Batu Gajah and Kuala Kangsar in Perak
Reflections and monuments of a bygone era
My wife and I embarked on yet another road trip on Valentine’s Day in February 2020. It was to two relatively famous small towns in our distant past in the former tin mining state of Perak. In those colonial days, Perak was a very important state in Malaya. Our economy at independence depended chiefly on tin and rubber.
Small towns can sometimes be boring and dull depending on your perspective. At other times, if you are a keen history buff, then a visit to such towns can be a joyful and enlightening experience.
Interesting Names of Towns
Batu Gajah ( or Stone Elephant in Malay ) and Kuala Kangsar ( derived from Karong- Sa ) which means ‘ 99 tributaries which flow into the Perak River are quaint towns which still retain much of their charms and lovely historic buildings.
For the record, Batu Gajah is reported to have a population of 120,000 in the district and Kuala Kangsar is said to have a much smaller population of around 50,000. Kuala Kangsar is also designated as the Royal Town in Perak and HRH the Sultan of Perak has his official, impressive residence or Istana ( Palace ) in Kuala Kangsar.
Batu Gajah District Hospital
The Batu Gajah District Hospital was built in 1880 to cater to two communities i.e. the Europeans and the locals. European patients were treated in the European section while Asians were treated in the other section. It was the public hospital for the well-known Kinta district of Perak. It was built on a tableland called Changkat by the locals.
It is a fine and lasting tribute to the builders of that era that the buildings housing the hospital are still in use almost 140 years later – and they still look gorgeous.
I remember the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital looking somewhat like that in the past but given its importance as the nation’s capital, the hospital in Kuala Lumpur now has a more modern look.
However, this district hospital now only has 2nd Class and 3rd Class wards for patients. According to Stephen Dorairaj Sinnappan, a stalwart of the This is Batu Gajah special interest group on Facebook this is probably because of the need to serve the poorer sections of the community. There have been no 1st Class wards at this hospital for over forty years!
Imposing Old Court House
Another imposing building that still stands tall literally is the Old Court House in Batu Gajah. It was constructed in 1897 and is still in regular use. This fine building appears to be in good condition externally and hopefully will continue to serve as a courthouse for many more years.
It is buildings such as these that help to evoke memories of a distant and oftentimes mysterious past. For the British, it was a glorious era when that country ruled almost half the world! For the Malayans then, it was a period of colonisation and with it came so many forms of subjugation and discrimination.
To be fair, the British did leave us with a fine education system and many schools of excellence in all the major cities of Malaya. For instance, Victoria Institution and St John’s Institution in KL as well as Free School and St Xavier’s Institution in Penang. They also left us with a sound administrative system and a legal and judicial system of some high standing.
St Joseph’s Church in Batu Gajah
Another formidable, impressive and stately building in Batu Gajah is St Joseph’s Church. As you approach it, it looks imposing and solid. It also seems to be well maintained, with a good coat of cream coloured paint. The church is in regular use by its loyal Catholic members.
It is situated in spacious and well-spruced grounds and right across the church is a large St Joseph’s Community Centre. I understand children go there for religious classes on a regular basis. It is also used for meetings and seminars and appears to provide some sleeping quarters too for attendees.
William Kellie’s Castle in Batu Gajah
This building is now a ‘ must-see sight ‘ when anyone is in the Kinta Valley. It is being actively promoted by tourism authorities both at the federal and state levels. It is still a magnificent structure, built in a Moorish / Roman style, in its present unfinished form.
Kellie’s Castle is sometimes also known as Kellie’s Folly because of what befell the owner of that unfinished castle. William Kellie-Smith was initially a civil engineer who built many of the roads in Batu Gajah.
He later switched professions and became a planter as Malaya’s booming rubber industry took off in those heady years. But this proud Scot did not seem to get on well with the other English officials in the civil service as well as with fellow European entrepreneurs. At the height of his success as a businessman, he wanted to build a castle for two reasons: as a gift for his wife and also to spite the others who were envious of his successes.
Workers, Bricks and Marble from India
Kellie imported bricks and marble from India and Tamil workers from Madras ( now known as Chennai ). The building was almost three quarters completed before disaster struck. A raging disease took a toll on his workers and many died as a result.
He persuaded the other workers to move a distance away and promised to build a Hindu temple for them. He kept the promise and did build that still lovely and well-maintained temple. As a tribute to him, the local Hindus constructed a small statue of him and placed it high on the outside of the temple wall.
The other reason for abandoning the project was because his business suffered quite a bit. He also died unexpectedly while on a return sea voyage to Malaya. The jungle soon covered the castle and the building was quickly forgotten. It is only in recent times that an effort was made to restore Kellie’s Castle to its rightful place in Malaysian folklore.
These towns have their own personalities and interesting stories to tell if only we care to listen.
A trio of Exquisite Buildings in Kuala Kangsar
We were lucky to see, appreciate and marvel at the architecture and radiant beauty of a trio of exquisite buildings in Kuala Kangsar during this road trip. I do wonder whether this has anything to do with the fact that Kuala Kangsar is the Royal Town of Perak!
Official Residence of the Ruler
The first of these buildings is Istana ( Palace ) Iskandariah, the official residence of HRH the Sultan of Perak. It is situated on top of a sprawling hillock in a lovely part of the town. The huge palace sits majestically in the centre of the grounds which are well manicured and landscaped to give it that air of grace and serenity.
The whole area surrounding the palace is a sort of well maintained public garden or park where both locals and visitors can walk about at a leisurely pace while admiring the beauty of the palace.
Palace of Memories
Close by is another treasure. This is Istana Kenangan or Palace of Memories. This is a much smaller palace that served another purpose earlier on.
This unique building is an amazingly well designed and attractive palace. It is local architecture at its best at that time. It was built using wood and no metal nail was used in its construction. Another material used was bamboo which was woven expertly into diamond-shaped patterns.
From an aerial view, it is said that the palace is shaped like a keris ( a curved dagger ). From our vantage point, just a few feet away, it was breathtakingly stunning.
This mosque is made of marble and huge gold domes and is situated in the same area as the other buildings that I mentioned earlier on. It is also next to the Bukit Chandan Royal Mausoleum.
It is reported to be one of the prettiest mosques in the country. Having seen it at close quarters, I think that claim is a fair statement.
Other Buildings Worthy of Mention
There are two other buildings that caught my eye. I drove past Clifford School, Kuala Kangsar twice just to be sure. It is such a beautiful building and in very good form that I was just blown away to discover that such a treasure does exist even after one hundred and twenty-three years!
The school was named after the distinguished personality who had the honour of officially opening the school. He was Sir Hugh Clifford, British Colonial Governor of the Straits Settlements at that time. The school was also known as a Government English School.
The other building that merits a mention is the very small, cute Anglican Church of the Resurrection in Kuala Kangsar. It was consecrated as a church in 1908 and it sits right across the road from Clifford School.
It has a distinctive red roof and is easily noticed. It immediately reminded me of that famous television series ‘ Little House of the Prairie ‘. It can accommodate at most about fifty to eight attendees. That is just my guess.
We had also wanted to visit the well known Victoria Bridge but this was not to be because of time constraints. We also missed out seeing the Pavilion Tower both in Kuala Kangsar.
All in all, sightseeing trips on federal roads that we normally do not travel on is a very interesting way to see and better appreciate such small towns. These towns have their own personalities and interesting stories to tell if only we care to listen. The beauty and grandeur of some of the old buildings is something worth preserving for future generations.