The roads lined with shady trees and adorned roundabouts added to the joy of our driving vacation to Perlis. Particularly striking was the sculpture of a gilded tree displayed on a roundabout in the centre of Arau. Most Malaysians would immediately recognise it as a replica of the “bunga emas dan perak” (gold and silver flowers) or simply, Bunga Mas.
Much has been written about this artefact and replicas are on display in several museums, including the National Museum. While scholars continue to unravel its significance in Malaysian history, one can learn about Bunga Mas in a more relaxing manner. Inspired by the huge replica shimmering on a hot afternoon in Arau, we headed towards Kota Kayang, the Perlis State Museum.
Domes of limestones hills, green fields, rectangles of shimmering water, mango plantations and blossoming trees are special features of the Perlis landscape. Kota Kayang is a natural enclave of granite hills located on the way to Kuala Perlis.
This is a shady area surrounded by stark rocky slopes interspersed with boulders, shrubs, swaying trees and cave-like openings. The mausoleum of the Sultan Dhiauddin Mukaram Shah 1, Al Marhum Kayang I (d. 1688), is located here.
Museum Kota Kayang is situated by this historic site and is appropriately designed like a royal abode. The first building gives an insight into the history of Kedah and Perlis and archaeological research in the vicinity.
Several clay tablets pertaining to early civilisation of the area were discovered in the vicinity and are displayed here.
Fortunately, the museum director, Siti Munirah Kasim, happened to be in the gallery. She showed me the precious tablets, engraved with Buddha figurines and text in Sanskrit, and in the Nagari script. The tablets are among the oldest artefacts at the museum and are being studied by scholars at the Centre for Global Archaeological Research, in Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Behind this building stretches a garden – almost magical – against a backdrop of green hills. It continues behind the next two galleries comprising Gallery Kebudayaan and Gallery di Raja. Nearby, restoration work on another old palace is in progress, and several regal looking cars are standing nearby.
These and many documents and artefacts were donated to the museum by the Perlis Royal family. According to the museum director, personal interest of the Raja of Perlis, Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Jamalullail has been instrumental in these new additions to the museum.
Much can be learnt about Bunga Mas from the posters and artefacts on display in the first gallery. From the 17th to the 19th century, Malay Kingdoms of Kedah (which included Perlis), Patani and Terengganu were required to send Bunga Mas tribute to the king of Siam. Besides the tree in gold and silver, weapons embellished with precious stones, betel nut containers, bouquets and spittoons, fine cloth, rings and even slaves were included.
Failure to send a tribute often resulted in Siamese invasions.
The tribute was carried on elephants to the port of Singgora, guarded by warriors, under the leadership of Penghulu Bunga Mas (keeper of royal tribute). Members of the royal family and state aristocracy were part of the entourage. The journey took them through thick jungles, rife with risk of attack by robbers.
Approval of the Raja of Singgora was required before they could proceed to Bangkok on sea barges. In Bangkok, the group waited to be summoned for Royal audience and presented its tribute.
The Siamese king reciprocated with gifts, which had to be taken back home safely. What a daunting task it must have been and not all missions would have been successful. Both ways, the travellers faced threats of robberies, betrayals, attacks by wild animals, snake bites, illnesses, adverse weather conditions and more.
What were the personal narratives of these brave people? Who were the craftsmen? Who were the unfortunate slaves and what happened to them? Many questions related to the Bunga Mas tribute may remain unanswered. What is known is enough to make people appreciate how fortunate it is to be citizens of a free and sovereign nation.
Apart from Bunga Mas, there is much more to see, learn and enjoy at the Kota Kayang Museum located in surroundings rich in history.
Farida Jamal is a member of Museum Volunteers Malaysia. The views expressed are entirely her own.