Thursday, 3 November 2011

The seat of the first Johor Sultanate

When I was a young boy doing the daily commute by bus from our house in Singapore to school in Johor Bahru,  I would walk past a small unimpressive signpost located underneath the flyover just outside the Immigration and Customs checkpoint. The signboard is a short description of how the city of JB got its name. Originally called Tanjung Puteri (if I recall correctly, spelled as Petrie on the signboard), the then small town was renamed Johor Bahru by Sultan Abu Bakar in 1866.

The signboard is of course, no longer there, since the construction of the new CIQ complex. In those days, it crossed my mind that if there is a place called Johor Bahru, then there must be another place somewhere called Johor Lama. Indeed there is... and upon studying a bit of history in school, I learned that the remains Johor Lama, considered as the first capital of the Johor state, can be found on the eastern bank of Sungai Johor within the district of Kota Tinggi. It has taken me more than 30 years since that classroom history lesson to make my first visit to the place.

The brief history of Kota Johor Lama written here

I wasn't particularly good at history while in school. I somehow find it difficult to memorize dates, so when history and geography became elective subjects as we entered Form 4 of secondary school, I naturally chose geography.

Anyway, following my maiden drive on the Senai-Desaru Expressway which I posted about last week, I took the chance to make a trip to Teluk Sengat and Johor Lama. The place now is easily accessible by car since authorities paved and upgraded the track that connects to the KT-Desaru trunk road. Previously, the land route to Teluk Sengat meant driving on earth tracks through palm oil estates. Not too long ago, the primary form of transport used by the villagers was boats.

According to historical notes, the village known as Johor Lama was established by Sultan Alaudin Riayat Shah II in 1540 (hmmm... that's 471 years ago). Sultan Alaudin was the son of Sultan Mahmud Shah, the last sultan of Melaka. When Sultan Mahmud was ousted by the Portuguese in 1511, he escaped to Muar and then to a few other places, where he assembled troops to try re-capture Melaka (which he did not succeed). Depending on your point of view, it can be said that the last king of Melaka became the first king of Johor, although I note that most historians would place Alaudin Riayat Shah as the first sultan. This first sultan's real name is Raja Ali. The official name of Alaudin Riayat Shah the Second was taken when he ascended the throne. The first ARS was the second ARS's grandfather who ruled Melaka up to 1488, before the Portuguese invasion. Confusing, no? That's why I didn't do too well in history.

Mahmud Shah the last sultan, was also linked to the legend of Puteri Gunung Ledang. He was the king who really wanted to marry the mysterious beauty living somewhere up a mountain to the extent of agreeing to most of the practically-impossible pre-conditions set by the princess. This story is an extremely colourful legend... and as legends go, there is no way that it can be verified. Perhaps, that's the way it is meant to be.

On the other hand, if we are to go down further in the succession line of Johor kings, we will come to another sultan with similar name whose history is probably the next most well-known and no less colourful. Sultan Mahmud Shah II was the grandson of Alaudin Riayat Shah II, and therefore the great-grandson of the last sultan of Melaka. He was also the last king of Johor to have direct lineage to the royal Melaka bloodline, having no offspring of his own. Mahmud Shah the Second was said to have ruled his kingdom with a cruel hand. When Dang Anum, the pregnant wife of his trusted admiral Laksamana Bentan, ate a slice of jackfruit from the king's garden without his permission, Sultan Mahmud Shah became very furious. Dang Anum tried to appeal to the sultan by saying that her craving for the jackfruit was because of the baby in her belly. The king became even angrier and ordered Dang Anum's womb be cut open. Legend has it that they found the baby with a piece of the jackfruit in his mouth. I know it's stretching the imagination a bit... but hey, legends wouldn't be colourful without some form of exaggeration.

Laksamana Bentan, who was away at sea fighting off pirates, returned to find that his wife and unborn child had been killed by the king. The admiral swore to avenge the deaths and plotted to murder the sultan. He did so, one afternoon while the king was on his way back after Friday prayers. Laksamana Bentan was then killed by the sultan's guards. This incident led to another name being given to the king : Sultan Mahmud Mangkat Dijulang.

The graves of both Sultan Mahmud Shah and Laksamana Bentan can still be found in Kota Tinggi. The sultan's mausoleum is located at Kg Makam on the eastern bank of Sungai Johor. A few kilometres upstream on the same side of the river at Kg Kelantan is where we can find Bentan's final resting place.

Ok then... enough of history. Back to the present.

The village of Johor Lama is also known as Johor Kampung to the locals. The old fort (or `kota' in Malay) was located on a hill next to the river. There aren't any stone walls that remain today but for some earth mounds that do indicate some form of protective structure. If the present overgrown trees are cleared, I can imagine the fort having a commanding view of the Johor rivermouth.

Entrance to the Johor Lama historical site

View of Sungai Johor

The museum building

The area is now under the maintenance of the Muzeums Department and there is a muzeum there. Unfortunately I arrived late and the muzeum was aready closed. But if you wish to take a peek of what's inside, then have a look at their website here -> Muzium Kota Johor Lama.


Tommy Yewfigure said...

Thanks Oldstock, bits & pieces of these stories r coming back to me now; when I was born at Sultanah Aminah Hospital), Sultan Ismail (The current Sultan's grand father) came to see me or he just happened to be visiting the hospital at that time lah....hehehe). Proud moment for me as told by my parents :))

Anonymous said...

lovely post! It's a family best-kept secret that my mother is a descendent of Laksamana Bentan thus her family avoided Kota Tinggi for fear of vomitting blood ( remember, the sultan's curse? ). I have been to Kota Tinggi myself but luckily didn't throw up blood, so I guess the curse has worn off! I have always loved History and find it sad that most of today's children have zero interest in our rich Malacca Sultanate history that can teach our present "rulers" a thing or two.


kayel60 said...

thank you, i love history as in his story....just listening and making connections....

fascinated by name, i always inquire why kota bahru? or johor bahru?.....where were the old ones?

without any research, i thought bahru has a lot to do with 'by the sea' as our culture and leanings were very much arabic then.....

just wondering

3yearshousewife said...

Oldstock, good history lesson told there, no dates too..

somuffins said...

You are right. Petrie is spelt as Petrie. I know so cos we stayed at 8B Jalan Petrie; then 'they' changed it to Petrie 5 or Puteri 5 (we thought it was aptly so as my father had 5 daughters, hehe).

But sad to say, part of Jalan Petrie now is a highway. There goes our kampung halaman, sob3.

We lived in Kota Tinggi for 3-4 years as my father was a DO then. I was quite a tiny tot but sweet memories still linger on till this day.

Oldstock said...

Tommy, you had a royal visitor on your birthday? Cool!

BTW, there's another hospital now, carrying Sultan Ismail's name.

Oldstock said...


I was initially thinking of adding that part of the legend to this post (the curse on Bentan's descendants) but the writing was getting too long. Nice of you for bringing it up.

If you are a real descendant of Megat Seri Rama, then perhaps you can help me with something. Do you know where the remaining family went after he was killed? I was at a kampung in Pekan Pahang recently and was shown some graves said to be those of Bentan's descendants. Thanks.

Oh BTW, if you did not vomit blood when you are in Kota Tinggi, the curse has worn off it seems.... but darah pahlawan Bentan masih mengalir, ye tak? ;-)

Oldstock said...


I have also been intrigued by place names. Kota Tinggi town, for example, does not have a `kota' nor is it situated on high ground. In fact KT is rather flat and susceptible to flooding. But when I went to Johor Lama the other day, the remains of the kota is indeed located on high ground... so perhaps the Kota Tinggi name was first given to the whole district before being used to identify the biggest town in that district.

It would be interesting to know how Kota Bharu in Kelantan got its name...

Oldstock said...


I mentioned some dates, but in years only. Itupun setelah membuat sedikit ulangkaji ;-)

Oldstock said...

Cik Som,

I reckon you must have memories of the floods in KT even though you were a tiny tot.

Bila nak balik JB? Nanti saya belanje mee bandung...

somuffins said...

I remember there was one club named Kelab Air Bah..hehe.

Bila nak balik JB? Tak nak balik dah cos I might cos misery to all Johoreans. I went back in 2006, pastu Johor dilanda banjir maha dahsyat. I rasa bersalah :-(

Kat KL ada jual bee bandung juga..

Oldstock said...

Hehe... macam cerita kena sumpahan je Cik Som..

Mee bandung kat KL tu tak sedap la..

Al-Manar said...

Like you I dislike history as a subject. If I look back I feel the history in the 50's was more interesting and mind broadening than the current. It was the history of British Empire. Say what you like, that kind of history made, in effect, one appreciate history in a broader sense.

Somehow today I have a tinge of sadness thinking about what has been done in replacing historical names with 'Malaysian'; Telok Anson, Port Swettenham, Batu Rd, Jesselton etc. You have discovered something. So really we value history at an older age, less as children. But we cannot say that it applies to everybody, can we?

Oldstock said...

Salam Pakcik Al Manar,

I like history for the interesting stories of the events but dislike it as a school subject because of my weakness in remembering dates and timeline. When I was a student in the UK, I went backpacking through Europe with 2 other friends. Each of us made a choice of a place where we personally really wanted to visit. My choice was Athens in Greece, simply because of the history.