Known as Raja Mahmud before ascending the throne, Raja Melewar had arrived from Pagar Ruyong in western Sumatra, Indonesia – the Minangkabau heartland – at the invitation of local chieftains.
Visitors to Negri Sembilan can have their memory jogged on all these historical facts at the Rembau museum, which is also a replica of the first Yamtuan Besar’s palace – Astana Raja Melewar.
The ascension of Raja Melewar marked the founding of the royal house of Negri Sembilan, which later gave the nation its first king – Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Abdul Rahman Tuanku Muhammad.
Raja Melewar reigned until his passing in 1795, when another prince from Pagar Ruyong – Yamtuan Hitam – was made the new ruler by the Dato’ Undang Luak, a council of ruling chiefs from the districts of Rembau, Sungai Ujong, Johol and Jelebu.
This set in motion the unique tradition by which the state’s Yamtuan Besar is appointed to this day. As such, Rembau holds a special place in the state’s history, although the royal town of Seri Menanti in Kuala Pilah district is today the seat of the Negri royals.
Located in Kampung Astana Raja, which borders Lubok Cina, Melaka, vistors to the museum can also learn about Adat Perpatih (matrilineal customs) unique to Negri Sembilan.
There are exhibits detailing the significance of Minangkabau customs and traditions including ceremonial items, weaponry, traditional musical instruments and wedding paraphernalia like cucuk sanggul (bride’s hair accessory) and dokoh (tiered pendant).
Within the museum, visitors will find an intricately carved wall panel made of cengal wood salvaged from a traditional Minangkabau house.
The wall features a 1.2m-high doorway which is typical of Minangkabau homes.
Museum employee Norizan Mohd Nor said Raja Melewar was declared the ruler of Negri Sembilan at Penajis, a stone’s throw away from the museum.
The Rembau district encompasses the towns of Rembau, Kota, Chengkau, Chembong and Pedas, among others, which are easily accessible from Seremban via the old trunk road to Tampin, or the Pedas-Linggi exit on the North-South Expressway.
The museum is located close to Kota, where village houses still boast traditional Minangkabau architecture such as the iconic curved buffalo-horn roofs.
Kota is also the gateway to Gunung Datuk Recreational Forest, a hiking destination where herds of buffalo can still be seen roaming freely.
It takes about two hours to ascend the 2,900m peak but the hike is worth the effort for its panoramic views of the Titiwangsa range.
From here, visitors can make their way to Rembau town. Along the way are stalls selling local produce such as petai, fruits and salai or smoked meats.
The town is divided into old and new sections, with the older part housing century-old shophouses.
Before the opening of the NSE, Rembau was an important pit stop on the main trunk road to Melaka.
Ode to hometown
Today, the town is pretty quiet on weekdays.
Still, locals are very proud of their heritage and some have even immortalised their hometown in song.
In 2013, hip-hop artiste Muzzammil Alias better known as W.A.R.I.S, put the town on the map with his hit Rembau Most Wanted.
The title track of his first album highlighted his roots and mentioned several local spots including Mui Fong, a Hainanese restaurant.
Its proprietor Leong Sua Thong, 69, has been running the eatery for over 40 years and serves Hainanese fare such as chicken chop, Hailam noodles, laksa, chicken rice, and steamed bread with kaya (a type of caramelised spread).
Two years ago, the restaurant was also featured in a short video by Rembau MP Khairy Jamaluddin in conjunction with Chinese New Year.
In the clip, Khairy learned how to prepare traditional Chinese-style steamed fish while his son Jibreil captured the experience on his smartphone.
Ramesh Patel, a social worker who runs a children’s home, old folk’s home and centre for the disabled, has fond recollections of the town.
His family ran a furniture shop in Pedas, located 7km away and he attended the Undang Rembau English School in the 1950s and 1960s.
“The school was named after the Undang Rembau, who is the chief of the district.
“He was a respected figure,” he said.
The current Undang Rembau, Datuk Lela Maharaja Datuk Muhamad Sharif Othman, resides in the town.
Ramesh also recalled the festive-like atmosphere in town when the villagers would come to do their shopping.
“Back then, wives whose husbands served in the military would receive their allowances on the 5th and 25th of the month.
“We did not have a bank and the village folk would come to the post office in town to collect their allowance and do their shopping.
“The town used to be very busy on those days,” he said, adding that the Rembau railway station was also once a major transportation hub.
Little remains of the old station which underwent a massive upgrade under KTM Bhd’s Seremban-Gemas Electrified Double Tracking Project.
In recent years, the fields of education and industry have also been transforming the district.
Several institutions of higher education and skills training centres are located in Rembau.
It is home to a 32.4ha Universiti Teknologi Mara campus.
In nearby Pedas is an industrial training institute.
The town is also famous for its hot springs and a water park resort with piped water from the springs.
Right next door is land earmarked for a 200-bed private medical centre.
Construction of the RM1.2bil project which will include rehabilitation, training, research and development facilities, as well as a four-star hotel and convention centre, is slated to begin mid-year and be completed by 2022.
Another major industrial facility is in Chembong, a small town just before Pedas.
The largest tenant of the Chembong Industrial Park is Nestle Malaysia --- its Milo production facility is the biggest worldwide, with a capacity of some 108,000 tonnes annually.
The plant employs 900 workers, which is the largest workforce among the company’s six Malaysian factories.
Locals hope that these new developments will help put the town and district in the spotlight once again.