I WAS designed and built as a weapon for war, but those duties – last performed during the fight against communism – are long gone. Now I announce duty and celebration to the people of the valley. Seven times I was fired to signal the beginning of Ramadan, and throughout the month I would boom at sunset to prelude the calls to maghrib.
On the last night, my trigger was pulled seven times when the Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal confirmed, with the authority of Their Royal Highnesses, that the next day would be Hari Raya Puasa throughout Malaysia.
After prayers, others took to loud, but more colourful explosions as the creativity of Malaysians to find fireworks remain unparalleled. To think I would be overshadowed by my decorative ancestors, who knew nothing of their military potential.
This morning, I completed my annual duties for Aidilfitri, when I heralded the journey of the Yang di-Pertuan Besar to the mosque. Now I rest until Hari Raya Haji and the birthday of my Ruler after that.
I too was made for battle, but for most of my life I have been in Seri Menanti as an instrument of authority and government, as part of the royal regalia of Negeri Sembilan. I was forged across the waters in Sumatra, and did my merantau when the ancestors of my owners were invited by the people’s representatives seeking stability when instability raged around them. Protection was sought by a leader who would understand their customs and institutions.
For over two centuries since Raja Melewar I have resided here, and when people see me – alongside the kerises, spears, umbrellas and flags of state – I hope they are reassured of stability, continuity and tradition: that whatever political upheavals may happen in Negeri Sembilan, the institution I am part of will always uphold that primary duty of protection.
Everyone wants to claim me for themselves, but whatever my origins, I go best with the rendang from Negeri Sembilan. The origin of the latter is undisputed, harking back to Minangkabau antecedents. During Hari Raya, you will often find me being cooked beside the Seremban-Kuala Pilah road: my constituent grains of rice expanding individually yet compressing in unison, infusing with the coconut milk and banana leaf cohabiting the bamboo tubes, arranged into a palisade catching the flames below. Bamboo tubes not destined for lomang paneh often become natural cannons – meriam buluh – when children ignite a potent mixture of water and chemicals.
Today my friends and I are feeding the over 10,000 people, who have come to the Istano Terbuko hosted by the Yamtuan, a tradition of the palace that predates whatever claims made by politicians to have been ‘the first’ to host an open house. Although I have to compete with roast lamb, ayam goreng stano, and ice cream, I take comfort that young and old of all ethnicities and religions delight in unwrapping my sleeve and savouring my painstakingly-acquired flavours.
Unfortunately, some of us are grabbed excessively and end up uneaten, contributing to the shocking amount of food wastage each Raya.
The sampul duit raya
I’m a latecomer compared to my friends above, yet I feel like an anachronism. In an age where most money doesn’t exist in physical form, and where wasteful packaging is discredited, I exist solely to enable the passage of paper money from one individual to another a single time (reusing a duit raya packet or ang pow is one of the greatest taboos in our gift-giving etiquette). Still, if I’m able to facilitate the redistribution of wealth and produce warmth and smiles in the process, I must be doing something right.
My creators often emblazon me with corporate branding, sometimes with different colours and designs so that the generous can express different categories of generosity. Nothing wrong rewarding close relatives and loyal staff more than the keen children of rich strangers, but discrimination, which is too obvious, has been known to cause more resentment than gratitude (“How come Abang Mat got the nice velvet envelope?”).
The phone memory
I chuckle as one of 16 versions of the same photo are selected, curated, cropped, and filtered for social media, but I smile when my friend, the phone camera, catches that defining photograph of this year’s Raya, whether it’s beside the sword on display in the palace forecourt, that delicious lemang, or that profitable pile of duit raya.
Memories of Raya generations ago were captured in precious written accounts and then rare photographs of the most important elements: but today my storage capacity means that every facet of this cultural tradition will remain undiluted for generations more.
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.