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Traditional Geomantic Designs

While 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 principles. 

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”. 

The 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.  

After all 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! 

Welcome to 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). 

Here, 28 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, Ping Anchorage.  

Awie, who 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.  

A fading art  

“In my 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.”  

Over the decades, many of the builders have passed away, taking their knowledge to the grave.  

“Youths don’t learn about such things any more,” says Awie. 

Moreover, 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 community knowledge.  

As he intones prayers, Pak Awie throws betih beras (rice pops) at the steps of the house repel evil influences.

Once the location is chosen, how should the house be laid out?  

“Ensure the home is not in a puddle,” smiles Awie.  

Also, there 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. 

“Imagine it as your palm. The water should flow from your thumb mound towards the north-east.”  

The old 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 depa (wingspan).  

If the 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 fortune.  

However, if 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 (leave steps).  

“That means, 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 it. 

The petua 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.  

Items 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: 

2/10 – asap kelam (murky smoke), indicates sadness or illness. 

3/10 – singa sempurna (perfect lion), many blessings.  

5/10 – kuda ketingggian (high horse), one will reach a high post. 

6/10 – gagak kepatukan (pecking crow), sickness or death, the house will never be completed.  

7/10 – harimau pahlawan (tiger warrior), the son will become a warrior. 

8/10 – naga keperbuan (rushing dragon), wards off illness and difficulties. 

9/10 – neraca timbangan (balanced scales), one will become a leader of the village.  

10/10 – ular cinta mani, as mentioned before, the ultimate in good luck.  

Otherworldly influences 

Apart from 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.  

Yet, 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 evil.  

This indicates a cultural fusion between Islam and Hinduism, the old religion of the Terengganu Malays.  

“When I spoke to the owner, he said he felt very safe when he lived there,” recalls Lee. 

At another 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 canuar kampung

“It’s a kind of traditional charm that makes a house look more berseri or attractive,” explains Lee.  

The liquid 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 omens. 

Almost every antique house that Lee purchased had bunga halang charms comprising three cloths – white, red and black – on top of the house posts. 

Awie says, “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.” 

Bunga halangcharms comprising three cloths – white, red and black – on top of the house posts.

Awie 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.  

As he intones prayers, Awie throws betih beras (rice pops) near the entrance steps to repel evil influences.  

Is Malay feng shui un-Islamic? Awie says that everything on earth is created by God as a harmonious system.  

“Islam 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.” 

Malay feng 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 of dreams.  

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 explained.  

There are 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? 

According to 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 

In another 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.  

For 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.  

Koh noted 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 mountain range. 

Koh stated that Malaysia has the unique advantage of being home not only to Malay tajul muluk and Chinese feng shui, but also Indian vasthu sastra.  

“Much 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. 

Dr Amir 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.  

One striking similarity is in the “eight points” of divination. The Chinese bagua (eight-sided geomancy compass) is represented by : 

  • Heaven (qian)

  • Earth (kun

  • Thunder (zhen

  • Wind (xun

  • Water (kan

  • Fire (li

  • Mountain (gen

  • Lake (dui

    Dr Amir cites Skeat’s book that says Malay geomancy also has eight points, but is represented by animals:  


  • Dragon (tzaga

  • Dairy cow (sapi

  • Lion (singa

  • Dog (anjing

  • Draught cow (lembu

  • Donkey (keldai

  • Elephant (gajah

  • Crow (gagak

    Each animal 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 prescribes. 

    What about directions? Skeat’s book says the Malays believe a site sloping from a higher south side towards the north would bring “absolute peacefulness”. 

    North, south, gold, silver, third generation – these are words that would surely ring a bell in Chinese feng shui!  

    Another custom to determine the suitability of a particular site involves a mother’s dreams. 

    According to 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 follows: 

    Ho, children 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. 

    Next, wrap 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.  

    Skeat’s 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.  

    However, he feels that not everything should be rejected outright without deeper study.  

    “Some 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.”  

    People-friendly homes 

    StarMag’s 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.  

    He has 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.  

    “Terrace 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. 

    “In the past, our construction was in harmony with the surroundings and community values. 

    “Whether it 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 destroyed.”  

    Dr Amir feels that environmental impact assessments (for construction projects), or EIAs, should take community customs into account.  

    “Right now 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?  

    Dr Amir thinks Malay house-building customs are not just a matter of “faith” but also simple common sense.  

    “Those 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. 

    “There were harmonious aesthetics, and a human sense of scale where neighbours could easily mix.”  

    In other 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 and eco-friendly.  

    In that broader sense, traditional Malay houses certainly had “good feng shui”!



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