An Analysis: Traditional Malay Architecture in Kedah Essay
Kedah has the distinction of being called the rice-bowl of Malaysia, a term that takes on the aesthetic significance when one is exposed to the rice fields that it yields. Well known for its vast paddy fields and also the island of Langkawi, Kedah holds rich cultural traditions in both the economical and the tourism aspects. However, Kedah is also the site of Malaysia’s most extensive ruins.
The early history of Kedah varies from multiple sources. From the prehistoric period to the archaeological site of the Bujang Valley, the early Maritime trade of India and the Middle East to the written works of early Chinese pilgrims and the Al-Tarikh Salasilah Negeri Kedah. Located strategically by the Strait of Melaka, Kedah is part of the early sea trade route of the spice route for Arab, Persian, Tamil Nadu and India-to-China traders. It was then; Kedah was recognised as major kingdom of the Malay Peninsula, dating back to the 5th century.
Due to her fame, Kedah was subjugated by Srivijaya in the 7th century. Until the 15th century, Kedah came under the influence and rule of the Siamese kingdom. A treaty allowed Kedah to be independent for a while until an attack by Acheh in 1618 lead to Kedah seeking protection from Siam, once again coming under the influence and ruling of the Siamese Kingdom. Kedah’s position was further jeopardised with the pressure from the Bugis, Siamese and the Burmese in the 18th century. There were many power struggles during that period until the early 20th century; the British conquered most of the Malay Peninsula. Finally in 31 August 1957, Malaya achieved independence. With such rich historical background, Kedah has developed into a state where not only her culture is invested in the people but also in the houses.
Before looking into the main features of the Kedah houses, it is understandable that most traditional Malay houses came from the same root which is the people themselves. Many of the arts and craft of the Malays are taken from their way of living or their moral values in life. It is also during the power struggle between the nations, the architecture of the traditional Malay houses undergo many changes due their influence. Even so, the origins of the design of these traditional houses are not clear.
The existence of the traditional Malay houses shows the honourable and proud nature of the Malay race. This is due to their form of architecture which has defy many rules in construction, given that in those days none of the rules have yet to be written and implemented. The Kedah house in unique in its own way. Attentions are given into detailing and also the surrounding site of the house in return for a more peaceful living.
The most common building style locally is known as Rumah Bumbung Panjang or the Long Roof House which reflects the character of the traditional Malay roof form. Aside from the Bumbung Limas, Bumbung Lima and Bumbung Perak, the Bumbung Panjang are the oldest to be identified in Malay Peninsula. It is the simplest of the four mentioned house forms. It has a simple gable roof which is supported by four kingposts. This form is also the most efficient in its ventilation properties. Its simple funnel shape, the use of grilles at its gable ends and the use of ventilation joints allows good airing of the roof and space which cools the house effectively.
Sharing similarities with the houses in Perlis, the house plan shows a definite departure from the traditional practice by placing the male area towards the gable end in the form of extended bay or bays along the roof axis. The main approach also leads towards the gable end of the main-house rather than the eave-side. Usually the roof ends in a hipped-gable fashion over the male area which is rare in early Malay traditional construction. Proportionately, the main floor is raised higher above ground than that of the Melaka and Perak style Malay houses, which is purposely designed for carrying out activities, beneath the house, relating to rice farming or fishing which are the predominant occupations in the region.
The use of bamboo as wall panelling is widespread in this part of the peninsular. The house consists of large interior spaces where the spaces are segregated into specific parts to allow different activities. Due to its elongated shaped, which can be derived from its roof, the building is able to house more interior spaces as compared to other Malay traditional houses. Most commonly known are interconnecting spaces in the house. The circulation
is fairly simple and recognisable as it is almost the same as the other Malay traditional houses that can be found in Malay Peninsula.
Basically, the houses can be divided into the front and back portions which are centred around the core house and the kitchen respectively. The entrances of most Malay houses have stairs which lead up to a covered porch called the anjung, which acts as a good transition space between the public and private domains. From the entrance porch, one enters into the serambi gantung or known as the hanging verandah which is commonly used to entertain guests. The area is then connected to the rumah ibu, or the core house. This is the largest area in the house where most activities are conducted. The selung is a closed walkway used to link the kitchen and the core house together. Acting as a circulation space, the selung then connects the core houses and bedrooms together.
One of the chief characteristics of Malay Architecture is the articulation and ornamentation of the building. Most decorations focus on openings such as window rails (Jerejak), ventilations (Kerawang), roof eaves (Meleh) and rafter boards (Papan Cantik).
Below are some examples:
i)Pola papan layang are kite-pattern motifs found on rafter boards; seen here on one of the Pavilion “wakaf” in Kulim, Kedah. It is arranged vertically at the bottom of the screen in the form of sunrise.
ii)Another example of a kite-shaped motif installed to cover the long wood/ trusses on zinc roof and the roof edges.
iii)The tebar layar has an extruded and a recessed portion with uniform radial patterns, also resembling the sun rays.
iv)The motif above is called kepala cicak or “lizard’s head”. It is installed on the edges of the roof.
v)Carving pattern reminiscent of the antlers of two fighting deers, seen in
one of the houses in Kuala Muda, Kedah.
vi)A sun-shaped screen design on the roof gable.
vii)The tebuk terus technique of carving found on the traditional houses at Bukit Cambodia, Padang Matsirat, Langkawi.
viii) The intricate detail of the carvings using rigorous board pieces. These boardpieces are usually installed as railings below openings. Locally known as pola papan jerajak.
The traditional Malay house relies on a complex jointing system made rigid by the use of timber wedges for its strength. This jointing system allows the house to be easily taken apart and reassembled elsewhere. The traditional Malay house is primarily a timber structure, built off the ground using the post-and-beam method by local carpenters or by the owners themselves. Its walls are usually made of timber, although bamboo is still used in certain areas. Numerous full-length windows line the walls, providing both ventilation and a view outside. The high-pitched, gabled roof, which dominates the house, was traditionally covered with thatch but is now more often covered with galvanized iron.
The pillars, or support stilts, were a main design feature of the Malay house. They were lined with foot pad which were made up from either cement or solid rock and installed half a metre into the ground.
Different kinds of wooden joints: (above from left) rasok, tanggam cara tebuk, tanggam bulat(round mortise-and-tenon).
Building materials are derived from natural materials that can be found near the building site itself. They may range from palm leaves and trunks, to bamboo, bark of trees, timber, as well as clay for roof tiles and small granite blocks for footings. Most are gathered raw and processed into finished forms by the carpenter or owner himself as in the case of woodwork, while the service of weavers, carvers are also required for dealing with bamboo, palm leaf roofing, and decorative carvings. Generally the actual erection of the structure and preparation of the site are done with the willing hands of the community, leaving all the fine works to the specialized hands.
Timber forms the major component of our traditional buildings. Malayan timbers either grown naturally or for commercial purposes, are entirely of the hardwood variety. Therefore, in the absence of softwood, Malayan hardwood are normally further classified into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ hardwoods, to distinguish between those that are naturally durable under adverse condition and those that are not. Fortunately most of the timbers used in our traditional works are exceptional types of primary hardwood. For example cengal is the standard, durable timber of Malaya.
The cengal wood is very strong, hard, heavy, and relatively durable under severe local conditions. It is not difficult to work with, and shrinks appreciably less than other Malayan timber and is suitable for heavy structural work. Merbau is another common type of timber which is strong, hard and heavy, and also resistant to termites; but it may decay when circumstances are favorable for fungal development. It is an excellent house-post timber, and the most attractive local wood for flooring and paneling. As a measure ol strength, the allowable working stress (bending) of most varieties of Malayan timber ranges between 2000 lb./sq. in. to 2500 lb./ sq. in., while some may reach a maximum of 3000 lb./sq. in.
However, traditional method of choosing timber for building is not as straight forward. In fact, throughout the archipelago, local taboos and superstitions are always the influencing factor in almost all aspects of life, including choice of materials as well as the actual construction process and detailing. These taboos, rituals and ceremonies are believed to safeguard against possible occurrence of fire, tragedies, sicknesses, evil spirits and misfortune; of utmost concern is the wellbeing and safety of the family that will live in the building. Trees are either entirely conversed at the stump or at halved or quartered and then hauled by buffaloes out of the forest. But before conversion, the logs are usually kept under Water or mud for a few months as it is believed to make the timber more durable by breaking down the sap wood. This is quite often done by the owner himself with the help of other village folks. The said taboos and beliefs are strictly altered to in the process of choosing the ‘right’ trees for building a house.
For example it is considered a necessity:
(i) To avoid trees that are intertwined with trunks and roots of other trees (large parasitic plants), (ii) To avoid trees harboring the nests of certain birds, especially eagles, and (iii) When felling trees to avoid taking down nearby trees with them.
All these are observed in the belief that they can deter evil spirits away from the occupants, prevent entry of snakes into the house, and a form of guarantee that the house will be safe from falling trees. So one can imagine the concern of the environment in which these old houses were first built at the time.
Equally similar superstitious associations or analogies are associated with the technical properties of various types of timber. For example, cengal, the stronger primary hardwood is considered to bring good fortune and, therefore, is always used for the master column (such as the first column to be raised on the site and considered the essence of the whole construction). While, merbau, the weaker counterpart, is associated with evil spirit and therefore never to be used for the master column but nevertheless may be used elsewhere. To some extent, the survival of many traditional buildings today are attributed to these unsophisticated and ‘primitive’ method of specification which had ensured the usage of the best possible materials.
Fixing a suitable and ‘correct’ date is also a must for starting the works on the already sawn components; a skilled carpenter is responsible at this stage to do the planing, cutting, and making tenons and mortices. The beginning of construction work is marked by a special ceremonial occasion and prayers before raising the first column on the site. This is in fact a small gathering among friends, relatives, and neighbors who will also be helping the carpenter to put up the initial heavy structures. At this stage, another significant practice is always observed. Silver or copper coins are placed at the meeting of the main column and the footing pad, while at the uppermost end of the same column, pieces of colored cloth are ceremoniously placed (white, red, yellow, and black; sometimes interpreted as signifying the east, south, west, and north respectively). These are a. form of lgood luck charm’ aimed for the well-being of the occupants. All the columns are set up in their ‘correct’ upright position to correspond to the natural state of a tree. If it is found difficult to be recognized, each column will be balanced and the heavier half of the timber will be placed at the base. The floor beams and the top wall plates and ties are then inserted into place. A rigid box-frame is thus formed, onto which the king-post and roof frarnings are then flxed, to be followed by all finer works done by the carpenter himself. Finally, on completion, a housewarming ceremony is always a must; a traditional ritual and prayer is held to bless the well being of the occupants, and is followed by a small feast.
Teamwork is a tradition always practiced especially when setting up a home. In the picture above, the villagers carry a column to be installed with the long beams.
Here, eight of the columns have already been erected along with two long beams. The board installed on the column is to resist or hold the column from falling. The next process is to install the short beams. Usually, skilled villagers or the craftsmen climb and sit on the end of long beams to install short beams.
Craftsmen installing the framework for the roof consisting of the rafters, battens and ridge. Seen also is a white cloth installed at the head of the column.
The process of installing the thatch or nipah roofs are in progress. Usually, the villagers work in teams and help each other. The rope used to tie this roof is usually made from the spine of the nipah leaves or the bemban stick.
The aesthetical principles of the traditional Malay house is richly
influenced by their culture, beliefs and symbolic practices. They are a wellspring of discovery, its layered history telling of the local spiritual beliefs – the mystical creatures worshipped in animism, the asceticism of the Hindu-Buddha teachings, and the influence of the religion of Islam.
The traditional Malay house is also an excellent example of vernacular adaptation to environment. It intelligently manipulates wind conditions, solar orientation, humidity levels and other environmental factors for the benefit of its inhabitants.
Unfortunately, modern buildings in Malaysia and Indonesia no longer employ these building techniques, as the traditional skills of craftsmanship and know-how are slowly eroded in the face of industrialization. Its existence is challenged by constantly-redefined economic and socio-cultural values. The modern interpretations of the Malay house no longer pay heed to the traditional building material selection criteria and holistic design principles. In return, local communities do not understand and no longer appreciate the traditions built by generations upon generations.
As the people of Malaysia, we have to be vigilant in protecting our cultural from the negative consequences of globalisation. Vernacular architecture works, and the generation of today must be critical in improving upon these practices to propagate an architectural style that continues to respect the environment and the culture of its people.
i)Nasir, Abdul Halim and Hashim Haji Wan Teh. The Traditional Malay House. Kuala Lumpur: Institut Terjemahan dan Buku Malaysia, 2011.
ii)Sahabuddin, Firrdhaus. “Vernacular Architecture of Traditional Malay House”. Malaysian Vernacular Architecture and Its Relationship to Climate. Academia.edu.
iii)Mohd. Rasdi, Mohd. Tajuddin, Kamaruddin Mohd. Ali, Syed Ahmad Iskandar
Syed Ariffin, Ra’alah Mohd., and Gurupiah Mursib. The Architectural Heritage of the Malay World: The Traditional Houses. Johor Bahru: Penerbit UTM, 2005.