After having spent a couple of days indoors, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows inspired me to go outside and explore with just one word – onism – n. the awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience. This awareness truly is an obscure sorrow, but it doesn’t hurt to experience as much as you can anyway, right?
So it was a beautiful sunny Thursday in the tropics, and I decided not to waste it. Kuala Lumpur‘s top recommendations on TripAdvisor directed me to Rumah Penghulu, an old kampung house surrounded by the bustle of the central business district. The reviews were good and the timing was perfect. We’d be able to catch the 3 PM guided tour that day!
Blue skies, cumulus clouds, and the Kuala Lumpur skyline backdropped the 90-year-old colonial bungalow that now houses Badan Warisan Malaysia‘s (a.k.a. the Heritage of Malaysia Trust) office and Heritage Centre; and there we were, the snap-happy “tourists” wowing at it all. We headed for the shade, where we were made welcome and presented with a short documentary on Rumah Penghulu’s restoration. Despite the video being extremely dated (it must have been filmed in the 90s), it was interesting and informative. I am now in the know of the complex and time-consuming process of relocating and restoring Rumah Penghulu and was much more appreciative and impressed during the tour.
Before we toured one of the oldest surviving traditional Malay houses and a part of Malaysian history, we were provided with a woven hand fan and mosquito repellent. I didn’t hold back as I spritz-spritz-spritzed myself with the stuff. Suck on that, you filthy mosquitoes! A minimum donation of MYR10 per person is obligatory at that point, and I definitely do think it’s worth it, but is it still considered a donation if it’s obligatory? Just wondering.
Our tour guide spoke English spectacularly and answered all of our questions without hesitation. The tour was somewhat interactive, as she asked us what we thought certain artefacts were used for and other quizzical questions, and would then furnish us with fact if we were stumped. As she set the scene, I could picture the activity of day to day life in and around the house.
What once was a home for a village chief in Kedah, now spends its days as a charming preservation of culture and tradition. Built in phases between the 1910s and 1930s, the solid wood house was found in a miserable state. Slowly rotting and hidden under overgrown jungle plants, Badan Warisan Malaysia disassembled, relocated, and restored it with the help of Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM). It is now surrounded by a garden of lush tropical plants; the different shades of green compliment the dark wood panels of Rumah Penghulu.
Though by no means luxurious, this humble stilted home subtly boasts the wealth of its family, interestingly, via the intricacy of its woodcarvings. Floral and symmetrical patterns adorn the sides of the house. Imagery of animals are not used in Islam, as they practice aniconism – n.the practice of or belief in the avoiding or shunning of images of divine beings, prophets or other respected religious figures, or in different manifestations, any human beings or living creatures. If you’re interested, here‘s a more in-depth document of Malay woodcarvings and its composition.
There are three sections to the house; the Rumah Ibu (Mother’s House), the Dapur/Ruang Makan (Kitchen/Dining Area), and the Balai (Main Hall). We ducked through the main entrance to enter the Balai, which was used as a courthouse to resolve domestic disputes and the like. The passing of judgment would take place in the hall while the accused would watch and wait in the village chief’s office, a small room with bars on the windows to double up as a temporary jail.
From there, we were led up a short flight of stairs to the Rumah Ibu, the highest elevated of the sections, representing the importance of the structure. Designed for ventilation, the house is naturally airy and kept the heat at bay for us. Our guide pointed out the first and main pillar that was erected, known as a tiang seri (shining pillar) or tiang ibu (mother pillar), under which they had found a coin dated 1916, the same year construction had started. This main pillar is said to be where the spirit of the house dwells, and when it was relocated in 1996, a coin from that year was placed alongside the original 1916 coin.
A custom of Hindu origin, the bunga halang charm of three cloths (white, red and black in colour) can be seen on top of the tiang seri warding off bad luck. Ilmu Tajul, a set of geomantic rites and rules for constructing buildings in Malay culture, was most likely practiced in the designing and building of Rumah Penghulu.
Gaudy-themed bedrooms illustrate how a newly weds’ room and a master bedroom would look like. A ladder in the master bedroom leads to a concealed entrance to an attic, which is believed to have been used for storage and hiding. There are no doors to each room, instead, a curtain is used for privacy.
The Dapur/Ruang Makan was built a few steps lower than the Rumah Ibu, but higher than that of the Balai. This is where the women of the family would spend the majority of their time. Long narrow tables line the corridor leading to the dining area and kitchen, on top of which are neatly arranged artefacts of baskets, tools, and thigh tiles. Thigh tiles are curved clay tiles shaped on the leg of a tile-maker; you could say the tiles are…legmade!
A private entrance found along this corridor allowed the women of the family to enter and leave the house unseen. This entryway was also used by the village chief between his home and the private entrance to his office. Further in, a mat, plates, and a hanging cradle depict what the dining area would have looked like. Another corner displays some typical local games and toys children used to play with in the olden days. A nostalgic blast from the past.
This is how the private entrance looks from outside.
The first thing I noticed when we walked into the kitchen was how beautiful the afternoon light spotlit a coconut scraper seat. Typical cooking utensils hang from the kitchen walls, a kitchen cabinet stands with its legs in small bowls filled with water to prevent ants from crawling up, and spices are arranged in front of the stove to give us an idea of the kind of smells that have emanated from this kitchen in its prime. Rocks are placed around the stove, what would have been a coal fire, to prevent it from spreading. This is where our guided tour ended.
We were permitted to explore the place by ourselves, which gave us time to snap away, inspect fishing nets hanging from beams, and even an intricately hand-carved boat once used for religious ceremonies in Kelantan waiting to be restored. The bow depicts a fantastical looking bird creature, and in this case, is a loophole in the rules of aniconism because it’s mythological. Around our feet, holes in the sand indicated the presence of antlions and their patient wait for unsuspecting insect victims to fall to their death.
A member of staff invited us back into the Heritage Centre for some iced water and to cool down. We met Jee, Badan Warisan’s Administrator, who encouraged us to look around the gift shop and was sweet enough to gift us with some postcards we had our eyes on. Thanks to Rumah Penghulu, I now understand a sociocultural aspect of Malay life a little better. The only unfortunate circumstance of our guided tour was that it was accompanied by the tireless noise of construction from next door.
Watercolour paintings of Petaling Street by K. Russell (Postcard Set)
Sepia photographs of Rumah Penghulu (Postcard Set – does not include kitten)
Explored: April 2015
Guided Tour Times: Monday – Saturday / 11:00 AM & 3:00 PM Only (Closed on Sundays & Public Holidays)
Badan Warisan Malaysia
2 Jalan Stonor
50450 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: +603-2144 9273
Fax: +603-2145 7884