A SLEEPY town scattered with old kampung houses and undisturbed greenery, the peace and calm at Kampung Gajah, some 80km from Ipoh, belies the turmoil that took place there over a century ago.
Historically known as Pasir Salak, it was here that J.W.W. Birch was speared to death by followers of local Malay chief Dato Maharaja Lela Pandak Lam Maulud while the first British Resident of Perak was taking a bath on his boat moored on the Sungai Perak riverbank.
The events of Nov 2, 1875, eventually led to the trial and hanging of Maharaja Lela and fellow Malay chief Dato Sagor Ngah Kamaddin Radin Lop as well as Pandak Indut and Si Puntum who had carried out the killing, while Sultan Abdullah Mahmud Shah II was deposed and exiled to the Seychelles.
The rebellion against the British at Pasir Salak, which inspired later generations to fight against British powers, is told through interesting dioramas at the history time tunnel of the Pasir Salak Historical Complex.
On its grounds also lies the site of Birch’s killing and a monument erected by Birch’s son, the eighth Resident of Perak E.W. Birch, in memory of his father’s assassination while Si Puntum’s grave lies under a jackfruit tree at a cemetery opposite the historical complex.
A guide told StarMetro that rather than just tell the story of Birch and Maharaja Lela and the Malay struggle towards independence, the Pasir Salak Historical Complex gave visitors an insight into the local history and culture of local folk.
“The Rumah Kutai at the historical complex, which literally means old house, is an actual traditional kampung house built at around 1896.
“Such houses were built facing Sungai Perak and found only in Perak Tengah, Hilir Perak and Kuala Kangsar,” he said.
As padi cultivation was traditionally the main source of economy for Kampung Gajah, it is only fitting that the historical complex is the conservation site for the nation’s last remaining pentas belotah.
“Built some two metres above ground, farmers used to dance on the trampoline-like bamboo floor of the harvest dance stage to separate the padi from its husk.
“The stage can accommodate eight to 10 dancers at any one time,” he added.
Kampung Gajah is not the only place in the sub-district of Perak Tengah that holds some of Perak’s most important historical artefacts.
The resting grounds of three Perak Rulers, namely, Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Shah (third sultan), Sultan Mahmud Iskandar Shah (11th sultan), Sultan Alaudin Mughayat Riayat Shah (12th sultan), are located in Kampung Jawa, Pulau Tiga.
Elsewhere at the Kampung Bendang Besar Muslim cemetery in Kampung Cantik lies the remains of Imam Perang Ngah Jabor, a right-hand man of Maharaja Lela, who was a key figure in the war against the British from 1875 to 1876.
Compared to over a century back when the river was akin to the modern day expressway and Kampung Gajah was a focal point in the administrative and economic sense, motorists now merely pass by the town while on their way to Teluk Intan – taking notice only of its police station, a monument of the labu, nyiru and terendak, and the few buildings that dot its main traffic light intersection.
Interestingly though, a small town like Kampung Gajah has something that Ipoh doesn’t – a race circuit.
Built in the 1990s, the Dato Sagor Circuit has made it possible for young local riders like Argentina Motorcycle Grand Prix 2016 Moto3 race champion Khairul Idham Pawi to excel in motorsports.
Potter Shamsuddin Abd Majid, 54, said until 1997 when the Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority Bhd (Felcra) set up plant in Changkat Lada, local folk planted padi and cocoa as well as tapped rubber.
“Now, 80% of people here work in oil palm plantations while the young have migrated to Ipoh and the Klang Valley in search of greener pastures,” said Shamsuddin.
Unknown to many, Kampung Gajah is also famous for its pottery although the number of workshops there has significantly reduced over the years.
Just like the labu sayong which is synonymous with Sayong in Kuala Kangsar, the labu pulau tiga is unique to Pulau Tiga in Kampung Gajah.
Shamsuddin said unlike the labu sayong, which was made of earth from the river or fields, the labu pulau tiga was moulded from terracotta earth from the jungle.
“Also, we do not smoke our water pitchers with coconut husks over woodfire to turn it black in colour.
“The most obvious difference between the two is that patterns are carved on the labu sayong whereas the labu pulau tiga is adorned with applied flowers, leaves and fruits,” he explained.
Shamsuddin said the six potters, still involved in the 200-year-old trade, were all related as they were descended from his great-grandmother Hajar Safiah and grandmother Hajar Rokiah Idris, who lived up to 130 years old.