“TOLONG benarkan saya masuk sekejap. Saya hendak ambil gambar sahaja.“ (Please allow me in for a bit. I‘d like to take some photos).
The guard takes a good hard look at me and after a few tense moments, turns to his companion and tells him to take charge before accompanying me inside. I heave a sigh of relief.
“This is it! I must make the most out of this golden opportunity,“ I tell myself, quickly falling in step behind the lanky guard who is already quite far ahead.
Istana Sepachendera is a pale shadow of its former glory. Standing just a few yards away from the three-storey building, I look sadly at the derelict condition of this former palace. It was once the home of Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah of Kedah and his royal household during the turn of the 20th century.
Time and neglect have taken a heavy toll on the structure, particularly the roof directly above the front balcony. The missing tiles have allowed rainwater to seep in and weaken the supporting wooden beams. Judging from the severe damage, that section must have caved in years ago.
Countless fig trees have taken root among the cracks in the walls. While some are still in their infancy, others are already bearing fruit. The rapidly-growing roots of these parasitic plants are cause for concern. The roots tunnel deep into the crevices, widening them. In years to come even the mightiest buildings crumble.
Many wooden window panes are also missing, leaving ugly gaping holes. Yet, despite all these, I can still imagine how grand this palace must have looked when it was completed in 1882.
Building it in Kampung Baru for his first wife, Che Sepachendera, was among Sultan Abdul Hamid‘s first edicts after he was elected Kedah ruler in 1881. The 17-year-old monarch had abruptly ascended the Kedah throne after his half-brother, Sultan Zainal Rashid Mu‘adzam Shah II, died of suspected poisoning while in detention at Ligor, Nakhon Si Thammarat on Sept 22, 1881.
After moving into Istana Sepachendera on June 11, 1884, the royal couple was blessed with the birth of their first child, Tunku Ibrahim (Tunku Sulong).
“Encik nak masuk?“ (Do you want to enter?) I ask the guard, gesturing to the curved stairway leading to the first floor. He shakes his head and tells me to proceed on my own.
I walk up the stairs slowly and pause halfway as it dawns on me that more than a century ago, Sultan Abdul Hamid, his consorts and their children used this same set of stairs every time they left the palace and returned home.
A GRAND NUPTIAL
My thoughts race back in time to 1904 when the Sultan first began planning for the grandest royal wedding Kedah had ever seen. Arrangements were made for royal matchmakers to seek out the most suitable life partners for five of the monarch‘s children: Tunku Ibrahim, Tunku Zainal Rashid, Tunku Jam Jam, Tunku Rokiah and Tunku Jora.
Istana Sepachendera, together with all the other royal palaces within the Kota Star area that housed the Sultan‘s large extended family, must have been a hive of activity then.
It took two years for all the formalities and wedding details to be finalised. Finally on June 15, 1906 people from all over the state made a beeline for Alor Star to celebrate the joyous occasion that many dubbed the “Three Million Dollar Wedding“.
All districts within the realm were instructed to send representatives to participate in the celebrations. The invited dignitaries came with caravans laden with rice, poultry and buffaloes — enough food for the celebrations, which was slated to last three months.
Large temporary halls or balai were built in the padang (field) in front of the Balai Besar, close to the old Masjid Zahir.
The State Mosque in its current form was only built in 1912, some six years after the royal wedding took place. At the time of the nuptials, Masjid Zahir was just a small wooden structure and could only accommodate a small congregation at any one time.
Back then, the grounds around the mosque served as burial sites for members of the royal family and distinguished nobles. A portion of the makam or mausoleum became the resting place for the gallant Malay warriors who gave their lives defending Kuala Kedah Fort against Siamese attacks in the early part of the 19th century.
It is believed that a multifold increase in mosque attendance during the royal wedding period prompted Sultan Abdul Hamid to speed up the already existing plans to build a larger and better equipped place of worship for the people. The new mosque, built with bricks and mortar, was designed to accommodate future expansion with minimal fuss. When presiding over the opening ceremony, the Sultan decreed that to preserve the sanctity of the place, the surrounding compound would be converted into a garden complete with gushing fountains and flowing streams.
In anticipation of a large number of attendees and also taking into consideration the extended period of festivities, the Sultan ordered an additional five ship-load of supplies from Penang. There was much excitement among the people when the flotilla sailed towards the Harbour Master‘s office at Tanjong Chali. The dried foods were expeditiously transported by a train of bullock carts to their temporary storage area at the Jalan Bahru Malay School. Unfortunately, the classroom floorboards gave way a few days later due to the immense weight. A work team had to be dispatched to rectify the damage.
Throughout the entire three months, Alor Star residents from various cultural and religious background joined hands to help ensure that there would be no glitches to the planned programmes. They formed work groups to build temporary sleeping quarters for visitors as well as maintain the general cleanliness of the town. In return, each group was given a daily ration of one gunny sack of rice and two buffaloes.
Peering through the doorway at the top of the stairs, I was hoping to get a better picture of how the Kedah royal family once lived. But my hopes are dashed! The entire palace has been thoroughly gutted. Even the floorboards have been taken away! I find myself precariously standing at a precipice, staring down at a 6m drop! No wonder the security guard had told me to be extra cautious when I stepped past the barricade earlier.
Walking down the stairs, I begin to imagine the five royal princes and princesses with their retinue of servants trooping down these very steps, making their way towards the waiting carriages. The Sultan and his consorts could very well have been standing where I‘m standing, bidding farewell to their loved ones as the procession headed towards Istana Pelamin (now the Royal Museum). There, the royal children would undergo final preparations for their big day.
While all the royal wedding istiadat (custom) were largely confined to the daylight hours, the nights were primarily reserved for the people to indulge in merrymaking. Various performances were organised all over town. Although there were nightly Malay, Siamese, Indian and Chinese stage shows, the majority of the crowd was drawn to the four large ronggeng halls. The people had the time of their lives, mesmerised by dance troupes from Penang and Singapore.
Despite spending what would have been the equivalent of around RM78 million in today‘s money, the royal wedding only brought Sultan Abdul Hamid short-term joy. The monarch, who had been sickly since 1896, saw his health deteriorate after the wedding. To make matters worse, Che Sepachendera passed away three years later, in 1909. The sultan was so heartbroken he vowed never to live in Istana Sepachendera again. Many believed that the memories of his favourite consort were too much to bear.
The palace was left empty until 1922 when Tunku Ibrahim decided that enough time had passed since his mother‘s demise. He turned the palace into the Kampung Baru Girls‘ School, the first English school solely for girls in the state.
Throughout his 62-year-reign, Sultan Abdul Hamid had at least seven wives who bore him more than 40 children.
The Sultan‘s 20th child, born of his fifth wife Che Manjalara, was our Father of Independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj. Born in 1903, he spent his early childhood playing with his many siblings before leaving for Bangkok and subsequently, England, to further his studies. Tunku could very well have spent time at Istana Sepachendera during his halcyon days in Alor Star.