Ammar, R. & Izzaty, N.
Heritage Series - Istana Raja Billah & The Mandailing Village
The old town of Papan is a time capsule of Perak's bygone colonial era. During the tin-mining period between the late 1800s and early 1900s, its busy streets catered to thousands of lively laborers, merchants and civilians, making it one of the leading commercial centers in the state. After the rush for tin fizzled out in Malaya, the town saw a drastic drop in its population and commercial activities, eventually transforming it into the 'ghost town' that it is today.
Among Papan's remaining buildings, Istana Raja Billah stands out as its stately centerpiece. Built and completed by the local chief Raja Bilah in 1896, it once served as the administrative house for Papan and its bustling mining industry, and at the same time functioned as a pillar of influence for the local Mandailings and surrounding Muslim communities. Over one hundred years after its construction, one can catch sight of this noble building near the town center, with its original facade and beautiful carvings still largely intact.
Second-floor timber facade and roof with traditional decoration.
Istana Raja Billah sits on top of a small hill within the compounds of the 'Mandailing village' alongside other historical buildings such as Masjid Lama Papan and Rumah Asal. While popularly known today as 'Istana Billah' or 'Istana Papan', the original term for the building is actually 'Rumah Besar', which is a translation of the Mandailing term for a nobleman's residence; 'Bagas Godang'. In practice, the palatial building's function during its heydays was more comparable to a great hall for its people; a venue for official meetings among community leaders, ceremonies, and the general administration for Pekan Papan.
Rumah Besar Raja Bilah, known by many today as 'Istana Raja Billah' or 'Istana Papan'.
Papan from Ipoh.
Papan old map (early 1900s) superimposed over modern-day conditions.
(Ref: Site visit and Ho Thean Fook's God of the Earth)
Map of the Mandailing village in Papan.
(Ref: Site visit and Abdur-Razzak Lubis & Khoo Salma Nasution's Raja Bilah and the Mandailings in Perak, 1875 - 1911)
An ethnic group originating from North and West Sumatra, the Mandailings are known for their strong adherence to distinct customary laws and kinship systems. Instead of reigning under Sultans, Mandailing communities were led by councils of Namora-Natoras (Nobles and Elders) by which a huta (a large settlement or village) is independently administered. On the individual side, each person identifies with a specific marga (patriclan), such as Lubis, Nasution, Rangkuti, Daulay, and many others. These elements are preserved through generations via the tradition of recording their tarombo (genealogy) and extensive family history.
Road to the Mandailing village. Istana Bilah can be seen on its elevated hillock (left, top).
In the 1800s and early 1900s, the Mandailings were known as among the orang dagang (foreign traders) in the region, many sojourning and relocating from across the Malacca Strait and opening new settlements all over the Malay peninsula. One of the popular incentives for this was to find riches through mining; particularly gold and tin. The establishment of this Mandailing settlement in Papan, however, was spurred by harsher circumstances, much of which partly shaped the histories of Pahang, the Klang Valley, and Perak.
Fortified retaining walls near the entrance to Istana Raja Billah.
Escape from the Padri War
Between the early and mid-1800s, West Sumatra was brutally ravaged by the Padri War (1803 - 1837). Hostility grew from a religious dispute between the Minangkabau royalties of the Pagaruyung Kingdom, with one faction siding alongside the Islamic fundamentalist Padris, and the opposing side with practitioners of adat (customs). The war ultimately led to Dutch intervention and cemented colonial involvement in the island for the next century. During this period, large populations of Mandailing, Minang, and Rawa people found themselves caught in between the bloodshed and subsequent economic exploitation. While many actively joined the warring factions, others decided to leave the island altogether - leading to an unprecedented mass migration between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula.
Among the Mandailing leaders affected was a Nasution nobleman named Raja Asal. Originally from Maga, Mandailing Julu, his rajaship was believed to have been unfairly taken by a relative in favor of the Dutch colonials. In response, he gathered his followers and set off across the sea, leaving their wartorn homeland behind. After a few stops along the Malay Peninsula, the journey took them to Raub, a territory in the state of Pahang.
Brick buttress wall below the mansion showing more recent signs of repair.
Struggle in Pahang
As it came to be, the kingdom of Pahang entered a period of unrest of its own. The Pahang Civil War (1857 - 1863) erupted due to a dispute on inheritance rights after the passing of Raja Bendahara Tun Ali, causing a rift between successor Raja Bendahara Tun Mutahir and his brother Tun Ahmad. The year that the war broke out was the same year that Raja Asal married Wan Puteh, a Pahang noble and relative of Tun Mutahir. This family tie inevitably led Raja Asal to support the incumbent Raja Bendahara, pulling along the Mandailings and fellow Rawas into the war - many of whom also refugees of the previous Padri War.
The death of Tun Mutahir and his son in 1863 marked the abrupt end of the war, and the seat of Bendarhara Raja was taken over by Tun Ahmad. In the midst of consolidating his position, the new Pahang ruler did not look favorably upon the Mandailings and Rawas, perceiving these 'outsiders' as troublemakers in the state. To avoid retaliation, Raja Asal and his followers retreated from Pahang and fled to the state of Selangor.
Stairway (top view), adorned with Neo-Classical pediments and entablatures.
Prosperity and War in Kuala Lumpur
Selangor was not an alien place for orang dagang, as numerous ethnic groups from Sumatra and all over the region were already firmly rooted in the local mining and trading industry. Here, Raja Asal was joined by Sutan Puasa (or Sutan Naposo), a Mandailing leader who led among the earliest known trading and mining activities in Kuala Lumpur. It was here as well that Raja Asal received the arrival of his nephew Raja Billah, who migrated from Sumatra upon his uncle's request. As Raja Asal did not have any children, Raja Bilah was treated like his own son and soon became his extension in daily administrative affairs.
The Mandailings and their leaders played a major part in growing the mining and trading industry in the territory, forming close business relationships with Chinese miners and societies, even so far as backing the appointment of several Kapitan China in Kuala Lumpur - including Yap Ah Loy. As Kuala Lumpur and its mines were rapidly growing, the territory became increasingly important for the Selangor Sultanate. After a while, the Mandailings again found themselves embroiled in a civil war, this time a struggle for power between state-backed Raja Abdullah and his contender Raja Mahadi. The Klang War / Selangor Civil War (1867 - 1874), which started off from a tax-collecting disagreement, evolved into a complex mesh of rivalries between Bugis and Sumatrans Malays, and competing Chinese societies Ghee Hin and Hai San.
Ram-head pediment on the gateway (left) displaying year 1313 of the Islamic calendar. (Right) Bottom view of the parapet and buttress wall.
Raja Abdullah was defeated and chased out in 1867. Emboldened by this, Raja Mahadi proceeded to build a fort in Klang and continued to defy the Selangor Sultanate. Sultan Abdul Samad then appointed his son-in-law, Tengku Kudin, to continue the fight against Raja Mahadi. Failing to resolve the conflict on amicable terms, Tengku Kudin brought in fighters from Kedah and utilized his close connection with the British to bolster Selangor's forces. By this time, Raja Asal, Sutan Puasa and Raja Bilah were leading their men in support of Raja Mahadi, who was seen as a patron of orang dagang in Selangor. In response, Tengku Kudin approached the Pahang Sultanate for assistance. Bendaraha Raja Tun Ahmad - still resentful of the Mandailings and Rawas for their involvement in the previous Pahang War - swiftly sent over thousands of warriors across the state in aid of the Selangor Sultanate.
This proved to be the downfall of Raja Mahadi and his faction. The stockade in Bukit Gombak (now Bukit Nanas) saw Raja Asal's stronghold fall to the hands of Tengku Kudin and his allies. Facing persecution by hostile Pahang and Bugis armies, many Mandailings fled to other states such as Johor, Negeri Sembilan, Perak and Melaka. The ones who stayed mostly laid low and avoided identifying with their ethnic background. Sutan Puasa was captured and imprisoned after another failed rebellion in 1975. For Raja Asal and Raja Bilah, they were left with no other choice but to bring their families and followers north toward the state of Perak.
(Left) Closer view of the perforated parapet wall and pier. (Right) Bottom view of the gateway and brick stairs - the year '1896' marked on the front side of the pediment.
Flight to Perak
During this exodus, the state of Perak was still recovering from the protracted Larut Wars, which saw among the most violent uprising of Chinese societies and miners in Malaya. As was the case in Selangor, the fights were marked by Ghee Hin - Hai San rivalries, and these were in turn backed by warring Malay chiefs vying for power in the Perak Sultanate. The climax of the war saw the British being brought into the administration via the Pangkor Treaty in 1874, installing James Wheeler Woodford Birch as the first British Resident in Perak. This agreement also lifted Sultan Abdullah Muhammad Shah II into power - replacing his rival predecessor Sultan Ismail.
Taking a different turn from their experience in Selangor, Raja Asal approached the British Resident and offered to be an ally in the midst of bickering local chiefs. Seeing Raja Asal's leadership of the Mandailings and Rawas, Birch quickly saw value in having him as a friendly party in Perak. Ignoring Raja Asal's previous history in the Klang War, he permitted Raja Asal and his men to settle and mine in Slim. In return, he tasked Raja Asal to monitor a 'problematic' figure in the local district; Tengku Panglima Besar Raja Ngah - a loyalist to the deposed Sultan of Perak, Raja Ismail.
Wall overrun by roots.
In November 1875, the political landscape in Perak was again shaken by the murder of Birch in Pasir Salak - thus triggering the Perak War (1875 - 1876). Contrary to his treatment of Raja Asal and the other 'foreign Malays', Birch was known to be overzealous and often treated other Malay chiefs in Perak with a 'high-handed' stride. After the British had made inroads into the state administration via the Pangkor Treaty, Birch hastily plowed through administrative decisions without consulting the local leadership and depriving them of traditional feudal properties (particularly tax collection authority and the ownership of slaves and bondsmen). The resentment culminated in Sultan Abdullah and his councils accepting Dato' Maharajalela's offer to get rid of the British Resident.
After the assassination and ensuing war, the British brought in Frank Swettenham as Deputy Commissioner to assist in maintaining order. Interestingly, among the leaders found to be involved with Sultan Abdullah in the 'conspiracy' was none other than his ex-rival Raja Ismail. This development made his followers - including Raja Ngah - among the wanted men in Perak. Continuing their support for the British, Raja Asal and his followers attempted to capture Raja Ngah in Sungkai. The pursuit was unsuccessful, but it drove Raja Ngah and his warriors out of the state. In addition to this, Raja Ismail himself was exiled to Johor in 1976 following the end of the war. As a reward for Raja Asal's allegiance, Swettenham gave him the right to mine in areas between Kinta and Blanja - which eventually included Raja Ismail's rich tin mines in Papan.
Istana Billah and the Mandailing village in Papan.
A New Beginning in Papan
After the mining rights award, Raja Asal brought his followers from Slim to Durian Sebatang, and later to Changkat Piatu. This settlement was located right beside Sungai Kinta and was used as a river port for Papan. Unfortunately, Raja Asal passed away here in 1877 before seeing Papan's full potential. As he did not have any children, Raja Asal's properties, debts, and authority over the mines were transferred to his closest noble kin; Raja Bilah. At the time, the Mandailings were relatively secure in Perak, as they had both the support of the British and Raja Idris - a rising Perak royalty who was soon to become Sultan in the coming decade.
Collapsed house near Istana Billah. This was the residence of Raja Bilah's daughter, Raja Kamariah.
Raja Bilah continued his late uncle's role as a peacekeeper among the 'natives' in his district. This was important to the British as the locals were still hostile to any direct changes in the state's administration. In addition to this, the leadership vacuum after the Perak War made the district highly susceptible to crime and robberies. With his experienced hulubalang (warriors) from the wars in Klang and Pahang, Raja Bilah was very well ready to bear this responsibility. On top of this, he was given Raja Asal's task of collecting tin duties on behalf of the British administration - giving him income through the chabut (commission) system. To maintain the security of the mines and the surrounding territory, Raja Bilah decided in 1878 to relocate and settle directly in Papan.
After a few years of being a reliable mediator in the district, the British government finally appointed Raja Bilah as the penghulu (local chief) of Papan in 1882. By then, he had slowly built back the finances of his settlement and paid off the last remaining debts incurred by Raja Asal's past business ventures. The same year of his appointment, Raja Bilah constructed a new house on top of a hillock in Papan. The Raja's house (now named Rumah Asal) naturally became the new center of the Mandailing village.
Rumah Asal, the original dwelling for Raja Bilah's family in Papan.
Reflecting Raja Bilah's situation at the time, Rumah Asal's timber house was modestly constructed, both in the aspect of scale and ornaments. The house lacks the signature pointed parapi (roof) and ornamental gables that the nobilities use back in the Mandailing homeland. Instead, its simple hip roof displays Dutch influence - a prevalent architectural feature among more recent buildings in Dutch colonies.
Rumah Asal however does possess other Mandailing characteristics, such as the lack of a verandah at its entrance and the presence of a traditional Raja's pond called tobat bolak (Great Pond) beneath the house. A common sight in Mandailing villages, man-made ponds were used for water impoundment and breeding fish. Here in Papan, the villagers channeled freshwater from the nearby hills into the settlement via wooden throughs. After being utilized for daily needs, the water was then fed into this tobat.
The tobat now lies empty underneath the house. Its original brick walls and piers are still visible on site.
Raja Bilah and the Communities of Papan
Papan's tin deposits were a major pull for the migration of workers and laborers into the district. Naturally, the village swelled into a small town, and at least thirteen different mines were recorded to be active in the district in 1881 alone. With the town's development came the lucrative tax commissions, allowing Raja Bilah to remain as the major patron of the Mandailings in the district. Owing to the town's development, he became the second-highest-paid penghulu in the Kinta Valley by the end of the decade. His position among the surrounding Malay and Sumatran communities was furthermore strengthened by the construction of a mosque in 1888. Located within the compounds of his village, the mosque (now known as Masjid Lama Papan) became a place of congregation among Muslims of various ethnic backgrounds, especially during religious celebrations and weekly Friday prayers.
Built in 1888, Masjid Lama Papan is among the oldest mosques in Perak. Its prayer hall utilizes a pyramid roof design (atap meru), similar to many Malayan and Indonesian mosques of its time.
The Mandailings converted to Islam in the masses during the Padri War. The traditions and customary laws retained were adapted to be in harmony with Islamic principles.
The house of Haji Muhammad Salleh Bilal, who was once the muezzin of the village.
On the Chinese side of the community, the Kar Yin Hakka settlers and workers in Papan were deeply familiar with Raja Bilah and his family. Many of them fled together with the Mandailings after the war in Selangor and continued backing Raja Bilah in the new district. Under their leaders Hew Ah Ang, Jin See and Wong Koon, the Hakkas opened the most productive mines in Papan and maintained partnerships with their Mandailing neighbors. This was made possible by the ability to provide cheap labor, effective networking and superior equipment (such as the use of wooden chain pumps for drainage). Their mines became so attractive that Papan became a hotbed for conflict between Chinese secret societies - a condition that led to the infamous Papan Riots of 1887.
As the chief of Papan, Raja Bilah headed the Penghulu's Court - a body that was authorized to hear certain levels of criminal and civil cases in its district. Aside from administering justice, Raja Bilah reported to the district office in Batu Gajah on numerous other penghulu duties, such as public health initiatives, keeping tabs on population records, land matters, and maintaining the rivers and roads of the town. Overall, he grew to become a chief not only for the Mandailings in Papan, but also for local Malays, Chinese, Sumatrans and other communities that settled in the town.
Interior view of Balai Penghulu. The office space was manned by a clerk for general administrative matters related to Papan. Among the clerks who worked here was Raja Ya'kub, son of Raja Bilah.
Part of his role as a patron was making sure that there was a channel for his followers to find their means of living. For his mines in Papan (termed by the British at the time as 'Malay mines' - as opposed to Chinese and European-owned ones), his men were involved in the whole process - from building dams, mining ore, to washing, smelting and trading of the tin ingots. The different methods used to obtain ore included meludang, melereh, melampan, mencabik, and menapok. The miners were usually made up of the Mandailing, Talu-Minang and Rawa people, whereas the coolies were mostly Javanese. They worked in the hundreds in his mines, including one dubbed as lombong besar - the deepest 'Malay' mine in Kinta Valley.
Similar to other tin-producing districts such as Gopeng and Kampar, Papan's community grew far beyond its original makeup, with its new mines bringing hordes of migrant workers onto its tin-rich alluvial soil. Due to this influx of workers, Papan transformed into a Chinese-majority town, dwarfing its original Malay - Mandailing and Sumatran population. Despite this demographic shift, the bustling mining and commercial activities allowed Raja Bilah to become quite wealthy, as did many chiefs of busy mining districts in Kinta. It was then that he decided to embark on several construction projects, with the flagship being the double-storeyed Rumah Besar mansion in the center of his village in Papan.
Completed in 1896, Rumah Besar demonstrated Raja Bilah's prosperity and authority in his district. Towering above other houses in the village, it was constructed on the same hillock as Rumah Asal, with a single covered staircase linking both buildings. The design chosen for the building incorporated even less traditional Mandailing architecture compared to Rumah Asal. Adapting to local political conditions, Raja Bilah opted to apply a Colonial-Vernacular style for its exterior facade, particularly a mix of Malay and Neo-Classical vocabulary. Known by many as 'Malay-Palladian' or simply 'Colonial-Vernacular' style, the design was a popular trend among aristocratic mansions and villas in British Malaya. Adding to this, buttress walls were built around two sides of the building's compound, with one side featuring a pedimented gateway and a flight of stairs leading to the main building above. Needless to say, Rumah Besar's detour from traditional ethnic forms indicated further integration of the Mandailings into the local Malay and colonial culture.
Second floor displaying traditional Malay vernacular style.
Staircase connection between Rumah Asal and Rumah Besar.
Colonial architecture clearly made an impression on Raja Bilah. Rumah Besar's symmetrical form was built in the fashion of Neo-Classical buildings, and its double-tiered hip roof exhibits an adaptation of European architecture to fit the local climate. The exterior walls of Rumah Besar's first floor are further decorated with Western elements, such as pilasters running along its load-bearing walls and their accompanying pedestals and entablature. The second floor, contrarily, displays Malay-vernacular elements; its walls and structure made of chengal timber and the roof edges lined with papan manis (decorative eaves). A protruding section - a form termed by some as 'surong' - is the central structure of the building's front elevation. It sports a perabung lima (five-ridged roof) and is the only portion of the second floor built with bricks. Its first floor below is an unwalled area supported by semi-circular arches, forming a portico for the building's main entrance.
The first floor is decorated with Neo-Classical elements, while the facade on the second floor reflects mainly traditional Malay architecture.
Tiled roof. Double-tiered and fitted with clerestory openings, the design allows air to be circulated more efficiently in tropical climates.
Among the eye-catching parts of the building are the windows and doors. The windows appear traditional in design - a standard-sized type for the bottom floor and a full-height type for the upper level. These are either equipped with adjustable timber louvers or full-paneled shutters. On top of all these windows are timber fanlights, most of which are decorated with beautiful floral carvings. The first-floor windows are additionally fitted with awnings and unique fan-shaped timber shades on each side. The woodwork is believed to have been done by local Chinese carpenters, which may explain the prevalence of the same elements and patterns on other old buildings in Papan.
Timber windows and fanlights with floral carvings on the first floor. The windows on this side are fitted with traditional adjustable louvers.
The other side of the building features simpler cross-latticed fanlight design and the windows are fully paneled instead of louvered.
Awning with unique fan-shaped shades. Unlike the ones on many other buildings in Papan, these here are still in good shape.
Traditionally, 'Bagas Godang' (trans; Rumah Besar / Big House) refers to an official residence of a Mandailing Raja and his family. In the Mandailing homeland, the building is treated like a palace and usually sits in a complex of other customary buildings with their own specific communal functions. These buildings can be identified with their Bindu Matoga-Matogu / Tutup Ari gables, which are richly decorated with bolang - symbols and shapes that represent traditional rules and philosophy of the Mandailing way of life. Here in Papan, however, the Rumah Besar is aesthetically different and was never used as a Raja's house. After the completion of the building, Raja Bilah and his family continued living next door in Rumah Asal, and Rumah Besar was instead utilized somewhat like a 'Sopo Godang' or 'Balai Sidang Adat'.