Remembering Raja Bilah of Papan

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.


9 Responses to “Remembering Raja Bilah of Papan”

  1. 1 darryl collins July 14, 2011 at 7:54 am

    WOW!!! The house is amazing … we never managed to see inside when I was last there. What a treat! To see it occupied by descendants such a graciously appointed building is a real heritage treasure for Papan!!!



    • 2 Papan Jones September 8, 2011 at 1:12 pm

      Rumah Besar Raja Bilah, the ‘House’ is more of a clan house. The architectural expression its status to the people. The robust octagonal columns inside shows its universality. The building was crafted by Chinese masons and carpenters with Mandailing volunteers. Happy to show it to you the next time you come to town.

  2. 3 Wang Shaoming July 14, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Wahsai, this brings back great memories of Papan Open Day 4 August 2003 IIRC.

    Is it going to be her lucky 8th anniversary soon? If so, will there be food and drinks again ah?

    Here’s hoping loh!

    • 4 Papan Jones September 8, 2011 at 1:14 pm

      Sorry, the 8th anniversary came and went without fanfare.
      If you want free food and drink, come to Sybil’s Clinic by appointment.
      If you want to see others there, you would have to organise the food and drinks and post an invite in Ipoh Echo! 🙂

  3. 5 Yeo Hock Yew July 14, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Thank you, Siak Hong and Sook Mei, for this photo essay. It is admirable that an event 100 years ago was still honoured in this manner by more than 200 participants. It’s a heritage well preserved, helping to sustain the significance of quiet Papan.

    Hock Yew

  4. 6 Lynn Lees July 15, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Thanks for bringing alive an important person, place, space, and family in Perak history. Heritage at its best!
    Lynn Lees

    • 7 Papan Jones September 8, 2011 at 1:17 pm

      Thanks for the compliments, Lynn.
      It was a privilege to be there at the Majlis Tahlil.
      Please read below my comment posted separately.

  5. 8 Hafizah Kamarudding July 21, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Dear Hong, thank u so much for the beautiful write up and all the assistance given to us in ensuring the gathering took off. Looking forward in working together again for any heritage project. Maybe another Papan project.

  6. 9 Papan Jones September 8, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    The event was so memorable that quite a few people lingered long after most of the people have left. Kudos to the Mandailing wome: Kah Saadia, Hafizah, Kak Naimah, Kak Nadimah, Maznah and all those who helped put in the time and money to ensure the success of this centennial celebration in Papan.

    The RBRB has stood the test of time, and Raja Bilah’s descendants have neither forgotten their spiritual leader nor their roots. The Majlis Tahlil Raja Bilah is an event to remember. Through a strong belief in their heritage, those who gathered have shown they are part of a greater agenda: they are the most significant stakeholder of a heritage which has been generously shared with not only the Mandailing Community but the Perak Heritage community, indeed, the whole of the nation and beyond (in cyberspace).

    Rumah Besar looked great that day. Unfortunately, for on-going location filming, part of the garden wall has been painted with a cheap white emulsion paint, when it should have been simply white-washed and allowed to ageback beautifully.

    Which points to the fate that the RBRB deserves better management. But of course, this is a family matter. The extended family I hear a joint-custodian of the RBRB. Perhaps, they can work something out and open the building for public visit for a small admission charge for maintenance and upkeep.

    There are compelling reasons to emphasize this community heritage for the good of nation-building. Hey, I don’t mean to sound patriotic, only practical.

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