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In Malacca"s Sultanate Palace Museum, Two Strange Stories

Constructed between 1984 and 1986, the Malacca Sultanate Palace is a modern reimagining of the Istana (royal palace) that must have stood on this spot in the city of Malacca in the 15th century. The Palace's design - based on inputs from the Malaysian Historical Society and the Artists Association of Melaka - is supposed to recreate the Istana of the Malacca Sultan Mansur Shah, a structure built in 1465 and destroyed in 1511 by attacking Portuguese forces.

Little mention is made of the palace's end at the hands of Western powers; after all, Mansur Shah ruled the settlement of Malacca at the height of its political and cultural power, and the Palace at present basks in the reflected glory of that age when the Malays (the majority ethnicity in Malaysia) were unquestionably in charge.  

Throwback Everyday: Read this Short History of Malacca, Malaysia for a helicopter view of the city's past. For additional context on Malaysia's history, read Asian History's take on Malaysia - Facts and History

A Replica of a Long Lost "Istana"

The Malay Annals, written in the 17th century, is a foundational document for the Malays of the region, and part of it tells of the glory of the Istana in Sultan Mansur Shah's day. "Exceedingly beautiful was the execution of that palace," the Annals' author writes. "There was no other palace in the whole world like it."

But as the Malays built in wood rather than in stone, no Istanas survive from those days. Only from the Malay hikayat (chronicles) can we glean the structure and appearance of the Istanas of yore: the Malacca Sultanate Palace's architects drew from such sources to create the building we see in Malacca today.

The present-day Malacca Sultanate Palace is an elongated, three-storey building measuring 240 feet by 40 feet. Everything about the Palace is made from wood - the roof is made of Kayu Belian (Eusideroxylon zwageri) imported from Sarawak, while the highly polished floors are crafted from Kayu Resak (woods of the genuses Vatica and Cotylelobium). Intricate floral and botanical motifs are carved into the wooden walls, indicative of the traditional Malay art of ukiran (woodcarving).

The whole building is raised from the ground by a series of wooden pillars. No nails were used in the construction of the palace; instead, the wood is ingeniously carved to fit together in the traditional manner.

Wandering Malacca: Read our list of Ten Things to Do in Malacca, Malaysia for more activities in this historical quarter. Our Malacca walking tour should also give you a good overview of the city.

Exhibits within the Malacca Sultanate Palace

To enter the Malacca Sultanate Palace, you will climb the central staircase into the first level - but not before taking off your shoes and leaving them in front. (Malay custom in these parts requires you leave your shoes at the door before entering a home, and even some offices enforce this rule.)

The ground floor consists of a several central rooms surrounded by a hallway spanning the entire perimeter.

The front hallway shows off dioramas of the different traders who did business with Malacca in their heyday: a series of mannequins standing in for Siamese, Gujarati, Javanese, Chinese and Arabian merchants, each wearing costumes peculiar to each group. (The mannequins look like they were taken from a department store; one Siamese trader in particular has a disconcertingly Western visage and smile.)

Other exhibits along the perimeter hallway show off the headdresses (crowns) of the Sultans of Malaysia; the weapons used by Malay warriors during the Malacca Sultanate; cooking and eating implements used in those days; and recreational activities of the Malays in the 15th century.

 For a closer look at the Malacca Sultanate Palace's exhibits, proceed to the next page.

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