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Mosque that is a living museum

Its history continues to fascinate researchers

Story by Nik Imran Abdullah
Pictures by Adnan Mohamad


MASJID Kampung Laut, arguably the oldest mosque in the country, still serves its primary purpose as a house of worship as it survives yet another century. While it continues to draw the Muslim faithful, researchers and history and architecture students also come here to unlock and get insights into the vast history and knowledge found within its walls.

Legacy of the past -- the Masjid Kampung Laut now stands on the compound of Universiti Malaya Islamic Academy in Nilam PuriBuilt in the 1400s by a group of seafaring missionaries plying the Jawa, Pattani and Brunei sea routes, the all-timber mosque is, by most accounts, a living museum. It has survived two big floods the first in 1926, known as Bah Air Merah, and another in 1966. The second flood severely damaged the building when portions of the mosque close to the river was swept away by flood waters. Some of its stilts were left dangling in the air when the ground underneath was washed away by the flood.

Its contemporaries, by virtue of architectural resemblance, are said to be Masjid Demak (Jawa) which was built in 1401, Masjid Kono Campa, Masjid Nat Tanjung and Masjid Wadi Hussein, the last two in Thailand. The mosque was relocated from its original site in Kampung Laut (hence, the name), Tumpat, to the compound of Universiti Malaya Islamic Academy in 1968. The original architecture has been retained except for the damaged parts which were replaced when it was dismantled and painstakingly rebuilt at the new site by the Malaysian History Society. The work was led by then society chairman Hamdan Sheikh Tahir (now Tun and Penang's Yang Dipertua Negeri) and involved contractor Hussein Salleh and Mohd Zain Awang Kechik who supervised the transfer. The mosque was relocated when the society found that it was in danger of crumbling into Sungai Kelantan. The RM16,850 cost of rebuilding it then was home by the society. The mosque was handed over to the Kelantan Government under Menteri Besar Datuk Asri Muda's administration in May 1970.

The history of the mosque has been pieced together over the decades through the recounting of tales from Kampung Laut elders as well as studies by researchers who travelled to places where old mosques of similar architecture were built. The accepted story behind the mosque is that the seafaring missionaries faced danger when their ship sprang a leak. They are believed to have made a vow that if they reached shore safely, they would build a mosque. As luck would have it, the missionaries found themselves ashore at Kampung Laut and immediately built the mosque with the help of the locals.

The pulpit - it is now placed in Masjid Pasir Pekan, TumpatThe original mosque was a basic, structure with four pillars and had palm fronds for its roof, measuring 400 square feet. Between 1859 and 1900, from the reign of Sultan Muhamad II to Sultan Muhamad IV, the mosque became an important meeting point for religious scholars in the region and correspondingly Kampung Laut flourished as a trading post. During this period, the mosque was expanded and upgraded with 20 pillars, a three-tiered roof, a tower (for muezzin to call for prayers), an attic, serambi, balai-balai and a water tank while the flooring was made of sturdy chengal wood. State Museum research officer Salleh Mohd Akib said during the 1926 flood or Bah Air Merah, as it is remembered in Kelantan, the pulpit (mimbar) -- see photo -- of the mosque was moved to Masjid Pasir Pekan, also in Tumpat. "A large barge was used to ferry the pulpit," he said. "Officials at Masjid Pasir Pekan refuse to return the pulpit as they say they rescued it."

He said the mosque was given another extensive touch-up when refurbishment work was carried out between February 1988 and January 1989 at a cost of RM161,000. The work included replacing the wall and buah gutung (a decorative tip on top of the roof), building a tower, balai orang kaya, toilets, water tank and supplying it with electricity and piped water. The entire build-up area of the mosque measures 74ft by 71ft with its walls having the janda berhias pattern while the top-end of the pillars inside are decorated with wood carving. "The renovation work restored the mosque back to its original appearance and glory," he said.

Salleh said if one was to travel from Kuala Lumpur in the morning via the Gua Musang-Kota Baru road by car, he was likely to arrive at the mosque by prayer time for Asar. For the past year, Salleh has been compiling data and doing research to put together a book on the fascinating subject that is Masjid Kampung Laut.

Reprinted from the New Straits Times,
Monday June 5, 2000

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