Text and photography by Law Siak Hong and Lau Sook Mei
On a gloomy Saturday morning in June, a special event brought the town of Papan to life.
When I got there, the main street of this fading tin-mining town was already packed with cars. Rumah Besar Raja Bilah, the venue of the commemorative Majlis Tahlil Raja Bilah, nestles on a hillock in Kampung Dato (now Kampung Melayu Papan) behind the unassuming town. As I approached, ringing prayers soothed my hurried pace.
An elevated view of the town from Kampung Dato.
Who is Raja Bilah to command such a remembrance?
Raja Bilah (1834-1911) is the spiritual leader of the Mandailings. He was well-respected by all communities in Papan. The Mandailings originate from the mountains in north-east Sumatra. After many battles they traversed northward from Kuala Lumpur. For his military services in the Perak War, Raja Asal was awarded the Papan Mines in 1877 which belonged to the ousted ex-Sultan Ismail. Raja Asal then settled in Pangkalan Kacha, now Changkat Piatu, a short distance from Papan, until his death that same year.
"Arched gateway carrying a pediment formed by a pair of graceful scrolls framing the date '1896'" - Chen Voon Fee, Landmarks of Perak, 2006.
Raja Bilah, nephew of Raja Asal, took over the Papan Mines and moved to Papan in 1878 after he was appointed “peace-keeper”, tax collector and penghulu (headman) of the town. He was made a member of Batu Gajah Town Council in 1895. Raja Bilah died on 9 June 1911; the tahlil marks the 100th anniversary of his passing.
Clockwise from top right: Rumah Asal; Masjid Kampung Papan and Rumah Besar.
In 1882, Raja Bilah built his family a timber house called Rumah Asal, followed by the traditional Mandailing mosque in 1888, and the Rumah Besar in 1896. Rather than a palatial mansion, the Rumah Besar was more a community hall for clan council meetings, gatherings and celebrations; restoration of the building by the Department of Museums and Antiquities was completed in 2004. While one branch of the family remained in Papan, the others dispersed. Some had settled in Kampong Mandailing, Chemor, a small town north of Ipoh, while others have fanned out to other parts of the Kinta Valley and beyond.
The spacious hall of the Rumah Besar.
Clockwise from left: Light fills the room over the porch; fanlight decorated with pierced carving of foliage and birds, from inside and outside.
This majlis tahlil was a big family reunion. Some 200 family members, both young and not so young, had come from far and wide; many meeting their relatives for the first time. It was four Mandailing women who made it happen: Hafizah Kamaruddin, Raja Bilah’s maternal great grand-daughter, Kak Nadimah, Kak Naimah and Kak Maznah.
From left: Kak Saadiah, Hafizah, Kak Naimah, Kak Zarah and Kak Nadimah.
After the tahlil prayers, conducted by an imam from Chemor, it was makan time. Kak Nadimah had organized the food, dishing out a sumptuous spread of delightful dishes a la kampung. Lunch was followed by a group portrait to mark this historic day. Imagine, four generations of Raja Bilah’s descendants squeezing into the frame of the camera! Then, inside the cool and majestic Rumah Besar, Abdur-Razzaq Lubis enlightened them on their Mandailing history. The author of Raja Bilah and the Mandailings in Perak: 1875-1911, Lubis is a Mandailing of the Loebis clan, and a nephew of Kak Naimah.
An interesting lunch spread.
Attentive audience at AR Lubis' talk.
Some of us ‘outsiders’ invited to the event stayed on long after the event ended to bask in the noble air. We threw ourselves back a century and wondered about the scene at the passing of this great community leader. It could have been pretty much the same, albeit with sorrow and sadness.