Melaka and George Town: Trade Hegemons of Colonial-era Southeast Asia

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Since there is not much noise being made about George Town while unanimous praises are given to Melaka (Malacca), I was surprised to find out that the former component-city would be the highlight of Malaysia’s first UNESCO cultural world heritage site that was inscribed in 2008. The character of George Town is definitely more presentable.


Melaka has a rich cultural and trading history, and the role it once played in regional commerce cannot be underestimated. Its current condition, however, does not live up to its glorious past anymore. Without knowing its history, the city simply looks like any other Chinese-Malay trading town.

The red Dutch Square, the most recognizable exponent of Melaka.

Its history dates back to the well-networked and influential Malaccan sultanate, and later gained greater worldwide interest when it was occupied by the Portuguese and the Dutch successively. Though Melaka was never made as a capital of the Dutch East Indies (VOC), it served as the most important Dutch-controlled port-town between India and Batavia (present day Jakarta), monopolizing the trade movements over the narrow Straits of Malacca. Melaka was such a strong city then that it even rivaled the might and wealth of Ayutthaya in Thailand, yet it fell with the rise of the British control over the peninsula.

Porta da Santiago, or A' Famosa, is the only remaining section of the old walls that once protected Melaka.

This ancient city’s important monuments  can be easily explored in a day, on foot. I started off in the residential/commercial district of the core zone, just across the bridge over the Melaka River. From how I recall, nothing really stood out in that area, and its main thoroughfare Jonker Street (popularly pronounced nowadays as /djongker/ despite its original Dutch pronunciation /Yongker/) was a bit sober and empty during my visit as it was post-election time; most shops were closed in protest against the recent results. The spirit of Jonker Street, nevertheless, went to life when I visited some of the shop houses, learning some few things from store-keepers about the items that they sell. Only then can one feel that he is truly in a multi-cultural trading town.

Shop houses along Jonker Street in Melaka

The Street of Harmony, situated parallel to Jonker Street,  is nice, but its religious monuments are not as spectacular compared to those of George Town. The urban planning concept of putting houses of worships along one lane is one of the unique features of the two historic cities.

The oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy (Cheng Hoon Teng Temple)

The Dutch Square, also called Red Square, is small but very recognizable. While it is indeed picturesque, there is not much that the plaza has to offer other than four monuments: the Dutch Stadthuys  and Christ Church, Tan Beng Swee Clock Tower, and the British Queen Victoria Fountain. The red color of the city is often seen as impressive, but I’m not quite sure if I share the same assessment. After all, the old historic Dutch buildings were originally painted white. 

The better exponent of Melaka where one can feel its colonial past more would be the A’ Famosa – St. Paul’s Hill area. Inside St. Paul’s ruins, there are numerous 16th to 17th century Dutch gravestones on display. This site was also the first resting place of the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier before it was transferred to Goa in India. It is said that during the canonization of the saint, the Vatican asked for his right hand as a relic for its safekeeping. Interestingly, the statue of St. Francis Xavier in front of the ruins is missing its right hand! Apparently, a branch of the tree fell over and broke it.

Dutch gravestones inside the ruins of St. Paul church.

The St. Paul ruins also offers a commanding view of the city and the straits. Other interesting monuments in Melaka would be the watermill along the river, just beside the ruins of the old Portuguese and Dutch ramparts, and the small windmill near the Dutch Square.

The Malacca Sultan Watermill along the Melaka River.


George Town, on the other hand, was a real surprise. Historically, this British-era city rose to prominence with the decline and demise of Melaka. Without expecting much, I originally planned to stay there just for a night. But, seeing how lovely the place was, I ended up staying for three days. I enjoyed going around the city on a bike. Aside from surveying the main sites, there are other things to do here like checking out the street arts (which became a big craze after a Lithuanian artist did some wonderful works in the city), as well as treating oneself with the famous Penang dishes like Penang laksa and char kway cheow.

Georgian architecture-inspired George Town City Hall.

There are more monuments in George Town, and they are more grand, colorful, and definitely better maintained than those in Melaka. Key British legacies include the impressive Georgian-inspired City and Town Halls, the bit worn-out and empty Fort Cornwallis, the two mid-sized churches, and the colonial-era buildings along Lebuh Pantai, the old business lane of the city. By seeing some old photos of George Town, I was surprised to learn that there were more British colonial buildings that stood there before, creating a real “Little Europe” atmosphere during its heyday.

mix-architecture houses in George Town. Most are shop houses.

George Town was intended to be the successor to Melaka’s trade hegemony, as well as the crowning glory of the British empire’s might and supremacy in Southeast Asia. In comparison to Melaka, the historic centre of George Town is larger and that there are more shop houses around.

Fort Cornwallis, a brick fortification built upon the site where Sir Francis Light first landed in Penang.

Furthermore, I enjoyed the city a lot as local colours are much vibrant there. Its Little India, for example, is one of the better Indian quarters I’ve seen so far in the region; Muslim communities (Southern Indians and Malays alike) are largely concentrated around George Town’s three mosques; and the Chinese clan temples are richly decorated. In experiencing the straits Chinese-Malay culture, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion in George Town appears to be better than the Baba Nyonya Museum in Melaka. Also, George Town’s Teochew Temple and Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion have been conferred by UNESCO Asia-Pacific with the Best in Heritage Conservation Awards as well.

Masjid Kapitan Kelling along the Street of Harmony in George Town

Melaka is one reminder of Asia’s close contact with the Portuguese and the Dutch; George Town, with the British. Key to a better appreciation of these sites is to see each city holistically and to understand the diversity and cultural uniqueness that each has to offer.

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As with any South and Southeast Asian trading town such as Vigan, Hoi An, Macao and Galle, the biggest threats at present to the two cities are urban developmental pressures. Buffer zones are obviously weak in some areas. The waterfront face-lifting of the Melaka River and the intrusive development plan in the historic enclave of George Town have been frowned upon by the World Monuments Fund and other international organizations.

Street art in George Town - this is the biggest! Here's a photo of my newly found friends doing some rounds around the city at 2AM (after a night of booze!) :p


PS. Is it possible to have Singapore inscribed, too? Trade control in the Straits of Malacca started in Melaka, then transferred to George Town, and eventually ended in Singapore. It would be nice to see Singapore alongside the two inscribed sites in representing the complete trading history along the straits. The difficulty with Singapore, however, is that much of its old district landscape has already been altered, modernized and compromised.

** Visited George Town and Malacca in May 2013

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A Pilgrim’s Progress: Our Lady of Caysasay

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A rare opportunity to have a photo taken of an all-women devotees presented itself. The photo below was taken from the back of the Nuestra Señora de Caysasay, a Marian image canonically crowned by virtue of a Holy See approval in 1954.

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Though I cannot come up with anything conclusive as to what the ongoing activity might have been then, the fact that the service was only attended by women made me feel alienated, and a bit awkward about my presence inside the shrine when things were unfolding. If any, however, despite my unconventional stance on religion, one cannot deny the experience and fulfillment in capturing religion in action as a material culture here.

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Pilgrims to the Shrine of Our Lady of Caysasay in Taal, Batangas may receive the plenary indulgence that is granted to those who visit the ancient church of Sta. Maria Maggiore in Rome.

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The old town of Taal is one of the only four heritage towns in the Philippines — together with Vigan in Ilocos Sur, Pila in Laguna, and Silay in Negros Occidental — designated as National Historic Landmarks by the National Historical Institute of the Philippines.

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A Maranao Woman in Tugaya

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Largely unheard of even among fellow Filipinos, the Maranao of Tugaya in Lanao del Sur are some of the most artistic groups in the country. The humble town beside the ancient Lake Lanao (one of the oldest known lakes in the world) is nearly purely composed of artisans in various pursuits.

The lady in this photo was inlaying shells to a newly constructed wooden chest. This, together with weaving local textiles called ina-ol, is one of the few things that women are permitted to do for work in this still gendered community.

Their unique artistic concept of okir manifests in their wood works, metal crafts, textiles, paintings, and even house decorations. The okir happens to be the strongest component in its nomination to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List. Their epic, the Darangen, is already proclaimed in 2005 as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. 

As it was in the holy months of the Ramadan — in fact a few days before Eid’l Fitr — when I did this site visit for a project, she was on fast since sunrise and made some short breaks from work only at prayer time until the fasting ends at dusk. Such display of obedience and faith never fails to inspire me.

Tri Hita Karana: A Study in Photos

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The cultural landscape of Bali in Indonesia is largely shaped by its locals’ traditional belief systems. Tri Hita Karana — roughly translated into English as “the three causes of prosperity” — is a philosophy that governs and guides the daily lives and attitudes of the Balinese. This unique concept puts premium to the universal respect of and observance to the three domains of the world: the divine (gods), the universe (nature), and the domain of the people (human beings). This doctrine is said to be best illustrated during many special ceremonies, the most common of which would be acts of worship.

In here, I am sharing what I believe is the easiest demonstration and most obvious material cultural manifestation of the practice of Tri Hita Karana:

The realm of the divine. Worships and offerings made inside public temples (major temples such as the sea temples, water temples, the directional temples, and village temples) are dedicated to the gods who created life, and nature and all of its gifts.

Balinese Hindu attending a ceremony in the monastery of Gunung Kawi in the subak landscape of the Pakerisan watershed.

Balinese Hindu villagers attending a ceremony in the monastery of Candi Gunung Kawi in the subak landscape of the Pakerisan watershed.

Locals and some converts  are making their pilgrimage in Tirta Empul, the source of holy water that flows out to the waterways and irrigation systems in Tampak Siring area.

Locals and some converts are making their pilgrimage in the sacred Pura Tirta Empul, the source of holy water that flows out to the waterways and irrigation systems in Tampaksiring.

The realm of universe. Offerings made outdoors (streets, parks, rice fields and the like) are exponents of worships to nature, the domain that sustains and supports the needs and activities of humans.

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Bantens, the traditional offerings in Bali, scattered on the walkways in Ubud. This one was seen on the way to Sari Organik, a restaurant in the middle of the rice paddies in Central Bali.

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These offerings were made in an irrigation canal of one of the subak systems in Gianyar, a regency northeast of Ubud.

The realm of human beings. Worships and offerings made inside clan temples, home temples and shrines, or even inside cars and houses are dedicated to the people who have the moral duties to establish traditional communities,  erect temples in which to worship and hold ceremonies such as daily offerings, and preserve nature and all its contents.

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A Balinese Hindu casually making an evening offering before a family temple inside his home compound in Kuta.

Tri Hita Karana is also the single most important backbone of Bali’s inclusion to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Several keys sites in the island were collectively inscribed  in 2012 as the “Cultural Landscape of Bali Province: the Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philososphy”.

Acknowledgement. My appreciation to Dewa Gugun for taking the time in explaining to me the doctrine of Tri Hita Karana while I was trying to understand the equally difficult concept of subak.

Prambanan Temple Compounds: In Humble Defense to Hinduism

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Prambanan temple compounds came in as one of the first world heritage sites of Indonesia in 1991. This site was inscribed under two criteria: as a masterpiece of human creative genius, and as an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble that represents a significant stage in human history (i.e., spread of Hinduism in the East). It happens to be the biggest and most extensive Hindu religious site in the predominantly Islamic country.

The first glimpse of Prambanan. I enjoyed the fact that it has a wide open yard.

The first glimpse of Prambanan. I enjoyed the fact that it has a wide open yard.

How is Prambanan assessed?

On one hand, Prambanan may look quite similar to Angkor Wat. True enough, they are both intended as Hindu temples, and that both follow the pointed South Indian Dravidian styles. In closer inspection, however, Prambanan reveals itself as a totally different architectural masterpiece that is unique in their own ways. In fact, Prambanan was built over 300 years earlier (9th century vs. 12th century).  On the other hand, Prambanan still faces yet another challenge as it is often overshadowed nowadays by the more famous Borobudur given their close proximity to each other. Nevertheless, in ancient times, the former might have looked far more impressive in terms of lay-out, scale of construction, and even its setting as the construction of Prambanan is to be seen as a response of the Hindu Sanjaya Dynasty to the Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty‘s Borobudur.

the obligatory SELFIE! :D Thanks to Nils Mosbach for this photo.

Thanks to Nils Mosbach for my representative photo of this site.

Often really crowded throughout the day, I visited Prambanan late in the afternoon instead so as to have better chance in appreciating more the place  (it turned out later on to be an uncalculated risk as it rained some few minutes after!). One thing that I noticed immediately upon entering the gate is its vast, well-manicured yard. Not far from there, and I started seeing the magnitude of the damages this site had to endure: endless — and now meaningless — piles of rubble scattered everywhere.

View of the smaller temples housing the vessels of the Trimurti. Shot taken just before it started raining.

View of the smaller temples housing the vessels of the Trimurti. Shot taken just before it started raining.

The Prambanan temple complex — or what remains of it — is pretty small and easy explore. It has to be understood that temples currently standing in the compound hardly make up 15% of what used to be there. Originally, more than 240 temples comprise the compound, yet only a handful remains today. Below is a photo showing the model of the compound’s original composition – thanks to Wiki!. Throughout many centuries, earthquakes (the last strong one being the May 2006 shake) and several bouts of volcanic eruptions of the Merapi volcano further added damages to the already abandoned and neglected royal religious site since the early 10th century – yes, it was relatively short lived as an active place of worship.

A model of the Prambanan Temple Compounds (photo courtesy: Wikipedia)

A model of the Prambanan Temple Compounds (photo courtesy: Wikipedia)

Its central main towers are almost total reconstructions via anastylosis, and Indonesia is proud that it was all her efforts (together with the Brits!) to pull this up without any help coming from UNESCO. Nevertheless, strict measures are still being observed such as prohibiting public access to the temples’ interiors. The management body no longer plans to reconstruct all of the temples – the tons of rubble are there to act as a reminder of the site’s painful history in confronting the destructive forces of nature. Moreover, some stones are already missing as locals used them in building their houses nearby, rendering massive rehabilitation a definite impossibility.

Ruins of the peripheral temples. There were about 220 of these minor shrines before.

Ruins of the peripheral temples. There were about 220 of these minor shrines before.

It being a Trimurti site, Prambanan is dedicated to the highest three Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The commanding 47-metre high Shiva temple (or Loro Jonggrang), the largest in the area, lies at the center. Here, a local myth is also highly intertwined with Prambanan: Loro Jonggrang is a legendary Javanese princess, and it is believed that she is depicted in a statue inside the Shiva temple; hence, the Shiva temple is often referred to by locals as Loro Jonggrang temple as well. This legend is worth knowing when visiting this temple.

The carvings and reliefs in the temples are quite different from those that I have seen in Angkor, though both depict Hindu characters,icons, and stories. I can say that the images and artworks there are more “pure” in the Hindu sense of the word; in contrast, Angkorian art is made in the image of the Khmers.

Carvings depicting Hindu celestial nymphs in the exteriors of Loro Jonggrang, the central temple in Prambanan.

Carvings depicting Hindu celestial nymphs in the exteriors of Loro Jonggrang, the central temple in Prambanan.

Prambanan never failed to enchant me. Despite only having a little less than an hour for this site (thanks to the rain!), it definitely left a lasting impression on me: the temple compound is really simple — and it may not even boast much given the state it is in right now — but it never fails to assert its right as a ‘classic’ monument the world will forever be proud of.

Last man out. Guards patiently waited for us before they called it a day. I think they understood I was on a mission.

Last man out. Guards patiently waited for us before they called it a day. I think they understood I was on a mission.

On a separate day, I also went to  the nearby ruins of the 8th-century Ratu Boko palace. Actually, it happens to be on the tentative list of Indonesia for a possible inclusion to the WHS list, too! Ratu Boko palace — oh, I’ll be writing a separate note for this site as it deserves one of its own — is nestled in the Boko Hills, some 3km from Prambanan temple compounds. Given its altitude of 196 metres, the site offers a commanding view of the Prambanan plains and townscape with the Merapi as the background. In the evening, the beautifully glittering Prambanan temple dominates the skyline, subtly suggesting that it is there to stay and that it will never be forgotten again.

Prambanan fields as seen from Ratu Boko Palace ruins. Prambanan temple compounds shine like gold, dominating the view.

Prambanan fields as seen from Ratu Boko Palace ruins. Prambanan temple compounds shine like gold, dominating the view.

PS. Oh, lastly, one thing that can really surprise a bit is how Indonesians usually ask to take photos of/with foreigners, and I was not an exception even in Borobudur. As a traveler, this is but a part of the local charm of the place.

Out of the blue: some locals would poke and ask to have a photo taken with any foreigner. Case in point, Nils! lol

Out of the blue: some locals would poke and ask to have a photo taken with any foreigner. Case in point, Nils! lol