In days of yore, the Malay palace not only functioned as the official residence of the sultans but also played an important role in society as a centre of learning, administration and culture. It was the palace which played patronage to artisans and craftsmen as well as issued orders pertaining to the administration of the state which flowed down the hierarchy of Bendahara, Temenggung and Laxamana.
During feudal times, the Malay rulers invested great effort and pride in the construction of their wooden palaces, which were often sited near river mouths to observe ships coming form the sea. The friezes, wall panels and even windows were embellished with intricate carvings. However, over the years, even the hardest of timbers succumbed to the ravages of flooding and termites. As a result, only less than a dozen wooden places are still standing today.
It is unfortunate that the most beautiful Malay traditional palace in the country — the Malacca Sultanate Palace — no longer exists as it was struck by lightning in 1460, one year after Sultan Mahmud Shah ascended the throne. According to the Malay Annals, the Malacca Sultanate Palace had a seven tiered roof of copper and tin, which was supported with pillars adorned with carvings of swallow’s wings and shapes of clouds. Today, a replica of the original palace stands at Jalan Kota in Melaka, showcasing multi-layered roofs; it houses the Melaka cultural Museum. On exhibit inside are costumes, weapons, traditional musical instruments, old photographs and a diorama of Malay court life.
Arguably the most unique traditional palace in the country is the Istana Kenangan, which stands atop Bukit Chandan (Chandan Hill) in Kuala Kangsar. It is uniqueness stems from its bamboo walls, which gave it the original name of Istana Tepas (“tepas” means wickerwork). It was built in 1926 during the reign of Sultan Iskandar Shah by Haji Suffian and his sons Zainal Abidin and Ismail from Penang who took a year to complete the building without using any nails or architectural plans. The outstanding characteristic of this palace is the repeated use of the polygonal design. The whole structure of the palace, in fact, consists of several interconnected polygonal buildings, and its end tower supports a polygonal roof. Sixty pillars support this beautiful palace, which is a testimony to the artistry and skills of the Malay craftsmen. Today, Istana Kenangan functions as the Royal Museum, which brings back evocative memories of the past lifestyle of the Perak royalty with its displays of medals, old photographs and artefacts.
Moving south of Negeri Sembilan brings us to historical Malay palaces that feature buffalo-horn roofs, which are a result of its historical tie with the Minangkabau of Sumatra. In the State Cultural Complex in Seremabm, there is a small but interesting palace named Istana Hinggap. Originally sited in Ampung Ampang Tinggi in Kuala Pilah, it was built in 1865 by the Yamtuan Ulin ibni Almarhum Yamtuan Hitam to serve as a temporary place of sojourn during his travel throughout the State. Also known as Istana Ampang Tinggi, it is a now a showcase of Minangkabau culture with its weapons, brassware, silverware and costumes. The interior of its veranda and its door panels are profuse with intricate carvings in the finest arabesque tradition.
Of more recent construction is the Istana Lama in the Royal Town of Sri Menanti, 30km east of Seremban. Set in geometric landscaped gardens, the palace is the result of the skills of Kahar and Taib, two Malay master carpenters. M. Woodford of the Public Works Department was the chief draughtsman. The building was completed in 1908, and functioned as the official residence of the royal family until 1931. The ground floor served as the reception area; the second floor, family quarters; and the third, the sultan’s private quarters. A ladder from the sultan’s room leads to a tower which once contained the archives and prayer room. Construction techniques revolved around the creative of tebuk pasak (mortise and tenon) instead of nails. Ironwood was used for its roof, while its 99 pillars were made of penak wood, transported from Bukit
Bukit Perigin in Jelebu, 60 km away.
Cultural influences have also played a role in the structure of palaces. In Alor Setar, the Istana Balai Besar features upturned roof finials and architraves of Thai design, reminiscent of the days when Kedah was under Thai rule. The two-story colonnaded building was originally built in 1895 by Sultan Abdul Hamid, and in 1905, an audience hall was added. Wrought iron railings and two curved stairways greet visitors at its façade. The palace was used by the sultans of olden days to hear grievance from their subjects and receive audiences.
In Kota Bahru, the Istana Jahar is decorated with carved panels and woden fretwork. Its Balai Penghinapan has a pentagon-shaped balcony supported by columns. Located at Jalan Sultan, the palace has been converted into the Museum of Royal Customs. Inside are dioramas displaying scenes of court life as well as pieces of songket and other textiles.
Near to the Istana Jahar stands the Istana Balai Besar, which was built in 1844 by Sultan Muhammad II. It contains the Throne Room and State Legislative Assembly. An outstanding feature of its roof is the duck-tail ridges. This design element is also found in Patani palaces in South Thailand, which points to its historical links with Kelantan. The audience hall of the Istana Balai Besar (and also that of Istana Jahar) is built on ground level rather than on stilts as compared to several West Coast palaces.
In the current age, when super-structures like the Petronas Twins Towers, KL Tower, Putrajaya Convention Centre and other edifices are glorified, the traditional wooden Malay palace is slowly losing its pride of place in modern Malay culture. In fact, during the past several decades, a few exquisite wooden palaces such as the Istana Seri Akar in Kelantan had simply been abandoned, whilst others had been pulled down to be used as firewood! A visit to these showpieces of Malay craftsmanship is akin to taking a time journey back to feudal society.