Rumour also has it that another one of our former Prime Ministers, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, duly inspired by Masjid Zahir asked that the same onion-shaped design for the dome be used for the Prime Minister’s office in Malaysia’s administrative capital, Putrajaya.
By far, one of the most valuable treasures in Kedah state is a little-known compilation of 2,951 letters, memos, notes and articles written in the Jawi script by Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah. Housed at the National Archives, they showcase the economic, social, political and cultural view when Kedah was under the rule of the Siamese, British and Japanese.
Dato’ Dr. Wan Shamsudin bin Mohd Yusof, a historian I met many years ago, shared that he’d overseen the project to transcribe all these documents into Roman script and compiled them into a collection of 14 volumes. On 4 September 2001, this compilation was inscribed on the ‘Memory of the World’ Register of UNESCO. 
I chose, at random, one of the Sultan’s letters and Dato’ Dr. Wan Shamsudin helped me to analyse the text. First, how the Sultan chose to address himself was a clue as to the recipient of the letter. For instance, in one, he refers to himself as ‘Perhamba Phaya Reti Songkram Ramphakdi Sir Sultan Muhammad Ratana Rajmunin Tersurin Tryongse Phya Cheraiburi’. The use of ‘Cheraiburi’ means that the letter is for someone in the Court of the Kingdom of Siam because ‘Cheraiburi’ was the Siamese name for the only hill, some 50 kilometres away from Alor Setar, which is now called ‘Gunung Jerai’.
There was a delicate change in the Sultan’s writing style when the recipient is British. For instance, in letters to H. E. Sir Charles Bollan Hugh Mitchell, K.C.M.G, Governor of the Straits Settlements, the Sultan referred to himself as ‘Beta Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah Ibni Almarhum Yang Dipertuan Paduka Seri Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Mukarram Shah, yang memerintah Kedah Darulaman.’
Technicalities aside, it’s the contents of some of these documents that made it a fascinating read. For example, take a letter addressed to the administrator in Songkhla. The Sultan explained that he had an English Private Secretary by the name of Master Hart. It is the fasting month and Master Hart, having little work, was granted permission to visit Songkhla. The Sultan addeds: ‘Orang tiada bini ia baik hatipun tiada berapa senang kerana orang muda’ (roughly translated to mean ‘without a wife, however good hearted a man is, he’ll be uncomfortable as he’s young’). The letter went on to state that Master Hart wished to pay a lady to accompany him so that he could learn the language of the region. The Sultan craved the administrator’s indulgence to allow Master Hart to bring the lady back with him to Kedah.
Yet another monumental achievement during the Sultan’s time was the construction of the longest canal in the South East Asian region called ‘Terusan Wan Mat Saman.’ Named after the Sultan’s one-time Prime Minister, the 36-kilometre canal allowed for widespread irrigation of the paddy land, thereby, ensuring that, to this day Kedah, is still known as the ‘Rice Bowl of Malaysia’.
It is to these beautiful paddy lands that my parents and I have been going to witness what I now call ‘Paintings by the Divine’. In the 20 minutes that it takes for the sun to set, a cloudless sky swiftly turns from blue to all shades of orange, yellow and crimson. In all my years, never have two ‘paintings’ ever been the same. As such, whenever city folk complain that there isn’t much to see or do in Alor Setar, I smile and say, “Come, and you’ll see the work of the Divine.”
A shorter and edited version of this piece was previously published in AsianExtracts, now defunct.
 Sakhuja, V and Sakhuja, S. ‘Rajendra Chola 1’s Naval Expedition to Southeast Asia: A Nautical Perspective’, in Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to South East Asia. (ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2009), 77-78.
 Memory of the World Register. The International Register. Accessed 11 August 2023 from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/flagship-project-activities/memory-of-the-world/register/full-list-of-registered-heritage/registered-heritage-page-2/correspondence-of-the-late-sultan-of-kedah-1882-1943/