By Vivien Lian
I got a chance to visit Rumah Besar Raja Bilah or commonly known as Istana Raja Billah through a friend of mine, Uzaer who is also a descendant of Raja Bilah. It was very kind and generous of the family to host the tour, having also prepared breakfast with setups in the glamorous Rumah Besar. Like most people, our memory of the Great House is just the exterior, where the usual tourist would be, a rustic-looking building, pose & post on social media captioned #vintage #ootd (outfit of the day) #emo while the history part of it is very much overlooked.
Taken from Raja Bilah And The Mandailings In Perak: 1875-1911, from the outside, the Rumah Besar Raja Bilah looks similar to the mansions of the rich Malay aristocracy and the Chinese miners of Kinta, but the interiors differ. On the ground floor is a large hall with octagonal columns and a raised platform. The wooden room below the staircase was the darkroom of Raja Ya’qub, the son of Raja Bilah who was interested in photography and had his equipment all imported from London. I’m also told by Puan Hafizah, Raja Bilah’s great-granddaughter, that the floor tiles are imported from India. There were a chandelier and other antiques back then but due to the lack of maintenance and also because it was the film set for various films where the fittings were moved, many have been lost along the way. The remaining antiques are now being stored in a room.
In Mandailing architecture, the existence of eight-sided columns symbolizes that the building was erected with the support of people from eight directions of the compass.
Entrance of Rumah Besar, with a carved wooden fanlight above the door and timber security grill, showing the workmanship of Chinese carpenters – Raja Bilah And The Mandailings In Perak: 1875-1911
A hidden lock at the timber security grill, the wisdom of ancient carpentry
Raja Bilah chose a strategic location for the Great House where he could overlook the whole Papan town and also to watch out for intruders
A secret compartment just next to the window where weapons such as a spear is kept to attack intruders
The room upstairs with uniform holes pierced through the floorboards
The room upstairs has uniform holes pierced through the floorboards. It was used to bathe the bodies of deceased family members and the water will then exit through the holes. Puan Hafizah expressed curiosity over the choice of location for dead body bathing because normally it is done on the ground. Puan Hafizah added that there is a secret tunnel within the compound which leads to Papan town but she has no idea as to the whereabouts.
Rumah Besar Raja Bilah has been reported over the years by other news media introducing it as Istana Bilah. Puan Hafizah stressed that the house is called Rumah Besar, the local equivalent for Bagas Godang. The house is now used for family gatherings.
Fun fact: the descendants of Raja Bilah grew up being told not to eat Pisang Raja Udang (Red Banana) and also Kerbau Balau (Albino Buffalo) or they will be cursed.
Costume playing in the Great House, hope the place will be converted into a museum/heritage gallery to allow more people to learn more about this magnificent place.
Next issue: Inside The House of Kak Nadimah, Descendant of Raja Bilah