Tepas: Traditional Perak Malay mosque

Malay patrimony: (Top to bottom)) The 50-year-old Tepas Mosque in Perak, Malaysia uses wood in the main structure and 'bemban', a type of bamboo, for its walls. The wall is called 'tepas'. The minaret-like structure is dilapidated but the beautifully decorated arches and walls remain. The facades show the diamond-shaped plaits known locally as 'kelarai'. Pictures: Mohd Affendi Bin Mohd Shafri

Sunday, April 27, 2008

I REMEMBER when my father drove us along the Kuala Kangsar-Taiping road. My elder brother would hush us as we whizzed pass the mosque. We would strain our neck to the window and be awed by the mosque's grand presence. We churned out many stories in the backseats, arguments over why they did not build it in the same design as other modern Mughal-style mosques. Little did we know, back then, that the Mughal style was actually an import introduced by the British in the late 19th century to the innocent locals' liking, now popularly perceived as "Islamic architecture".

Masjid Tepas — as the locals name it — looked so strange and mysterious in those days. It still retains its enigmatic, peculiar aura. A couple of months back, when I took my unsuspecting cousin to the site, he was astonished to see it. Thinking that it was some kind of old palace he was surprised to learn that the edifice once functioned as a mosque.

Tepas mosque is a rare sample of a traditional Perak Malay mosque. It has so many extraordinary features that it is all the more perplexing why the authorities have not made a serious and concerted effort to preserve it. To this day, the mosque has been standing there looking as forlorn and neglected as it was during my childhood.

Architecture in general is linked to the way we see ourselves and our surroundings, hence the reason why historic monuments like this mosque should be repaired, reused or converted to other functions. The lack of interest in the preservation of wooden Malay structures — especially when related to religious edifices — is especially disappointing in light of the inspiration mosques have provided for some magnificent pieces of architectural ingenuity and design elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The Tepas Mosque, just like other traditional Perak buildings, uses local materials such as wood in the main structure and bemban (a type of bamboo) for its walls. This kind of wall is called tepas or pelupuh, hence the name. The use of tepas walls was once prevalent as can be seen in old palaces like the serene Istana Kenangan at Bukit Chandan and in all traditional Perak houses known as "Kutai House".

The Kutai House is no longer built nowadays. A survey done by a local self-taught historian in 1986 could only locate a handful of them concentrated in only three out of nine districts of the sultanate of Perak. A new survey is urgently needed to find out how many tepas-made buildings and houses have survived into the new century, and especially how many are still salvageable.

The bemban used to make a tepas wall had to be cut into long and thin pieces before being woven into sizeable pieces with wooden frames. This involves tremendous and lengthy manual work for a structure as big as the mosque. The reason behind the use of tepas for building material is its durability. Indeed, the mosque has survived 50 years well. Also, tepas walls allow good ventilation which is essential to create a cool interior in a hot, tropical climate like Malaysia's.

I had the fortune to talk to Ngah Seman bin Long Bidin, an old villager who once served as tok siak or guardian of the mosque. He told me that during the time of construction, each tepas wall cost 30 cents a piece. It may sound like peanuts today, but for that period it was actually a very large amount to pay. Given the difficulties in finding the materials and then weaving the strips of bemban into beautifully patterned tepas walls, one wonders how much expense it would take to employ people to reproduce similar work today.

The roof is in the traditional Malay perabung style. The facade of the walls on close inspection show the diamond-shaped plaits known locally as kelarai. Several star-shaped decorative items studded the middle portion of each rectangle that divides the tepas walls. In many places these items are missing. When it was first completed, the mosque was stylishly painted in the state's royal tricolour of yellow, black and white. The paint has since faded and in many places moss has taken over.

Many other Malay decorative motifs could be seen such as the fine, flowery ornamentation around the window and on the kekisi (wooden grille), and the pucuk rebung pattern on the upper portion of the wall. These patterns are also commonly seen in Malay items of daily living. For example, the pucuk rebung motif, inspired by the green shoots of the bamboo tree, is a popular decoration on Malay kain pelikat, kain batik and kain songket — all clothing items specific to the Malays.

There are also decorations carved out of the wooden ridges of the roof. These from a distance resemble eight-pointed stars, but when viewed closer reveal something that may have be inspired by banana trees. This is hardly surprising because the banana is ubiquitous in Malaysia and has lent inspiration to local architecture in the form of perabung pisang sesikat roof style before the perabung lima style became more popular in the beginning of the last century.

The mosque was uniquely built as a double storey building, whereas most traditional Malay buildings are stilt structures built high above ground. In fact, it is the only known example of traditional, double-storey mosque on both side of the straits of Malacca, either in Peninsular Malaysia or Sumatra.

On the right hand corner of the mosque, still attached to the main rumah ibu — the motherhouse or main structure of a Malay building — is the peculiar minaret-like wooden outfit which is purely decorative in purpose. It may have been topped by a traditional perabung roof too, but exactly how it looked like originally could only be inferred from other traditional buildings of the period .

Both levels of the mosque however were used as prayer hall with a mihrab niche occupying the side fronting the qiblah, on both levels. The mosque has two entrances at its back side, one for each floor. There is no side entrance — again another departure from customary Malay building style for mosques. A wooden staircase providing the only access to the top level is currently in a very dilapidated state. Its roof has already fallen down and several steps are missing or in a serious state of depredation, prohibiting a visit to the top floor, at least for the time being. Close to these entrances, a little bit to the mosque's left-hand side, about a metre away, is a well, no doubt once used for performing ablution.

The old siak mentioned the existence of a large, decorated piece of wooden mimbar which was taken away to be put in a museum, most probably in Kuala Lumpur.

According to him also, the first imam of the mosque was called Lebai Din. The mosque, however, never attracts any prominent scholar, hence it never functions as a major learning centre. Basic teaching of the Qur'an and tenets of the religion was provided by the resident imam or visiting scholar who ran classes after Asr or Maghrib. Other than that, it was also used during celebration of Eid and Mawlud.

The old siak also asserted that the mosque was built "during the reign of Sultan Idris Shah". The Perak Sultanate has had two rulers named Idris within the last century, but from the siak's description I am convinced he meant Sultan Idris al-Mutawakkil Allallahi Shah, the Yang Dipertuan Sultan of Perak from 1963 to 1984, one of the longest-reigning monarchs of the Sultanate. The siak said that while the then State Mufti donated his own land for the mosque, the late Sultan Idris patronised it and contributed to the cost of construction. It is no wonder, then, why local people still associate the mosque with him.

The Brunei Times