Category: Muar History & Story
Ancient, traditional heartland
Fascinating 14th century roots, lovely architecture and a vibrant cultural heritage — ladies and gentlemen, we give you Muar.
COULD Johor’s Muar be the next big tourist attraction after Malacca? Just 50km to the south, the town’s history is about as old as its more famous neighbour.
As far back as 1361, it’s mentioned as being part of the Majapahit Empire in the epic Javanese poem called the Nagarakertagama. Sultan Mahmud of Malacca, after being defeated by the Portuguese in 1511, fled south and then made a stand against the invaders at Kubu Bentayan in Muar, before being forced to move inland.
The Portuguese themselves built a bigger fort at the same place, the Fortaleza de Muar, to keep their enemies at bay.
During World War II, the wide river here (there was no bridge, only a ferry crossing) was used as a defensive line at the Battle of Muar from Jan 14–22, 1942, the last major combat action by the British against the Japanese on the peninsula before their retreat to Singapore.
Sadly, the area where all these historical events happened is now the riverside Bentayan bus station, thus depriving this town of a landmark like Malacca’s A Famosa.
However, during a photography trip organised by the Malaysian Nature Society to document the birdlife of Johor’s north-western coast, I discover that Muar has everything else, including architecture, food and a relaxing seafront.
There are grand colonial-era buildings, and old, but colourful shops. While Kuala Lumpur has the Twin Towers, Muar has the “twin mosques” facing each other across the river; the original of these mosques is one of few in Malaysia built in the Western neo-classical style.
Apart from architectural heritage, there is, of course, the living heritage of unique local food. I was thankful that the Tyranny of the Automobile, which had overtaken many other Malaysian towns, had not yet conquered Muar – for the town still has a vigorous street hawker life, best seen at Jalan Haji Abu, also known as Glutton’s Street (Tam Chiak Khay in the local Hokkien dialect).
However, other roads have lost the industries they were once renowned for, such as Jalan Abdullah (Mee Sua Street), Jalan Ismail (Kerosene Street), Jalan Sakih (Bullock-cart Street) and Jalan Datuk Haji Hassan (Stone Mason’s Street).
Last year, Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen highlighted how Muar should be better promoted since it has a beautiful river, lovely old buildings, grand old trees and unique dishes such as mee bandung and curry asam pedas.
Indeed, while Malacca has reclaimed its historical seafront (next to A Famosa and Heeren Street) and turned it into something that looks like another Subang Jaya, Muar has retained its lovely, greenery-laden river mouth cum seaside area at Tanjung Emas. Here, there is lovely colonial architecture, tranquil water views and a chance to relax at stalls selling the town’s signature dish, rojak petis.
In fact, the town’s name is believed to come from the word “muara”, meaning “large estuary”, and it served as a trading port in days bygone. Another theory states that Muar may be a combination of the Sanskrit words of “munu” meaning “three” and “ar” or “river”, ie: three rivers. This was because the Muar river led inland to an area where the Serting and Pahang rivers flowed very close by, allowing traders to cross the peninsula by boat!
Reflecting its status as a traditional cultural heartland, Muar is considered to have the purest dialect of the Malay language on the peninsula (the local equivalent, if you will, of Queen’s English) upon which standard Bahasa Malaysia is based.
But enough with the words, let these pictures of a vibrant town convince you that Malaysia has another valuable heritage site that should be developed sensitively and sustainably.
Story and photos by ANDREW SIA
Category: Muar History & Story