Masjid Zahir (Alor Setar, Malaysia)

Photo by Aneeta Sundararaj (July 2015)

Work of the Divine

Aneeta Sundararaj

“There is nothing to see or do in Alor Setar!” This is a common response from city folk about my hometown in the north of Peninsular Malaysia. I no longer explain that, nowadays, I’m busier than ever when I go home because I’m desperate to capture and preserve images of a unique place where the powers that be are rushing to develop and industrialise. 

It all begins with the geography. First-time visitors to the birth place of two former Prime Ministers of modern Malaysia need time to adjust to the wide, open skies set against water-logged paddy land. So flat is this land that, to this day, learner drivers practice hill starts on a man-made gradient. 

Paddy Stalks

Photo by Aneeta Sundararaj

Sunset by the Paddy fields (1)

Photo by Aneeta Sundararaj

Sunset by the Paddy fields (2)

Photo by Aneeta Sundararaj

Such flat terrain also means that it can become stiflingly hot and humid in Alor Setar. But here’s the thing – it is precisely during these blistering times, usually in the months of March and April, that one of the most beautiful things happen. Tropical flowers, from bougainvillea to desert roses will burst into bloom. Heavy foliage on age-old trees will, in less than a week, be replaced by Tecoma flowers in a multitude of shades from pink and white to yellow and purple. Alor Setar is quite simply a riot of colours. 


Photo by Aneeta Sundararaj

Tecoma (1)

Photo by Aneeta Sundararaj

Tecoma (2)

Photo by Aneeta Sundararaj

Desert Rose

Photo by Aneeta Sundararaj


Photo by Aneeta Sundararaj

An hour south of Malaysia’s border with Thailand, Alor Setar is the capital of Kedah state which boasts a royal household with Hindu roots that go back centuries. Indeed, as the year 2025 approaches, I am reminded of a story inscribed on the walls of the stunning Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur. It tells of the naval expedition and invasion of Kadaram (as Kedah state was once known) in the year 1025 AD by the mighty king, Rajendra Chola 1. Translated into English, the inscription reads as follows: [1]

[Rajendra Chola 1] having dispatched many ships in the midst of the rolling sea and having caught Sangrama–vijayattunga-varman, the King of Kadaram, together with the elephants in his glorious army, [took] the large heap of treasures, which [that King] had rightfully accumulated; [captured] with noise the [arch] called Vidhyadhara-torana with the jeweled wicket-gate’ adorned great splendour at the ‘gate of large jewels’; Pannai with water in its bathing ghats; the ancient Malaiyur with the strong mountain for its rampart; Mayirudingam surrounded by the deep sea [as] by a moat; Illangsoka, undaunted [in] fierce battles; Mappappalam having abundant [deep] water as a defence; Mevilimbangam having fine wall as defence; Valaippanduru having Vilapandur; Talaittakkolam praised by great men [versed in the sciences], Madamalingam, firm in fierce and great battles; Ilamuridesam whose fierce strength rose in the war; Manakkavaram, in whose extensive flower gardens honey was collecting and Kadaram, of fierce strength, which was protected by the deep sea.

That said, there is a sense that this story’s incomplete. Quite simply, historiography has stated no definitive motives behind or chronicled the genesis of the 1025AD invasion. Of the many theories, the one that continues to fascinate me is that it was geopolitical play to break a monopoly over the trade of sandalwood with a religious nuance. This is because the Chola dynasty was said to be Shaivite in nature while the Malay peninsula was predominantly Buddhist. 

Nothing reminds me more of this Hindu-Buddhist connection than when I stand before the Wat Nikrodharam, or as us locals call it, Wat Siam. In this most Buddhist of complexes, right there in the centre of the lintel above the entrance into the main temple is a carving of a decidedly Hindu Vishnu-Garuda. Wat Siam also holds a special place in my heart for it is here that, for 29 years, my father offered his medical services at a free bi-weekly clinic.

Vishnu-Garuda in the litle of Wat Siam

Photo by Aneeta Sundararaj

Rumour has it that Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, gifted the land for Wat Siam in perpetuity to the temple authorities to honour his mother, Che Manjalara. She was of Siamese (Thai) descent and the sixth wife of one of the illustrious 26th Sultan of Kedah, Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah. He ascended the throne on 21 January 1882, at the age of 19, and ruled for more than 60 years. 

Although the Sultan passed away in 1943, visit any commercial establishment in Alor Setar today and, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity of its proprietors, you’ll find a framed portrait of him on the wall. I confess that I have the image of the Sultan on my computer’s desktop as I, too, sincerely believe that ‘having him there’ brings good fortune.

During the Sultan’s long reign, there were many developments and two stand out. The first is the stunning state mosque, Masjid Zahir which was opened in 1912. With architecture that has a Moorish influence, this century-old place of worship is regarded as one of the most beautiful mosques in the world. 

Masjid Zahir (Daytime)

Photo by Aneeta Sundararaj

Masjid Zahir (Nighttime)

Photo by Aneeta Sundararaj

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. [2]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] Memory of the World Register. The International Register. Accessed 11 August 2023 from 

Aneeta Sundararaj is an award-winning short story writer who created and developed a website called ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. Her work has been featured in many publications. Her bestselling novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets, was shortlisted for the Book Award 2020 in Malaysia. In 2021, she successfully completed a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Management of Prosperity Among Artistes in Malaysia’.

Twitter: @httags