Kota, kedai and kopitiam

By Zubin Mohamad
June 26, 2011 | The Malaysian Insider

JUNE 26 — Over the years, I have been going back to Kelantan either to visit my parents and family or to do research on Kelantan performance. During one of the trips, I took a friend to visit some old cemeteries and traditional villages near Kota Baru. After the trip, she said, “Next we should visit the kota-kota in Kelantan.” Kota usually refers to fort, mostly referring to the old fort surrounding a palace or town like Kota Melaka, Kota Kuala Muda in Kedah or Kota Malawati in Kuala Selangor. Kota also refers to a city like Kota Kinabalu or Kota Baru. But perhaps both are related as the old palace or town is usually surrounded by a wall, ie. fully fortified.

In Kelantan, there are a few places with the word kota in front of it such as Kota Kubang Labu, Kota Jelasin, Kota Jembal, Kota Mahligai or Kota Salor, mostly related to the old royal palaces before the present royal administration. They could be related to one another but may have been at war with each other at some time or existed one after the other.

However, the history of these places is scattered here and there, and incomplete. But at least nowadays we are able to trace the locations of these places quickly, without much difficulty. Just Google them, and you might find something in Wikipedia, Wikimapia, or even personal blogs to whet your appetite for the history of the place.

While researching the various kota in Kelantan, I discovered an old book in my friend’s library: Place-Names in Peninsular Malaysia by S.Durai Raja Singam, first published in 1925 and the book has been reprinted for five times until the last edition in 1980. I managed to find Kota Baru, Kota Jelasin (spelled Kota Jalasin) and Kota Kubang Labu, but not others like Kota Jembal, Kota Mahligai and Kota Salor. Kota Kubang Labu is translated as “a mud-pool of gourds” and described as the ruins near Wakaf Bharu in the Tumpat district. This was the seat of Kelantan rulers between 1756 and 1762. Long Pandak, the ruler at Kubang Labu, stabbed his wife to death because of jealousy. In retaliation, Long Ghaffar, the cousin of his wife, killed him. Long Mohamad, the brother of Long Pandak, was the last ruler at Kubang Labu. The seat of Kelantan rulers moved across the river to Kota Baru after that. And that is just one example of a particular incident that triggered the change of seat and location. Kota Jembal, another important name in Kelantan history, was formerly known as Kedai Lalat in the 19th and 20th century. In the past, kedai referred to pekan (little town) or pasar (market) just like Kedai Mulong, Kedai Buloh or Kedai Salor in Kota Baru.

But most of these kedais have their own history, related to kota. Some people believe that the name Kedai Lalat was given due to the large number of people who flocked to the market every day. I am also inclined to believe that the name lalat or flies was chosen to remember the time when the armies of the Melaka kingdom ransacked the place, killing many people. That incident forced Sultan Mansur of Kelantan to marry off his daughter, Onang Kuning, to Sultan Mahmud of Melaka in the 16th century and re-install Kelantan or Kota Jembal as the ruling seat. Tuan Guru Nik Aziz, the menteri besar of Kelantan, changed the name to Kota Jembal. Kota Jembal was the predecessor of Kota Kubang Labu, while Kota Mahligai was the predecessor of Kota Jembal. Not only do these places have a relation to Puteri Saadong and Che Siti Wan Kembang, the seat of Kota Jembal also has a close relation to Pattani queens in the 17th century as they were related to each other. Kota Jelasin, now known as Kampung Kota, not far from my birthplace, Kedai Salor, was the birthplace of Puteri Saadong. When she got married to Raja Abdullah, she moved to Kota Mahligai in Melur, not far from Kedai Mulong. If you were to drive from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Baru via Gua Musang and Kuala Krai, you would pass through Melur (Kota Mahligai) and Kedai Mulong, where Istana Nilam Puri is.

Nilam Puri housed Malaysia’s oldest mosque, known as Masjid Kampung Laut, built in the 1730s in Kampung Laut, in Tumpat district, not far from Kota Kubang Labu, but it was relocated to Nilam Puri after the 1960s after a series of big floods in Kelantan. Another interesting addition to Kedai Mulong is the Kedai Mulong Mosque. The mosque or masjid was originally an abandoned building in Kota Baru after World War II. But in 1958, the residents of Kedai Mulong bought the building and turned it into a mosque.

Kedai Mulong was another buzzing weekend market, about 8 kilometres from Kota Baru. Later I found out that the building was formerly the Balairong Seri or the throne hall of Raja Dewa Tuan Zainal Abidin, the prince of Sultan Muhamad III, built around 1900. Today, you can still find the road in Kota Baru, Jalan Raja Dewa, named after him, not far from the residence of Sultan Muhamad IV in Jalan Telipot. Local history is becoming an important way of piecing together the big puzzle of grand history of certain states or important civilizations. However, more often than not, local histories are being omitted from the construction of state or national history.

As a result, they only remain with the older generation of the place and if it is not handed down to their children or young pupils, the piece of important history is lost.

I was born in Kedai Salor, eight miles from Kota Baru and four miles from Pasir Mas town, and in the past, we had to take a motorboat that served as a ferry to cross the Kelantan River. My late mother told me that her father used to run the boat and sand business in Pasir Mas.

When she was starting her married life, she had to sell all her gold jewellery from the hantaran (dowry) from her father to purchase two lots of pre-war shophouses in Kedai Salor.

The shops were built in three rows in a horseshoe shape with an open market occupying half of the middle space. Our shops were situated right at the corner facing the road. Kedai Salor died out after the completion of Sultan Yahya Bridge in 1969. I was told that the market was thriving before and after World War II, during the British colonial period. Kedai Salor was not only known as the market centre of Kota Baru district, but also for the Zapin dance known as Zapin Salor, performed regularly at the Kelantan palace.

Perhaps this was due to its close relation with the Kelantan princes, especially during the reign of Sultan Sir Ibrahim (1944-1960). Pasir Mas Salor was also known for the sand mining business due to its excessive sand on both banks of the river. A mile from Kedai Salor, there is this place called Gertak Lembu, referring to a wooden bridge, probably used as as a cattle crossing. In the past, I was told that people ferried the cattle from Pasir Mas district, as it was more rural and served as supplier of cows and farmers’ products. The cows were slaughtered in Gertak Lembu due to its proximity to the river and channel, and then the meat was taken to Kedai Salor market to be sold. By the early 1970s, the market was already dead. Only a few shops survived, while the market building became a badminton court for aspiring Thomas Cup players. Television had clearly replaced the “live” performances of Wayang Kulit, Main Peteri, Mak Yong, Menora, Dikir Barat, Zapin and Kertok (percussion instrument made of coconut shells and bamboo).

In the family album, I saw pictures of travelling Malay film stars in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Saloma, P. Ramlee, Normadiah, Aziz Jaafar, Rahmah Rahmat and etc. performing at the Pasaria (fun fair) in Salor. My parents were running a kopitiam or coffee shop to raise their eight children. So, I grew up playing in the coffee shop, meeting many people, and listened to many stories about fights, weddings, births and deaths.

When I was in secondary school in the late 1970s, my parents stopped the coffee shop business as all my siblings were already out of school and working. But they decided to start a less demanding shop, a grocery shop, selling jasmine rice, brown and white sugar as well as glutinous rice, all purchased from across the border in Sungai Golok. Salor and the nearby areas like Dewan Beta and Kemubu were known as the big rice fields in Kelantan due to its location to the water source, flat land and very fertile soil. Gertak Lembu probably had the biggest kilang padi (rice mill) in the whole district, where they processed the yellow padi to white rice. During the monsoon season at the end of the year, the rice plateau would become a sea of fresh water, a combination of rainwater and water from the Kelantan River.

Gertak Lembu would be the first place to be flooded due to its proximity to the Salor channel. We would take out our wooden boat to the rice field filled with at least two meters high water. Years later, we became less competent in rowing the boat as we moved to using a motorised fiberglass boat.

For many years I didn’t realise that salor actually referred to the channel connecting the Kelantan River with the rice plateau, and the channel has probably been there for many centuries. Little did I know that salor is a very important facility for rice cultivation in the district. When I visited Cambodia and Angkor for the first time in 1995, I realized that the court of Indravarman III (1295-1307) at Angkor had an unusual feature. During the month of July to November, when the Mekong is in full flood, it reverses direction and flows back into the Tonle Sap (a great man-made lake reservoir in Siem Riep).

It was recorded that “floating rice” grew in the lake in summer time, in effect, Nature did the transplanting, a crucial step in rice cultivation.

It is of great historical importance as it gives a clue as to how rice cultivation began in Asia, the launching of agricultural revolution. Genetic studies also show that the oldest rice species are found in the monsoon belt, including the Mekong, which includes Tonle Sap. As the climatic conditions in the northern latitudes were unsuitable for agriculture, they moved south to the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of agriculture.

Langkasuka, spanning from the 2nd century to the 14th century, covering the geographical area from the Isthmus Kra all the way down to the great lake in the middle of the Malay peninsula, has strong connections with the Angkor kingdom and earlier kingdoms like Chenla, Champa and Funan.

We can see that our artforms, from textile weaving to carving to shadow puppets, silver, gold and wood, are more similar to Cambodia than Thailand (Siam) and Indonesia (Majapahit and Sailendra). According to I-Ching, the Chinese Buddhist scholar, the voyage involving from the Cambodian coast to the Malay peninsula across the Gulf of Siam, only took two days.

A few Malaysian archaeologists and historians have also indicated that there’s an old fort, referred to as “Kota Salor”, not far from Gertak Lembu. We, the people in Salor, refer to the place as Bawah Lembah as the level of the land was much lower or sunken, just next to the riverbank.

I was once taken there to watch a Manora performance when I was a young child. I was told that there was an old chandi (wat) near there. That’s why they were still performing the Manora there even though the chandi vanished a long time ago.

Another story I read in Dian, an old Kelantan magazine published by Pustaka Antara Kota Bharu, years ago, mentioned that there was a palace there as the Kelantan History Society found a few old burial grounds there. But I have not heard anything more.

When I asked my father about Kota Salor, he only remembers that there was a story of Raja Salor being attacked by Siam; they threw their gold and silver into the well to hide from the enemy. Many people were killed and captured, only a few managed to hide and run away.

These stories of kota, kedai and kopitiam should be constructed and reconstructed to complete the puzzle of our cosmopolitan history that is not being told and recorded in our history books..

  1. #1 by k1980 on Sunday, 26 June 2011 - 12:43 pm

    Zubin Mohamad, how old are you? You should know that all historical facts regarding Malaya during the Hindu and Buddhist periods are obliterated from our history books. Our history only starts from the year 1400AD, the year when a certain Hindu robber was chased by a mousedeer all the way from Singapore to Melaka.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Sunday, 26 June 2011 - 12:53 pm

    //In the past, I was told that people ferried the cattle from Pasir Mas district, as it was more rural and served as supplier of cows and farmers’ products. //

    Well, while being ferried to the slaughterhouse, a certain Pasir Mas cow managed to escape to Putrajaya, and has since then consistently demanded that the Chinese stock up on their food supplies and for the umno tuans to be made permanent rulers of the country.

  3. #3 by monsterball on Sunday, 26 June 2011 - 1:02 pm

    This Pasir Mas cow later said he was advising Chinese only..with a grin.
    To me he is Mamak’s trained cow presented to Najib for him to upset Malaysians.
    No one give a damn to his threats.
    It’s a clown to Malaysians.

  4. #4 by Indon Planter on Sunday, 26 June 2011 - 11:11 pm

    This should be in our school’s history instead of the interlok fiction.

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