CONTRACTORS digging up the vicinity of the century-old Masjid Jamek in Kuala Lumpur for the River of Life (RoL) project stumbled upon several gravestones believed to be from the early 18th century.
So far more than 45 gravestones, mostly granite and a few marble as well as sandstone ones dating back almost 200 years were found buried near the construction site from December 2015 to March this year.
It is learnt that the RoL project conservator had alerted workers who are currently constructing a water fountain at the site to be on the lookout for more artefacts to emerge.
The site where the project is taking shape was a Muslim cemetery two centuries ago.
The gravestones that were recovered were tagged and put aside to be studied. It is yet to be established which party will be studying the gravestones.
National Heritage site
The Masjid Jamek area and its surroundings have been declared a National Heritage site by the National Heritage Commission (JWN).
Contractors have been told that any artefacts found at the site are subject to the compliance with the National Heritage Act 2005 and the workers have a legal responsibility to report any findings to JWN.
“These are exciting discoveries,’’ said Masjid Jamek head administrator, Ustaz Mohd Faisal Tan Mutalib.
“Our knowledge of the area’s history is limited, but what we do know is that there was a Muslim graveyard here in the early 18th century,’’ Mohd Faisal said.
“The graveyard was relocated to Jalan Ampang in several phases between early 1900s to the late 1970s.
“There were expectations that some remnants of it would show up sooner or later ever since construction began,’’ he said.
“To find old gravestones, some with legible writing on it from 18th century is wonderful,’’ Mohd Faisal added.
The 108-year-old Masjid Jamek is currently undergoing major upgrading works which is part of the RM4bil RoL project.
Phase 1, which started in 2012 involved the exterior and interior of the mosque, while phase 2 involves landscaping work.
Masjid Jamek, is under Precinct 7, which is one of the 11 precincts under the 10.7km RoL project and is being developed into a riverfront esplanade.
Must be documented
Mohd Faisal said more than 100 years ago, the area where the mosque sits was called Kampung Rawa.
“The village was sandwiched between Jawa Street (now Jalan Tun Perak) and Malay Street.
The site included the entire stretch that is now Burger King, 7-Eleven and the Masjid Jamek LRT station.
It was the first official Muslim cemetery in Kuala Lumpur.
During the late 1800s, the confluence of Sungai Klang and Sungai Gombak was the centre of commercial activities.
The community who lived here were mostly Malays from the Rawa, Mendaling, Minangkabau, Javanese and Bugis tribe who formed the early settlers of Kuala Lumpur carrying out tin mining work for a living.
“Those days, when people died, their bodies would be buried in front of their homes. So it is not surprising to find old gravestones in this area.
“Some of them are quite grand and beautiful.
“It needs to be documented,’’ said Mohd Faisal.
“Back in the day, prominent Acehnese merchants would travel with their gravestones with them.
“Some of the stones have unique deigns which must be studied further,’’ he said.
Faisal added that the early Malay settlers lived in the northern side of the Klang River while the Chinese settlers occupied the southern part.
A consultant attached with Ekovest Bhd, who was appointed the project delivery partner of the RoL project, said: “We have been finding all sorts of artefacts from the project site since late last year. First it was broken ceramic bowls, glasses, bottles and pots,’’ he said.
“The first few gravestones emerged on the last few days of December last year.
“Some of them looked quite fancy, while others had Jawi scripts embossed on them,’’ he said.
One of the gravestones was of Achehnese influence as seen on the lotus-like design on its head.
The consultant said that in 2013, contractors working at the site unearthed an old staircase adjoining Masjid Jamek, which was long forgotten.
The staircase was part of the original mosque design from more than a hundred years ago.
Meanwhile, advocates for conservation are calling for transparency over the findings as they say that the gravestones are a matter of public interest and that people should be made aware of its existence.
“The descendents have the right to know about these discoveries and they should be told,’’ said International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) Malaysia chairman Datuk Hajeedar Majid.
“Some of the inscriptions on the gravestones are legible, with dates and names as well as time of birth and death. People must be informed about this,’’ he added.
Hajeedar, who is also the National Heritage Council chairman, urged those handling the project to report and surrender all artefacts to JWN, who is the right authority to study the gravestones.
Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Global Archaeological Research officer Shaiful Idzwan Shahidan said the discovery was tangible proof of the early Malay settlement in the city.
“It must be documented and studied further and we urge conservators and the Government to work hand-in-hand to find out more about the gravestones,’’ Shaiful said.
“We don’t know what else is down there. It would be exciting to find out,’’ he added.
Heritage expert and author Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, who is writing a book titled Sutan Puasa: Founder of Kuala Lumpur 1800s-1908 said it was common knowledge that the Masjid Jamek site was previously a Muslim burial ground.
“Construction must stop. This would be the case in Europe where there is protection of heritage value.
“The relevant authorities, Heritage Commission and Icomos should be notified immediately,’’ he said.
“There are laws covering antiquities, historic and heritage sites.
“Masjid Jamek is sacred and historic, and as such should be treated with the utmost care and respect,’’ Lubis added.
“Kuala Lumpur has lost most of its old treasures. This is probably the last remaining one; therefore its integrity should be protected,’’ he said.