dayak people of Sarawak. It is sometimes prepared weeks or even a month in advance. Tuak is important during Gawai because for the Ibans, it is also known as ‘ai pengayu’ (aqua vitae), the water of longevity. Besides tuak, other snacks are prepared before the day itself, similar to how the Malays would prepare their kuih raya, weeks before Hari Raya. These snacks include kuih sarang semut, kuih sepit and even keropok (fish crackers). These snacks are kept in biscuit tins lined with newspaper to preserve them for the main day. In addition, days before Gawai, relatives from abroad would start travelling back to their hometowns. Throughout Sarawak, one can observe that the bus stations, airports and ferry terminal would be very crowded as people try to make their way back in time before Gawai.

The day before Gawai, known as Gawai Eve, is when families would host a large dinner gathering, almost similar to a Chinese New Year reunion dinner. This is a time for families to get together, have a good meal and to have a good time. The dishes served during the eve vary from family to family, though we can expect a plethora of Dayak dishes served on the table. In the rural kampongs however, there will most likely be a large gathering at the balai raya or community centre during Gawai Eve. Those attending would be dressed in their traditional attire and the sound of traditional music, played by gongs will fill the air. These gongs are usually ensembles of Engkerumong or Taboh (Iban) or Ogong (Bidayuh). These ensembles are similar to Javanese Gamelan ensembles. Tuak will be shared by the attendees and usually the celebration would be accompanied with traditional dances. This is when one can watch the Ngajat, a traditional Sarawakian Dayak dance, being performed. The celebration during this night will continue to the wee hours of the morning.

Ngajat. Image credit: Antonsurya12, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

On the morning on Gawai day itself, the kitchen will be a very busy place as the folks will be busy preparing the delectable dishes to be served to the families and friends. The traditional dishes range from manok pansoh (bamboo chicken), lemang (glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaf cooked in coconut milk in a bamboo ), kasam ikan (fermented fish), pangkang (glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk in a bamboo but without the banana leaf wrapping), linut (sago porridge), kasam dihan (fermented durian), kasam pangan (fermented pork), midin (jungle shoots) and many more.

Selection of food served during Gawai. Image credit: jacknjillscute.blogspot.com

For Christian Dayaks, a Gawai prayer service is held at church in the morning. Usually during mid-day, this is where Gawai celebration kicks in as people would start visiting their relatives or neighbours’ homes. Food and drinks will be served. Normally people would spend an hour visiting their relatives. In the spirit of ‘open house’, friends would also visit each other’s homes as well to celebrate Gawai together. They would come either in their traditional dress or in their best attire. Visiting would last all day, as people would continue seeing their friends or relatives until nightfall.

In some villages, Gawai is celebrated with a mass procession that would march throughout the entire village. The procession is led by people in traditional dresses as they make their way through the village. Bystanders are welcome to join this procession as it is meant to create a long, human train. At certain points, they would be stopped by villagers on the roadside as they pass through their houses. The human train would be served with tuak or langkau as they carry on their journey. They are also accompanied with the sound of mobile gongs being played by the ensemble crew. Often, this procession would end at the border of the village, and by then, it will already be dusk.

Yearly, during Gawai, pageant competitions would be held. These pageants are called Kumang and Keling Gawai. Kumang is for females while Keling is the male variant. This is where those competing would be dressed in their traditional attire with other accoutrements to match. These accoutrements are usually family heirloom, which is passed down from father to son or mother to daughter. The competitors would be judged based on their outfit and their traditional dancing skills. The competition varies from village to village as each different ethnicity has different traditional outfits.

Kumang & Keling, Kampung Taee 2009. Image credit: frampton panchong via flickr

Traditionally, Gawai is celebrated throughout the month. These days, the festivities normally die down after 4 to 5 days though Gawai formally ends after the Ngiling Tikar ceremony, which may take place a week to a month after Gawai (depending on the village itself).

As Gawai is a big celebration in Sarawak, those celebrating will take between one to two weeks off from work to accommodate the lengthy travel time that might be required, and some to accommodate the lengthy festivities.

Though somewhat similar to celebrating Hari Raya or Chinese New Year, Gawai is a unique celebration on its own. It is celebrated by the Dayaks of Sarawak, regardless of religion, which makes part of the colourful tapestry of Malaysia.

Gawai display at Muzium Negara. Image credit: V. Jegatheesan

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F is for Famille Rose

by Rose Gan

Image Credit: Dennis Ong

The Peranakan vitrine in Gallery B is dominated by a charming collection of Straits porcelain. This distinctive type of pottery, unique to South East Asia, typifies the blended culture of the Chinese Peranakan communities in Penang, Melaka and Singapore.  Once underrated by ceramics experts for its inferior quality and over-gaudy style, Nyonya ware has finally come into its own and is now considered highly collectible – with a hefty price tag to boot!

Nyonyaware uses the famille rose enamelling technique, although its decorative features are exclusive to the Straits and are quite distinct from other examples of Chinese ceramics of this style, which were usually more ornamental pieces.  Straits Ceramics were intended for use at the family dining table on special occasions, and the pieces are entirely functional: bowls, teacups, teapots, spoons, plates, and lidded containers such as the kamcheng and katmau. They were commissioned from China by wealthy Peranakan families on the occasion of their daughters’ weddings; many contain specifically requested motifs or incorporate the family name, making them unique pieces of family history. Although blue and white Swatow ware was used for everyday purposes, the highly decorated famille rose ware took pride of place for fine dining.

Examples of fine Straits ceramics from Datin Seri Kee Ming-Yuet collection; left: Teacup and saucer, right: Phoenix and peony detail

Most ascribe Jingdezhen as the place of production for Straits Ceramics because that was where the finest examples of Famille Rose pottery were made, but experts have challenged this view. Shards of Straits-style crockery have never been found in the area. It is more likely that Peranakan families ordered their porcelain wedding sets from humbler kilns in Fukien province, and that these are actually examples of coloured Swatow ware (now usually referred to as Zhangzhou ware) using the enamel famille rose technique, but of inferior production.  Many of the oldest surviving examples of this pottery contain reign marks and stamps comparable to those of Jingdezhen, but they may not be reliable; it has been suggested that they may have been forged to suggest an earlier date and place of origin to increase the price. As many overseas Chinese in the Straits originated from Hokkien-speaking Fukien province, this theory is likely.

Some Straits porcelain was even Japanese made, for there was a time when Japan supplied these colourful ceramics to South East Asia. Japanese potters made exact copies, even down to Chinese stamps, and are difficult to distinguish other than by their softer shades of pastel. It is unclear whether Japan was trying to break into the overseas ceramics market or whether they were filling in the demand when wars in China disrupted production. No doubt it was probably a little bit of both!

But that is immaterial. Even if the quality of these wonderful ceramics does not match the finest examples of Chinese porcelain, they are now regarded as an artform in themselves. Richly coloured in vivid shades of pink, green, yellow and purple, Straits ceramics reflect the vibrant mixed heritage of the archipelago: bright colours, abundant flora and fauna, and the hybrid cultural traditions of the Malay peninsula syncretised with Chinese mythological symbols.

There are many similarities between the colours and motifs of these ceramics and the north coast Pekalongan batiks of Java, so favoured by Nyonya ladies for their sarongs. Interestingly these vibrant, busy batiks were themselves a departure from the earthy tones of traditional Javanese batiks and were inspired by Dutch decorative designs of flowers and birds.  It seems that influences constantly pass east to west and back again! Such porcelain was even once referred to as ‘batik crockery’. Peranakan homes were similarly crammed with ornaments and decorative pieces with scarcely a space left empty in the desire of upwardly-mobile families to proclaim their success and prosperity in the richness and excess of their décor. The heyday of Pekalongan batiks was from the 1890s- 1930s, interestingly the same period in which Peranakan ceramics reached their peak.

Pekalongan batiks. Image credit: left and centre: Inger McCabe Elliot; right: http://www.northcoastjavanesebatik.com/2012/07/pekalongan-batik-belanda-buketan-design.html

The decorations on Straits ceramics are unfailingly jolly and bright, like the colours. As they were designed for young brides at the beginning of their married life, the motifs are full of auspicious blessings wishing love, long-life, fertility and happiness. The most popular motifs – from a very long list –  are peony (female beauty), the phoenix (yin and the perfect female qualities), the crane (longevity), the chrysanthemum (immortality), lotus (purity), double happiness etc. The eight Buddhist emblems often ornament the borders, including the paired fish and the endless knot, both particularly connected to lovers.

Colour is always highly symbolic in Chinese art. Red – the colour of the Phoenix – represents warmth, joy and the south; green stands for new life and growth and is connected to fertility; yellow is the earth and the sun, while light blue is the sky and the east. Pink – the most ubiquitous colour on Straits pottery – above all is the dedicated shade of women; it represents femininity and youthfulness.

This colourful pottery belongs to the Famille Rose category that uses coloured enamels to apply decoration to previously-fired white porcelain as an overglaze, which is then fired a second time at lower temperatures. The technique originated in Europe, where it was first used on glass. When the technology reached China in the late 17th century, this method of enamel finishing was introduced in metalwork (e.g. cloisonné).  It is said that Jesuit priests at the imperial court of the Kangxi Emperor (1654-1722) first suggested its use in porcelain production around 1720, although the method was not perfected until the 1740s, during the Yongzhen era. The general term for such porcelain in China is yangcai or ‘foreign colours’, indicating its European roots. Yangcai ware is particularly connected to the great porcelain production centre of Jingdezhen.

Famille Rose ‘yangcai’ plate. Image credit: Zhangzhugang taken in Guangdong Museum

Chinese potters used a limited variety of colours in their porcelain because of the difficulty of working with minerals other than cobalt blue. Thus, a tradition of green (celadon), white (qingbai) and blue and white became the accepted Chinese aesthetic. The new foreign technique of applying colour in an enamel overglaze opened up a range of Chinaware that became very popular overseas, particularly in Europe and US. In China, however, it was regarded as inferior to the more acclaimed Ming and Qing blue and whites but it flourished as export-ware. The name ‘Famille Rose’ was coined in 1865 when Albert Jacquement, a French art historian and ceramic expert, categorised Qing ceramics according to their colour palette.


Chan Suan Choo. (2011). The Pinang Peranakan Mansion: A Museum of Straits Chinese Cultural Heritage. Eastern Printers.

Datin Seri Kee Ming-Yuet. (2004). Straits Chinese Porcelain. Cross-Time Matrix.

Elliot, Inger McCabe. (2004). Batik: Fabled Cloth of Java. Periplus.

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E is for Elephant

by Rose Gan

Image Credit: Dennis Ong

Elephants in the museum? Are you sure? Fascinating details are often hidden in plain sight in the galleries of any museum, frequently overlooked. The elephant, the largest animal of the Peninsula, turns up in some unexpected places at Muzium Negara, if you look carefully enough. This great beast, a vital part of the economy of the region since the earliest times, has had many functions: as a beast of burden, a method of transport through thick forest, a farm animal, a vehicle for the nobility, a valuable trade item, and even a war mount in battle. It also has a particular link to South East Asia’s Hindu-Buddhist past, representing Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles, the particular deity of merchants and travellers for his connections with trade and travel.

So, let us take a quick tour of the galleries and look for elephants! Such quests can be a handy trick to keep in your back pocket when your tour includes children or bored teenagers. ‘How many elephants can you find? Let’s see if you can get more than four…’

The most obvious elephant in Gallery A is a terracotta sculpture, part of the Bujang Valley collection. It may, of course, have a religious significance as a reference to Ganesha, but as it is in no way anthropomorphic, it may simply be a representation of an indigenous creature. Tigers and monkeys, snakes and crocodiles are often found on such pieces, just as on cave paintings, reflecting the animal world of the forest. The elephant was also, of course, important source of everyday labour and transport. This temple decoration came from Candi 21/22, which were Buddhist.

Another elephant example may be represented on the menhirs from Pengkalan Kempas, known colloquially as The Rudder and The Sword. Although there is little certainty about the many complex motifs on these megaliths, there have been suggestions that the animal on the mid left of ‘The Rudder’ is an elephant, whilst the ridge along the top of ‘The Sword’ that rises to a bulbous end may depict an elephant’s trunk. These megaliths are thought to represent several eras: the figures may have been carved at different times, explaining the unusual mix of animist, Hindu-Buddhist and Islamic elements. Pengkalan Kempas was probably a small jetty on a river where goods were exchanged. Ganesha would have been an important votive deity for the merchants who landed there in the hope of a good bargain.

left: sword; right: rudder

The Makara is an impressive sight at the entry of Gallery B. In Hindu-Buddhist iconography, the makara represents the two opposing forces of the earth, the land and the sea. This highly stylised figure noticeably has a fish tail but also displays a furled trunk as well as tusks, clearly elephant motifs. The makara originated in India where it has a completely different appearance: a hybrid of a dog, a crocodile and a fish. The unique makara of this region, however, draws upon the local elephant and a large fish. It is quite a different chimaera from its Indic origins.

The most interesting elephant in Gallery B, however, is extremely hard to spot unless you are very observant. On the Riau Bugis keris in one of the central cases before the Perak throne, at the very top of the blade where it forms a triangular shape to meet the crosspiece, there is a finely wrought filigree feature. Careful scrutiny – and the help of a laser pointer or torch – reveals this to be a tiny unfurled Ganesha trunk, a trace of the Hindu-Buddhist origins of this archetypal Malay weapon.

Gallery C contains a colourful reference to elephants in one of the pictures at the back of a vitrine in the Portuguese section. During the terrible fighting from June-July 1511 that culminated in the Portuguese capture of Melaka, Sultan Mahmud commanded a huge army of 20,000, gathered from the many vassal states of the Melakan Empire, including Pahang, Sumatra and Java. Amongst this host were 20 war elephants. The image in Gallery C depicts the thick of battle with Melaka town burning in the distance. Centre stage is a furious bull elephant, ridden by Malay warriors armed with spears, charging into a melee of Portuguese infantry and Indian troops, all fleeing in terror. Two other war-elephants bring up the rear. Sadly, despite the superior local forces – and the fearsome elephants – after a battle lasting 40 days, the Portuguese eventually triumphed. The rest is history.

There is another elephant reference in the same gallery, in the pictorial display of Transportation towards the end of the room. Three working elephants, two with open rattan howdahs, the other with a woven covered canopy stand proudly facing the camera with their mahouts. They remind us of the vital role the elephant played in negotiating the narrow paths through the forest in an earlier time as transportation, beast of burden, and a valuable dragging and lifting machine before the invention of modern tractors and forklifts!

Even Gallery D has an elephant reference, although only those very well-informed about royal costume might notice it. Amongst the collection of the tengkoloks of the sultans of Malaysia, is the ceremonial Tanjak diRaja of the Sultans of Terengganu. It has a distinctive high folded front-piece that curves outwards, known as the tengolok belalai gajah (the elephant trunk).

I found seven elephants – have I missed any?


Ahmad Sarji bin Abdul Hamid (Chairman, Editorial Board). (2011) The Encyclopaedia of Malaysia: Vol. 16 – The Rulers of Malaysia. Editions Didier Millet.

Gan, Rose. & Maganjeet Kaur (Eds.). (2017). A Malaysian Tapestry: Rich Heritage at the National Museum. JMM. MPH Group Printing.

National Museum Curators. (2011). Muzium Negara Kuala Lumpur Gallery Guide. JMM.

Salina Abdul Manan, Hamdzun Haron, Mohammed Jamal Mat Isa, Daeng Haliza Daeng Jamal, Narimah Abd. Mutalib. (2020). Tengkolok as a Traditional Work of Art in Malaysia: An Analysis of Design. Journal of Critical Reviews, 7(19). http://www.jcreview.com/fulltext/197-1598175690.pdf

D is for Dennis

by Maganjeet Kaur

Image Credit: Dennis Ong

The Dennis Fire Engine on the grounds of Muzium Negara bearing registration BE 3842 was donated by the Fire Service Department of the Federal Territory on 6 January 1982.

The pleasure of digging through archival documents to get more information on BE 3842 will have to wait until the pandemic is over. However, one can picture this vehicle tearing down the streets of Kuala Lumpur, sirens wailing, in a race against time to save lives and properties. We do not know how many fire incidences it participated in but it was in service for a good 22 years and we do know that the Dennis engine is a good workhorse. Please do share with us any photos you may have of the BE 3842 in action at a fire site, racing down the streets or simply at rest.

The engine was purchased on 24 December 1958 from Dennis Brothers Limited, a manufacturer of commercial vehicles based in Guilford, Surrey, England. Established in 1895 by brothers John Cawsey Dennis and Herbert Raymond Dennis, they started the business producing bicycles and later made motorcars. They subsequently moved to manufacturing heavy-duty commercial vehicles including buses, trucks and dustcarts; fire engines were first produced in 1908. The commercial vehicles manufactured by the company were made-to-order based on customers’ requirements and were stronger than the mass-produced vehicles of their competitors. An example of their hardiness comes from Singapore where a Dennis fire engine is said to have worked non-stop for 87 hours to put out a huge fire at a copra godown on Havelock Road in February 1929; this surely must have been a record of sorts!

Loyal fans of Dennis vehicles have established their own society. Made up of owners and enthusiasts, they provide useful advice for anyone wanting to restore a Dennis vehicle. Their website has a page listing Dennis fire engines that are being preserved and Muzium Negara’s fire engine is on this list, specified as having an F2 body type with chassis number 4416. The museum’s display board identifies it as Dennis RR B80-50A, thus indicating it has a Rolls Royce (petrol) engine.

BE 3842 has a Rolls Royce petrol engine and F2 body type.

During the time it was in service, BE 3842 was likely housed at the Central Fire Station at Shaw Road (today Jalan Hang Tuah). This fire station was built in 1955 to the tune of $750,000 and it replaced the old fire station on Church Street (Jalan Gereja). Designed by Eric Taylor, Municipal architect, it had push-button doors that opened instantly. The new station accommodated married firemen in self-contained two-room flats. It was equipped with two Dennis engines, BE 3842 undoubtedly one of them.

The Central Fire Station on Shaw Road (Jalan Hang Tuah), home of BE 3842 when it was in service. This building has since been replaced with a new structure. Image credit: National Museum of Singapore

“Most Powerful in the East”

The first Dennis fire engine in Kuala Lumpur was purchased in 1911, arriving in October on the steamship Benavon. This petrol vehicle had a 500-gallon capacity, and, with a horsepower of 70, it was claimed to be the most powerful engine in the East. However, there is no pleasing everyone. Alexander Simpson, Engineer of the Selangor Fire Brigade, considered the horsepower “a little in excess of the needs of Kuala Lumpur and District under prevailing circumstances”.  Simpson had the task of putting the engine together, which was done at the Works of the Federated Engineering Company. He had other minor grouses as well, albeit valid. Nevertheless, a test done at half power on 30 October showed the engine worked well and was ready to be put in action.

It kind of saw action very soon. On the night of Saturday 11 November, a prankster, probably very eager to see the new fire engine, pulled the fire alarm on nearby Weld Hill (Bukit Kewangan). The fire brigade was out the door in their new Dennis fire engine in just five minutes (with one member of the team still in pyjamas). Although they saw no signs of fire, just a smashed fire alarm, the incident showed that the Dennis fire engine was quicker compared to the 15-20 minutes required to get the old steam engine ready.

Bellamy’s Brigade

History of the Fire Brigade in Kuala Lumpur dates to 28 May 1884 when Captain Harry Syers was tasked by the British Resident to round up members for a Volunteer Fire Brigade. Thirty-odd people signed up and they became the founders of the brigade. The members comprised government officials and residents of Kuala Lumpur, Thamboosamy Pillai and Yap Ah Loy were among the prominent locals. H.F. Bellamy, the Superintendent of the Public Works Department, was appointed Chief Officer. His passion was the driving force behind the brigade, which came to be known as Bellamy’s Brigade.

The Fire Brigade was headquartered at the Central Police Station, which at the time was located on Cross Street (Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin). The Brigade only had a manual engine, which they dragged by hand. They later obtained Merryweather’s Greenwich Gum steam pump, also dragged by hand. It must have been quite a sight to see the pillars of society – brigade members included the likes of H. Conway Belfield, Magistrate & Revenue Collector; A.R. Venning, the State Treasurer; and A.C. Norman, the government architect – racing down the street, dragging a steam pump!

This image, sourced from Pinterest, purports to show the Volunteer Fire Brigade in front of the Police Station in the 1880s. If indeed in Kuala Lumpur, this Police Station would have been on Cross Street (Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin), near where Mydin Sinar Kota is located today; the Police Station on High Street (Jalan Tun HS Lee) was only constructed in 1895. In any case, it shows a Volunteer Fire Brigade, together with their manually-dragged pump.

In 1893, Kuala Lumpur’s first fire station was built on Church Street (Jalan Gereja), and officiated on 30 November. In the same year, Shire horses were imported from Britain for the onerous task of pulling the steam pump. The horses were stabled in stalls on either side of the station’s central bay. They were trained to move to their place in front of the engine at the sound of the fire alarm. Bellamy himself drove the horses. In 1895, the Volunteer Fire Brigade was disbanded and the Fire Brigade became a paid unit.

Selangor Fire Brigade Station on Church Street (Jalan Gereja), date unknown. The building was demolished in 1956 after the Fire Brigade moved to Shaw Road (Jalan Hang Tuah).
1895 map of Kuala Lumpur. The Central Police Station, which initially headquartered the Volunteer Fire Brigade, is shown in green. The first Fire Station, built in 1893, is shown in blue; a bus stop marks its location today. Base map: Gullick (2017, 47).

By 1902, the Brigade had purchased their very first motor fire engine – the earliest model of Merryweather’s Fire King. They were the first in the East to have such an engine. When Penang purchased their Fire King in 1906, Kuala Lumpur showed off, “They move slowly in the northern settlement, and sometimes a good deal slower in the southern.” Perhaps they should have waited for the next model because their Fire King did not perform as well as the later model obtained by Singapore.

The Fire King was a steam engine and it was replaced by the Dennis petrol engine in 1911. By this time, Bellamy had returned to Britain (in around the around the mid-1910s).


Gullick, J.M. (2017). A History of Kuala Lumpur: 1856-1939. MBRAS.

Simpson, Alexander. (1911, December 14). Letter from Alexander Simpson to E.G. Broadrick. ‘Report on Dennis Motor Fire Engine, K. Lumpur’. Arkib Negara 1957/0159945.

Dennis Society. Preserved Dennis Fire Engines. https://www.dennissociety.org.uk/preserved/fire/index.html#anchorbe3842

Jabatan Bomba dan Penyelamat Malaysia. Latarbelakang. https://www.bomba.gov.my/index.php/pages/view/4?mid=165

(Untitled). (1906, 7 February). Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 3.

Selangor’s Fire Engine: Most Powerful in the East. (1911, October 17). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 4.

(Untitled). (1911, November 16). The Straits Times, 8.

Selangor Fire Brigade. (1913, February 24). The Straits Times, 10.

A Record? (1929, February 13). Malaya Tribune, 10.

$750,000 Fire Station. (1955, May 16). The Straits Times, 4.

C is for Chulalongkorn

by Kon Cze Yan

Image credit: Dennis Ong

I write about King Chulalongkorn with some trepidation. Thailand’s Lese-Majeste Law prosecutes for slights against both living and dead royals. I do want to visit Thailand again after the pandemic!

Chulalongkorn appears in Muzium Negara in the old photograph below.

This photograph was taken in June 1905 during the King’s visit to Kelantan. He stands in the centre, wearing white, with his sons on his right. To his left is the ruler of Kelantan, Raja Long Senik, who adopted the title Sultan Muhammad IV in 1911. H.W. Thomson, the Deputy Resident Commissioner, can be seen on the right-hand side of the photograph. They are posing in front of the Siamese Residency, home of W. A. Graham the Siamese Resident Commissioner. With the 1902 Siamese-Kelantan Treaty, although Siam had suzerainty over Kelantan, Siam had to appoint a British national as the Resident Adviser and Commissioner to Kelantan.

Chulalongkorn has the epithet “Phra Piya Maharat”, the Great Beloved King. He is Rama V, 5th monarch of the reigning Chakri dynasty of Siam (now Thailand). The Chakri dynasty has ruled since 1782. He is the great-grandfather of the current King of Thailand.

A Glimpse of Chulalongkorn’s family life

Chulalongkorn was the 9th son of King Mongkut (Rama IV), but since he was the first to be born to a royal queen, he was recognized as heir to the throne. His mother was Queen Debsirindra and she was Mongkut’s grandniece.

Chulalongkorn was only 15 years old when his father died in 1868. He succeeded the throne under the regency of Somdet Chao Phraya Si Suriyawong. Over the next 5 years, he prepared to assume duties by observing court business and by travels to British Malaya, Dutch East Indies, Burma and India.

King Mongkut & Prince Chulalongkorn. Image credit: Wikipedia

Chulalongkorn had at least five royal consorts who were his half-sisters (Mongkut’s daughters) and about 92 consorts and concubines in total. Nothing to raise your eyebrows about. Royal intermarriage used to be very prevalent in Europe and other parts of the world as well. (For Lese-Majeste reasons, note this is a statement and not a criticism!) Once when he visited Italy, he was asked by the Queen of Italy how many wives he had and his reply to her was, “Had I met you first perhaps I would have had only one.” The King of course knew how many he had because each wife was given a sum of money for personal expenses every year.

In theory, the King could make any of his wives a queen. However, in practice, his queens were the daughters of kings. They were called Somdet Phra Raja Devi. From these he promoted the mother of the Crown Prince who was the eldest son. The Crown Prince’s mother was called Somdet Phra Boroma Rajinee.

Chulalongkorn was a prolific producer of children. He had 77 children. Not as many as his father, King Mongkut, who had at least 82 children! (For Lese-Majeste reasons, note this is a statement and not a criticism!)

Saovabha Phongsri (1864-1919)
Queen Saovabha gave King Chulalongkorn 9 children; two sons would eventually become King of Siam. In 1897, she became the first female Regent of Siam when the King went on a tour of Europe. Image credit: Wikipedia
King Chulalongkorn & Queen Saovabha Phongsri with their children. The Royal family adopted Western-style attire as the monarch began to modernise the country. Image credit: Bangkok Post
King Chulalongkorn with a few of his sons at Eton College, England, in 1907. Image credit: Wikipedia

Why is Chulalongkorn one of Thailand’s most loved and revered Kings?

King Chulalongkorn is considered one of the greatest kings of Thailand. His reign was characterized by extensive social and economic reforms and development.

Chulalongkorn matured into a shrewd politician and managed to fend off very skilfully the threat of European colonialism. Large tracts of Siam were ceded to the Europeans during the period, but Thailand remains the only country in Southeast Asia to have never been colonized.

His abolition of slavery made him the Beloved Great King of all people of Siam. In the beginning of his reign, more than a third of the population were slaves.

Chulalongkorn was the first Siamese King to send the Royal Princes to be educated in Europe. He nurtured a corps of bright Western-educated royal relatives who helped him carry out reforms and to conduct diplomacy.

Dummies’ Quick Guide to What Was Happening In and Around Siam during Chulalongkorn’s Reign

In 1782, Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty, founded a new capital city across the Chao Phraya River in an area known as Rattanakosin Island, now called Bangkok.

From the middle of the 16th century, there were many Burmese-Siamese wars and repeated attacks on Siam. In the 1790s, Burma was defeated and driven out and Siam reached its greatest extent around 1809.

Left: Greatest extent of Rattanakosin’s orbit (c. 1809). Image credit: Wikipedia
Right: Territorial cessation of Siamese protectorates in 19th to 20th centuries. Purple to France. Red to Britain. Image credit: Wikipedia

Two kings, Mongkut and Chulalongkorn, witnessed the expansion of both France and Britain to increase their colonial territories in Southeast Asia and encircle Siam. From the west, the British “conquered” India (mid-18th century), Burma (1826-1885) and Malaya (1874), and from the east, the French “conquered” Vietnam (1859), Cambodia (1863) and Laos (1893).

The French takeover of Cambodia and Vietnam led to keen French interest in the Lao territories. They saw (wrongly) the Mekong as a potentially major trade route with China. They feared Thai interests in the territories would be championed by their imperial rival, Britain (also wrong!). The loss of Laos to France in 1893 was a prime example of gunboat diplomacy practiced by western powers. With French gunboats menacing Bangkok, Siam reluctantly signed the Franco-Siamese treaty, which transferred to the French Lao territories east of the Mekong.

After the Franco-Siamese War of 1893, King Chulalongkorn realised the threat of western colonial powers, and accelerated extensive reforms in the administration, military, economy and society of Siam.

In 1896, British and French concluded the Anglo-French Declaration, which made a border between their colonies, with Siam defined as a buffer state. The negotiations for this started around 1887 and the exceedingly subtle and active role that Siamese diplomats played must be appreciated.

This was quickly followed by the Anglo-Siamese Secret Convention 1897 whereby, in return for a Siamese undertaking not to grant any concession or cede any part of the Malay Peninsula without prior British approval, Britain pledged itself to come to the defence of Siamese rights in that region if they were threatened by any third power.

The Entente Cordiale of 8 April 1904 ended the rivalry between Great Britain and France over Siam. As far as Siam was concerned, what the two Powers did in 1904 was nothing more than a reaffirmation of their previous agreement of 1896.

The Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 defined the modern border between Siam and British Malaya. The treaty stated that Siam transfer all rights of suzerainty over its four Malay dependencies – Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis – to Britain. In return, Britain agreed to relinquish its extraterritorial rights over British subjects in Siam. Britain also agreed to abrogate the 1897 Secret Convention and loan Siam £4 million for the construction of a railway to the Malay Peninsula.

When King Chulalongkorn died in 1910, Siam had achieved the borders of today’s Thailand. In 1910, he was peacefully succeeded by his son Vajiravudh, who reigned as Rama VI.

Was Anna Leonowans real?

My first memory of the King of Siam was from the musical “The King & I”. The source material for this musical was a 1944 novel “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon, a missionary to Thailand. Anna Leonowans herself did write her own commercially successful memoirs, “The English Governess at the Siamese Court” (1870) and “The Romance of the Harem”(1873), to which King Chulalongkorn responded with the statement that she “has supplied by her invention that which is deficient in her memory.”

Anna Leonowans, c. 1862 Image credit: Wikipedia

Many movie and musical versions have been made of Anna’s story – all highly sensationalized and fictionalized. One was even filmed in Malaysia – “Anna & the King” (1999) starring Jodie Foster & Chow Yun Fat. These movies are banned in Thailand and considered to be lèse majesté because of their disrespectful treatment of King Mongkut.

A World Without A Sun

King Chulalongkorn died in 1910 of kidney disease. He was nursed by Queen Saovabha and his favourites. Princess Chongchitra said, ”It was very sad in the Palace after King Chulalongkorn’s death because his successor was unmarried and would not live Inside. So for us Inside, it was like a world without a sun. Life was all monotony. No King’s meals to prepare; nothing to do for him. We, who had talked about what the King did, what he said, what he liked and what he disliked, now had nothing to talk about.”

Royal funeral ceremony 1911. Image credit: Wikipedia


Aldrich, Robert (Ed.). (2007). The Age of Empires. Thames & Hudson.

Chandran Jeshurun. (1970). The Anglo-French Declaration of January 1896 and the Independence of Siam by Chandran Jeshurun.  Amended version of a paper presented to the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University. http://www.siamese-heritage.org/jsspdf/1961/JSS_058_2h_Jeshurun_AngloFrenchDeclarationJanuary1896.pdf

Chan Su-ming. (1965). Kelantan and Trengganu, 1909-1939. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 38(1), 159-198.

Chulalongkorn: king of Siam. Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Chulalongkorn

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Church, Peter (Ed.). (2017). A Short History of South-East Asia. John Wiley & Sons.

Life in the grand palace: the story of Princess Chongchitra. (2012, January 3). Bangkok Post. https://www.bangkokpost.com/learning/advanced/273517/life-in-the-grand-palace

Mendonça, Amanda Francesca. (2018, June 27). The Real Story Of Anna Leonowens That Inspired ‘The King And I’. bookmyshow. https://in.bookmyshow.com/buzz/blog/Events/the-real-story-that-inspired-the-king-and-i

Moore, Wendy Khadijah. (2007). Malaysia: A Pictorial History 1400 – 2004. Editions Didier Millet.

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Royal Thai Embassy, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

B is for Buddhagupta

by Maganjeet Kaur

Image credit: Dennis Ong

Mahanavika1 Buddhagupta was a mariner who lived possibly in the second half of the fifth century CE. The title ‘Mahanavika’ bestowed on him implies he was a skilled navigator while his given name, Buddhagupta2, identifies his religious affiliation. Hailing from Raktamṛttika, his visit to the northern Malay Peninsula has entered into the annals of history though a stone stele he donated to a local shrine.

Replica of the Buddhagupta Stone at the National Museum, Malaysia. Found in 1834, Captain James Low gifted the stone to the Asiatic Society of Bengal in January 1835 and it is currently on display at the Indian Museum in Kolkata. A replica was gifted by the Indian Government to the National Museum in 1961. Incidentally, another replica was gifted in 2018 by the Indian Prime Minister to the Singaporean Prime Minister. Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur

Only the upper part of this stele has survived; it measures 66 centimetres in height, between 29 to 34 centimetres in width and 8 to 9 centimetres in depth. The main feature on this slab is the representation of a stupa with an almost spherical dome, in itself unusual given that they are typically semi-hemispherical.

A balcony can be seen on top of the dome and rising from this is a staff carrying seven parasols of diminishing sizes ending in two semi circles. The dome sits within the upturned petals of a lotus blossom while downward petals of the lotus frame the base. This base is decorated by three pilasters – the pilaster in the centre is shown complete while the two side pilasters are in halves. Alternatively, these could have been pillars. The stone is broken off under the pilasters/pillars – the base could have been resting on a plinth as in the case of the Kampung Sungai Mas inscription.

A drawing of the stupa at the Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum. Note that only the central pilaster/column has been traced. A handbook published by the Indian Museum in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1883 describes the stupa as a Burmese pagoda while Jane Allen finds similarities with a Gupta-period relief on the façade at Ajanta Cave 19 in Maharashtra (India). Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur

Inscriptions run along the sides of the stupa as well as along the sides of the slab. The language is Sanskrit and the script Pallava. There are two parts to this inscription. The inscription that runs along the right side of the stupa is a karma verse that can be translated as:

Through ignorance, karma is accumulated. The cause of birth is karma. Through knowledge karma is not accumulated. Through absence of karma one is not reborn.3

This verse has also been found on inscriptions at two locations in southern Kedah – Kampung Sungai Mas and Bukit Meriam – in both cases coupled with the Buddhist Ye Dharma Hetu credo. The coupling of the karma and the Ye Dharma Hetu verses has not been found in India or Sri Lanka and, hence, could have been a local blending of philosophies.

The second part of the inscription mentions a Mahanavika Buddhagupta from Raktamṛttika giving thanks for a successful voyage. The inscription likely continues onto the broken-off piece of the stele and hence this inscription is not complete. The translation by Kern4 of the surviving inscription is below.

Right-hand side of stele: ‘Of the eminent shipowner Buddhagupta resident at Raktamrttika…’

Left-hand side of stele: ‘In every way, from everything, in every respect, all… who has performed a successful journey’

Raktamṛttika translates to ‘red earth’. This location was initially identified with the Chitu mentioned in Chinese records, which also translates to ‘red earth’; it is believed to have been located in Kelantan. Another possibility is the Raktamṛttika Mahavihara mentioned in the writings of Hiuen-Tsang (Xuanzang), a Chinese traveller to India in the seventh century CE. He wrote that the most learned men in the kingdom congregated at this vihara. Its location has been identified with the archaeological site at Rajbaridanga in West Bengal, India.

First line: right-hand side of stele; second line: left-hand side of stele; third line: right of stupa.
The writing style of this inscription bears close similarity with those found in West Java from the fifth century; the Buddhagupta stele is thus epigraphically dated to this period. Image credit: http://skyknowledge.com/pallava.htm (this inscription is as per JASB, 17(2), plate IV)

And… just for fun… an attempt to transliterate one line of the Pallava script.

The Pallava consonant indicated for ‘gu’ was possibly incorrectly copied on this drawing as it does not transliterate to ‘gu’. A close look at the artefact in the museum shows that it is inscribed as per the image shown above this image. The consonant ‘s’ should be a conjunct with another consonant, which cannot be made out as the inscription has broken off. Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur (base image taken from JASB, 4, plate III)

The stele was discovered in 1834 by Captain James Low while he was excavating some ruins at a sandy site in Seberang Perai (at its border with Kedah). Low did not leave behind any further details of the location but later researchers speculate it to be Guar Kepah, a sandy site at Penaga on the southern bank of Muda River.

Guar Kepah has other calls to fame. At one time coastal, it lies on an old beach ridge and it was previously made up of shell middens, i.e. mounds made up mainly from remains of edible molluscs and other kitchen waste. The shell midden at Guar Kepah was recorded in 1860 by G.W. Earl as being six metres high; by 1936, this had been reduced to less than two metres due to quarrying activities for lime. Shell middens signal the presence of prehistoric settlements and the Guar Kepah site was in occupation during the Hoabinhian and the Neolithic. Excavations during the colonial period had unearthed 41 skeletons and the discovery in 2017 of ‘Penang Woman’, a 5,710 year-old skeleton, puts the focus back on Guar Kepah.

With such a long history, it is thrilling to think that the shell mounds may have back dropped a stupa of the design shown on the stele. Guar Kepah is not done revealing its secrets and we can only hope that future discoveries will illuminate the Buddhagupta period, shedding light on the community that resided in the area at the time.

Buddhagupta Stone’s find-spot is speculated to be Guar Kepah, which has a history stretching to the Hoabinhian. This image shows Professor Mokhtar Saidin, director of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Global Archaeological Research (CGAR), examining the ‘Penang Woman’ skeleton found at Guar Kepah. Image credit:

1 ‘Navika’ is a Sanskrit word translated initially as ‘sea-captain’. However, present-day scholarship leans towards ‘navigator’ as the more accurate meaning. ‘Mahanavika’ thus translates to ‘Great Navigator’.

2 Names identifying religious affiliation were common. As an example, among the 193 Indic inscriptions discovered at Hoc Cave on Socotra Island in Yemen, many were personal names indicating religious affiliation with Vishnu, Siva, Kartikeya or Surya. Incidentally, Budhagupta was also the name of an emperor of the Gupta Dynasty, reigning between c. 476 and 495 CE. The navigator who arrived on the shores of Kedah may have been named after him.

3Jacq-Hergoualc’h (2002, 216)

4Kern (1907, 96)


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Anderson, John. (1883). Catalogue and hand-book of the archaeological collections in the Indian Museum. The Order of the Trustees, Calcutta. https://www.indianculture.gov.in/rarebooks/catalogue-and-hand-book-archaeological-collections-indian-museum

Bahadur Chand Chhabra. (1965). Expansion of Indo-Aryan culture during Pallava Rule. Munshi Ram Manohar Lal.

Bulbeck, David F. (2005). The Guar Kepah Human Remains. In Zuraina Majid (Ed.), The Perak Man and other Prehistoric Skeletons of Malaysia (pp. 383-423). Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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Kern, H. (1907). Concerning some old Sanskrit Inscriptions in the Malay Peninsula. Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 49, 95-101.

A is for Abdul Rahman Limbong

by Maganjeet Kaur

Image credit: Dennis Ong

Muzium Negara has on display a few personal items that belonged to Haji Abdul Rahman bin Abdul Hamid, a religious scholar and freedom fighter from Kuala Terengganu. Born in 1868, Abdul Rahman was a successful entrepreneur with business dealings as far as Menara (today Narathiwat) in southern Thailand. His frequent visits to Limbong in Kemaman to trade as well as to preach earned him the moniker ‘Limbong’, which was tacked to the end of his given name. Some simply called him ‘Tok Limbong’. In spite of his wealth, he was down to earth, generous and ready to help; this made him well known especially along the middle part of the Terengganu River. He was very versatile; apart from trade, he had agricultural concerns, practised silat and was a religious teacher.

For day to day use, Haji Abdul Rahman wore either Malay attire or jubah. His footwear was the terompah (wooden clogs) and he wore a terendah (headgear). The headgear displayed at Muzium Negara is an elaborate embroidered piece, decorated with beads.

History remembers him for the role he played in protesting against the land and forest management laws introduced by the British. Forest produce, such as timber, attap, rattan and eaglewood, was an important source of revenue for the state. Taxation on these products had been in place even before British intervention – Malay district chiefs, through royal grants, exercised monopoly over their purchase. However, the rates were flexible and, importantly, transactions were mainly through barter. The British introduced a much higher tax rate for jungle products and included many additional items into the taxable list. Their tax collection process was also more efficient as they completely replaced the barter system with cash. In addition, permits were required before trees could be felled preparatory to dry-rice cultivation. All these measures put a huge burden on the peasantry.

This artefact is a container used by Haji Abdul Rahman to keep his watikah, letters of instruction from the Sultan.

In 1921, in an effort to end shifting cultivation, the government introduced a license to cultivate land on a temporary basis, with a hefty fine for non-compliance. The following year, a group of farmers disregarded the law and worked the land in Beladau without permit, supported by Haji Abdul Rahman. When 43 of these farmers were served with warrants for their rebellion, Haji Abdul Rahman applied for a special attorney’s license to defend them during their trial. However, too many supporters turned up in court, some bearing weapons, and Haji Abdul Rahman’s refusal to cooperate with the authorities saw him lose his special license. His license as a religious teacher and permit to hold circumcisions were also revoked. He was viewed with concern as his ability to garner support and rile up a crowd pegged him as a powerful and dangerous leader.

This belt buckle was used by Haji Abdul Rahman as a talisman. An Arabic phrase is surrounded by numerals (in Arabic) and set with green stones along the edges.

Discontent over the land duties and royalty over jungle produce continued to mount. The Malay chiefs were also unhappy losing their customary claims over land. On 20 May 1928, with a conviction that the land belonged to God and that the State had no right over it, around 2,000 people marched to Kuala Berang. The District Officer and the police, made up of a sergeant and four men, made a prudent retreat and summoned help. A team of 25 policemen later caught up with the dissidents in Kuala Telemong. Here, after failing to disperse the crowd in spite of repeated warnings, the police fired one volley, killing eleven men including one of the key leaders of the rebellion, i.e. Lebai Deraman, better known as To’ Janggut  (not be to confused with the Kelantanese rebel leader). Further reinforcements arrived the next day from the Federated Malay States and the dissidents finally dispersed.

Twelve other ringleaders were arrested and given long prison sentences coupled with hard labour. Haji Abdul Rahman, though he did not take part in the actual disturbance, was identified as the leader behind the incident and he was exiled to Mecca.

A belt used by Haji Abdul Rahman is also displayed at the museum.


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