Thursday, November 12, 2015

Melaka, the Spice Must Flow

Peeking Through the Haze

            An aerial view of Melaka (or Malacca) would currently show you nothing at all, as the city is shrouded in the haze of burning fields and forests in Indonesia (for palm oil mostly. The fires produce more greenhouse gases than the entire US does in a year (avoid products with palm oil !). After a couple of days, I could feel my lungs burdened by the pollution, but the haze had an unexpected benefit. The town was comfortably wrapped in wadding.
Melaka’s famous red buildings, the Stadthuys and Christ Church, stuck out from this featureless white mass, but from a distance the haze gave them a faded look, as if they might not really be there. The same could be said for other tourists, mere specters from afar.
  After dusk, when the otherworldly has a stronger grasp on the mind, the haze blurred and softened city lights, creating halos around them. The streets of Melaka’s old town are lined with lanterns, which simply added to the arcane ambience. In the cautionary red glow of the lanterns, we padded through the narrow lanes, half expecting the centuries old Baba and Nyonya shops to be hiding a Mogwai or two. Only the busy Jonker Street, with its tourist filled night market, belonged to a more ordinary world. But with its rich history, its mix of cultures and its beauty, Melaka, the city that once ruled the South Sea and the Spice Route is not at all ordinary.

The Deer that Founded an Empire

            According to the Sultan Palace Museum, the story goes that Parameswara, ruler of Temasik (Singapore), was inept. He was irresponsible and ruled on a whim. He was more concerned with partying than with affairs of state. Having fallen on the wrong side of the powerful Majapahit and Ayatthuya empires which dominated the region, he was forced to flee his homeland. He and his remaining followers wandered through forests and over hills. One day during this exile, he sat under a melaka tree and observed his hunting dogs corner a mouse deer along the steep river bank. Suddenly, the tiny deer kicked a dog into the river and dashed away. Seeing the deer as a symbol of the weak overcoming the strong, he thought it a good omen and saw in it a reversal of his fortunes. There, he founded a new kingdom. He named it after the tree he had sat under to rest that day. Converting to Islam, he became wise and astute, and Melaka was on its way to becoming the heart of an empire.

            An ideal port located in one of the the narrowest parts of the strait to which it gave its name, Melaka attracted traders from Persia, Gujarat, Bengal, Java, Sumatra, Thailand, China, Aceh, and more (see dioramas for each in the Sultan Palace Museum). Spice flowed, and Melaka's power grew. The wealth of Melaka soon caught the eye of the Portuguese, who believed capturing it would make them a power unrivaled in Europe. One Portuguese claimed: "Whoever holds Melaka, holds his hands on Venice's throat". Europe had grown dependent on the Spice. Once China's tributary, Melaka was now in European hands. The ascendancy of Europe over China in the South China Sea was sealed.
Melaka was not just a center of trade, but a melting pot of cultures that created new communities such as the Chitty (Indian and Malay), the Peranakan Chinese (Chinese and Malay) and Peranakan Portuguese (Portuguese and Malay).
Under the takeovers of the Dutch and the British, Melaka added two more European flavours to its unique blend of Asian cultures, making it beyond doubt one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Simply visiting its places of worship could be a trip in itself, taking you to mosques, Chinese temples, Hindu temples, and Catholic and Protestant churches, with each having different incarnations within the main religions, according to the people who built them and the era of construction. Melaka’s rich history is also on display for visitors in the city’s innumerable museums, but the best part of Melaka is that its cultural heritage is not confined to its museums. Its heritage is still alive in its people and in its delectable restaurants. Getting around to tasting all of their special dishes would have you rolling down Jonker Street by the end of it.

                                                                                                                                                               Ye Gods, the Food
Local night market.
             Squid may as well have died and gone to that nice place people sometimes believe they go to after death. Between the chicken with small riceballs (better than it sounds), the satay fondue (no idea how they make money) and the local nightmarket (not the Jonker Street nightmarket), we were counting the time until we were hungry again. Our travels have brought us to places with great food before but once again, it’s Melaka’s strange brew of influences that makes it remarkable. If you have time between the museums and the restaurants (you won’t), the old town is also dotted with pleasant-looking cafés overlooking the river or hidden in the alleys. We had the opportunity to set foot in one, and we were amazed by the ambience and the diversity and creativity of the drinks, making Melaka pretty much perfect in all ways.

Three days was far too little time to fully appreciate the city, and I would return in a heartbeat for a month of Sundays.

Extravagantly decorated rikshaws.

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