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Discovering The Essence of Malay Culture in Kelantan

If you’re on a mission to discover and understand the essence of Malay culture and traditions in Malaysia, there’s no better place to start than in Kelantan! Being the most socially conservative state in the country, Kelantan, has not been considered very popular in the travel scene due to its strict laws that forbids entertainment outlets as well as restricts and discourages certain social and tourist activities.


However, don’t let that hamper your enthusiasm to explore the state as its proud inhabitants are always warm and welcoming towards visitors. Kelantanese people are very proud of their culture, customs, and traditions and especially of their unique Kelantanese accent. Despite the rapid social and physical development experienced in the country; they have still managed to keep their age-old Malay traditions and customs alive and thriving till this day earning themselves the right to be known as the Cradle of Malay Culture’.


A Cultural Haven


Kelantan, evolved from the Malay word ‘kilatan’ which also means ‘lightning’ in English was called as such due to the frequent lightning phenomenon often experienced by seafarers in the early days during their sail into mouth of the Kelantan river. Since then, Kelantan has been coined by many as the ‘Land of Lightning’. Having a history dating back to prehistoric times, the rich and colourful cultural heritage seen today can be traced back to the strong influence of the Funan kingdom by the Mekong River, the Sumatran Srivijaya Empire and the Siamese Empire. Today, it is a predominantly Muslim state led by an Islamic PAS government, where 95 percent of the state’s inhabitants are Malays followed by the remaining Chinese, Indians and Thai.


Thaïlande 1996 © Richard Soberka - http://www.photoway.com/

To get a taste and first hand experience of the local culture and traditions, the best place to start is by visiting the Cultural Centre or Gelanggang Seni located at Jalan Mahmud in Kota Bahru, the state’s capital city. Here, visitors are given the opportunity to witness various performances, folk arts and traditional games which are the local’s favourite pastime such as the wayang kulit (Shadow Play), silat (martial arts), gasing (top spinning), rebana ubi (giant drums), and wau (traditional kites). The centre is open to the public three times a week from March to October and closes during the month of November, December and during Ramadhan, the Muslim’s fasting month. The show times for the performances are from 3.30pm to 5.30pm on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays and 9.00pm to 12.00am on Saturdays and Wednesdays. For further information, times, visitors can contact the Kelantan Tourist Office at +609-747 7520/ 7554.


Wayang Kulit – A Puppet Show of Lights, Shadows and Music


The Wayang Kulit or Shadow Play is a delightful theatrical play employing the use of lights and shadows where characters portrayed by hand-made puppets with intricate designs are brought to life by the master puppeteer also known as ‘Tok Dalang’. The Tok Dalang entertains audiences by controlling the movements of the puppets and singing while ‘conducting’ the traditional music ensemble that plays during the performance. The stories in the Wayang Kulit are usually based on famous Hindu epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharatha and other local folklore, comedy, history and current issues.


Silat – The Ancient Malay Warriors’ Secret to Defence


Silat is a popular form of ancient Malay martial art which combines skill, tact and swift dramatic moves and stances which was once performed and practised diligently by popular Malay warriors in history such as Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat. Today, the Silat is still widely practised among the locals not only as a form of self-defence but also as a sport, a means to develop one’s personality and character building, as well as an elegant dance form performed during weddings, as well as royal and official functions. Using the keris (a traditional Malay weapon), Silat practitioners move to the beat of the traditional drums, wailing of the ‘serunai’ and other traditional musical instruments.


Wau – Traditional Giant Kites Soaring the Skies


Flying kites or wau are a favourite pastime for the local people. What makes these giant kites different from the rest is of course its unique shape and beautiful decorative designs. There are three main types of wau shapes available in Kelantan such as Wau Bulan (moon shaped kite), Wau Burung Puyuh (quail shaped kite) and Wau Jala Budi (woman shaped kite). In the early days, the wau is flown to scare of the enemies. Today, the wau is flown after the rice harvest when the locals are free to pursue their favourite pastime. Wau competitions are often held in Kelantan where these traditional giant kites can be seen soaring the blue skies in their own magnificent splendour and beauty. The winner is usually determined by the wau’s ability to fly the highest in the longest span of time. Best times to fly the wau would        be in the months between May and July where the East Coast would normally experience strong winds.


Gasing – The Hypnotic Spinning Tops


This traditional game is a favourite pastime among locals since generations. The size of the tops is equivalent to the size of a dinner plate and weighing about 4 to 5 kilograms while a smaller top weighs about 0.1 to 0.5 kilograms. The objective of the game is to keep the top spinning for the longest period of time in order to determine the winner. The gasing is considered to be more of an adult’s game rather than a children’s game as it requires a significant amount of strength, skill and timing in order to strike the top into a spinning position that will last for hours.


Mak Yong & Dikir Barat – A Musical & Theatrical Dance Delight!


The Malay culture has always been synonymous with music, dance and theatre. This aspect of the Malay culture is very much alive and is still being performed as a form of entertainment and appreciation for the arts till the present day. Mak Yong, a form of theatrical dance play, originated in Kelantan tells of various stories depicting the lives of kings, his courts and countrymen which have been passed down since generations. This traditional performance combines music, dances, acting, and stories of romance and comedy. The Mak Yong theatrical group normally comprises of four leading characters that plays the part of the King, the Hero, the Queen and the Heroine.


Dikir Barat is another form of musical entertainment based on a style of call and response singing led by a leader of the group also known as the ‘Tukang Karut’. The ‘Tukang Karut’ plays an important role in leading the singing group as he makes up the poems and sings them as the rest of the group echoes after him. The performers would sit down cross-legged while moving their hands and body in a rhythmic motion while clapping their hands according to the beat of the shallow gong and drums. The poems that are sung are mainly about the current issues and local topics which would normally incorporate a dose of comedy and moral values.

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