Following my visit to Masjid Albukhary, Kedah Royal Musuem and Pekan Rabu, it is now about time for me to write on the visit to few old buildings which still exist in its original form. The centre of attraction lies to the west of the town which is dominated by the old state mosque of Alor Setar, Kedah, Masjid Zahir. It was built in 1912 by Tunku Mahmud, the son of Sultan Tajuddin Mukarram Shah. The mosque was built on the site of the resting place of local warriors who fell in the course of defending Kedah against the Siamese invasion in 1821.
Masjid Zahir is proudly standing with its Moorish architecture highlighted at night by thousands of tiny lights. It occupies a site of approximately 124,412 square feet and surrounded by verandahs of 8 feets wide with 4 mezzanine areas. The Prayer hall measures 62 x 62 square feet. This mosque has been voted the top 10 most beautiful mosques in the world.
Just opposite the mosque, one can find the elegant Istana Balai Besar (Royal Audience Hall) that was the principal official building during the eighteenth century. The present two-storey, open-colonnaded structure only dates back to 1904, when the original hall was rebuilt to host the marriages of Sultan Abdul Hamid’s five eldest children. Among the dignitaries invited to witness the weddings were the Siamese monarch, King Chulalongkorn and the Governer of the Straits Settlement. The rakyat joined in the festivities that lasted for three months.
As we walked further, a curious octagonal tower struck our sight. It is Balai Nobat. It houses sacred instruments of the royal orchestra. Royal orchestra played only during royal ceremonies, such as inaugurations, weddings and funerals.
Kedah nobat orchestra is legendary, having existed for already 400 years. The instruments consist of six musical instruments – “Nahara” (two small drums), “Gendang Ibu”, “Gendang Anak” (medium-sized drums), “Nafiri” (a silver trumpet measuring 83.3cm) and a hanging gong.
Even many centuries after its existence, Nobat could only be performed by the family members of the royal musicians, who are called “orang Nobat” and privilege is passed down from generation to generation. Commoners and outsiders are strictly prohibited from touching the instruments, let alone playing them. Members of the orchestra will wear a black Malay sampan, tengkolok and ‘Baju Sikap’. As for the head of the orchestra team, he will hold the royal mace (long rattan cane wrapped in velvet).
According to chairman of Kedah branch of Historical Society of Malaysia, Datuk Wan Shamsudin Mohd Yusof, there are three stories how the Nobat arrived in Kedah.
First story – Nobat existed during the time of Prophet Abraham. It was brought to Kedah by the Maharajah Derba Raja ofPersiawho ruled Kedah as long ago as 630 A.D.
Second story – Two princes from Java who came in search of their relative some 800 years ago. They arrived at the mouth of Sungai Muda, near the foot of Gunung Jerai. From some rattan lying nearby, they heard a sound. They took one stick of rattan (calling it Semambu) and used it as a guide to find their relative. By the time they found their relative, one of his sons died. In their grief, they made the musical instruments of the Nobat.
Third story – When Sultan Mohammad Jiwa visitedIndia, he heard the Nobat being performed at one of the palaces and instantly fell in love with the sound. When he returned to Kedah, he saw to Nobat being formed. However, he did not retain the long Serunai and two Hindu gongs.
Example of Nobat songs are Lagu Perang, Raja Burung, Belayar, Perang, Mambang Berkayuh, Seratan dan Dewa Raja. They are recorded in Jawi and each note is called a ‘dai’. Conventionally, a father cannot teach all songs he knows to his son. As result of which, current generation knows lesser songs.
Coming back to Balai Nobat, the public is not allowed to enter Balai Nobat and view the instruments. Due to the delicate nature of daulat of the instruments, certain protocols need to be adhered to when dealings with the instruments. For instance, the musicians have to perform in the palace, the order in which they have to proceed out of Balai Nobat is fixed. The Mahaguru (leader) will always be the first in line and no once can cross his path at any time.
For your information, Kedah Nobat Orchestra was recently performed during the installation of Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah as the 14th Yang di-Pertuan Agong on 11/04/2012. Before that, it was performed at the installation of Raja of Perlis Tuanku Syed Raja Syed Sirajuddin Syed Putra Jamalullail as the 12th Agong at the old Istana Negara.
Leisure reading on Kedah Nobat Orchestra:-