Photo: Think City
The 175-year-old tomb of Dato Koyah, a symbol of the early settlement of the Indian Muslim community in Penang, undergoes restoration after years of dangerous exposure to the elements.
SYMBOL OF THE INDIAN MUSLIM COMMUNITY
In the early 19th century, a healer and spiritual teacher from the Malabar coast in southern India arrived in Penang. Having led an honourable life of healing the sick and being a spiritual leader he was forced to migrate as he was accused of a crime he did not commit. Legend has it that he settled down under a tree in the heart of George Town and took up work as a labourer, thus marking the early settlement of the South Indian Muslim community in Penang.
Syed Mustapha Idris, is highly regarded and known as a leader who fought against injustice, and helped the Indian Muslim community prosper. Due to his influence and contributions to the community, he was called ‘Dato Koyah’, koyah meaning master, guru or a person commanding respect. At his death in 1840, his followers built a tomb in his memory at Transfer Road, by the tree where he was said to have first settled. The British East India Company donated the land where the tomb was built and named one of the roads leading to the building after him.
Now known as Makam Dato Koyah, the tomb has been classified as a Category I heritage building, requiring the most urgent and highest level of protection. By contrast, the majority of heritage buildings in Penang have been classified as Category II, where conservation and recognition of the building’s significance is encouraged. This puts Makam Dato Koyah as a priority on the list of heritage sites.
Makam Dato Koyah is named after Syed Mustapha Idris, a highly regarded a leader who fought against injustice, and helped the Indian Muslim community prosper. Photo: Think City
THE HERITAGE MANAGEMENT PLAN
The importance of Makam Dato Koyah is emphasised by the fact that over the years, it has continued to be a central meeting point for the local community, particularly those of South Indian Muslim descent. The tomb had become the site for local Indian Muslims to gather during festivals and till today, some of the community continues to visit the tomb every Thursday to ask for blessings.
Most recently, the Heritage Association of Dato Koyah was formed to take over custodial care of the building which is on wakaf land, belonging to the Religious Council of Penang (MAIPP). Wakaf land refers to land or properties bequeathed for the benefit of the community and which exist in perpetuity, meaning that no changes can be made to the purpose or to the ownership.
Members of the Association met with Think City back in 2014 to conceptualise a plan to restore and conserve the building. Together with George Town World Heritage Incorporated, set up by the Penang state government to oversee matters of heritage, the project was set in motion.
A study team, headed by Think City Programme Executive, Aufa Abdul Rahman together with architectural and cultural anthropology consultant Dr Gwynn Jenkins, conducted an in-depth study on the cultural significance of the site, its tangible and intangible heritage and strategies to safeguard it. A Heritage Management Plan was then drawn up to restore, preserve and safeguard the Makam.
A study team, headed by Think City Programme Executive, Aufa Abdul Rahman (in red) together with architectural and cultural anthropology consultant Dr Gwynn Jenkins (far right), conducted an in-depth study on the cultural significance of the site, its tangible and intangible heritage and strategies to safeguard it. Photo by Think City
No images or drawings could be found to give evidence of how the building has evolved over the years. The only evidence of change had to be obtained from the building itself and comparisons with other buildings of a similar period, function and cultural styling. An early painting of the Southern Indian Kapitan Kling Mosque (1848) around the time the Makam was built, gave some idea of the form and style of the Makam. Similar corner towers topped with large central domes surrounded by a ring of smaller ones could be seen on both the Mosque and the Makam.
The Makam was once surrounded by a lot of open space allowing for good ventilation, and evaporation, however the site has since been compromised. Developments next to the building have taken away the natural ventilation and evaporation areas which once kept the Makam in a stable condition, namely, a double-storey concrete building constructed inches away from the Makam.
“The best solution is to have it demolished as according to MBPP, it was built illegally. But since this property belongs to MAIPP, we needed their approval first and it is still pending,” said Aufa.
“If the building were to be demolished, it would make way for the roof to be put in with terracotta tiles and also for a back courtyard,” she added.
The many extensions and renovations over the years have also damaged the building.
While physical conservation works on the Makam began in late December 2015 after being approved by the Penang Island City Council (MBPP), complications due to past renovations have caused delays.
For example, restoration work on the building had been initially planned for completion in late 2016 but this has been delayed due to the removal of layers of cement render on the brick building.
According to Dr Jenkins, the whole building was encased in cement render and the damage to the building and four structural columns were quite extensive. In addition to that, the timber roof trusses were severely damaged by termites.
“Once the cement plaster was removed from the walls, it was very clear the building was in a much worse condition than anticipated and the original time schedule could not be met,” Dr. Jenkins said.
She explained that repairs on the building over the decades had further compounded damages to the structure.
“There were alterations to the openings that had compromised the structure, resulting in damp walls due to the building’s proximity to a natural stream. To resolve this problem, the walls had to be allowed to dry slowly and to be sprayed lightly, along with regular brushing to remove the damaging salts carried in the water,” she explained.
“Damaged bricks have been replaced with new cut-to-size bricks and traditional lime mortar, and once all the surrounding floors have been replaced with breathable materials inside and out, the rising damp will be very much reduced,” she said.
This project rates high in community involvement as the two main contractors undertaking the restoration works, Abdul Rashid Masooth and Adam Malik Shahul Hamid, are both members of the Heritage Association of Dato Koyah.
Aufa said, “This project was also a means of building capacity amongst the local community. Abdul Rashid and Adam Malik were involved from the initial stages of planning and research to the current restoration, right up to future plans for the site.”
It was a new learning curve for the contractors, who were used to working with cement render rather than the traditional lime mortar and bricks.
“It was painstaking work having to identify and replace the damaged bricks in the outer wall and the four structural columns. We learnt a lot in this project, and it was a great learning process for us,” said Adam.
THE FUTURE OF THE MAKAM
The restoration of the Makam is expected to complete by June 2017. Following that, landscaping work will be undertaken along the narrow side paths and the back courtyard where the double-storey building is located now. If the green light is given for the demolition of that building, the back courtyard will serve as an additional space for the community to hold events and gatherings.
“Our hope is for the Makam to be an interpretive gallery, showcasing Indian Muslim culture and heritage, and to continue to be a gathering place for the local community, especially during festive seasons,” said Aufa.
According to Adam, the value of preserving the Makam is immense. Not only would the Makam be restored to its former glory, the site would continue to promote and safeguard the intrinsic values of the South Indian Muslim community.
“This will bring our community back to its roots, and educate future generations about our heritage — about the fashion our great grandmothers used to wear — and our unique food heritage,” Adam said.
“The local community has tried to preserve the tomb over the years. We did minor repairs and paint but the entire building was never fully restored in all these years, so this project will finally return it to its former glory.”
Upon completion, the Association will continue to be the custodian of the Makam, while events such as weekly gatherings on Thursdays to give respect to Dato Koyah, and to distribute food to the poor will continue as they have for the past 175 years.
The importance of Makam Dato Koyah is emphasised by the fact that over the years, it has continued to be a central meeting point for the local community, particularly those of South Indian Muslim descent. The tomb had become the site for local Indian Muslims to gather during festivals and till today, some of the community continues to visit the tomb every Thursday to ask for blessings. Photo: Think City
This article was originally published in Think City Magazine Volume III.