Have you been to Perlis?
|Zubin Mohamad is a dancer-choreographer who is passionate about promoting "tradition-based contemporary" dance theatre, and is the artistic director of Kuala Lumpur Fringe Festival and Arts Exchange in Asia (AXiA). He loves to teach, research and write about culture, history, creativity and post-modernism.|
JUNE 30 — I remember an old song we used to sing in school that had Perlis in it. It goes like this: “Dari Perlis hinggalah ke Sabah, kita sudah merdeka...”
But actually I didn’t know much about Perlis other than parking my car in Kuala Perlis to go to Langkawi, eating laksa asam beras while waiting for the ferry and passing through Padang Besar at the Malaysia-Thailand border on the train from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok.
God, those were the days of adventure travel after graduating from Mara in 1985. I remember those nice wooden Malay houses by the rice fields, complete with rolling hills in the background.
Other than that, I remember renowned Indian classical dancer Dr Chandrabhanu, formerly known as Mohd Zamin Haroun, telling me stories about growing up in Perlis and having Kelantanese as neighbours.
He also taught me a bit of Perlis court dance, “Terinai.” The dance is now disappearing just like other classical Malay dance forms like Asyik, Tari Inai and Joget Gamelan.
Dr Chandrabhanu, an accomplished dancer-choreographer, learnt the “Terinai” dance in his teens, before moving to Australia in the 1970s.
In Australia he became well-known as an Odissi and Bharata Natyam dancer. He used to come back to Malaysia from time to time, teaching dance here and there. He also taught “Terinai” at Aswara few years back but the classical dance form is fast disappearing with the advance of K-Pop, J-Pop, and “American Idol.”
Last week, when I was planning a quiet trip to Perlis, I discovered from Google and Wikipedia that Perlis also has other distinctive traditional art forms like Wayang Gedek, Jikey Perlis and Mak Yong Laut.
But I know it is not easy to find these performances nowadays — not at the court and not at the local theatre. Perhaps we can find them in remote villages, performed by some old folks.
But then this was not a cultural research trip. It is not fair for me to impose on my friends when clearly I am just a passenger. We have to consider other people’s wishes and cultural research is tedious and not everybody’s cup of tea.
But deep in my heart, I kept saying, “I will come back to Perlis”. I just hope those art forms will be around in the next few years.
As for this trip, I had been happy enough to visit the famous sugar factory in Chuping, formerly the largest sugarcane plantation in Malaysia owned by Perlis Plantation Berhad and listed on Malaysia and Singapore stock markets since 1968.
Unfortunately, I was a few weeks late as they had cleared the land. Previously what was a vast rolling landscape is now covered with rubber trees. I wonder how many Malaysians have witnessed that rare sight, probably just like those sugar plantations in Florida and Louisiana, I imagine. Now, that’s just a piece of history.
The beauty about Perlis is its short distance from one point to another, like from the beautifully rolling limestone hills and acres of green paddy fields to the quiet seaside villages near Kuala Perlis and the buzzing little quaint town of Kangar.
During this trip, I was not only re-visiting known places like Kangar and Kuala Perlis, but also discovering new places like Wang Kelian, Wang Mu, Kaki Bukit, Tasik Tasoh and Gua Kelam. Wang Kelian is the other border-crossing points in Perlis, other than Padang Besar.
Across from Wang Kelian on the other side of the border is Wang Prachan in Satun Province, Thailand. Wang is clearly a Siamese or Thai word for valley, and Perlis is not the only state in the north with places named Wang.
Kedah also has a few places begin with “Wang”, partly because both states have strong historical connections to Siam (Thailand since 1934). Historically, Perlis was originally under the Kedah sultanate.
A Kedahan friend told me that Perlis was given to the son-in-law of the Sultan of Kedah in 1842, after it was ruled by Siam for more than 20 years since the Siamese attack in 1821.
The 1909 Bangkok Treaty transferred Siamese control over Perlis to the British. Satun is another Siamese word for Setul, referring to the yellow fruit (similar to mangosteens) only found in northern states of the peninsula.
Satun province (Setul) was originally part of Kedah. The Siamese administered Satun from Nakhon Sri Thammarat (formerly the Malay state of Ligor) from 1813 onwards. Satun is neighbouring to Songkla (formerly known by the Malays as Singgora), Trang (Malay word for Terang), Pathalung and Nakhon Sri Thammarat provinces in the north and the east. Pathalung, which as indicated by the Thai name, is a place well known for shadow puppets, something shared by all the three northern states of Perlis, Kedah and Kelantan.
In other words, the history of Perlis is difficult to separate from Kedah’s, and all the references of its connection to Thailand are not a straightforward connection to just Siam.
But an older kingdom, probably connected to Kedah’s archaeological sites known as Lembah Bujang in the west coast facing the Straits of Malacca, and Pattani in the east coast of the Malay Peninsula facing the South China Sea.
That ancient kingdom was referred to as Langkasuka in the Hikayat Pattani (Tales of Pattani), Tawarikh Pattani (History of Pattani) and Kedah Annals known as Hikayat Merong Maha Wangsa.
Langkasuka was known as the first Malay kingdom in the Malay Peninsula between the second to tenth century. The kingdom was divided into several small states after the invasion of Khmer, Sriwijaya, Chola, Majapahit and Siam. It may seem that the Malay Peninsula was an important state in the past, not only for her natural wealth but also her position in connecting the trade of east and west.
Sungai Pattani in Kedah didn’t get her name out of nowhere, but connecting Pattani port in the South China Sea in the east coast to Kedah port in the west coast near Lembah Bujang, connecting to the west to the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean.
The river was such an important mode of transport in the past. It connects the two parts of the world of monsoons, as well as cutting the duration of travel from east to west and vice versa.
Wang Kelian in Perlis is connected to Wang Prachan in Satun and was not only known as a tin mining area, but also for her historic passage used by traders to transport goods, probably connecting Songkla in the east and Perlis in the west.
Now this passage is known as the Heritage Trail among the nature travellers and seekers. I was lucky to find the trail and experience the historical passage that has been preserved for many years. And that was probably one of the highlights of my visit to Perlis.
Another important historical and cultural site that I witnessed during this trip is the tomb of the first Sultan of Perlis and the Kota Kayang museum. Kota Kayang, not far from Kuala Perlis, was also a known as the seat of the Kedah sultanate at one point of history.
With the spectacular setting of limestone hills in the background, Kota Kayang museum sits stylishly in a beautifully decorated wooden Malay palace structure. Though the museum has very little to tell about the past and Perlis’s connection to Langkasuka, my visit to the state known poetically as “Negeri Indera Kayangan” (State of Mythical Prince) has commanded me to come again and discover her hidden beauty and history.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.