The mysterious peaks we sing of in “Di Tanjong Katong”

26 12 2017

The tune “Di Tanjong Katong”, a National song, is one we are most familiar with in Singapore. The lyrics of the song contain this rather peculiar verse:

Pulau Pandan jauh ke tengah,
Gunung Daik bercabang tiga;
Hancur badan dikandung tanah,
Budi yang baik dikenang jua.

While the lines of the verse, which seem to have little to do with Tanjong Katong and with Singapore, are borrowed from an age-old Malay pantun or poem, they seem to want to invoke an unexplained longing for the places that are named.

Tanjong Katong

Di Tanjong Katong.

Singapore’s obsession with its recent past has allowed an amnesia for the time when Singapore’s place was in the Malay world has set in, a time when singing of three peaks of Daik (the line “Gunung Daik bercabang tiga” translates into “Mount Daik has three peaks”) might not at all have sounded odd. The distinctive summit of Daik is a most and recognisable of features on Pulau Lingga, an island that is thought of by some as the Malay world’s motherland1. Lingga is spoken of as a heartland of the Malay culture and language and it is on Lingga, where Malay is spoken in one of its purest forms.

Gunung Daik bercabang tiga.

Pulau Lingga took its place in the old Johor empire of the 16th to 19th centuries as an outpost the sultans could find a retreat in being located at the southern reaches of the widely spread sultanate. Positioned along an ancient maritime trade route to Palembang and Jambi, principal centres in the days of Srivijaya, and there are suggestions that it may have already come to prominence well before it served as a Johor outpost.  Paul Michel Munoz, in his 2006 book “Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and Malay Peninsula”, opines that the island kingdom identified by Marco Polo as “Malaiur” in accounts of his return voyage to Europe could quite possibly have been Lingga – based on estimates provided of distances travelled [Malaiur is a name that was also associated with a Malay kingdom centred around Jambi in Sumatra, which was at one time also part of the Srivijaya empire].

Pulau Lingga also took its place as the seat of Johor’s royal court on two occasions; in 1618, when the capital was moved there as the Acehnese threatened, only for the capital to be sacked by the Portuguese in 1625. Old Johor’s last sultan, also moved to Lingga in 1787, in an attempt to isolate his court from the Bugis, whose increasing influence meant that they were effectively running the sultanate from its capital in the Riau. The turning point for Lingga came with its breakup, a point at which the Dutch and the British were extending their influence. Singapore, in which old Johor could trace its roots to once again prospered when the British East India Company set up its trading post while Lingga was left to the remnants of a sultanate that had lost its clout.

Lingga (Lingen) in relation to Singapore (Pulo Panjang) in an 18th century Hydrographic Chart seen in the National Archives of Singapore’s online site. (http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/maps_building_plans/record-details/755f2349-a18d-11e6-9af5-0050568939ad).

The advances of the modern world has not made it much easier to get to Lingga and the group of islands around it that takes its name. The islands, now also part of the Lingga Regency within the Riau Islands province, are served by ferry services from Batam or Bintan. Even with the fast ferry, it involves a four-hour journey. This I had the chance to find out for myself when I made the same journey to attend the four-day Festival Gunung Daik, at the kind invitation of the Lingga Regency. With invitations extended to groups outside of Indonesia for the first time, the festival, which was held from 19 to 22 November, attracted an invasion of several hundreds.

On the road to Dabo on Pulau Singkep.

Dabo, on the more populated island of Pulau Singkep, was best equipped to absorb this influx. A 45-minute road journey from Singkep’s northern maritime gateway at Jago, Dabo wears the look of an town which has left its best days behind. It was indeed the case. The town grew out of the riches the extraction of Singkep’s sizeable deposits of tin had provided, until some two decades ago when the last of the mines closed. The extraction of a deposit, found in the darkened interiors of the narrow and windowless structures that now dot Dabo’s urban landscape, seems to be a new but less lucrative gold. The dark spaces mimic the caves in which swiftlets nest and the nests, which the birds make with deposits of their saliva and nesting material, are much valued by the Chinese for their purported medicinal properties.

A disused mining pool that scars Pulau Singkep’s landscape.

The sleepy town’s main draw, at least for the Singaporeans I was with, was an old coffeeshop named Bintang Timur. Time seems to have stood completely still in this Chinese owned coffee shop and the Eastern Star is very much reminiscent of the kopitiams of the Singapore of decades past. If not for the lack of time, it would quite easy for me to waste a morning away over a cup or two of the kopitiam’s strong aromatic brew, made just as it was in the coffeeshops of old Singapore.

Time stands still at the Kedai Kopi Bintang Timur.

The town has culinary offerings that may also delight the Singaporean. Fried kway teow, seemingly prepared exclusively by Chinese men with well weathered faces from roadside pushcarts, is a local favourite. So is laske (or laksa), prepared and served in a manner that will explain the many ways a dish of laksa is served across the region.In Dabo, its base is a noodle made from coils of sago starch. The dish is served fried or as we are used to in Singapore, with a delicious spicy gravy poured over.

A char kway teow seller in Dabo.

In the evenings, a more substantial meal can be obtained from the town’s ikan bakar or grilled fish stalls, which are probably the town’s real treat. In addition to having fresh catch from the sea grilled over a fire, there also is the opportunity to savour it served in the more sweet than sour version of asam pedas gravy popular in these parts.

A popular ikan bakar stall.

The guidebooks point to Dabo’s religious buildings as its tourist sights. The town’s mosque is impressive, as is a large Chinese temple. The temple, the Klenteng Cetiya Dharma Ratna, and a large building in the vicinity in which the local Chinese association is housed, suggests that there is a substantial immigrant Chinese community in Dabo. Some in the community apparently have ties with Singapore. As with much of the Nanyang, the community’s forefathers arrived as part of the diaspora of southern Chinese to the region in the 19th century. In Dabo’s case the tin mines provided work. Today the Chinese run many of the local businesses. Beside being involved in the birds’ nest trade, there also are a number of  food and beverage outlets and sundry shops owned by the Chinese. Chinese vendors can also be found in the town’s pair of markets. The markets, one for the sale of fish and the other for vegetables are both worth a look at.

Klenteng Cetiya Dharma Ratna.

A vegetable seller at Dabo’s Vegetable Market.

Chinese labourers working at the Singkep Tin Company eating a meal (photo: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures via Wikipedia Commons). Many Chinese came over to Singkep to work in the tin mines.

The townsfolk’s favourite spots lie further afield. These include a waterfall, several beaches, a hot spring bath, and an oddity of an attraction in the form of an awkwardly positioned cannon. The artillery piece, the meriam tegak, is found at the edge of a beach southeast of Dabo. Buried with only its upwardly aligned muzzle exposed, the locals offer several explanations for the odd alignment. One thing that the differing accounts agree on is that the contributing factor for the cannon’s position is the wrath of a woman!

Meriam Tegak.

The cannon is close to Dabo’s favourite beach, Pantai Batu Berdaun. A popular spot for swimming and a picnic, the beach is named after a rock on which a tree is perched – the “leafy rock” or “batu berdaun“. A house with a curious collection of animals in its compound near the rock was however the centre of attention. It turned out that the house was some kind of animal shelter. The animals, all of which were abandoned, had been taken in and cared for by the house’s kind owner.

Pantai Batu Berdaun.

An animal shelter near Pantai Batu Berdaun.

The waterfall and the hot spring bath will take a little more effort in getting to. The 3km long unmetalled road to the spring bath provides more than a bumpy ride. The path it takes is interesting as it is line with the large waterlogged scars that the extraction of tin has left on the landscape. The baths, which are especially popular with the local folk, seemed much less appealing in the tropical heat as compared to the cool waters found in the pools at the waterfall at Batu Ampar.

Batu Ampar Waterfalls.

The hot spring baths.

The less populated Pulau Lingga with its three projections does have a lot more mystery about it. Lingga, which lies on the Equator just north of Singkep, actually derives its name from the tallest and largest of the three high points. The projection, also named Daik, was thought in the old days to resemble a linggam – Sanskrit for phallus.

A view towards Lingga and its three pronged peak of Mount Daik from Jago on Pulau Singkep.

Penarik near Daik.

Among Lingga’s main attractions is the Resun Falls – the largest waterfall in the Province of the Riau Islands. There are also several  sites that will provide some understanding of Lingga’s colourful past. One, the Museum Linggam Cahaya, has an interesting collection of artefacts. Some show the external links the island had, and a sense of the position it held. Pottery on display, recovered from the depths, include pieces that are thought to date to Song dynasty China. The museum’s most noticeable and popular exhibit is however from a more modern event and is a skeleton of a curious and yet to be identified creature from the deep, named locally as a “Gajah Mina” or Sea Elephant. The bones are from one that was found on the shores of Lingga and one of two similar carcasses that washed up in the Riau Islands in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

Museum Linggam Cahaya.

The island’s historical sites provide links to the Lingga of the last days of the Johor Empire and to the Lingga of the post Johor days when it was the seat of the Riau-Lingga sultanate. One is the ruins of Istana Damnah, a 19th century palace built in Daik by during the reign of Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam II (1857-1883), which lies close to the museum. An adjacent site contains a 2002 interpretation of the palace and its main hall, the Balairung Seri. Left abandoned after the Dutch took positive control of Lingga in 1911 and with Riau-Lingga’s last sultan, Abdul Rahman II, having fled to Singapore, the original wooden palace was left to fall into ruin.

Ruins of Istana Damnah.

Another view of the site of Istana Damnah.

The replica Istana Damnah as seen from the replica Balairung Seri.

The site of the Lubuk Papan baths is also nearby. A bathing spot used by those in the palace, the baths were located at a bend in the Tanda River. Today, concrete sides and gazebos placed around it have altered the charm the baths would have had. A natural stretch does exist upstream and this may provide some sense of the attraction as a bathing spot that the entire bend may have had.

Finding peace upstream from the Lubuk Papan baths.

A former fort at Benteng Bukit Cening, and the graves of several of Lingga’s rulers, pre and post break-up are some of Daik’s other royal sites.  Old Johor’s last sultan, Mahmud Shah III, is buried at Daik’s Masjid Jami’ Sultan Lingga. The remains of his son, the half-brother of Hussein of Singapore and Johor and the Riau-Lingga’s sultanate’s first ruler, Abdul Rahman I, can be found on Bukit Cengkeh.

The concretised Lubuk Papan baths at Daik.


Getting there:

There are fast ferry services (daily I believe) from either Tanjung Punggur on Batam or Tanjung Pinang on Bintan to Jago in the north of Pulau Singkep and it typically involves a 4 hour journey. Jago in the north of Singkep is a 45 minute drive to its main town, Dabo.  There also are ferry services between Jago and Tanjung Buton on Pulau Lingga. Getting around seems quite challenging and recommendations range from hiring ojeks (motorcycle taxis) or renting motorcycles. It would be best to inquire locally.

For travel products such as ferry tickets, hotels booking and, local tours and transfers in the Riau (primarily Batam and Bintan), do visit Wow Getaways.  More information on the Riau Islands can be found at https://discover.wowgetaways.com/.

Jago, one of the maritime entry points into Pulau Singkep.


Note:

1 One who feels strongly about this is Ahmad Dahlan, Batam’s mayor from 2006 to 2016 and a student of Malay history. In his 2014 book “Sejarah Melayu”, he speaks of the move Sultan Mahmud Shah III’s court to Daik in 1787, even if it was in an effort to isolate himself, as a return to the the mother’s lap.


Lingga and Singkep in photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/47093227@N03/albums/72157690104466625
https://www.flickr.com/photos/47093227@N03/albums/72157689803316854


 

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Monoscapes: Dawn on the strait

18 04 2013

7.20 am on the last day of March 2013, a man is seen casting a net, dwarfed by the silhouettes of towering structures of the approaching new world. The casting of the net, was an economic activity on the strait which was common in times past. Economic activities of the modern world have in the last four decades or so, made their appearance on the strait, and have made the activities of the old world less relevant.

IMG_0200

The Straits of Johor where this photograph was taken, also known as the Tebrau Strait or Selat Tebrau, was once the domain of a group of sea dwellers, a nomadic people referred to as the Orang Laut (which translates to “Sea People”) or Sea Gypsies. The sub-group of the Orang Laut,  referred to as the Orang Seletar or in their own language, Kon Seletar, moved around on boats which also served as homes through mangroves which once dominated both sides of the strait, living off the waters. The boats they lived on were about 20 feet long with a stove at one end and their dwellings at the other end under an awning of sorts.

The suggestions are that the group, who had already established themselves in the area well before Raffles landed in 1819 – it was reported that there were an estimated 200 Orang Seletar living on some 30 boats in Singapore when Raffles landed, took its name from the Sungei Seletar or Seletar River – which once spilled into the strait (it has since been dammed at its mouth).

Another suggestion is that the group had in fact given their name to the river. Seletar is also a name that the northern coastal area of Singapore which included what is Sembawang today (Sembawang Road was originally called Seletar Road) became known as. Seletar Island which is close to the mouth of Sungei Simpang, had in fact hosted a community of Orang Seletar up to 1967 or so.

One of the last to settle on land, the Orang Seletar have today largely assimilated into the larger Malay society and a greater number of them now live on the Johor side of the strait. In Singapore, there were several individuals from the community who intermarried and settled in Kampong Tanjong Irau. The kampong was also known to be the home of some Orang Kallang, another Orang Laut group who were originally from the mouth of the Kallang River who had initially been displaced from places such as Kampong Kallang Rokok on the Kallang River, moving first to the Seletar area. The construction of the airbase at Seletar meant they had to move again and some chose to move westwards to Tanjong Irau.





Kalang kabut, cabut! Close encounters of a slithery kind …

2 08 2010

As a child, the sea provided me with an endless source of fun. By day, I could splash in its cool green waters or play by the water’s edge, allowing breaking waves to come crashing on me. I often longed for the feel of salt on my skin, dried by the soothing warmth of the sun. When the tide went out, the sea provided a different kind of fun … the shallow waters off Changi Beach particularly offering access to the wealth of fascinating creatures that lived amongst the sea grass: crabs, sea urchins, giant starfish, sea cucumber, hermit crabs, horseshoe crabs, fiddler crabs, sand dollars, sea snails and even shrimps which I could catch a glimpse of by looking for the two black eyes that stood out in contrast to the sandy bottom. Armed with a butterfly net, I could catch a harvest of edible flower crabs, sea snails (what we sometimes refer to as gong gong in Singapore), and shrimp, which could be cooked over an open fire once I got back to the beach. By night, the sea was another prospect altogether, and with the help of a companion shinning a light which attracted fish to it, there was a lot that I could catch from the sea with the same butterfly net. The sea off Sembawang near the Mata Jetty was particularly enjoyable, as we could catch a variety of small puffer fish which would inflate every time I managed to catch one.

The shallow waters during low tide off Changi Beach provided hours of endless fun with the creatures that lived amongst the sea grass. A fiddler crab is seen here.

The giant red Knobbly Sea Star was also a common sight.

With all that fun to be had by the sea, holidays taken by the sea became a natural choice I guess, my parents opting to take them at the holiday bungalows in Tanah Merah, Mata Ikan and Changi, or often on the drives to Malaysia: Prot Dickson on the West Coast and Kemaman on the East Coast was a popular choice for them. It was on one of these holidays in Malaysia, this time closer to home, at Masai close to the Pasir Gudang area on the Malaysian side of the Straits of Johor, that, where in previous instances we had been oblivious to some of the hazards that the sea posed to us, that we became more careful whenever we went into the sea. I was perhaps about eight then and we were in Masai with a group of my parents’ friends, mostly teachers, which included a few children around of my age group, staying at some rather run down chalets by the beach. We had our usual dose of fun splashing in the gentle waves, and playing on the beach. Evenings were spent around an open fire on the beach exchanging stories about pontianaks, hantu galas, hantu momoks and all kinds of hantus (hantu is Malay for ghost). On the beach, with a torch in hand, someone had noticed the abundance of anchovies that darted around the water, attracted by the light and it was then that the adults decided to wade into the shallow waters to see if we could catch any, with nets fashioned from the shirts and singlets that the men wore. The children of course did not need an invitation to follow the adults, following a few paces behind as screams of glee accompanied the sight of the silvery harvest jumping as shirts was lifted from the water.

A banded Sea Krait, similar to the one I encountered in Masai (photo credit: Craig D)

Fifteen, perhaps twenty minutes into the excited frenzy, a scream of panic burst through the shouts of excitement – “Snake, snake!” came a cry which was followed with silence before pandemonium broke as everyone made for the safety of the beach. Boys, being boys, we somehow had fun in the process, adding to the commotion with screams of “kalang-kabut, cabut” (kalang-kabut is a colloquial term that I guess can be roughly translated as a chaotic frenzy, while cabut is in this context is to run away), not realising that in the midst of all that, one of my parents’ friends, had somehow run into the path of the escaping snake (sea snakes are usually not aggressive but they do possess some of the most potent venoms which can kill a person within half an hour). Safely ashore, we watched in silence as the dark complexioned friend emerged from the water, looking pale as if he had seen a ghost, followed by one of the older boys who had somehow managed to kill the snake with a wooden plank, with the trophy of the dead black and white banded snake. A closer inspection of the leg of the poor fellow revealed two fang marks near his ankle and he was attended to by another of my parents’ friend who was a nurse and sent to a nearby clinic. Fortunately, the victim survived, it turned out that no venom had been released into the bite and other than the two marks and a fright of his life, my parents’ friend was none the worse for the encounter. After the experience, we were a lot more careful about entering the water to catch fish at night … I suppose the fish that had been attracted by the lights had also attracted snakes as well … choosing usually not to go in … on the occasions that we did, we never ventured far out, choosing to stay close to shore … and often jumping at the sight of a slithering eel…








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