Posted by: syamsalleh | January 6, 2009

The Old Palace of Seri Menanti

The Old Palace of Seri Menanti

The Old Palace of Seri Menanti

The Old Palace of Seri Menanti from near

The Old Palace of Seri Menanti from near

                  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.           

                  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 7th 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 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.

                  Once inside, the Istana 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 & private apartments.
                  The topmost fourth floor is is known as the Tingkat Gunung, or
                  Mountain Level, and once served as the ruler 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 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.

Resources : Museum department of Negeri Sembilan


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