Observations : Brunei’s Istana Nurul Iman Eid Box

Every year during Eid Al-Fitr in Brunei, the Sultan of Brunei would open his palace to visitors for three days starting from the second day of Eid. The palace is open for all visitors, local or foreigners or tourists for a chance to greet the Sultan himself and his family personally, while getting treated to a fabulous buffet of Eid meal as well as a thank you gift from the Sultan (usually in the form of a greeting card) as well as a box of goodies to take back home. Obviously this is a golden chance for anyone and everyone to come and visit him, and see the Sultan eye to eye, and this has been one of the attraction for tourists to come to Brunei. Where in the world you can personally come to a ruler of a country, shook his hands and wish him a Selamat Hari Raya (Happy Eid), and get treated to a fantastic Eid spread, AND get a gift just for visiting? I think you would be very hard pressed to find another example of his unique relationship between a ruler and his people.

This year, I was not able to go to the celebrations (I did not go year after year anyway, because of the sheer number of the people visiting. It is said that the total number of visitors actually exceed the number of the population of Brunei!) because I was admitted to the hospital since about 25th of Ramadhan. However my oldest brother and my older sister gets the chance to go there every year for their work in the information sector of the government, and every year our cabinets will be full of these intricate boxes decorated with Malay and Islamic designs like the Celapa (traditional betel boxes) designed with Islamic geometric pattern as a decoration, and our refrigerators full of cakes usually given along with these boxes.  Usually I would not take a second look at these boxes ; simply because I was not really that interested, and most of the Islamic design used were pretty badly executed, it made me cringe just looking at it . But this year the design quite piqued my interest.

The colours were the usual colour palette used by the creative team of the Palace – Yellow being the main colour year after year (being the Royal Colour of the Sultanate) and another secondary colour, in this case a dark emerald green. However, it was not the colours that attracted my attention – it was the pattern. The pattern  was the classic 12 pointed star arranged in in a six-fold pattern, that is a pattern based on hexagonal grid. The top cover looks promising enough with the pattern featured prominently superimposed with a variation of a traditional kain Tenunan pattern popular in BRunei. The label Istana Nurul Iman, the Sultan’s palace, a silhouette logo of the palace as well as a Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri was embossed in the middle in a gold tone. Looks promising so far, maybe finally the designers did the Islamic pattern right this time?

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However, taking a look on the sides, things are looking suspicious. That line separating the white diamond shapes all around the twelve pointed stars are beginning to annoy me as I slowly study the pattern . In the middle of each star is the common Malay songket/tenunan pattern called Tampok Manggis (Mangosteen Base) which is executed nicely.

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Turn the box over to its back, and the nightmare begins.

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Oh, such horror! fellow Islamic art aficionados, students and OCDs, divert your gaze from such a disgrace!

Alright, it might not be as a dramatic of a mistake, but just take a look at it! Don’t tell me no bone is your body is ticked looking at the glaringly unharmonious design?

Some of you might say, well I don’t see the problem to it. But I disagree, as a student of Islamic art, this is quite a common mistake. The problem actually lies in the tessellation of the pattern. The designer, instead of logically using the Six-fold pattern of tessellation, which better suits six and twelve pointed star patterns, he or she chooses to use a grid of eight-fold pattern, and therefore creates a problem in the pattern.

It creates this unbalanced  shapes in between the stars – an imperfect square, a crossed out diamond, disjointed, unequal lines creating an overall unharmonious pattern overall. Try to trace a line – you will hit unnecessary corners and bumps, unlike when you use a proper six-fold pattern to tessellate the stars. This is because the lines are not equal!

Also it doesn’t help the stars were stretched horizontally, creating a bloated looking star as well as the imperfect squares between the stars become imperfect rectangles.

So, what would be the solution, you might ask? Take a look at my diagram below and you will see how the pattern is very different form the usual, more harmonious use of the twelve star pattern.

If you used a six-fold pattern, or a grid of hexagrams, you can see the stars actually interlocks with each other, so that there is no weird shapes in between the stars. There are only triangles made by each points of the stars, so there would not be any square shapes made from the pattern (you can see here what I mean by the interrupted, unequal lines I mentioned earlier)

The dark green diagram shows how you would tessellate the pattern in a hexagonal pattern. You can see here all the points of the stars match each other. The lighter green uses the same basis, however there is a space in between the stars. This is usually filled by triangles, which will then create a running line between the stars. This is the case for the cover of the box, which uses the same pattern.gergHere are two of the classic examples of the pattern I mentioned above. Try to compare the classical mathematically correct version to the box version, and you will see how the lines works better here.  These examples were taken from the Alhambra.

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The pattern from the entrance to the palace of Comares, Alhambra

I have to applaud the work and the creativity of the designer though for his or her effort to combine the aesthetics of Islamic and Malay design in such a gorgeous package, but I hope to see a proper, mathematically correct and harmonious Islamic art used in the future.

Notice : Temporary Leave

Hello my dear readers and visitors!

I would like to inform you I might not be able to post anything for a while, as we are at the moment, renovating our office. Everything had to be moved, and typing away on the computer is rather difficult for now.

I might still be able to post, but I won’t guarantee it, and if I do it might be even more sporadically than what it is now. But I hope you will keep visiting this site for new articles.

Hopefully my laptop will arrive soon then I will be able to post more. Thank you for your attention, and apologies for any inconvenience.

 

Observation – Islamic influences on Traditional Malay Textile pt.2

This post is a continuation of my previous article, which you can find here. For this series of articles I am focusing on the Malay art, particularly in fabric art, where it is one of the most flourishing and well known art in the Malay world.

On the last article I was talking about the ancient art of Batik making, and how Islam and its art influenced the centuries old tradition already established well before the arrival of the religion to the Nusantara. The art of Batik bode well with the usually vegetal and floral motifs of the Islamic art, and added several elements to the art itself such as the usage of Calligraphy.

In the Nusantara another form of Fabric art quite famous in the region is the Songket or Tenunan. The term is sometimes used interchangeably, however it depends on the area of the particular fabric  for example Songket is usually used by the Malays of Malaysia and Indonesia, while Tenunan or Tanunan is more common (and sometimes, the most correct term) in Brunei and certain parts of Indonesia. Several names according to the local languages of each districts also exists, however Songket and Tenunan is the most understood term across the countries.

Etymology – Weaving and Hooking

Songket or Tenunan are a kind of brocade fabric in the Malay Peninsula, which includes present day Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei as well as southern parts of Thailand. The word Songket is believed to refer to the technique used in making these kind of fabric. The word is said to be derieved from the Malay word Sungkit which means ‘to hook’ This is referring to the method of hooking up metallic threads (silver or gold) and threading them into fabric.

Meanwhile, Tenunan means thing woven. This is a reference to the method of making Tenunan where instead of embroidering the gold or silver threads into the cloth, the patterns were woven info the fabric much like weaving a carpet.

Songket and Tenunan fabrics are considered luxury items – these fabrics are used for articles worn especially for formal ceremonies. Usually these fabrics were made into Tanjak or Dastar (Traditional Malay Headgear), Sinjang or Sampin (Traditional waist covering) or even clothes for special ceremonies such as state occasions, weddings or other significant events.

History – The Molten Gold Fabric

Songket or Tenunan history were not very clear, however there were some records that might refer to the Songket or Tenunan, from several different sources. One of the earliest would be a Chinese report in 916AD where Noblemen and women of Brunei were said to wear melted gold colour silk, thought to be referring to the Tenunan fabric. Antonio Pigafetta noted when he visited Brunei in the 16th about the local handicrafts particularly the woven fabric, cementing the fact that cloth weaving was already a widely known and practiced in the local households by that time.

In Indonesia, Songket is associated with the Srivijayan empire based in Sumatera during the 7th to 13th Century. it is believed Songket developed in Sumatra during that time. It is also believed that traders from India brought the fabric and the method into South East Asia somewhere earlier than the 7th century.

However, in Malaysia, these fabrics were thought to originate from the north, around the 16th Century. Although it was also thought the methods and the fabric itself came from Sumatra in the 7th Century.

Motifs

A variety of motifs and patterns were used for the production of the Songket or Tenunan, given how the craft has developed over time. Motifs were varied, from vegetal and floral motifs to geometric patterns to even modern logos and emblems. Given the method of producing these kind of fabric, the patterns and motifs were operating on a micro square grid, much like pixel art. Therefore, patterns that creates perfect circles are quite rare.

Since the patterns are formed using a system of grid, the more common patterns would be geometric patterns, in the form of stylized natural elements. Floras such as the Pucuk Rebung (Bamboo Shoots) Bunga Melor, (Jasmine) and Tampok Manggis (Mangosteen base) were common motifs across the Malay Nusantara.

The patterns would then be arranged in different ways. Most commonly would be the Bunga Tabor (Scattered Flowers), where the pattern would be arranged in a six fold pattern. In Brunei one of the unique pattern produced here is the Arap Gegati, where the motif are arranged in the same  pattern, with added slanting motifs. Another unique Bruneian motif would be the Sukmaindera, where the motifs are arranged in a four fold pattern within diagonal square grids known as Belitong. All of these pattern I shall analyze in future articles.

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A songket fabric from the collection of the Tropenmuseum. You can see here the geometric motif in one panel, and a vegetal motif known as the Pucuk Rebung on another

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Minangkabau men from West Sumatra in traditional dress. Note the Songket waistclothes worn. One particular example is the man on the right side, wearing a Songket with a four fold pattern.

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Songket with a Kris (Traditional Malay Dagger) motif. This is an example of a modern pattern (logos such as this are not used previously). This Songket apparent was made in Malaysia.

Kain Arap Gegati of Bruneian tradition. The pattern is arranged in a four fold pattern

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A sample of the pattern used in making a Bruneian Tenunan. This shows that making the fabric is operated on system of grids.

Appreciation – Istanbul Trip Pt.7 – Little Hagia Sophia (Kucuk Aya Sofya Camii)

This post is a continuation of the Appreciation series of articles I have been publishing after my visit to Istanbul (and small parts of Turkey) in 2017. It may be two years ago, and these post might be a little too late, but better ate than never, right? For this post I feel quite excited because I will be telling you about my visit to the precursor of the Aya Sofya – Little Hagia Sophia.

After waking up quite early the next day after our excursion, the sun was rising bright from the cold late spring weather – a perfect day for a walk around my hotel. Apparently I got to stay at a hotel very near to a site that I wanted to visit. Just a few minutes walk from the hotel lies the Little Hagia Sophia, widely believed to be the ‘experiment’ building before the much larger monument that is Hagia Sophia. However looking into the building it was quite different architecturally when compared to the church-mosque.

This church-turned-mosque monument was build by Emperor Justinian I, the same emperor who built the larger Hagia Sophia, around 527AD to 536AD. The original name of the church was Hagia Sergios and Bachos, after an incident where Justinian I was saaved by the apparition of St. Sergios and St. Bachos before his uncle Justin I when he was accused of plotting against the throne. Justinian I then dedicated this church to the two saints, as a promise in turn for saving his life.

After the conquest of Constantinople, A chief of the Harem of Topkapi Palace, Huseyin Aga, converted the church into a mosque in 1497, in which state it remained until today. Islamic decorations and additions were placed such as the marble Minbar and the Mihrab as well as a minaret. The building itself was unaltered except for some additions (the portico, if I remembered correctly, and an ablution fountain as well as a cemetery near the entrance. A Medrese was also added apparently, but I did not know where it was)

Upon entering the compound, a pair of cats were fighting infront of me as I was trying to read the inscription above the door I was entering (The Southern gate I believe). It was unrelated. But I found it rather amusing, as if those cats were greeting me to the Mosque. As I entered, on my left side was an ablution area (Apparently this is not the main ablution fountain) and a cemetery. In front of the area was a door. Perhaps it was for the women? I did not enter through that door even though I was curious. I took an ablution before entering the mosque…while being stared at by some women. I think it was strange to them because i was washing myself in the freezing early morning cold. It was maybe 10 Degrees back then – the sun was out, but it was cold.

I entered through the front door with the portico – I think it is a later Ottoman addition, because I keep seeing this type of pillared verandah in most converted churches. My theory is that this is where people would gather before prayers or where they take off their footwear (most probably).  The portico was decorated with mini domes, each decorated delicately on the inside. Looking at the front, I was reminded of the facade of Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

Inside, it was empty. There was absolutely no one at the time I entered the mosque. The place was flooded with the early morning light – a beautifully serene sight. There was plenty of windows in the main dome as well as the windows around the main prayer hall. The eastern wall had a lot of windows and being east facing it allows a lot of morning sun into the space.

As I entered, I actually shivered. Not from the cold, but I felt that thousand year history. The silence was eerie almost. I could not hear anything at all from the outside of the mosque. It is as if the voices of the prayers – both Islamic and Christian – reverberate in my head. It was as if there was someone inside, but there was absolutely no one. It was silent, yet I hear these hushed prayers. Was it my imagination? Or was there someone with me at the time? I feel a bit scared and intimidated, yet I also feel peace and safety. My heart beat fast and my blood, I feel it rush throughout my body. It was a feeling I couldn’t describe. Leave a comment if you know what I mean – that feeling when you enter a very old place is a very peculiar feeling indeed.

I chose to pray Tahiyyatul Masjid near the front of the mihrab, my legs still shaking from the rather otherworldly experience. I sat for a while in front of the mihrab, simply admiring that beautiful light coming into the main prayer hall. It feels warm as it touches my skin. Then I realized the Saf (prayer lines) was not arranged in a straight way – it was slightly to the the right. The Mihrab and the Minbar also reflect this. Apparently, Churches were built east facing – towards Jerusalem. However Islam commands its followers to face Mecca, which is slightly South Eastern facing, hence the irregular Saf.

I continued on admiring the Ottoman decoration of the Mosque. Apparently the mosque was renovated and restored twice 1836 and 1956 which explains how new the decorations look. However I think they restore it based on the old decorations – based on the style, which looked like late Ottoman paintwork to me. The colours of blue, light grey and white were chosen, which gives the whole place this serene, delicate look, like a fragile yet elegant China teacup .

I went up to the mezzanine floor via a small stair near the main entrance. This is apparently the platform where the Muezzin would pray on, commonly seen in Ottoman mosques. (I forgot the name of this particular element of Ottoman mosques. Can anyone tell me the name and the actual use? Please leave a comment below!)  on that level , as it was build next to the walls, you can see the original Church carvings and texts. The columns were carved typical Byzantine style vegetal motifs, and a band of text ran through the wall of the level. I was excited as this is my first time seeing such historical articles so near and so touchable.

As I wondered around the platform, I noticed there was already a few people wondering the Mosque – it is time for me to leave. As I went down the stairs I met an old man with a broom in his hands – the Mosque keeper, I guess. I gave him a Salaam and tried to kiss his hands, as it was tradition here in the Malay Peninsula, as a form of respect towards the elders. He immediately pulled away his hand and I accidentally slapped myself in the face! When I remembered it, I feel it was rather funny.

I quickly proceeded to exit the building towards my next destination. Leaving the place I felt another indescribable feeling as if the whole building was saying – come see us again. It was a heavy feeling like leaving a good friend. I will be sure to go back to this mosque when I return. For the time being, onwards to the next adventure.

 

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The Information obelisk in front of the entrance, giving a comprehensive look into the history and details of the building.

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The door where I accessed the grounds. Later during my trip I learned that there was also another gate in front of the mosque, leading to the main ablution area. The inscription on a marble panel above the door was a Hadith -a saying of the prophet. However I could not read it very well. Perhaps my readers can enlighten me?

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The Minaret of the mosque, obviously a later Ottoman addition. A Typical Ottoman style minaret with pointed roof

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Inside the domes of the portico. The decorations were badly weathered

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The ceiling directly in front of the main door. This is where the women would pray. The ceiling was curiously decorated. Perhaps I would do an analysis of the pattern? I never seen such arrangement, at least not in the typical Islamic artistic language.

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The view before you enter the main prayer hall. you can see how well lit the place is. Not only the lights were still switched on, but the natural light flooding the space really bring the whole area to a radiant life. You can see here the Mihrab and the Minbar, and its slightly off center  placement.

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One of the pillar’s capital. you can see the original Byzantine era carving,  as well as a band of text running through the entirety of the hall. Excuse the motion blur, as I can hardly contain my excitement seeing such detail!

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The view from the platform. The dome was delicately decorated with floral and arabeque motifs, coupled with incredible calligraphy, depicting the name of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad and his companions Abu Bakr, Uthman, Umar and Ali as well as his two grandsons Hassan and Hussein.

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A clearer view of the dome and its decoration. Apparently the middle medallion reads the Surah Al-Ira 17:81. At first I thought it was the Surah Al-Ikhlas. It reads Say “The Truth has come and falsehood has departed. Indeed falsehood is bound to depart” Perhaps it is chosenn for the former function of this mosque.

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The Marble Mihrab. You can see the slightly off center Saf lines, just a little south from the east facing wall. I think the smaller windows on the ground level was later Ottoman addition.

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A closer look at the Marble Mihrab. The calligraphic panel above the Mihrab was the commonly chosen part of the verse from Ali Imran Chapter 3:37

Appreciation – Istanbul Trip Pt.6 – Sulemaniye Mosque

After visiting the  Beyazit Square and the Istanbul University gate as well as what is open of Beyazit Mosque, we went northwards up the hill towards the grand imposing Suleymaniye Mosque. It was again almost time for prayers by the time we climbed the hill, so it is only logical for us to stop by and offer our prayers, as well as to admire the beautiful sacred building.

Suleymaniye Mosque or Suleymaniye Camii in Turkish, is an Ottoman era mosque commissioned by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent and designed by the renowned Ottman architect Mimar Sinan. It was built on top of the third hill of Istanbul, and inaugurated in 1557. It is one of the most recognizable landmark of Istanbul, due to its position, allowing the mosque to be seen quite easily anywhere in Istanbul.

As you can see from the pictures we had taken below, it is quite clear how majestic this mosque is. It follows the typical Ottoman imperial mosque floor plan – A large square prayer hall with a colonnaded forecourt and four minarets on the corners. The minarets have ten total balconies – three each for the two minarets next to the prayer hall, and two balconies for each of the minarets standing in front of the forecourt. Apparently  this number refers to Sultan Suleiman, who is the tenth Ottoman Sultan.

I could not choose between the two mosques imperial mosques that I had visited during my time in Istanbul at this moment – meaning I couldn’t either distinguish either one of Suleymaniye Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque, neither I can choose which of either is the most grand or more beautiful. As an admirer of Islamic art and architecture, I was reduced to a gaping hypnotic state when I entered both of these mosque. They are both equally beautiful, majestic and grand, my mind went spinning when I step foot into these beautiful examples of Ottoman Islamic architecture, not only because of the grandeur, but the sheer size and height, as I never had seen something like this before in my entire life.

As it was almost Maghrib prayer time by then, Istanbul slowly descends to darkness as the Muezzin called out to the faithful to come pray. The late winter sky of Istanbul was of course, quite dark, but I never realized how dark it was there until the night falls upon us. Warm orange glow form the lights outside immediately dot the city, and in no time the city was bathed in an amber glow, like dying embers upon the firewood.

As the outside world falls into darkness and into a strange orange artificial glow, we went inside to offer our prayers with the imam inside. The hall was dimly lit – simply because the hall was too large to be efficiently and sufficiently lit. There were chandeliers dropping down from the ceiling all around the main prayer hall, but it could only illuminate the lower part of the space. The upper part of the hall is quite dark, making it quite hard to appreciate the fantastic decorations of the domes and the ceilings and walls.

Inside, I was astounded to see such large space – it is almost as if the ceiling and the exquisite dome were aloft. It was such an ethereal sight I don’t think any first visitor could keep their jaws from dropping to the floor! Again following the common plan of the Ottoman Imperial mosques, the main grand dome were surmounted with four supplementary half domes on all four sides of the grand prayer hall. Smaller domes goes on the corners of the hall, each again surmounted by its own supplementary half domes. As I  collect myself from such dazzling sight I realized the domes were held up by massive pillars on the four corners of the prayer hall. These square pillars help hold up the domes, giving a grand space in the middle, while giving the illusion of the ceiling floating above the head of the worshipers.

Once we had finished the prayers and while I wait for my partner to finish his supplementary prayers, I roamed around the prayer hall, admiring the beauty of this magnificent Ottoman Imperial Mosque. Looking around the hall, it was mainly white – the main colour of the material used that is marble. As I touched one of the massive buttress pillar it was quite cold, confirming that it was in fact made of stone. The Mihrab area of the hall is the most decorated. Iznik tiles dot the Mihrab wall with calligraphic inscriptions as well as floral and geometric motifs chosen for the tiles. the arches supporting the domes and the four corners were decorated with white and red paint and stained glass windows decorated the hall. Otherwise it was plain – much plainer than the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, where almost exposed surfaces were richly decorated. The carpet, I suspect, was new, or very well maintained. It reflects the floral and geometric decoration of the hall, featuring a variation of the eight pointed star in a four fold pattern. The pattern itself is rather peculiar because of the use of square instead of repeating the eight point star. I will perhaps do a study on this pattern one of these days.

As we finished our prayer we went out to the darkness – and the chaos – of Istanbul. We went for a coffee later that evening in a rooftop cafe (great views with a delightful Turkce Kahve!), before going back to the hotel in the dead of the night. It was strange for me, when I think back, to be so brave being in a foreign country, walking in the backstreets with nothing but my trusty old phone to guide me, in the darkness of the evening.

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Me in front of the grand Suleymaniye mosque. You can see the two balcony and the three balcony minarets.

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The interior of the mosque. The building was mostly in this cool white grey marble, save from the Mihrab with its iznik tiles. As you can see the lights drop down from the ceiling, but was not enough to illuminate the upper parts of the mosque.

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The carpet with the peculiar four fold pattern featuring the eight pointed star. You can see the weird square in the pattern. I will analyze this pattern someday.

DSCN0576The main dome. Excuse the motion blur as I could not hold my camera steady due to the sheer height of the hall, it made me feel dizzy!  The dome is decorated with a verse of the Quran, although I did not remember which one. One the four corners holding the dome, four calligraphic roundels were set.

DSCN0583Another view of the Mihrab. The two calligraphic roundels flanking the Mihrab in the Opening Sura (Al Fatiha) split into two. Above the mihrab itself is the common ayaat chosen to decorate Mihrabs across Ottoman mosques (Ali Imran 3:37). Above, on either side of the mihrab, in gilt frames, read the calligraphy of Declaration of Islamic Faith. Like in The Hagia Sophia, Calligraphic medals were set high above read the names of the Prophet Muhammad and Allah.