Pick Wai and I were down in Malacca one weekend to see a comedy show. It was 2018, and Funniest Man in the World Harith Iskandar was touring all around the country on his #kitaOK comedy tour. I can’t remember why we didn’t go to his KL show, but Malacca was still close enough for a quick road trip down.
Harith didn’t disappoint. And maybe I was a bit more dense than usual, but it was not until the end of the show that we realised that his comedy tour was not just a comedy tour.
You see, we were on the run-up to what turned out to be Malaysia’s epic 2018 General Elections, after which national politics changed forever. Racial politics reached an all-time high, stoked by a desperate government fearing a loss of power not seen since the founding of the country.
What was a moderate to do?
Well, one comedian apparently decided to use his gift to remind his countrymen that we still have things that unite us, things of far more value than political affiliation, whatever the outcome of the elections might turn out to be.
Harmony Street @ Jalan Tukang Emas
Funnily enough, given the show we had just enjoyed the previous evening, we found ourselves the following day in Harmony Street!
Harmony Street lies within Malacca’s UNESCO Heritage City zone. Its actual name is Jalan Tukang Emas, which translates to ‘Goldsmith Street’. It attained its moniker ‘Harmony’ street, due to the neighbourly co-presence of multiple places of worship from different faiths.
Since we had both been to Malacca before, and had seen the UNESCO Heritage attractions, we decided to give the remainder of our time in Malacca towards exploring Harmony Street’s claim to fame.
Sri Poyyatha Vinayaga Moorthy Temple
“Can we go in?” Pick Wai wondered. Neither of us had ever gone into a Hindu temple in Malaysia before. Of course, I had done so in Varanasi, so I thought maybe it would be fine.
“No, I mean,” she motioned to her shoulders, indicating a question about dress code. I shrugged, and we gave it a shot. Approaching the threshold, we weren’t stopped from entering.
The temple is a simple one, with clear spaces and idol spaces by the walls. The temple dates from the 18th century, and is dedicated to the god Ganesh.
Kampung Kling Mosque
A stone’s throw away is the Kampung Kling mosque. Also dating from the 18th century, the mosque displays traditional Malacca architecture, i.e. the mosque is not the typical Turkish-inspired domed structure, but a traditional layout topped with a pagoda-like roof, which is the distinct look of Malaccan mosques.
We each picked up a robe from a robe rack near the entrance, and went in to look around.
The mosque is not lavish, but pretty in its own way. Stained glass was a feature throughout, the signature accent of Malaccan architecture. I thought it was pretty cool that the mosque is WiFi enabled, and has waste segregation bins.
It was too soon for midday prayers, so we moved on.
Cheng Hoon Teng Temple
Our final stop was Cheng Hoon Teng temple. Actually, by the time you get to this end of Harmony Street, you can see another prominent Chinese temple on the other side, Xiang Lin Si. But the older one is Cheng Hoon Teng, dating from the 17th century.
While Pick Wai went in to pay her respects at the altars, I looked around the courtyard.
The most interesting thing about this temple is that the courtyard is dominated by what looked like two ship’s masts, complete with crow’s nest. I looked around, hoping there might be an information placard to provide some history for these unusual temple features, but there was none. [browse reader comments below from Clement for an explanation for the flag mast. Thank you!]
However, it did bring to mind the mythic history of Malacca, a key trading port in the region in the 15th century.
Malacca’s legendary five warriors
This is a good segue into probably the most famous legendary heroes of peninsular Malay culture. Chief among them was Laksamana Hang Tuah, who was Admiral of the Fleet during the ‘Camelot’ age of Malacca (Laksamana = Admiral). He was a formidable silat master, armed with a magical keris that he won in battle from the Majapahit warrior, Taming Sari.
Malacca during this time was the most powerful trade port in the region, and one of the wealthiest in the world. Its navy guarded the lucrative Straits of Malacca, and therefore controlled the trade between East and West. According to the Portuguese historian, Tomé Pires, the bazaars of the walled port city spilled out onto grand bridges, and were busy both sides of the monsoon winds.
But Tuah was not a lone warrior. His legend was the legend of five warrior friends: Hang Jebat, Hang Kasturi, Hang Lekir, and Hang Lekiu. Though all five were proficient in the silat martial art, Tuah was the master, and his very best friend Jebat nearly his equal. All five became prominent members of the court, and were sent on diplomatic missions for the sultan, for in those days an admiral was also an ambassador.
Of the five, Tuah and Jebat are by far the most famous. Sadly, it was the tragedy between them that turned them into archetypes in the Malay literary worldview, not their adventures.
Loyalty to King, and loyalty to friend
Jealous courtiers could not leave a sultan’s favourite for long. Rumours were stoked that Tuah was having an affair with one of the palace women. He was immediately sentenced to death, without trial.
It was too much for his friend Jebat. Jebat went on a rampage, overpowering the sultan’s guards with his superior martial arts skill. He took over the palace, helping himself to the royal comforts and the sultan’s harem.
The sultan, deep with regret, realised that the only person who could defeat Jebat was the man he had sentenced to death. It was then that his Chief Minister, Bendahara Tun Perak, ventured to confess his disobedience. Instead of carrying out the sentence, he had hidden the disgraced admiral. Hang Tuah was still alive.
The sultan recalled his warrior, and commanded him to kill the rebel Jebat. Tuah, the epitome of loyalty, obeyed with a heavy heart. Jebat was his best friend, but he had committed derhaka* to the sultan, the ultimate taboo in the Malay worldview.
And so, the two became immortalised as opposing citizen archetypes. Tuah, loyal to king and country without question. And Jebat, the chaotic rebel against injustice. The obedient man, and the emotional one**.
Hang Kasturi’s Tomb near Harmony Street
But the third warrior of the five was the one on my mind, as I contemplated the tomb before me. Hang Kasturi’s tomb (Makam Hang Kasturi) is simple, a white grave structure nestled in a pocket along the road next to Harmony Street. Hidden, in plain sight.
I noted with interest, the recessed triangles decorating the ancient tomb. Years ago, it would have meant nothing to me. But now, after my travels, it instantly brought to mind the triangles adorning Nepali mountain shrines, and the sacred triangle of the Atacama people. In both those places, triangles also adorn places of death – or rather, of transition to another existence.
Hang Kasturi is an odd one. The fact that his tomb is right there in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, and yet still basically overlooked, is exactly representative of him.
Nowhere near as glamourous as the romantic tale of Tuah and Jebat, Kasturi was nonetheless the #3 in legend. Not because he was the third most competent in silat, but just because he was mentioned the most, next to Tuah himself. He was more important to the state than Lekir and Lekiu. For the latter two were not always present when Tuah went on his missions. But he always took Kasturi. (Yes, I once was enough of a literature nerd to read the entire Hikayat Hang Tuah).
In fact, after Jebat’s death, it was Kasturi that the admiral considered as his new #2. When Hang Tuah travelled as an envoy to the court of the Chinese Emperor, Lekir & Lekiu stayed on the ship. But he took Kasturi with him into the Forbidden City.
A vague personality
The tales give no clues at all about Kasturi’s personality. Nothing about his thoughts, or what others say about him. In fact, the legends are so silent about the guy who seems to be the most co-present with the legendary hero, that I sometimes wonder whether the historian was narrating from Kasturi, or was actually Kasturi himself!
But you can infer at least his abilities from the trust that Tuah placed on him. I mean, you don’t make the cut to be on the starting team for state and royal business, if you don’t have mad skills.
So you have to wonder, if Jebat had not run amuck, would Kasturi have done something to avenge Tuah? Or did he agree with Tuah?
If he would have taken action, might he have done it honestly and wisely, instead of wreaking chaos as Jebat had?
But Jebat acted first, and we will never know.
WWKD: What Would Kasturi Do?
The dichotomy of Tuah and Jebat still frames socio-political discourse even today. If not overtly, then subconsciously. The polarisation is between conservatives with obedient faith in leaders deemed to possess the right pedigree, and rebellious liberal types who hold nothing sacred in their righteous rage.
But the bulk of Malaysians are actually a lot more like Kasturi. Most of us have practical skills, and spend our time doing useful things in society. We are teachers and doctors, engineers and builders, unseen though we are everywhere. And we are traders and inventors that people take for granted. We work internationally in business and humanitarian service, sometimes smashing records. And we make genuine friends across the world. But we are not into self-promotion, and we don’t make the news.
And you know what? In this new political era, perhaps we would be better off if we stopped looking to both the Tuah and Jebat worldviews, and embrace Kasturi instead.
*derhaka – a concept in the Malay worldview dating back to our Hindu period; it is an act of treason against the king, who is inseparable from the nation itself.
**comparisons can be made with the English archetypes of Sir Lancelot (Jebat?) and Sir Gawain (Tuah?), except that in the case of King Arthur’s Camelot, the betrayal by the king’s rock star warrior was real. A divergence in priorities can also be seen in that within the English/French view, the Lancelot archetype remains admired essentially because he’s cool, whereas Gawain, also a high ranking Knight, loyal to the end, and even with an adorable love story for how he got his feisty wife, is much less admired.
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Thanks for sharing a little bit about the history of Malacca. I’ve been fascinated by its history ever since I first traveled there.
You’re welcome! I personally feel that the accessible Melaka history is quite surficial and touristy, favouring the post-colonial period. As more of an ancient cultures aficionado myself, I think the pre-colonial period is more interesting (if a bit more legendlike).
Thank you for sharing this historical information.
The mast thing that is seen in Cheng Hoon teng is not related to shipping. It is a permanent flag mast and the watch tower thing is actually meant as a mini platform for securing prayer items. During large prayer festivals, oiled paper lanterns or banners will be hung on the mast to inform the neighbourhood that a festival is starting.
Ah! Thank you! Much obliged for the info. Mystery solved!! :)
What a great way to connect history to current politics. It takes a lot of reflection and insight to draw those conclusions. I feel like I learned a lot about Malaysia reading this post. Thanks for sharing.
That is wonderful to hear. When I travel abroad, I’m so grateful when I’m able to gain a deeper understanding of the place. Travel guides about Malaysia are many. But I want mine to go deep, so that you’d understand the *people*. I’m glad this one did it for you.