Some birds sing for their supper. Others get apartments for soup. We learnt this when we visited what must be Malaysia‘s best kept secret: Kota Bharu. From the window of our room on the 18th floor of our hotel, the town spread below with red-tiled roofs rising out of green trees, some with the graceful domes and minarets of Islam. Kota Bharu is in the staunchly Muslim state of Kelantan, so there are no cinema theatres. Because of this, we were told, a whole range of other folk entertainments have prospered. One of them was what we spotted driving to the town‘s coastal villages on the South China Sea.
On a field just off the road, 91 tall poles had been erected. Each pole had a hook at the end; and from each hook a beautiful cage was hanging. Serious-looking men walked around below the poles, listening carefully and making notes. This was a Friday Singing Bird Contest for greatly-loved doves. On the far side of the field, their owners waited in front of their cars, watching the judges anxiously. And even above the roar of cars rushing down the highway, the cooing of the singing birds was a soft and soothing orchestration.
Since Friday is a religious holiday, and all shops, offices and even restaurants are closed, we were heading out to the rural coastal lands. On this coast, the sea has deposited parallel dunes forming the Beach of the Seven Lagoons: a popular, casuarina-shaded getaway for local folk. They also take time off to visit the many Buddhist wats or temples. Kota Bharu is on Malaysia‘s border with Thailand, and the Thai influence is strong.
Colours of Malaysia
Buddhist temples soared, glittering with crimson, gold and blue. Dragons raised their scaly heads in what‘s fashioned like a traditional dragon boat. Another featured a towering standing Buddha. A third was proud of its huge sitting Buddha. A fourth had a 40 m. long sleeping Buddha, a sapling of the Bo tree, a statue of the Chinese goddess Kuan Yin and a series of icons that bore a strong resemblance to deities in the Hindu pantheon.
The symbols of many faiths had merged and integrated in seamless harmony. And in the grounds of most of the wats, crowds of festive Malaysians ... the Chinese and Indian Malaysian girls in mini-skirts and jeans, their Muslim Malay friends in distinguishing head-scarves … celebrated their weekly holiday, shopping and snacking at the fairs that had grown up around the Buddhist temples. Here, truly, were the myriad ethnic colours of Malaysia.
The colours filled our cameras again when we boarded a rural boat for a cruise down a café-au-lait river to its confluence with the Sea. Women and children, some shaded with umbrellas, filled other brightly painted boats to the gunnels. A family tore past in the foaming wake of its outboard motor, carrying home its monthly provisions. Men rod-fished from wooden jetties. Women washed clothes and then shyly retreated as we approached. So far it was much like a cruise in a backwater in Kerala.
Then the rain forest closed in. Nipa palms dangled their bloated black nuts in the water, fronds met overhead in a dark and rustling arbour. There was the dank and mushroom smell of loam. In the humidity, sweat began to pour off us. Something scaly slid off the wet banks and into the water: it could have been a monitor lizard. Surf grinned white in the distance and our boat bobbed with the swell. We did a u-turn and headed back.
The river forms the international frontier with Thailand and we drove to the jetty from which ferries leave for that ancient kingdom. There‘s a duty free complex at the border, but we didn‘t find it interesting. There‘s a better choice in town and there is not an appreciable difference between prices here and there.
Their silver handicrafts including silver tea sets and the traditional Malay daggers are beautifully made and worth looking at. So are their kites that resemble enormous butterflies. Their shadow puppets are superbly tooled in leather and reveal a strong Indonesian influence: they could have been inspired by the puppets of Andhra. Then there is the famed songket where gold and silver thread is woven with silk. They would make elegant evening bags or perhaps a striking cummerbund if you know anyone who still wears these dressy waistbands apart from the colour specific ones of the Defence Services.
We were particularly enchanted by a very special type of batik where they use real leaves to give outlines that make every piece unique. Customers can specify the leaves they want which would then give their batik a self-designer imprint! We saw these being made at the Nordin Batik in Wisma Nordin, Lot 74, Kg. Paloh, Jalan Pintu Geng.
The Siti Khadijah Market gave us interesting encounters with local people. Women preside over stalls of tropical fruit and encourage you to taste these exotic orchard-fresh products. The crimson Dragon Fruit with its blood-red flesh is delicious: it grows on a cactus creeper. Then there‘s the Mangosteen, the Durian …smelly but ambrosial … the Pulasan which looks like a very knobbly lichee, and a really sweet Tamarind.
We saw an intriguing display of local performing arts in the Gelanggan Seni, the Cultural Centre. Two teams played Sepak Bulu Ayam, where they passed a rattan ball from one team to another using their heads, knees and feet without letting the ball touch the ground. The team with the greatest number of passes wins. We also saw a performance of their martial art Silat: slow, formal, stylised with only a few grapples and throws, more a display than a combat; and all accompanied by a traditional percussion and wood-wind orchestra. Do check the weekly programme if you are particular about what you want to see.
We also visited some of their museums, many of them around Padang Merdeka or Independence Square. The Istana Batu was a lived-in palace and its dining room and bedrooms show how much the Malay Sultans were influenced by British traditions, as indeed our ruling princes were. There‘s an interesting artificial Christmas tree though Islam does not celebrate Christmas! The Istana Jahar should really be described as the Palace of the Royal Rites of Passage like circumcisions and the ceremonies connected with the critical seventh month of pregnancy.
The Muzium Negeri or State Museum has an impressive mock-up of a prehistoric cave. We were intrigued by its claim that its Rehab was the ‘ancestor of the present day violin‘. In the Sarod Museum, in Gwalior, there is a Rahab that was brought to India from Afghanistan by Mohammed Hashmi Khan Bangesh and developed into the sarod by his son Ghulam Ali Khan Bangesh, ancestor of Amjad Ali Khan. Clearly, the rehab or rahab was a stringed instrument associated with Islamic musical traditions.
And if you hear the musical twittering of swifts, they are recordings to entice these birds to build their edible nests in the attics of town-houses. When they leave their apartments, every year, their nests are harvested for the very expensive Birds‘ Nest Soup. Soup is the rent they pay for their annual accommodation in Kota Bharu.
Source: www.deccanherald.com (3 Juli 2007)