travelling in Terengganu to research last week’s story
on the Terrapuri heritage conservation project, we were
introduced to another type of heritage that is also
threatened with extinction: ancient Malay building
HOW do you
know if a site is good for building a house? Keep some
water in an earthen container there. If, by the next
morning, the water level has dropped, or worse, the
container has been knocked over by some stray animal,
the site has “bad luck”.
art of tengok tapak (house site selection).
Or try this.
Cut some bamboo or rattan to the length of your mother’s
outstretched arms. Stick it into the ground at the
proposed site. If it’s shorter the next morning, it’s
time to retreat.
that, if you’re still unsure, dig a hole for the main
(wooden) pillar and throw in seven grains of rice. Then
recite certain incantations and insert the pillar into
the hole. If some rice grains have disappeared in the
morning, whoa, stop work!
the ancient art of Malay geomancy, a parallel to Chinese
feng shui and Indian vasthu sastra.
This was how
Malays determined where and how to build their kampung
houses in centuries past, says Abdullah Haji Ahmad,
better known as Pak Awie, 53, a retired bomoh.
He is a
consultant of sorts for Terrapuri, a unique heritage
project in Penarik, 90 minutes north of Kuala Terengganu
(Treasuring Terengganu, StarMag’s cover
story last week, told the tale).
antique Malay houses from all over the state have been
dismantled and reassembled into a luxury resort by Alex
Lee, the CEO of the state’s leading tourism operator,
claims descent from Sheikh Ahmad Zabidi, a famous Muslim
scholar of Aceh, Sumatra, has undertaken a sort of
kampung-style “PhD thesis” on Terengganu Malay feng shui.
youth, I used to ride my bicycle to many different
kampungs and ask traditional house builders about the
petua (rules) of construction. I would write down
what they told me in exercise books.”
decades, many of the builders have passed away, taking
their knowledge to the grave.
don’t learn about such things any more,” says Awie.
according to Lee, Terengganu folk nowadays prefer modern
concrete homes (sometimes with Greek and Roman-style
pillars and balustrades!) and the demand for traditional
Malay house-building arts has dried up.
So now, what
remains of Terengganu’s feng shui are Awie’s tattered
exercise books, which are half-eaten by silverfish – so
tenuous is the thread back to centuries of irreplaceable
intones prayers, Pak Awie throws betih beras (rice
pops) at the steps of the house repel evil
location is chosen, how should the house be laid out?
home is not in a puddle,” smiles Awie.
is the art of tengok tapak (viewing the site).
“If there is
a mound, it should be in the eastern or south-eastern
corner of the plot of land,” he explains.
as your palm. The water should flow from your thumb
mound towards the north-east.”
house-building principles are rather gender-friendly as
they recognise the mother’s role as homemaker –
literally. For starters, the main part of any
traditional Malay house is called the rumah ibu
(mother house). Its construction is based on the length
of the matriarch’s outstretched arms, which is called a
height of the home’s main pillar, or tiang ibu,
is a round number, say six depa, then this
measurement is called ular cinta mani (snake
loves sperm), and that is supposed to bring great
the height of the pillar is, say, six and one-tenth depa,
the petua tinggi rumah (house height rules) names
this one-tenth “extra” situation as tinggal tangga
the house will always be shifting,” says Awie, referring
to the fact that wooden Malay homes can, like giant Lego
kits, be dismantled and reassembled elsewhere if
situations like floods, famine, wars – or, in the case
of Terrapuri, heritage conservation and tourism – demand
tinggi rumah share the Chinese aversion to the number
four, because if the main pillar’s height is, say six
and four-tenths depa, it is called anjing kekurangan
(dogs in scarcity) and the occupants will always argue.
used in Pak Awie’s rituals include saffron rice
and eggs, propitious symbols of Hindu origin that
have become a part of Malay culture.
If the main
pillar is of other fractions, this is what happens:
asap kelam (murky smoke), indicates sadness or
singa sempurna (perfect lion), many blessings.
kuda ketingggian (high horse), one will reach a high
gagak kepatukan (pecking crow), sickness or death,
the house will never be completed.
harimau pahlawan (tiger warrior), the son will
become a warrior.
naga keperbuan (rushing dragon), wards off illness
neraca timbangan (balanced scales), one will become
a leader of the village.
10/10 – ular
cinta mani, as mentioned before, the ultimate in good
such construction rules, Malay feng shui also involves
some “magic”, it seems.
One of the
restored homes at Terrapuri, called Rumah Pulau Musang,
was the 19th century home of a religious teacher known
popularly as Hajjah Wok.
One beam of
the house is decorated with a figure that appears to be
a stylised drawing of the Arabic characters Lam Alif, an
abbreviation of “Lailahaillallah” in praise of God.
according to Awie, the Terengganu Malays also call this
the baris Laksamana, which (as anybody who has
attended a performance of the Ramayana in Bali
will know) is the magical line or circle drawn by
Laksamana (brother of the deity Rama) to provide a kind
of “force field” that protects the goddess Devi from
indicates a cultural fusion between Islam and Hinduism,
the old religion of the Terengganu Malays.
spoke to the owner, he said he felt very safe when he
lived there,” recalls Lee.
two homes, underneath the tiang seri (main
pillar) he found small bottles of liquid with a root
inside. This, he believes, is the “white magic” of
“It’s a kind
of traditional charm that makes a house look more
berseri or attractive,” explains Lee.
comes from the kelapa sulung, the first coconut
that appears on a tree facing a sunrise, while the root
is that bitten by a cockerel when it calls out to
attract a hen. These two objects are considered good
antique house that Lee purchased had bunga halang
charms comprising three cloths – white, red and black –
on top of the house posts.
“These cloths have azimat (special writings) on
them to ward off bad luck. Some may have been empowered
with incantations so that that any intruder who breaks
into a home will not be able to get out.”
halangcharms comprising three cloths – white, red
and black – on top of the house posts.
performs rituals such as “upacara naik rumah”
(house raising ceremony), a blessing involving saffron
rice and eggs, propitious symbols of Hindu origin that
have been incorporated into Malay culture.
intones prayers, Awie throws betih beras (rice
pops) near the entrance steps to repel evil influences.
feng shui un-Islamic? Awie says that everything on earth
is created by God as a harmonious system.
emphasises ikhtiar (effort) as well. So, in this
case, we are making efforts to ensure that we build our
homes in harmony with what God has created.”
shui is certainly not confined to Terengganu. For one,
the Taj-al-Mulk (or “tajul muluk” – Royal Crown
of Jewels), a book written by Sheikh Abbas of Aceh for
Malay royalty, covers this subject as a holistic part of
astrology, herbal medicine, and even the interpretation
In a press
report last November, Assoc Prof Dr Syed Ahmad Iskandar
Syed Ariffin, head of the Architecture Department at
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s Architecture Department,
said the book advises how to choose a site.
“If a site
slopes from the south-west, one may become lazy and
one’s wealth will be squandered by relatives,” he
also rules for selecting wood. If a tree’s surface root
is dead, or if there are yellow or green flowers, it
should not be cut down for timber.
What if a
site is good but is possessed by evil spirits?
tajul muluk, the recommended procedure is: “Dig a hole
under the centre of house after its completion, make
three lumps of soil, and then throw them towards
maghrib (sunset) while reciting prayers.”
Multi-racial feng shui
report last July, Master David Koh, honorary life
president of the Malaysia Institute of Geomancy
Sciences, stated that tajul muluk has similarities to
Chinese feng shui.
instance, feng shui recommends that a house should have
its back to a mountain while the front should, at the
least, face a river’s flow direction. In the case of
tajul muluk, a house should face the rising sun.
that most of the famous tukang (house-smiths)
such as Kahar Siak Baki (the chief architect of the Seri
Menanti Palace in Negri Sembilan), were from Kelantan,
Terengganu and Pahang. If houses there face east (ie:
the rising sun), they would be in harmony with Chinese
feng shui as rivers in those states also flow eastwards!
Moreover, their backs would be to the Titiwangsa
that Malaysia has the unique advantage of being home not
only to Malay tajul muluk and Chinese feng shui, but
also Indian vasthu sastra.
research is needed to discover the common ground between
them. We should take the lead to make this country the
world centre for the study of geomancy,” he said.
Fawzi Bahaudin, Assoc Prof at Universiti Sains
Malaysia’s School of Housing, Building and Planning,
says that the adat mendirikan rumah (house
building customs) recorded in William Skeat’s classic
book Malay Magic (published way back in 1900) can
be likened to Chinese feng shui.
similarity is in the “eight points” of divination. The
Chinese bagua (eight-sided geomancy compass) is
represented by :
cites Skeat’s book that says Malay geomancy also has
eight points, but is represented by animals:
Dairy cow (sapi)
has certain characteristics; for instance the lion
brings yearly prosperity, while the crow is an omen of
the owner’s imminent death.
Dr Amir also
cites a site selection ritual, from Lim Jee Yuan’s book,
The Malay House, involving a depa-length of
rattan and a pail of water (see graphic) that is
strikingly similar to what Terengganu’s Awie
directions? Skeat’s book says the Malays believe a site
sloping from a higher south side towards the north would
bring “absolute peacefulness”.
south, gold, silver, third generation – these are words
that would surely ring a bell in Chinese feng shui!
custom to determine the suitability of a particular site
involves a mother’s dreams.
Skeat, the procedure is to clear the undergrowth in the
area, lay four sticks in the centre and take a clod of
earth in the hand. Then chant to the local spirits as
of Menteri Guru;
Who dwell in
the Four Corners of the World;
I crave this
plot as a boon;
If it is
good, show me a good omen;
If it is
bad, show me a bad omen.
the clod of earth in white cloth, fumigate it with
incense, and place it under your pillow at night. If the
dreams are good, choose the site; otherwise abandon it.
Malay Magic was published in 1900 and, since then,
Dr Amir thinks that many of the rituals have died out as
they are deemed un-Islamic.
feels that not everything should be rejected outright
without deeper study.
aspects of the rituals are logical and eco-friendly.
After all, in Islam we also look at the niat
(intention) to determine if something is correct.”
Architecture Inside Out columnist, Prof Mohd
Tajuddin Mohamad Rasdi, director of Universiti Teknologi
Malaysia’s Centre for the Study of the Built Environment
in the Malay World, argues for a rational and reasonable
approach to feng shui.
written about how our houses should be built to promote
racial harmony. For instance, one simple design is a
ventilation shaft in ceilings so that incense smoke
(from joss sticks) can be released instead of offending
(or even incensing!) neighbours of different faiths.
houses are built next to each other and air circulation
is poor,” says Prof Tajuddin, who laments that we have
blindly copied European terrace house designs without
taking local culture into consideration.
past, our construction was in harmony with the
surroundings and community values.
was called vasthu sastra, feng shui or tajul muluk, the
system promoted community life so that everyone knew
each other and the surrounding environment was not
feels that environmental impact assessments (for
construction projects), or EIAs, should take community
customs into account.
EIAs value plants and animals. What about the
community’s long affinity with the land? Nowadays,
kampungs are demolished and people are stuffed into
flats. EIAs don’t recognise that as an adverse impact.”
Could it be
that centuries of accumulated “good feng shui” is
destroyed when horizontal kampungs become vertical ones?
When jungles turn from the green version into concrete?
thinks Malay house-building customs are not just a
matter of “faith” but also simple common sense.
customs evolved from centuries of experience. Now the
West talks of going back to the earth and all that. But
the Malay kampung house has been well adapted to the
tropical climate for centuries.
harmonious aesthetics, and a human sense of scale where
neighbours could easily mix.”
words, even if one thinks that the “magical” part of
Malay feng shui is all hocus-pocus, one can still
embrace its common sense approach of being people-centred
broader sense, traditional Malay houses certainly had
“good feng shui”!