Asian and African studies blog

11 July 2014

A Malay account of Calcutta

In a previous blog post I wrote about a Malay manuscript of the Hikayat Hang Tuah belonging to a prominent Chulia (south Indian Muslim) merchant from Kedah, Bapu Kandu, who had settled in Penang in the late 18th century. Bapu Kandu, also known as Hakim Long Fakir Kandu, was the patriarch of a family of Malay scribes whose output is well represented in the British Library. One of Kandu’s younger sons, Ibrahim, was employed by Thomas Stamford Raffles and was responsible for much of Raffles’s diplomatic correspondence in Malay. Kandu’s older son, Ahmad Rijaluddin, is primarily known for his travel account of a visit to Calcutta, a journey made in late 1810 in the company of the Penang businessman Robert Scott.  

Ahmad Rijaluddin’s narrative, which he entitled Hikayat Perintah Negeri Benggala, ‘An account of the state of Bengal’, is dated Ramadan 1226 (September/October 1811).  The text is known today from a unique manuscript in the British Library, Add. 12386, probably the author’s autograph, which has now been digitised and can be read online. The manuscript has been edited by Cyril Skinner (1982), whose elegant translations are quoted in the extracts below.

Opening pages of the manuscript: ‘This is a narrative of the state of Bengal as it was at the time I, Ahmad Rijaluddin, son of Hakim Long Fakir Kandu, left my homeland to visit it.  I have composed this narrative for the benefit of posterity, commiting it to writing in the year 1226, in the year dal awal, in the month of Ramadan’. (Inilah hikayat diceterakan perintah negeri Benggala tatkala masa zaman senda Ahmad Rijaluddin ibn Hakim Long Fakir Kandu belayar / membuang diri ke Benggala.  Maka dikarang hikayat ini meninggal akan zaman diperbuat surat pada sanat 1226 tahun dal awal bulan Ramadan.)  British Library, Add. 12386, ff.1v-2r.  noc

As Skinner notes, although the content of Ahmad Rijaluddin’s account is something new in Malay writing – a descriptive eye-witness account of foreign lands – the literary conventions in which he was reared envelop and permeate the text. Just as traditional Malay narrative accounts of historical events were composed centripetally around the figure of the raja, the sovereign of the state, in Ahmad’s text the omnipresent focus of the work is the English raja in Calcutta: Lord Minto, Governor-General of Bengal (1807-1813). A great king must have a fitting abode, and Ahmad accords the already impressive three-storied Government House, Calcutta, four more levels as would befit a great palace in a Malay epic: ‘Now I shall tell you how splendid the residence of Lord Minto is. The surrounding wall, which looks most impressive, is of multicoloured stone … within which has been constructed a very handsome palace, as high as a mountain, built in seven tiers (Sebermula maka tersebutlah keelokan rumah baginda Raja Lord Minto itu. Maka diperbuatnya pagar dengan batu pancalogam terlalu amat indah2 rupanya … maka di dalam pagar itu diperbuatnya sebuah istana terlalulah indah2 rupanya dan lagi besarnya seperti sebuah gunung rupanya diperbuatnya tujuh tingkat) (Add. 12386, ff.8r-8v; Skinner, pp.40-43).

Government House in Calcutta, home of the Governor-General of Bengal, a watercolour by Edward Orme after James Moffat c. 1804. British Library, WD 476.  noc

Ahmad Rijaluddin describes in great detail the sights seen in Calcutta – the specialist bazaars for gold, pearls, beads, cloth, metalwork and even artificial flowers made from the pith of the sola plant (bunga-bungaan diperbuat dengan kayu lampung yang bernama sola seperti kertas yang amat putih); the street entertainers (orang bermain aneka bagai) with snakes, monkeys and bears, as well as acrobats – all with the conventionalised expressions of astonishment and delight appropriate for a traditional Malay hikayat. But one of the main calls on his attention, a subject to which he is drawn over and over again, is the sheer variety of courtesans on display in brothels, of all shapes and sizes. In one winding lane near the shipyards, ‘on the ground floor live the poor and ugly whores; on the second floor live the whores who are not bad-looking, and on the third floor live the very pick of the whores, really lovely creatures, like angels from heaven’ (pada tingkat yang di bawah itu adalah jalang yang miskin dan kurang rupanya, dan tingkat yang kedua adalah tempat jalang yang pertengahan rupanya duduk pada tempat itu, adalah pada tingkat yang ketiga di situlah tempat jalang asal nuri terlalulah indah2 rupanya seperti bidadari turun dari kayangan rupanya) (Add.12386, f.14r; Skinner, pp.56-57). A particularly elegant lane called Bhatiar Kana was occupied by high-class brothels filled with captivating occupants: ‘In the afternoon the women come out on to the top-floor balcony to take the air, wearing robes of white flecked with gold … they sit there singing songs in voices as sweet as aeolian harps … anyone catching sight of them at this time – even a scholar with a beard ten cubits long – would fall madly in love with them’ (Maka adalah pada masa tatkala hari waktu asar maka keluarlah ia duduk berangin pada atas tingkat tinggi itu ada yang memakai kain putih diseram dengan air mas … maka duduklah ia bernyanyi maka suaranya terlalulah amat merdu seperti buluh perindu … maka tatkala masa itu jika alim janggut panjang sepuluh hasta sekalipun jika terpandang menjadi gila berahi) (Add.12386, f.42r; Skinner, pp.130-131).

Ahmad Rijaluddin’s descriptions of the courtesans of Bhatiar Kana. British Library, Add. 12386, f.42r (detail).  noc

Ahmad Rijaluddin was soon torn away from the contemplation of such delights, for he appears to have joined the British expeditionary fleet which set off from Melaka in June 1811 to wrest Java out of Napoleanic hands.  Ahmad’s narrative - which may have been written up during the sea passage - ends neatly but abruptly on the brink of the attack on Batavia (which took place in August 1811).  A final pair of decorated frames in the manuscript has been left empty, and Skinner wonders if this signifies that the author did not survive the expedition.

Further reading

Ahmad Rijaluddin’s Hikayat Perintah Negeri Benggala. Edited and translated by C. Skinner.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982. (Bibliotheca Indonesica; 22).

Khoo Salma Nasution, The Chulia in Penang: patronage and place-making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque, 1786-1957. Penang: Areca Books, 2014.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia



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