Visiting Malacca's Sultanate Palace Museum in Malaysia

Shining a Spotlight on the Apogee of Malay History

Exterior and Interior of Malacca Sultanate Palace, Malaysia
••• Top: the Malacca Sultanate Palace exterior; bottom: hallway within the Palace. Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

Constructed between 1984 and 1986, the Malacca Sultanate Palace is a modern reimagining of the Istana (royal palace) that must have stood on this spot in the city of Malacca in the 15th century. The Palace's design - based on inputs from the Malaysian Historical Society and the Artists Association of Melaka - is supposed to recreate the Istana of the Malacca Sultan Mansur Shah, a structure built in 1465 and destroyed in 1511 by attacking Portuguese forces.

Little mention is made of the palace's end at the hands of Western powers; after all, Mansur Shah ruled the settlement of Malacca at the height of its political and cultural power, and the Palace at present basks in the reflected glory of that age when the Malays (the majority ethnicity in Malaysia) were unquestionably in charge.  

Throwback Everyday: Read this Short History of Malacca, Malaysia for a helicopter view of the city's past. For additional context on Malaysia's history, read About.com Asian History's take on Malaysia - Facts and History. 

A Replica of a Long Lost "Istana"

The Malay Annals, written in the 17th century, is a foundational document for the Malays of the region, and part of it tells of the glory of the Istana in Sultan Mansur Shah's day. "Exceedingly beautiful was the execution of that palace," the Annals' author writes. "There was no other palace in the whole world like it."

But as the Malays built in wood rather than in stone, no Istanas survive from those days. Only from the Malay hikayat (chronicles) can we glean the structure and appearance of the Istanas of yore: the Malacca Sultanate Palace's architects drew from such sources to create the building we see in Malacca today.

The present-day Malacca Sultanate Palace is an elongated, three-storey building measuring 240 feet by 40 feet. Everything about the Palace is made from wood - the roof is made of Kayu Belian (Eusideroxylon zwageri) imported from Sarawak, while the highly polished floors are crafted from Kayu Resak (woods of the genuses Vatica and Cotylelobium). Intricate floral and botanical motifs are carved into the wooden walls, indicative of the traditional Malay art of ukiran (woodcarving).

The whole building is raised from the ground by a series of wooden pillars. No nails were used in the construction of the palace; instead, the wood is ingeniously carved to fit together in the traditional manner.

Wandering Malacca: Read our list of Ten Things to Do in Malacca, Malaysia for more activities in this historical quarter. Our Malacca walking tour should also give you a good overview of the city.

Exhibits within the Malacca Sultanate Palace

To enter the Malacca Sultanate Palace, you will climb the central staircase into the first level - but not before taking off your shoes and leaving them in front. (Malay custom in these parts requires you leave your shoes at the door before entering a home, and even some offices enforce this rule.)

The ground floor consists of a several central rooms surrounded by a hallway spanning the entire perimeter.

The front hallway shows off dioramas of the different traders who did business with Malacca in their heyday: a series of mannequins standing in for Siamese, Gujarati, Javanese, Chinese and Arabian merchants, each wearing costumes peculiar to each group. (The mannequins look like they were taken from a department store; one Siamese trader in particular has a disconcertingly Western visage and smile.)

Other exhibits along the perimeter hallway show off the headdresses (crowns) of the Sultans of Malaysia; the weapons used by Malay warriors during the Malacca Sultanate; cooking and eating implements used in those days; and recreational activities of the Malays in the 15th century.

 For a closer look at the Malacca Sultanate Palace's exhibits, proceed to the next page.

The central chamber on the first level of Malacca's Sultanate Palace is divided between the throne room and an exhibit that shines a spotlight on the life of the defining hero of the Malay Annals, Hang Tuah. This is one of two major biographical exhibits in the Palace, the other being that of the noblewoman Tun Kudu on the second floor.

The stories of Hang Tuah and Tun Kudu encapsulate the values of Malay nobility of their day - loyalty to their lord above all else - in a fashion that may seem anachronistic to today's museum-goer.

For example, the bulk of the exhibit on Hang Tuah pays particular attention to his duel with his best friend Hang Jebat. The story goes that Hang Tuah is accused of disloyalty to the sultan and sentenced to death, but is hidden away by the grand vizier who is convinced of his innocence.

Hang Jebat, Hang Tuah's close friend, has no idea that Hang Tuah is still alive, so he runs amuck in the palace. Realizing that only Hang Tuah was skilled enough to defeat Hang Jebat, the vizier reveals Hang Tuah to the sultan, who pardons Hang Tuah on the condition that he kill his rampaging friend. Which he does, after seven days of brutal fighting.

On the other hand, the story of Tun Kudu, the Sultan Muzzafar Shah's wife, glorifies the Malay "ideal" of feminine self-sacrifice. In this case, the uppity grand vizier of Sultan Muzzafar Shah insists that his price for resigning his post is marriage to the Sultan's own wife.

To make a long story short, Tun Kudu sacrifices her happiness and divorces the Sultan to marry the grand vizier. Her actions bode well for Malacca's future, as the next grand vizier (her own brother, Tun Perak) is a visionary who consolidates Malacca's power in the region.

Getting to the Sultanate Palace

The Malacca Sultanate Palace is located at the foot of Saint Paul's Hill, conveniently at the end of a trail that leads straight from the ruins of Saint Paul's Church on higher ground.

The immediate vicinity of the Sultanate Palace contains other museums covering the history and culture of Malacca and the Malays: the Stamp Museum, the Islamic Museum of Malacca, and the Malacca Architecture Museum.

After exploring the interior of the Palace, you can exit at the central staircase again and head straight for the "Forbidden Garden" right across the palace, a botanical garden that purports to replicate the manicured recreational areas reserved for the Sultan's harem.

Guests must pay an entrance fee of MYR 2 (about 50 US cents, read about money in Malaysia). The Palace is open every day except on Mondays, from 9am to 6pm.

For more on the country, read our Malaysia travel guide, or check out our top reasons to visit Malaysia.

For a look at life for a different segment of Malacca society, read our tour of Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum in Chinatown, or check out our list of odd and awesome sights in Malacca's Chinatown.