My pace quickens significantly as the intended destination looms ever closer. The sweltering tropical sun is directly overhead when I finally find myself standing right in front of Istana Maziah. There’s not a soul in sight on my side of the palace gates. Beyond that, I see several burly sentries guarding the closed entrance. The mere sight of their stern faces is enough to deter anyone from planning an unauthorised entry.
A raised covered platform astride the old palace entrance catches my attention. I immediately recognise it as the Balai Nobat — the place where the Terengganu royal orchestra used to perform during important ceremonies.
Excited beyond words but yet not daring to attract the attention of the watchful guards, I start tracing the palace’s outer perimeter, looking for a spot that will give me the best view. Fortunately, I don’t have to walk far as the Balai Nobat is located fairly close to the guardhouse.
Despite being devoid of any activity, the structure immediately evokes a feeling of nostalgia as I start recalling the late Tan Sri Datuk Dr Mubin Sheppard’s research on Terengganu’s Nobat instruments and the strange tale of their ancient predecessor from the Riau-Lingga islands.
THE SEARCH FOR ANSWERS
The Terengganu Nobat instruments consists of six items: the nenggara, a large footed drum with a single head; two gendang, double-headed cylindrical drums of differing lengths; a nafiri, trumpet; a serunai, Malay oboe; and a pair of small cymbals called kopok-kopok.
Members of the Terengganu royal orchestra total seven altogther — one more than the number of instruments because the nenggara requires one man to hold it in position while another strikes it with strips of rattan.
According to his research conducted in the mid 1960s, Sheppard considered the three heavily encased silver Nobat drums unique compared to the other Malay royal instruments he’d seen. Sheppard was primarily fascinated with the delicate foliated designs which turn the otherwise ordinary percussion instruments into aesthetic objects of perfection.
While commenting that the trumpet, oboe and cymbals were also made of the same precious metal as the drums, the famous Malayan historian noted that the latter enjoyed far superior workmanship and decorative embellishments compared to the others.
The drums were made more remarkable as their resonance could be adjusted using silver tuning handles located at the periphery. This style, normally seen only on European military drums, intrigued Sheppard and prompted him to travel south to the Lingga court in his quest for answers.
During his visit, Sheppard collected facts from three separate senior members of the Lingga royal family. According to him, all three people were (each) more than 70 years of age when he met them. Slowly but surely, Sheppard began piecing together the amazing story of the Terengganu silver drums, beginning with the institution of the first Nobat, or band of Malay Sovereignty, some 650 years ago by the Queen of Bintan.
Over the centuries, these instruments, which included drums made of wood, were used by successive legitimate rulers ascending the throne at Penyengat, the royal capital of the Riau-Lingga islands. This tradition was, however, interrupted, upon the demise of Sultan Sulaiman in 1883.
Without an apparent heir, the seat of power was temporarily occupied by the late monarch’s cousin, Tengku Embong Fatimah and her Bugis husband, Yam Tuan Muda Raja Yusof. The unsettled state of succession and the increasing output of gold and tin from Lingga controlled Singkep Island aroused the Dutch Resident’s interest and he decided to pay Penyengat a visit.
His arrival at the Sultan’s palace, sometime in the middle of 1883, was accompanied by the beating of the Nobat. The Resident was visibly pleased with the unprecedented reception afforded to him by the royal couple. Later that night, while resting at his official lodging, the Dutch administrator was so stricken with violent stomach pains that he was obliged to cancel all further engagements and took the first available boat back to Riau the next morning.
Attributing the unfortunate incident to normal health hazards, the Resident once again made for the Lingga capital as soon as his other duties permitted. The Nobat drums once again announced his arrival and later that evening succumbed to the same agonising pain.
The second bout raised consternations in the Resident’s mind. Unfortunately, the promise of gaining a tighter control over Lingga’s tin and gold revenues far out weighed his personal wellbeing. Refusing to believe that he’d be unlucky three times in a row, the Resident scheduled a third visit later that same year. This time, however, he brought along his own medical officer as a precautionary measure.
Once again, the Dutch entourage was received with royal honours and the Europeans enjoyed the excesses of Tengku Embong’s prodigious hospitality until late into the night. Believing that nothing could go wrong with his personal doctor by his side, the Resident then happily turned in for the night.
Then, in the wee hours of the morning, the doctor was roused to loud screams emanating from the Resident’s bedroom. He immediately attended to his writhing patient but failed to find any medical explanation or was able to prescribe any effective remedy for the stabbing abdominal pain. What confounded the doctor most was that, apart from the Resident, the rest of the Dutch retinue was in good health.
On their way back to Riau the next morning, the doctor realised that the Resident’s suffering dissipated as soon as their boat left Lingga territorial waters. Further consultations with local medicine men back in Riau led the doctor to reluctantly endorse the possible connection between the Nobat reception and the Resident’s dire predicament.
During an ensuing high council meeting, the Dutch realised that it would be very difficult to ask Tengku Embong to discontinue playing the Nobat. Their next best alternative was to provide the Lingga court with far superior substitutes which would surely be accepted and used in place of the existing wooden instruments.
Thrifty treasury officials in Batavia protested when told of the scheme and the heavy expense involved. Eventually, they relented after being impressed upon that the Resident’s recurring illness would eventually cost the treasury even more.
The best silversmiths in Batavia were quickly commissioned to make three ornate drums. Although the makers adhered to the traditional form for their creation, they were so heavily influenced by Dutch military drums that a decision was made to incorporate tuning handles. This contemporary feature, which gave the drummer control over the resonance of the music, had never been introduced in local examples before!
In 1885, the silver Nobat instruments were put to use for the first time during the installation of Tengku Embong’s son, Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazam Shah II, as Lingga’s new ruler. From that day onwards, the old wooden drums were relegated to the palace store room and forgotten.
Sultan Abdul Rahman was a man of independent disposition. He discontinued the practice of receiving the Resident with the beat of drums and later made himself extremely wealthy by making all the gold and tin mines his personal property.
The Dutch subsequently sent five warships to Penyengat to deliver their ultimatum. The Sultan and his ministers were offered a monthly stipend of 70,000 Rupiah provided the monarch agreed to surrender his authority and the ownership of all the mines in Lingga to the Dutch, failing which he must abdicate.
The Sultan rejected the Dutch demands and withdrew to Singapore taking his silver Nobat with him. The old wooden Nobat drums were left behind in Penyengat as the monarch was certain that their reputation would surely guarantee against unauthorised use by the European overlords.
While in Singapore, the deposed Sultan of Lingga began initiating contact with the Sultan of Terengganu as both royal families had been enjoying close ties since the late 19th century. Terengganu’s Sultan Zainal Abidin III married his eldest son, Tengku Muhammad, to one of Sultan Abdul Rahman’s daughters and had borrowed the silver Nobat from Lingga for that and several other occasions prior to the abdication.
Sultan Zainal Abidin III finally acquired the three drums from Sultan Abdul Rahman in 1917 and Tengku Muhammad invited several former Nobat players from Lingga to teach selected Terengganu musicians the ancient tunes. As the Lingga nafiri and serunai remained in Singapore, skilled Terengganu silversmiths were commissioned to make similar replacements. Their task took a full year to complete. Thus, 1918 marked the date of the formal existence of Terengganu’s very own Nobat.
SYMBOLS OF ROYAL GREATNESS
The people of Kuala Terengganu heard the rich notes of the silver drums and the other accompanying instruments in their entirety for the first time later that same year, when Tengku Muhammad celebrated the marriage of his daughter to Tengku Abdul Majid from Singapore. During that joyous occasion, the Nobat was played for 40 days and 40 nights at Istana Maziah.
The tunes of the Nobat was heard again in 1920 when Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah ascended the Terengganu throne following his brother, Sultan Muhammad Shah II’s abdication. During the Japanese Occupation, the silver drums were played only once, during the funeral of Sultan Sulaiman in 1943.
After the Second World War, the drums heralded joyous renaissance throughout the east coast state when they proclaimed the coronation of Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah in 1949. Sheppard reported that eyewitnesses who heard the Nobat drums claimed that the noticeable majesty in the tones evoked glorious visions of the Melaka Sultanate. Although the Melaka Nobat hasn’t survived the test of time, the usage of the royal orchestra during state ceremonies was frequently mentioned in the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals.
The Terengganu Nobat instruments were brought for the first time to Istana Negara in Kuala Lumpur when Sultan Ismail was installed as our nation’s fourth Yang di-Pertuan Agong on Apr 11, 1966.
Some 40 years later, Terengganu’s royal orchestra once again performed at the same Kuala Lumpur venue when Sultan Ismail’s grandson and current Terengganu ruler, Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin was formally installed as Malaysia’s 13th Supreme Ruler on April 26, 2007.
That memorable occasion saw the royal Nobat troupe taking centre stage to play four songs using the sacred musical instruments — Palu-Palu Melayu, Iskandar, Ibrahim Khalil and Seri Istana.
While making my way back to the car park in front of the nearby Kuala Terengganu General Post Office, I suddenly realise that the anniversary of Sultan Mizan’s ascension to the Terengganu throne will be soon be upon us. I’m certain that in the midst of all the celebrations, the importance of the Nobat instruments as symbols of royal greatness will once again be on the minds of the Terengganu people.