Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Keramat Iskandar Shah of Bukit Larangan

Keramat at Bukit Larangan in the 1950s

Keramat at Ring Road in Singapore. There were more than 50 of such sites in the 1920s

Keramat Today

1. Legend from the Sejarah Melayu (15th to 16th century)

The Sejarah Melayu was a Malay piece of literature collated and written between the 15th to 16th century. It gives a romanticised history of the origin, development and end of the Malay maritime empire, the Malacca Sultanate. There are many legends in the book.

In the book, it says that Sri Tri Buana and his loyal chief Demang Lebar Daun (leader of the Oran Laut) founded Singapura. Both of them were said to have been buried on the hill of Singapore. Sri Tri Buana's mother, the Queen of Bintan, was also another person whose tomb was supposed to be on the hill.

2. The Writings of Munshi Abdullah / Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir (1796–1854)

He was a famous Malacca-born Indian mushi who wrote about Singapore. He was Raffles' Malay teacher and wrote a book called the Hikayat Abdullah in 1843, later published in 1849. In the book , Abdullah recalls a onversation he heard between Col William Farquhar and the Temenggong Tengku Abdul Rahman (the local official who controlled Singapore on behalf of the Johore Riau Sultanate). The Tengku said that the hill was the site of an ancient palace. Common people were not allowed to go up the hill. It was seen as a place with great mystery because of strange sounds that came from there. The locals believed that there were ghosts there and this belief went on right into the 1920s.

3.  The Writings of  Diplomat John Crawfurd (1821)

John Crawfurd visited Singapore in February 3, 1821 while on a diplomatic mission to Siam and Cochin China (south Vietnam). While taking a morning stroll, he describe his work which was published in London in 1828. He described the hill as running and western sides of the hill as being covered with brick ruins. The only ruin which can be determined today is the Keramat Iskandar Shah (1). 

Crawfurd wrote that on the hill was "a sepulcher (tomb), and a supposed temple". He was also told that on another part of the hill was the grave site of a "ruler" but he did not describe it.

4. Other Description of events on Bukit Larangan (1820s)

Raffles built his bungalow on top of Bukit Larangan. The British did not disturb the Keramat or build anything in its vicinity. It is quite possible that the place was a center of religious activity for all races. For example, in Buckley's account, he writes that Raffles' sleep was disturbed by Chinese people letting off fire crackers there. (Buckley 1965:96).

5. The Visit of Dutch Scholar G.P. Rouaffaer (1909)

In 1921, a Dutch scholar, G.P. Roaffaer visited the site and described the Keramat in greater detail. He said that he found a dome which was very similar to tombs which he had seen in south Sulawesi. He said that such designs are from the 17th century. There was no inscription to identify who was in the tomb. (2)

6. Gold items found near the Keramat (1928)

The gold objects found on Bukit Larangan were found a few metres from the Keramat. The site of the 1928 discovery lies inside a fence surrounding the service reservoir on top of Fort Canning hill. The exact spot is marked by a small concrete block structure.

7. First photograph of the Keramat from Sir Roland Braddell (1950s)

In the 1950s, a well-known lawyer in the region, Sir Roland Braddell (also the grandson Thomas Braddell, the first Attorney-General of the Straits Settlements) published the first photograph of the Keramat which was taken in the early 20th century. The photograph was captioned "the tomb of Iskandar Shah, Singapore". The photograph showed a wooden bridge across a moat. Across the bridge was a low square-roofed structure which was supported by a set of pillars. (3)

8. Keramat in anthropology

The idea bout keramat and tomb has led to much confusion today because of the way the definitions have overlapped. The word keramat comes from Arabic karamah, which refers to a close friend of God or a holy person. It does not necessarily mean tomb.

Keramat carries the idea that something is blessed or holy. These places may be linked to holy and devout Muslims who  are respected and revered throughout the Islamic world. It could be a person's grave,  a place where he once lived or a site where he once meditated. Such places eventually became centres of pilgrimage. People visit these holy sites as a form of respect and worship. Some believe that venerating at such places enable someone to have fuller understanding of the divine.

In 1924, Walter W. Skeat, an English  anthropologist, wrote about the keramat in his book titled Malay Magic printed in 1900.

Another writer, Richard Windstedt, a British administrator in Malaya recorded some 50 cases of keramat sites and persons in his study in 1924.

At the time, it is also important to note that there were different forms of Islam and one popular form in the past was Sufi Islam or Islamic mysticism. Sufi Islam played an important role in establishing keramats as holy sites of pilgrimage. Sufi Islam also played an important role in spreading Islam to different parts of Asia because it absorbed local beliefs, customs and practices into a kind of spiritual worship.(4)  In Southeast Asia, there are also earlier Hindu and Buddhist practices and beliefs which are absorbed into Sufi Islam.

9. Was the Keramat the real tomb of Iskandar Shah? 

The Sejarah Melayu says that Parameswara coverted his name to Iskandar Shah after he converted to Islam later in his life. Chronologically, this would not have coincided with his stay in Singapore. Parameswara died around 1412 or 1413; his successor reigned for 10 years and seems not to have been a Muslim, but his grandson, the third ruler of Melaka, Mahmud Shah, who may have been born in Singapore between 1392 and 1397, coverted in 1436. This conversion may have formed the core of the Sejarah Melayu and the reason why it was written as a genealogy of Malay rulers. (4)

According to Tome Pires, a Portuguese writer, Islandar Shah died at Bertam, in Melaka.  Another Portuguese writer, Eredia wrote that Paramewara's tomb or Iskandar Shah's tomb was still visible in the 16th century at Tanjong Tuan, north of Melaka. This again, makes it unlikely that Iskandar Shah is buried in Singapore.

In 1819, as Bukit Larangan was being cleared of jungle, there is also no record of a tomb on the site. The Singaporeans in 1819 feared coming up the hill and were unaware of anything there. The tradition then came about that Iskandar Shah was buried on the hill but this cannot be confirmed by any evidence. (4)

10. The Family that takes care of the Keramat

A family of Indian Muslims were hereditary caretkaers of the site. In 1984, this office was filled by an elderly man who was reticent about himself. Another venerable old man with a white beard was normally found sitting on the steps leading from the keramat to the road above it. He sold muang beans to devotees who wished to feed the pigeons that were usually found nearby.

1. Wheatley, The Golden Khersonese (1960): 120-2 and  Crawfurd, J., Descriptive Dictionary of the Indian Archipelago (1856)

2. Rouaffaer, G.P. (1921). "Was Meala emporium voor 1400 A.d. genaamd Malajoer?" Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkund van Nederlandsch-Indie 77: 1-174, 359-600

3. Braddell, R. 1982 [1934]. The Lights of Singapore. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. 1969. "Lung-ya-men and Tan-ma-his," JMBRAS 42: 1:10-24

4. Miksic, J.N. (2013) Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea (NUS Press Singapore: 2013)

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