July 10, 2017
The annals of Malay history say that Melaka, also called Malacca was founded in the fourteenth century by Paramesvara, a fleeing Sumatran prince. Situated on the straits of Malacca, it prospered through trade with the neighboring countries. The sultanate of Malacca soon established itself the leader in this area in culture, art, literature and architecture. But the golden years were not to last. The colonial period began with the Portuguese in early fifteen hundreds and there is a Portuguese settlement here to this day. But the hand of time wrought yet more changes – the Dutch were to supplant the Portuguese in 1602 and it is their legacy that is enshrined in many a spot in the historic center of town. The Dutch in their turn gave way to the British about two hundred years later until the time of independent Malaysia. Today the legacies of all the colonial powers remain in the form of a broken rampart here or a roofless church there. The Dutch legacy is largely confined to a square with a clock tower, a church and a couple of buildings uniformly painted a garish rust red, for indecipherable reasons.
But it is not only the colonial rule that has left its mark on Melaka. Male Chinese immigrants who began coming here in the sixteenth century, married Malays, Orang Asli and ethnic Thais. It was their descendants who developed a distinct hybrid Malay-Chinese culture, a culture that they maintain to this day. The Baba-Nyonyas as they were called, were a distinct class of society who thrived, especially during the British rule. The wealthy families buit elaborate mansions and many of their descendants live in them still.
Heavy carved wooden doors lead into a spacious high-ceilinged hall, opening into the interior. Lace-like wooden screens grace corners and wooden staircases access the upper storeys. A number of open inner courtyards with small pools and gardens add beauty and serenity. Art and artifacts are displayed in a jumble, many for sale if the price is right. Furniture, lacquered cabinets, old photographs in sepia tones and frayed clothing are tumbled next to the ubiquitous junk found in every tourist shop.
There are still a few families who live in these mansions. But there are a few that lie forgotten, behind locked, rusty gates. Not all are grand old mansions though. Hidden down small lanes, sandwiched between modern concrete buildings are small dark wooden houses in the traditional style. The terracotta tile-covered roof slopes down in multiple levels, the carved eaves reminding me of the gingerbread trims of Siberia. Built on stilts, meter or so off the ground, the houses are tiny – almost dollhouse-like. Seeing me take a photo, a woman sweeping the floor beneath the house invited me in. The dining room is tiny as well, barely large enough for the table and chairs. Old photographs grace the walls and the harsh sunlight is filtered in through the curtains. A short hallway has a steep short staircase leading to the bedroom. Also tiny, it nevertheless contains a bed, an armoire, the shelf beneath the eaves used for storage.
The narrow streets are not the winding serpentine streets of very old towns but laid out in a grid. The mix of immigrants of various heritages meant diverse houses of worship. The mosque is unlike any other mosque I have ever seen. The white-washed building with its green-tiled multi-layered roof is reminiscent of the temples in Bali. Only the square minaret proclaims its functionality. Chinese temples dot the city and are in active use everyday. Fat round urns sprout incense sticks, planted by the faithful, their scent drifting out into the street.
Like most rivers in this area, the Sungai Melaka too carried cargo and was lined by warehouses hugging its banks. But the days of river-borne commerce are long gone and the decaying warehouses have been given a new lease in life. Cashing in on the tourist boom, many have been converted to hotels, restaurants and cafes. Large boats ferry tourists up and down on sight-seeing trips for a kilometer as the lights on the Riverwalk blink. A feature, uniquely Melaka’s it seems, are the trishaws. Outlandishly garish, each is lavishly decorated with cartoon characters amid a nest of tinsel, soft toys and laminated posters. Equipped with speakers blasting pop music they seem to have no shortage of takers.
Melaka has woken up with a vengeance to the clarion call of tourism. Most are from China, the huge groups trailing after a flag-waving guide. Every site is mobbed as are the shops, restaurants and cafes. Wandering is done at the peril of being jabbed by the veritable forest of selfie sticks.