The Hunt Localisation
“Melaka has what? What is this ‘megaliths’ you speak of?”
I have a friend from uni who is incredibly proud of her home state of Melaka. So when I told her, out of the blue as I sometimes do, that I’ve taken it in my head to look for megalith sites in Melaka, she took it as a personal affront that she did not know about them first. Her husband, also Melaka born and bred, was even more proud of their state and even more intrigued.
And so, my impromptu, indifferently planned road trip to vaguely look for megaliths, acquired the invaluable addition of two truly local guides – and an eagle-eyed boy.
The Megalith hunt
So what the blazes are megaliths? Megaliths, otherwise called menhirs, are ancient large standing stones usually erected on mounds.
Sometimes they are found erected singly, and sometimes in a group or formation, for reasons basically lost in the mists of time. Those in Malaysia cluster around this area of the peninsula, and tend to be found in groups. Locally they are also called ‘batu hidup’ (=living stones) due to the belief that the stones grow slowly in height once placed.
Melaka is better known for its joint UNESCO World Heritage City status together with Penang, due to their combined history as a melting pot ‘Malacca Straits settlement’ back in the day. Hence the bulk of tourism activities centre around the old city itself. Tourism is generally thriving, in part due to Melaka being reasonably easy to get to from both Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
But I was looking to explore something less well known about the state, away from the main flow of tourism. More rooted in its native past of feudal states and archipelagic empires, than the mainly post-colonial straits settlements. So when I discovered the inexplicable megaliths in the state, I began to design a short road hunt to find them.
So I popped down to Melaka from Kuala Lumpur on a long weekend. On the road trip day we piled into the car – me, my two friends, and their two sons – and embarked on the hunt.
We began with the easiest location , the one that most people looking for megaliths will probably get to: the Datuk Tua Megalith site (=Elder Lord). Sure enough this site was fairly easy to locate once we reached Kampung* Cherana Putih in the Taboh Naning area. This site is the only one of the seven that has an official information board. You can access the site right from the main road. Relatively well-kept, it had a quiet, serene feel.
The second one we tried to look for, and found, was an obscure site nearby, along a small lane near the interstate highway toll exit of Alor Gajah. It is unnamed (that we know of) and overgrown. Only two stones were visible over the vegetation, one of which was capped in yellow cloth – more on that later. We did not explore closer as we were not sure of what might be lurking in the undergrowth.
TABOH NANING PART 2
We explored a bit for the third site, as the directions I had were very vague, but we met with a stroke of luck. As we were slowly driving up a village lane flanked by oil palm plantations, a car stopped next to us on the lane. A window wound down. A lady in the passenger seat asked whether we were looking for the local megalith site!
We were led onward to the location, which was rustic but not quite overgrown. The site is associated with another noble lord, Datuk Sena, although there is competing attribution to his vassal, Panglima Garang. We could see that a few of the stones had fallen. Folk lore indicates that the living stones would only grow if they are sizeable. They stop growing if they have fallen, or even if too much of the top breaks off.
Thereafter we were introduced to the local elder who doubles as caretaker and folk historian for the site. Here I have to say, my friend’s husband could really aspire towards some kind of political representation, except that it is unkind to wish politics upon friends. He really stepped up at this point, speaking as if he were a lifelong neighbour, asking questions like a long-lost relative seeking his roots. I don’t know that we would have had such an informative time without him. Soon there were tea and seats and folklore.
MYTHS OF THE LORDS OF NANING
The megalith mounds found in this part of Melaka extend into the adjacent Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan. This is because once, Naning had been part of the nine nations from Sumatera in present-day Indonesia, who founded the state (literally = State of Nine), and was in fact its capital territory. The Dukes of Naning were therefore eminent nobles of the time.
Datuk Sena was one of these legendary lords of Naning. Datuk Sena and his men-at-arms were famed, known for their mastery of the martial art of silat. Invariably this meant that they acquired invulnerability (=’kebal’). His men-at-arms had the most awesome names. Lord Furious (Panglima Garang) was famed in his own right. Places are named after him all the way up to the state of Selangor, although very little of specifics is known about him today. Another, Lord Chained Tiger (Panglima Harimau Berantai), is still associated with a more occult form of silat schooling.
As is usually the case with folklore and myth, generalities survive rather than specifics, and so it is not entirely clear whether he was the same person as Datuk Tua. It is also a matter of some dispute whether the names of his men-at-arms were actual person names, or were titles that could be assumed by successors. Yes, there were fandom continuity debates before the internet.
Anyway according to oral lore, it was they who brought the culture of erecting these megalith sites. Apparently, not any rock will do. The type of stone was so important to them that for a considerable duration, stones were shipped over the Malacca Strait from their ancestral source in Sumatera to be sure. The real deal will glitter when shone upon at night. Only these are said to ‘grow’.
I am with the Force, the Force is with me
But… but, invulnerability, you say? Well. There are some concepts that are implicitly understood by a native, but pretty challenging to translate over to another language. ‘Kebal’ is one of those Malay cultural tropes which I have never really seen satisfactorily cross-represented into English.
The high forms of silat involve the discipline of inner energy, similar I suppose to the Chinese concept of chi. Mastery of this discipline is supposed to allow the silat master to be invulnerable to weapons assault and repel attackers, even become bulletproof. At least until they get tired or make mistakes, in which case they can be killed.
You know what, there’s an easier way to explain this now, which sacrifices some accuracy but is much more relatable (thank you 20th century popular culture!). Let me try this a second time: Mastery of this inner energy allows the martial artist to repel attackers.
Think of this what you will!
We took our leave from the local elder and pressed on with a vague idea to find the next site in Kampung Kemuning. As we were about to leave Taboh Naning, however, my friend’s young man discovered his eagle eyes and sighted a megalith site. It was actually in plain view, right by the roadside, within what appeared to be someone’s garden! We turned around immediately.
Once again, the politician of the team took the lead. We knocked on the door, and asked to see the megaliths in the garden. Bemused, the lady of the house gave permission. Of course, being neighbourly, we entered into conversation.
HISTORICAL RESEARCH: ULTIMATELY WE KNOW NOTHING…
It turned out that the resident was quite used by this time to visitors asking to look at their megalith stones, having been visited by Museums Department people and various university students. She were relatively newly moved in, and did not have a long history with the property. But she told us about the things she heard from the academics. The FAQs:
Do they really grow?
People from the Museums Department come by every so often to measure the stones. It seems that they do grow, up to a centimetre or so in several years. However, from what the lady told us, they seem to only measure the megalith from base to top, so I’m not sure how they benchmark between measurements, to account for base erosion and the like.
What are they for?
The popular notion is that they mark ancient graveyards. The yellow cloth capping the unnamed site in Taboh Naning is indicative of this, since it is a cultural practice of Malays with gravestones, except with yellow cloth for royalty instead of the usual white. The practice of erecting megaliths ceased a long time ago. Subsequently in many locations the sites were either left alone in the belief that grave spirits held sway there, or latter-day cemeteries were added around them. I suppose without electric lights, in a more densely forested time, they must have loomed eerie in the moonlight.
However, a megalith site had been excavated as part of re-development plans before. Officials investigating the mounds found items like pottery shards beneath it, but no bones whatsoever.
Verdict: still unknown
KAMPUNG KEMUNING, FOR REAL
We went back on the road to head for the original destination, Kampung Kemuning. It was the eagle-eyed boy again, who spotted the first Kampung Kemuning site. Nested within a rubber plantation, it is technically visible from the road, but nothing alerts you to it. The megaliths here consist of mostly broken and fallen stones, but its identity could still be observed. We accessed this site through the garden of another villager. However, this particular resident had no folklore to share.
Knowing nothing has never stopped superstition!
The second Kampung Kemuning megalith site is within the cemetery compound of Al Ikhwan mosque. This is an example for how a megalith site had simply been expanded upon as a true cemetery.
Here, we met a man who appeared to be a mosque regular. He, too, appeared used to encountering people interested in the megaliths, but perhaps of a different sort than academics. Half-testy and half-resigned, he made a point of objecting to the term ‘living stone’, suggesting instead alternatives like ‘glittering stone’ (=batu bercahaya). Because the stones are not actually alive. Duh.
It seems persnickety until you realise he may personally have had to shoo away the superstitious who have decided – with no evidence from lore or archaelogy – that the megaliths are (or host) living spirits from whom one could obtain things like winning lottery numbers, provided a suitable (and blasphemous) ritual offering is made. The Datuk Sena site historian told of similar goings-on. But after one such attempt in the dead of night drew sudden high winds and lightning storm, it was interpreted as disapproval by the pious soul attributed to the site. Further attempts were dissuaded there.
The final site was the most remote and challenging, as all I had was the name of the village. We left the main road and went down narrow country lanes. Down and up winding roads we went, with houses few and far between. We nearly turned back a few times, certain we were lost and would not find it.
But then, on the left, we saw it lonely and peaceful against the light of the setting sun. The Kampung Punggur site, it had to be.
The megalith hunt is complete, the day’s journey far richer than we ever expected.
Whatever the reason that our ancestors erected these stones, the custody for many of them have passed on and survived. They endure, provoking enough curiosity and wonder to be left alone, standing upon their silent hills.
Author’s note: Hi! I have deliberately not included directions to the sites, to preserve the hunt for those who like to puzzle it through! But if you want something more specific come over to my blog site Teja on the Horizon: http://tejabahiya.com/megalith-melaka-walkthrough/.
Kampung = village
#melaka #travel #localhistory #myth #malaysia #megalith #menhir