About 40 years ago, a young Tengku Ismail Tengku Su visited the Nijo-jo Palace in Osaka, Japan and was so struck by the preservation of the magnificent wooden structure built in 1603, he vowed to one day do the same for the traditional houses in his home state of Terengganu.
It was not an empty vow. A member of Terengganu royalty, Tengku Ismail grew up in Dalam Kota Istana Maziah, a complex of wooden palaces originally built in the early 18th century and enlarged in the early 20th century. Visits to historical structures in Europe and Asia later in his life strengthened his resolve and in 1998, he delivered on the promise with the completion of Pura Tanjung Sabtu, a complex of timber houses laid out in the style of an 18th-century royal dwelling.
The complex sits on 14 acres of family land located next to the Nerus River and is surrounded by orchards and landscaped gardens. This vast blanket of green — it takes 20 people to cut the grass — is the perfect setting for the beautiful, thoughtfully designed dwelling. Raised 3m from the ground, it is constructed of unpainted wood and has graceful tiered, clay-tiled roofs with curved gables.
Tengku Ismail, a well-known songket designer, had purchased 11 centuries-old houses from throughout the state between 1992 and 1996 with this Shangri-La in mind. After moving them to the land in Tanjung Sabtu, the site of Sultan Zainal Abidin III’s country retreat in the 1920s, the process of restoration began.
“The houses were moved piece by piece to the new site and re-assembled,” he reminisces. “The longest piece was a single wood roof-bridge measuring 44ft x 8in x 8in. Lifting this heavy piece required human power, and we employed certain techniques to make it ‘lighter’ when lifting it. The secret was to use a rope-pulley technique by coiling the rope many times around the truss holds and then slowly pulling it up.”
Dying trades revived
The mammoth restoration job required the expertise of artisans from throughout the state. Tengku Ismail says dying crafts were rejuvenated and younger craftsman were encouraged to revive dormant trades related to traditional architecture and art and crafts. Work, he adds, stopped only during the harvest season for the villagers to tend their fields.
In many ways, it was a remarkable feat that would have been worthy of paeans had it been achieved centuries ago. Another interesting feature is the use of pasak, or Naga-wood plugs, instead of iron nails in Pura Tanjung Sabtu. The technique is common in the construction of traditional Malay houses as well as perahu besar (Malay sailing junks) in Terengganu.
Most of the original units needed major repair. Tengku Ismail says in many instances, the floorboards, pillars, beams and roof supports were intact but the wall panels had either rotted away or been sold for scrap. For repairs, the craftsmen used wood that had been seasoned over several years and also salvaged materials from two timber houses that could not be restored.
As original replacements for some of the parts could not be found, glass inserts were substituted for wall panels; and Japanese rice-paper screens for the pelupur (bamboo dividers). Intricate lattice woodwork was used for the soffit or underside located below each gable end (peles).
House on stilts
Seven houses, averaging 20ft by 30ft each, make up the main complex and are connected by wooden walkways. Visitors are received at the balai, which leads to a central wooden courtyard that’s ideal for outdoor cultural performances.
The west wing comprises Tengku Ismail’s bedroom and study, a main living and dining area, and a kitchen for household staff, with workers’ quarters and a songket workshop on the “ground” floor. The east wing houses two guesthouses and a songket gallery. Each house is named after the villages where they originated form. Additionally, there is a resting pavilion or balai wakaf by the lotus pond.
The units are tastefully decorated with wooden furniture imported mainly from Bali and glass lamps from Bangkok. As with his condominium in Kuala Lumpur, Pura (which is Sanskrit for “temple, city or palace”) also houses family heirlooms and paintings. The bed designs are based on the multi-level traditional wedding dais and, when draped with voluminous mosquito netting, look most romantic.
Tengku Ismail has opened three houses to guests who desire to experience a country-style homestay with a royal touch. While living in a piece of history, they have access to comforts like air conditioning, modern bathrooms and goose down feather pillows. They can explore the vast grounds (which also host a goat farm), go fishing, take in the local sights or hop on a river cruise. (For details and rates, go to www.puratanjungsabtu.com.)
“We quite regularly have visitors and they are mostly from Europe. The guests experience country living but are pampered by my personalised attention. They also get to enjoy royal-style fine dining,” he explains.
The guesthouses help to maintain Pura, which was nominated for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2007. The recognition was a feather in the cap for Tengku Ismail, a history and architecture buff.
“It was like a gift, after so many years of toil. I was most happy and proud, as a person without an architectural background, to be nominated for this very prestigious international award,” he says.
According to its website, the Aga Khan award rewards building concepts that “successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies in which Muslims have a significant presence”, paying special attention “to building schemes that use local resources and appropriate technology in an innovative way”.
Pura not only used local resources during its construction but also aims to be a focal point for the teaching of traditional arts and cottage industries, especially weaving. There is a workshop employing local weavers, on its grounds.
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With his dream fulfilled, Tengku Ismail has embarked on the next page of his fascinating life. Not one to do things in small measures, he is working on three books — The Splendour of Songket: Terengganu’s Royal Tradition, The Family Tree of the Royal Houses of Johor-Riau-Lingga-Pahang-Terengganu and of course, Pura Tanjung Sabtu.
“My greatest ambition is to be a historical writer and perhaps write my own autobiography,” he states.
He must surely find inspiration for this latest venture in Pura’s beauty and tranquility. Not surprisingly, the quality he appreciates most about the house is “aman” or tranquility.
“Pura relives the lifestyle of the past in a very quiet and peaceful environment. I love it. Ultimately, I would like it to be the pride of the state, and the choice destination for the rich and famous,” he says.
This article appeared in haven, Issue #39, Oct + Nov 2009, the deco and garden publication of The Edge Malaysia