Malacca – a treasure trove of history

Malacca – a treasure trove of history

thomas April 15, 2011

(First appeared in The Week online edition, April 2011)

For centuries, it was a flourishing port state bridging East and West. Founded by an Indian King in the early 15th century, soon under the Portuguese who were driven out in 1641 by the Dutch, followed by British rule till the middle of the 20th century…

What sounds like the history of one of India’s princely states is actually that of Malacca, the historic port town in Malaysia. Relics and symbols of successive conquerors and rulers lie in layers of history, waiting to be peeled and discovered in this World Heritage city. Those who dare to think beyond the Kuala Lampur – Genting Highlands routine and make the 150 km trip from Kuala Lampur are rewarded with a fascinating travel in time, to what was the centre point of Malay in its heydays.

A convenient starting point is Christ Church, built in 1753, standing adjacent to Stadthuys, once the town hall, now a museum. On a square kilometre of hill in the vicinity of these two brick red structures lie many Heritage sites, some of them in use as museums. Though Holiday Inn and Tesco have become recent neighbours, the heritage structures are maintained to retain their original feel.

The rise and the fall

A fresco near the Malacca river shows Paduka Sri Maharaja Parameswara, the fleeing Hindu King of Java, sitting under a Pokok Melaca tree observing a mouse deer outwitting hunting dogs. Inspired by the sight, he is believed to have founded Malacca in 1402. Parameswara married the Muslim Princess of Pasai, later called himself Iskandar Shah and paved the way for Islam to become the state religion. Malacca had natural advantages the monsoon wind patterns and was described by sailors as “the place where one monsoon wind ends, another begins.” It was geographically in the centre of the trade map to become the port of call for Arabs and other traders. The Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511, in their second attempt, and army chief Alphonso de Albuquerque started construction of fortress A’Famosa, with 3- metre-wide walls, employing slave labour. With population growth, new settlements spilt beyond the fortress of A’Famosa. The Dutch captured Malacca in 1641 and rebuilt the fortress. Early 19th century, the British got it on a platter from the Dutch who didn’t want it falling into Napoleon’s hands and offered a barter of colonies – British Bencoolen in Sumatra for Malacca. The British decided to destroy it in 1806. By the time Sir Stamford Raffles, later founder of Singapore intervened, only Porta De Santiago, one of the four gates remained, of a historical structure straddling five centuries – and witness not just to battles but also the hustle and bustle of the trading port, a Babylon of an estimated 80 dialects at one time.

Atop the hill is the five-century old St Paul’s Church, now in ruins but rich in 16th century tombstones. Built by the Portuguese as a small chapel in 1521, it was renamed High Church by the Dutch who used it for over a century as the main parish church. A statue of Spanish-born Jesuit missionary St Francis Xavier celebrates his regular visits. His body was interred here for nine months before it was exhumed and taken to Goa. The Dutch then built a new church near the Malacca river as a replacement. Then the British re-consecrated and renamed it Christ Church. Later, it had an inglorious existence as a store for gunpowder.

Across the Malacca river is Heeren Street, meaning millionaires’ street – the most prestigious address between the 16th and 18th centuries. The wealthy lived there in long, narrow houses (narrow because houses were taxed in proportion to frontage.) Tinted glasses attracted additional taxes. Hence these buildings sport plain glasses as also the Dutch architectural feature of ventilation holes. Only horse buggies with bags to collect horse dung were allowed on the aristocratic Heeren Street. Offering a sample of the Baba heritage and Nyonya food is a Chinese restaurant, “Perankan” on the board standing for Straits- born Chinese. The Babas are descendants of those Chinese settlers who married non-Muslim natives since Chinese women were prohibited from leaving China until the 19th century.

The servant class occupied Jonker Street. Even today, it is marked by shop houses and mainly Chinese temples. Jonker Street is the place to pick up nick knacks and curios. The shops are closed over the weekend for Jonker Walk – then the street becomes a pedestrian mall with cart food, artefacts and Chinese fortune tellers.

There is nothing Dutch left about the rice-centred food at the Dutch Harbour Cafe which has a very ordinary entrance but opens and spreads along the river, offering a great setting under a narrow canopy. A stone’s throw away is Selvam restaurant managed by women of the Susai family, serving inexpensive Indian food. Malacca’s culinary variety is a reflection of the many cultures that have overlapped and merged. The Nyonya food is a marriage of Chinese cooking with Muslim tradition. Porridge, rice and noodles form the base of Malay food, cooked mostly in palm oil, with sea food an unsuspected ingredient in many dishes. Beware of the blood red paste on the table. It is Sambal, a red chilli-and-garlic paste, deadlier than any Indian fish curry. Malaysia also has a rich variety of tropical fruits. My three star hotel served six varieties of jam and eight types of pickles. Malacca is safe, like most of Malaysia, and its hotels less expensive than comparable ones in India’s metros.

Tourist’s travails

However, tourists who come to Malacca in search of the treasure troves of history do not have it very easy, especially off the central area. The maps are an approximation, and not to scale. The Panorama hop-on-hop-off buses do not run to any known or predictable schedule. The tourist information office does not open on time and offers little beyond the brochures. Past 3 PM, there was a board hanging, saying: “Sorry, closed for lunch till 2.45”. Meanwhile, tourism promotion posters are doing hard sell. One of the events is a two-hour trip for MYR 10. “See monkey plucks (sic) coconut ”, it screams. But, on the ground, no shopkeeper or policeman along what turned out to be a 4 km plus wandering, in search of Kampung Chetty, knew its location. The irony is that Kampung Chetty is listed among the two dozen celebrated heritage sites of Malacca. Then it becomes a penance tour if one can find value in the hardship or one treats it as a treasure hunt and smiles at the humour of generating tourism revenue by sending tourists on a wild goose chase. The site turned out to be a Tamilian settlement with four temples cheek-a-bowl. Equally disappointing was Kampung Portugis, the old Portuguese settlement. It is a fair distance away from the main attractions — and quite a walk from the main road. I waited till 4 PM before giving up on the in-charge with the key to return after his siesta!

Where officialdom fails, ordinary people chip in. People like old man Ali, pedalling a rickshaw since 1962, whom I ran into many times and each time he had a smile – and time to explain things, with no returns expected. Or Samsudin, ‘pilot’ of a Malacca river cruise boat, who has many stories to tell, about a mystery man who started the Trancera Street, about Flora Dilema, the Portuguese ship that sank no one knows where, with the treasures of Malaya, including Bonga mass, the Golden tree given by Perak Sultan to a Siamese King for protection. Samsudin also recounts the three-year Japanese reign and how they used to herd together Prisoners of War to Kampungjawa Bridge, behead them and throw the bodies down the river. Samsudin laces his many stories with, ”this river has a lot of history”. The stories came alive as this one-time seafarer launches into them, seated between the Maritime Museum and the wooden-floored wharf patted by the waves of Malacca river, as it has done for centuries. The crane built by the Dutch and later renovated by the British, has long fallen silent, but wait a minute, listen again…now do you hear the clang of its chains grinding the wheel?

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