Astana Sri Menanti - Negri Sembilan Malaysia



The blueprint of astana sri menanti. courtesy of arkib negara malaysia

Before the arrival of the Minangkabau people from Sumatra, Negri Sembilan was a large piece of virgin rainforest with only a few areas inhabited by tribes although many of the areas were already in the possession of Malay chiefs. The original people of Negri Sembilan were made up of three indigenous tribes, that is; the Biduanda, the Bersisi and the Jakun. These indigenous tribes practised the age-old methods of slash-and-burn cultivation.

Then came the Minangkabau people from Sumatra. They settled into villages and began farming and tilling the large tracks of land, which they had bought from the local chiefs with as little as token gifts. When an ancestor of the Negri Sembilan royal family came over from Sumatra, he was awed by the endless fields of golden paddy waiting to be harvested and thus named the area Sri Menanti (glorious waiting).

The minangkabau houses stand proud of their heritage in Bukit Tinggi, Sumatra. Rumah Gading refers to the family home run by the women in the family and passed down generations through their lineage - A matriachal society

Following the assassination of Sultan Mahmud of Johor, Johor had fallen into disarray and many factions were fighting for the rights to the throne. The Minangkabau people were left without an overlord and the Johore sultanate was too weak to defend them. The Minangkabau eventually asked permission to appoint their own ruler and the Sultan of Johore relented. A Sumatran prince by the name of Raja Melewar was sent over and was made the first Yang Di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan. Raja Melewar set up his royal capital at Sri Menanti in the Kuala Pilah district. He was accorded the ceremonial privileges of Malay rulers but he had no real power. He had no authority to raise taxes and had to rely on mas manah, or gifts from his influential subjects for the upkeep of his courts. The rulers of the various districts held power and decisions to the governing of the state and poor Raja Melewar position was reduced to the lord of Sri Menanti. However, to his subjects and the Sultans of other States, Raja Melewar was deceptively the Yamtuan or ruler of Negri Sembilan.
His installation was dated 1773 but there are references that state that Raja Melewar arrived in Negri Sembilan earlier. The British destroyed his first palace in 1875 and another was constructed later.

The 'replaced' palace or istana of Sri Menanti is one of the few last remaining timber palaces in Malaysia and was built between 1902 and 1908 for Tuanku Muhammad Shah, the 7th Ruler or Yang Di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan. It was designed by two local Malay carpenters; and the detailed drawings were provided by Mr. M.Woodford who was the head draughtsman at the Public Works Department.

The four-storey palace was constructed without nails, pieced together with hardwood dowels and rivets. 99 posts were used in the construction and the entire structure was raised on timber posts made of penak (cengal) wood, transported 64km from a forest in Bukit Perigi, Jelebu. Each post represents famous warriors from various groups. The four main posts at the centre of the palace rise 20metres(60feet) from the ground to the central tower (the highest floor) and each post is made from a single cengal tree trunk.

The first floor consists of reception rooms and a long veranda where the Yang Di-Pertuan Besar granted audiences to his people. The courtiers would first have to assemble at a tiny room representing the waiting room at the entrance to the palace, before taking their places on the veranda. The ruler sat at one end of the veranda on a raised platform and on the other end sat the local chiefs. The courtiers were seated on both sides, lining the length of the veranda. The interior is sparsely decorated as it was tradition for the royal family and their subjects and guests to sit on the floor. The only bit of ostentation would be the elaborate carvings on the timber posts. On normal occassions, the members of the royal family retired to their respective bedrooms on the second floor. However, much of the original furniture is no longer there. In the state bedroom lies a large gilded bed raised on a platform. The level above was the Yang Di-Pertuan Besar's private apartments and the highest level through a set of steep steps takes you to the prayer room and royal archives. The top level also served as the lookout post and was known as Tingkat Gunung (mountain level). However, the top floor is out of bounds to visitors.

Finials decorating the roof of the central tower represent a pair of locked buffalo horns and are regarded as a protective symbol for Minangkabau houses. The roof tiles or genting, are made from ironwood (kayu belian), a hardwood species that is extremely rare now. These were imported from Sarawak. Istana Sri Menanti was the official residence of the royal family until 1931 and was turned into a Royal Museum in 1992.

Set snugly in a valley surrounded by lush forests and tiny villages, one can almost imagine the days when the palace was the heart of Negri Sembilan. Then excitement and life filled every corner of the woodwork. Now, only the spirits of the past rule the majestic structure and yet Istana Menanti seemed unfazed by the solitude and the obscurity of once a most important venue. But it is for us to realise its importance, for us to cherish our past to proceed with the future. For us, not to forget the foundations of our forefathers. These historical milestones have fortunately withstood the test of time and with care, hopefully this superb architecture may survive for generations after..

Kuala Pilah is the closest town to Astana Sri Menanti