One of oldest cultural traditions among the Malay people of Malaysia is the art and craft of woodcarving. In centuries past in this heavily forested country, woodworking was an essential skill, as wood was used for everything from building homes to creating weapons. Though woodworking has become far less essential today, visitors to Malaysia can still find a thriving continuation of this craft, from tacky souvenirs in the Central Market to exquisite carvings made by artists displayed in pricey art galleries. For those who appreciate true craftsmanship however, the pinnacle of the Malay woodworking craft is undoubtedly the traditional wooden palaces of the state rulers.
Unfortunately, these days there are very few wooden palaces left in the country. By and large, the royalty of the country have moved on to concrete and marble mansions and those few wooden palaces remaining are still private property. For visitors looking to appreciate a traditional wooden palace, the only really accessible – and some say the most beautiful – example left is the old Istana Seri Menanti, or Seri Menanti Palace, located in the royal town of Seri Menanti in Negeri Sembilan state, just two hours away from Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur.
Set in a a quiet green valley and surrounded by padi fields and forest, the Istana Seri Menanti is a strikingly unusual structure, an unabashedly traditional building in this rapidly modernizing state. The current building was constructed between 1902 and 1908 for Tuanku Muhammad Shah, the 7th State Ruler or Yang Di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan. The Istana served as the official residence of the royal family until 1931, before it was converted to a Royal Museum in 1992.
The Craftsmanship of Seri Menanti
Though often touted as a tourist attraction, the Istana Seri Menanti might be better thought of as a cultural treasure, a showcase of the Malay woodworking craft. The palace was designed entirely by two local Malay master carpenters and was constructed the traditional way, without using a single metal nail, and the entire four-storey building is literally held together only by mortise-and-tenon joints and hardwood dowels and rivets.
The single most noticeable feature of the palace is its roof. To most western eyes, the steeply upturned, layered gables are strikingly peculiar, recalling the majestic sweep of a buffalo’s horns. The unusual roofline is a fairly common feature of more traditional village houses in the state and is emblematic of the local Minangkabau culture, one of the few matrilineal cultures still thriving in the world and to which about a quarter of Negeri natives belong. The Minangkabau originated in Sumatra, which lies directly across from Negeri Sembilan over the Straits of Malacca. In centuries past, the Minang, as the people were known, migrated across the water, bringing with them not only their culture but also their architecture. Little wonder then that when the palace was first built, its design would include the iconic upturned roofline of the local Minangkabau culture.
Even before entering the palace, visitors can examine one of the most noted features of the palace: its 99 pillars. The unusual number of pillars was deliberately chosen to represent famous warriors from the various clans in the state. More remarkable however is that the pillars are delicately and intricately carved with stylized images of flowers, holy verses from the Quran, geometric shapes and other abstract designs. The carving is noteworthy because the pillars are made of cengal wood, which is extremely tough to carve, easily dulling even the sharpest of blades. One can only marvel at the patience and dedication of the craftsmen who had to deal with such a difficult material.
Faded Grandeur in the Istana
Once inside, the Istanda often strikes visitors more used to the extravagant palaces of Europe as a little bare. The first floor mostly consists of reception rooms and a long verendah; there are no grand, gold encrusted audience halls or fantastic ballrooms. An ancient Malay court was a relatively simple affair compared to the elaborate courts of the West, especially as Malays traditionally had little use for furniture. The courtiers would sit on cushions on the floor in the audience hall, while the royal family would sit on a rather grander platform at the end of the room. Instead of fancy furnishings, much of the grandeur of a Malay court would lie in the sumptuous thread of gold clothes of the royals, the gold ornaments they flaunted and the many other gold items the courtiers habitually used – after all, the Malay Peninsula was not called the Golden Chersonnese for nothing! Many of these artifacts are on display in the palace, though unfortunately many of the explanation cards on the display cases have no English translations.
The first level of the palace was used for official functions, while the second level was used for private, family affairs. Much like the first level, most of the scant furniture in the rooms above have not survived, but in one of the visitors can see the one of few remaining pieces – a large gilded bed, raised on a platform. The third floor of the palace was reserved for the Yang Di Pertuan Besar’s private apartments. The topmost fourth floor is is known as the Tingkat Gunung, or Mountain Level, and once served as the ruler’s study and treasury, where only he could ascend. Today however, the topmost floor is out of bounds, as the old wood has become increasingly fragile.
The inaccessible, slowly decaying Tingkat Gunung is a fitting symbol for the fate of Malaysia’s few remaining wooden palaces. Though wood is an imminently practical building material in the tropics, compared to the more durable stone of European palaces, wood perishes much more easily. The grand palaces built from it last practically no time at all, being suceptible to fires, floods or neglect. The Istana Seri Menanti was itself a replacement for an older, grander palace that was destroyed in a fire. Today, as with so many traditional crafts, there are very few young carvers with the skills and the backing to reproduce such a masterpiece. Despite all the careful preservation work done on the Istana Seri Menanti, eventually, inevitably, time will take its toll and Malaysia will lose another irreplacable treasure.
Lembaga Muzium Negeri Sembilan
Taman Seni Budaya
Jalan Sungai Ujong
Tel: (+606) 763 1149
Fax: (+606) 761 5355
Weekdays: Daily: 9.30am – 6pm; Fridays: noon – 2.50pm
Weekends & Public Holidays: 9.30am – 6pm
Thursdays (From 1pm onwards) : Closed