To the south of the Kedah is the state which is known today as Perak, which is the Malay word for ‘silver’. This seems an appropriate name for a region whose place in history has long been dominated by mining. Yet it was not silver but less glamorous metals- first iron and then tin- which have been of great importance of this part of the peninsula. It is thought that it was the silvery glitter of the province’s alluvial tin deposits which gave the state its name. At first we didn’t intend to include this region in this travel blog: this southern neighbor of Kedah did not seem obviously related to the ancient kingdom. But after we considered the importance of metallurgy in the history of Kedah, we saw that the mineral riches of Perak might have played a large role in the rise of Kedah as a trading hub. As with Sriwijaya, we realized that it was useful to visit the hinterland of the trading entrepôts rather than just their main ports.
The years since our journey through this part of Malaysia have only served to emphasize the importance of mining in the history of Kedah, Malaysia’s first kingdom. It appears that during 2008 excavations were being carried out at an area called Sungai Batu in the vicinity of Gunung Jerai. Whereas the temples we had seen belonged mostly to the second half of the first millenium, the site of Sungai Batu had pushed Kedah archaeology back to the second century AD, when the first references to Kedah- or rather ‘Kardoman’- had appeared in that Tamil poem. These excavations had revealed an ancient jetty complex along the river banks, which had been used in the loading and unloading of international merchandise. The digs had also unearthed evidence of iron smelting works and various tools used in the manufacture of iron tools. It seemed that mining and metallurgy had played a role in the rise of Kedah, right from the beginning of the civilization.
By the eighth and ninth centuries, Arab traders were assuming a larger role in the Indian Ocean trade and some of the best descriptions of South East Asia from this period come from Arab sources. By this point in history, we find that Kedah was attractive not only for its iron and jungle products, as it had been in the days of the Tamil traders, but was also known for its abundance of fine quality tin. Writing in the year 940, Abu Dalaf gave this evocative description of Kedah, then under Sriwijayan overlordship:
When I arrived in Kalah, I found it to be a beautiful place surrounded by the walls of its fort, with flower gardens and water flows from springs in the ground. I saw tin mines, which incomparable to any other other in this world. Within the city I saw makers of ‘qalai’ swords, a kind of Hindu sword…….The people had a system of laws, which inlcude the use of prisons amd a system of fines as forms of punishment.
They ate wheat, dates, vegetables, which are weighed before being sold and breads which were sold in piles. They did not have ‘hamam’ (Turkish baths), but bathe in fast flowing rivers. The currency was the silver dirham, which is called ‘fahri’.
This passage gives us insight into many factors of life in ancient Kedah: its architecture and urban planning, its laws and customs, its economy and industries and the diet of the people. But what seemed most relevant to our onward trip into Perak was the numerous references to mining and metallurgy. We learn from Abu Dalaf that not only did Kedah have tin mines unsurpassed in the world, but also a sword-making industry renowned for its craftsmanship throughout the Indian Ocean ports and the minting of metal coins. It was to become clear that the former tin-mining cities of the northern part of Perak, Taiping and Ipoh, were the economic successors of Kedah and that tin-mining was one strand of cultural continuity between the ancient kingdom of Kedah and the British colony of Malaya, the forerunner of independent Malaysia. Our last stop on our way through Malaysia was to be ‘the capitals of tin’.