Monday, 6 January 2014

The Old Malay and Muslim Cemeteries - Jalan Kubor

Are we about to lose two hundred years of Singaporean history?

It never ceases to amaze me here in Singapore how I can walk past things without ever knowing they were there. Not so hidden away on the the main road of Victoria Street sits 2 of the oldest cemeteries in Singapore. Facing the cemeteries from Victoria Street on the left is the Old Muslim cemetery and on the right the Old Malay separated by the Jalan Kubor (meaning Grave street)

According to historical maps the cemeteries are marked as "Mohammedan cemetery and Tomb of the Malayan princes" Following some research I found they were originally split into 3 parts; a 5.3 acre Malay cemetery, a 3 acre area for the Sultans burial plots and a cemetery for Indian Muslims. In 1875 the cemetery was closed but the Sultans family were granted permission to continue to use the royal burial grounds for their family and this became walled in.

The cemeteries form part of the old royal port town. This came into being when Sultan Hussein  (Tenku Long from Riau, Indonesia) became Sultan, a position originally taken by his younger brother Abdual Rahman. The British, with Sir Stamford Raffles and East India Company, placed his brother  Temenggong Abdul Rahman as the Sultans representative in Singapore to help them with their trading interests and on 6 Feb 1819 Tenku Long took over as Sultan of Johor. The cemetery, along with the royal burial grounds, contains several graves of important traders from neighbouring islands alongside hundreds of unnamed people from Kampong Glam (Kampung Gelam) The area designated by Raffles for the Sultan along with the Malay and Arab communities. 

However the cemeteries now lie outside the conservation boundaries of Kampong Glam. This puts them under threat of development . Under the URA Draft Master Plan 2013 The Malabar Mosque is conserved but the not the land on which the cemeteries lie is. The Land is owned by the State. Throughout the Muslim cemetery the grave stones have string marking out the positions of the graves with them also numbered. The area is clearly being mapped and recorded.

Malabar Mosque

The graves in both cemeteries are jumbled and lopsided, in no particular pattern or order. Some are flat sided whereas others are rounded, does this I wonder denote a difference between male and female? (I couldn't find out on the Internet... can anyone shed light on this?) 
Since originally writing this post S T Tan has kindly left a comment (see comments below) revealing some more information on the tombstones : 
The nature of the tombstones(being flat or round) may mean the social status of the deceased. Each grave is marked by a headstone, a footstone and aligned towards Mecca, Islam's holy ground. If you observe a small tombstone in between these 2, it indicates a woman who died giving birth. The small tombstone is for the child.  
 I did find out the reason why some are covered in cloth "hats" -  the yellow denotes Royalty and the green is the colour of Islam (again any further information would be great and I can update more fully) Some grave markers are even made from wood. There are inscriptions on some of the grave stones in Lontara the original Buginese language. See the link to wikipedia on more info on this....   
Indeed I am probably the only expat in Singapore that didn't realise that the area Bugis was named so from the Bugis people originating from South Sulawesi, Indonesia (another dose of research for another day!)
S T Tan
Not all the inscriptions are of the Bugis script. There are also Arabic, Chinese, English, Jawi and early forms of Malay. Many of the engravings are discovered to carry a mix of all these scripts and even reflects the evolution of the Malay language itself. By this I mean certain alphabets in Arabic that did not exist in Malay and created later. There are 2 Chinese tombstones dated 1874 and another dated 1877, Manchu Qing Dynasty, Emperor Guangxu's reign that I know of. These were engraved in a mix of Chinese, English and Jawi.
The Old Muslim Cemetery sits on the right side of the Jalan Kubor if you are facing from Victoria Street. This cemetery is walled with the Madrasah Aljunied Al- islamic Muslim school sitting in the far corner. The land is called the wakaf and it was donated by the Arab pioneer Syed Sharif Omar bin Ali Aljunied. He and his descendants were buried here but have since been moved. A bit of modern day history - in December 1972 two of Singapore's most wanted gunmen, who were brothers, were cornered by the police in the cemetery and killed themselves.

Cloths denoting the graves of royalty (yellow) and the green to denote Islam

look closely and you will see some of the wooden grave markers 

The Old Malay Cemetery sits across from the Muslim one, with the beautiful blue mosaic-ed Malabar mosque in the front corner. This was built for the Malabar Muslims who originated from Kerala in India. Behind the mosque is an old banyan tree, the national tree of India and a religious tree in many customs.  Within the Old Malay cemetery according to historical maps are the "tombs of the Malayan princes" and indeed on this side many of the tombs are raised as they were for royalty and many with yellow cloth "hats".

Lets hope these two cemeteries are saved from Singapore's constant evolution and the remains of these people left in peace.

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