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Sunday, 10 February 2019

The Real Location of Malacca Palace Found?

The current Malacca Sultanate Palace (Istana Kesultanan Melaka) at the southeast-facing slope of St. Paul's Hill is only a replica. Completed in 1984, the design is based on Sejarah Melayu’s (Malay Annals) description of Sultan Mansur Shah’s Palace (1456–1477). See photo:

Nevertheless, the location of the original palace is unclear as there were 3 palaces consecutively built without much clue on each of its location. Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) describes the palace as follows:

"And the size of that palace was seventeen spaces, for each space the breadth was three fathoms, the columns were as large around as could be embraced; of seven levels were the pinnacles. In between that were provided windows, in between those windows were placed roofs at right angles and like suckling elephants, all of them with wings like those of a kite and carved projecting from under the eaves, in between that projection was carried out the rectangular grasshopper, all of it with peaks and fringes all over. Moreover all those windows of the palace were altogether painted and gilded with liquid gold, its pinnacles were red glass. When it caught the rays of the sun, its form blazed like jewel; and the wailing of that palace was panelled all over, moreover inset with Chinese mirrors of large sizes. When it caught the glare of the sun its form blazed in flashes, so that its image was not clear to peoples sight. Moreover the crossbeams of that palace were a cubit broad, a hand and two fingers thick; as for the upstand it was two cubits in breadth, a cubit in thickness, the frames of those doors were carved, and forty was the number of those doors, all of them painted and gilded with liquid gold. Exceedingly beautiful was the execution of that palace; there was no other palace in the whole world like it. And that palace it was which was named by men, Mahligai, for its roof covering was brass and tin crested."

WG Shellabear's version of Sejarah Melayu states that the palace complex used to be on top of St. Paul's Hill. A possible design and layout plan was proposed based on the available written description by Shellabear. See location & layout of the palace complex as proposed by Shellabear:

Shellabear’s description of the area within the palace complex is as follows:
  1. Kitchen (Penanggahan);
  2. Palace proper (Istana Besar);
  3. Mosque (Masjid);
  4. Bathing & ablution area (Pemandian);
  5. Throne Room (Balairong);
  6. Royal Musical Ensemble Hall (Balai Nobat);
  7. Left Audience Hall (Balai Apit Pintu Dari Kiri);
  8. Right Audience Hall (Balai Apit Pintu Dari Kanan);
  9. Outer Hall of Audience (Balai Mendapa).

See also artist’s impression of the Istana Besar in Shellabear’s account of Sejarah Melayu:

See also recent artist’s impression of the palace by Mohd Faizal Rahmat (2018):

The palace was bombarded during the 1511 siege. It was subsequently set on fire with its salvageable construction materials used to build the Portuguese fort known as Fortaleza. The Portuguese also desecrated and recycled stones from the Royal Mosque, and tombstones from graveyards including the graves of former Sultans located on the hill behind the palace. See ‘Conquista de Malaca’ (Conquest of Malacca), by Ernesto Ferreira Condeixa (1904), Military Museum, Lisbon:

According to Manuel Godinho de Erédia in Declaracam de Malaca (1613), the fortress (Fortaleza) was built on "the same spot where Sultan Mahmud had his palaces and kept the treasures with which he retired upriver into the hinterland".

Tomé Pires in Suma Oriental mentions that the Portuguese constructed their famous fortress (Fortaleza) with a 5 storey tower on the site of a mosque built by Sultan Mansur Shah. See diagram of Fortaleza from Erédia’s collection of plans and maps:

It is to be noted that the word “poco” in the above building plan means ‘well’ in Portuguese & Galician-Portuguese (old Portuguese) and therefore corresponds with Erédia’s description of the Fortaleza having its own water source from a well within its compound. Therefore the said well could have existed prior to the construction of Fortaleza and perhaps was used as a fresh water source for bathing and ablution area of the Royal Mosque (Item 4 in Shellabear’s diagram).

I believe that the Fortaleza, the bathing/ablution area and the Royal Mosque would have been located around the car park area of the Malacca History and Ethnography Museum. This is so as there is a disused well located near the Museum’s foundation stone which may have been the same well that served the Royal Mosque and Fortaleza more than 500 years ago. See pictures of the same well taken in 2019 and 1869:-

As you can see, except the well ( poco ) there is no longer any trace of the Fortaleza structure there. This is so as the British decided to demolish the entire structure upon taking over from the Dutch in the late 18th century. The English were wary of maintaining the fortification and ordered its destruction in 1806. The fort was almost totally demolished but for the timely intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1807.

As the palace was a sprawling complex, I would also argue that its compound would have extended up to where the Bishop's Palace was. See the location of "Palacio do b'po" or "Palacio do bispo" (Bishop's Palace) in a map collected by Erédia in Declaracam de Malaca (1613):

This ‘palace’ was built for Bishop Jorge de Santa Luzia around 1558. It had a strategic position which the Malacca Sultans would have earlier enjoyed i.e. a commanding view of the river, the sea, Malacca’s port, as well as the residential and commercial area of Upeh (later Tranqueira). See this 1604 map which shows the buildings on Bishop’s Palace marked “H” in Erédia’s map:

Also see a sketch done by an anonymous cartographer to depict the seige of Malacca by Acehnese forces in 1568; wherein it clearly shows the position of Fortaleza (“a”) in relation to Bishop’s Palace (“d”):

In 1961 the Malacca State Legislative Assembly Building was constructed on the site Bishop's Palace was. The building is currently occupied by the Democratic Government Museum. See picture:

I believe that the Penanggah (Item 1) described by Shellabear would have been near the area where this Museum currently stands. Whereas the Istana Besar (Item 2) would stretch from the area currently known as Cheng Ho Cultural Museum to the Democratic Government Museum. The Royal Mosque (Item 3) and the Pemandian (bathing/ablution area) (Item 4) would have been at the Malacca History and Ethnography Museum’s car park. Whereas the Balairong and other ceremonial/function halls (Items 5 to 9) would have been located further down the slope towards Jalan Kota, and the old HSBC building (now Galeri Warisan Kota Melaka).

This location also corresponds with Feng Shui principles as well as the ancient art of Malay geomancy known as 'Tajul Muluk' wherein a residential space that is supported by hills at the back and a clear, uncluttered view in front is preferred. Specific to Tajul Muluk, a residence built on a slope with its higher area in the East and its lower area in the West is said to bring prosperity to its occupant. I would also argue that Islamic architecture played an important part in the selection of the location and the overall layout of the palace complex. This is so as the entire complex faced west to the direction of Qiblat i.e. the direction that should be faced when a Muslim prays. For a better perspective on its scale and possible location, I enclose Shellabear’s layout plan superimposed over the existing Google Map image of the area.

I believe that this location also fits the description given by Ma Huan in his book titled Ying Yai Sheng Lan 瀛涯勝覽 ("Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores") which describes the location of the Malaccan palace as follows:-

"There is one large river (the Malacca River) whose waters flow down past the front of the king's residence to enter the sea. Over the river the king has constructed a wooden bridge, on which were built more than twenty bridge pavilions, [and] all trading in every article takes place on this [bridge]"
"Whenever, the treasure ships of the Central Country (China) arrived there, [the Malaccans] at once erected a line of stockading, like a city wall, and set up towers for the watch-drums at four gates. At night they had patrols of police carrying bells; inside again they erected a second stockade, like a small city wall, [within which] they constructed warehouses and granaries; [and] all the money and the provisions were stored in them. The ships, which had gone to various countries returned to this place and assembled; they marshalled the foreign goods and loaded them in the ships; [then] waited till the south wind was perfectly favourable. In the middle of the fifth moon they put to sea and returned home."
The density of the port area and the need for the Sultan of Malacca via his Shahbandars and royal guards to directly administer the port during trading season are probably the main reasons why no permanent walls or stone walls were erected to devide the port and the palace grounds.


1. Suma Oriental, Tomé Pires (1512–1515). 

2. Description of Malaca, Meridonal India, and Cathay (1613), Manuel Godinho de Erédia.

3. Groenevelt, W. P., Notes on the Malay Archipelago and Malacca compiled from Chinese Sources (Batavia: Bruining, 1876),

4. Sejarah Melayu diusahakan oleh W.G. Shellabear, Fajar Bakti, (1978).

5. Comentários de Afonso de Albuquerque, (1557), t. A Bailo, Combra (1923). 

6. Foundations of the Portuguese Empire 1415-1580, Diffie & Winnus, (1977). 

7. The Portuguese Empire 1415-1808, Russel-Wood (1992).

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