Enchanting Malacca and Port Dickson

Malacca!

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Once the busiest entrepôt in Southeast Asia. A melting pot of cultures….Chinese, Indian, Arab, African, European- all jostling for trade and power.

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Godowns and bazaars, cheek by jowl with bordellos and opium dens. A babel of different tongues- Tamil, Arabic, Gujarati, Hokkien, Bengali, Teochew. Shrines to Mazu and the Guanyin, elaborately carved temples to Ganesha and minimalist mosques co-existing harmoniously.

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Caravels and catamarans, dhows and junks making their way through the straits of Malacca, laden with myrrh and gum arabic, cardamom and nutmeg, cottons and silks, porcelain and tea. Fortunes made, life-savings lost. Adventure and treachery; plunder and piracy!

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Strait of Malacca, (narrows).
Strait of Malacca, (narrows). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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But long before the establishment of a thriving and vibrant seaport, was a humble little fishing village. A small dreamy place on the mouth of a sleepy river. A place waiting to be discovered, to be transmuted by the vision of one man. Parameswara.

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Parameswara, the Prince of Palembang. Young, hot-headed, rebellious. Ambitious and chafing at the bit of his Javanese overlords.

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Parameswara’s popularity had the mighty Majapahit empire perturbed. They decided that he was too much of a threat and so he was summarily exiled.

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On the run with his loyal Orang Laut or people of the sea, Parameswara set sail and landed on the island of Temasek. Here he killed the local chieftain and declared himself ruler.

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It was Parameswara who renamed Temasek, Singapura after a lion like (singa) creature that he saw. Though it is unlikely that he spotted a lion, the name persists to this day and modern Singapore’s mascot is the Merlion!

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Merlion 3
Merlion 3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Parameswara ruled Singapura for a short 5 years, until the Thai empire sent an army to oust him. Fleeing again, he sailed north west, to take shelter in our sleepy fishing village. Parameswara continued his pastime of pillage and plunder. Any ship that came down the narrow strait between Sumatra and present day Malaysia was fair game.

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One man’s Prince is another man’s pirate!

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One day Parameswara’s hunting dogs chased after a mousedeer and were all set to tear it apart. Lying under the shade of a tree, somnolent and soporific, Parameswara watched with half-hearted interest.

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The little creature was cornered and reared up to face the dogs. Showing fierce courage, it kicked at the dogs and sent them flying into the water.

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Sleep forgotten, Parameswara was galvainsed into action! He took this to be a sign of the weak overcoming the powerful. He decided to make this place his new capital. The tree under which he had been dozing, was the Amalaka or Indian gooseberry tree. He named his new city Melaka and decided that it would be a force to reckon with.

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A shrewd survivor, he realized that building a safe port of call for the ships that traversed the straits, might prove more lucrative than piracy. His band of merry men thus took to protecting rather than preying upon, passing ships.

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Malacca, under Parameswara, became an entrepôt. THE harbour where ships of all nationalities, sailing the South east Asian seas, would drop anchor. THE hub where merchants from far flung lands would bring and store exotic goods. Spices and shantungs, oolong and osprey feathers, porcelain and precious stones, rosewood and rhino horn…

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In the decades to come, Malacca became a powerhouse. A polyglot destination where over 80 languages were spoken! And in centuries to come, in the words of Portuguese writer and trader Tome Pires, “Whoever is Lord of Malacca, shall have his hands on the throat of Venice.”

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Sometime during his reign, Parameswara converted to Islam and was known as Iskander Shah.

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Parameswara died at the ripe old age of 71, having established not just an international trading port, but also a kingdom that became the centre of the dissemination of Islam.

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Historical Town, Melaka :: Cheng Hoon Teng
Historical Town, Melaka :: Cheng Hoon Teng (Photo credit: YST (aka kryptos5))

It is believed that he lies buried on top of a hill at Tanjung Tuan, near modern day Port Dickson.

Thistle, at Port Dickson, where we stayed, welcomed and pampered us as if we were of royal lineage ourselves.

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Happy New Year!
Radhika

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