After almost a millennium of silent slumber, almost forgotten in history, Sungai Petani or SP as she is fondly known was finally reawakened, reborn from the very ashes and decay like the mystical phoenix of old.
W.G. Maxwell, Kedah’s 1st British Adviser, as if divinely directed in 1912, chose SP to replace the older coastal town of Kota Kuala Muda as the new administrative center for Central Kedah. SP was chosen for being strategically located between Kulim & Butterworth in the south and Alor Star in the north, right smack in the middle of the State of Kedah.
A common mistake even amongst Sungai Petanians, the word Petani is not derived from “farmer” but from either “pertanding” as in competing or “Patani” as in the Kingdom of Pattani (from Sanskrit Pathini or virtuous lady). Romantic historians prefer the latter.
The advent of steam locomotives and burgeoning rubber industry sealed SP’s destiny as the key commercial and administrative town in Central Kedah, without which SP would probably remain in deep slumber, a small backwater village known as Kampong Penghulu Him (short for Ibrahim) accessible only through a small river jetty at the end of Jalan Pengkalan (today’s Pekan Baru).
Early traders from India settled in many river bank settlements along the Merbok river and its tributaries which include Sungai Petani river. The area is more famous known as Bujang Valley civilization on the outskirts of Sungai Petani had been settled as early as 100 A.D. Known as Kodaram or Kadaram in Tamil, Kedah was ruled in succession by Hindu-Buddhist Kingdoms of Chola, Pallava and Sri Vijaya. Some historians assert that Kedah enjoyed certain periods of autonomy as the Kingdom of Langkasuka.
Even the present day Kedah Sultanate which was founded from 1136 AD could trace its ancestry to the 1st Hindu King named Merong Mahawangsa (aka Maharaja Durbar Raja I). The 9th Hindu King Phra Ong Mahawangsa (aka Maharaja Durbar Raja II) took on the name of Sultan Mudzafar Shah I, Kedah’s 1st Sultan, when he embraced Islam. His final resting place has remained the same in the vicinity of Sungai Batu at the very site he was interred almost a millennium ago. Ergo, Kedah is clearly the most ancient of kingdoms on Peninsula Malaya, not the much acclaimed Malacca.
The legendary cruel fanged Raja Bersiong, Kedah’s very own “Count Dracula” was the 5th Prince to rule the region. Legend has it that Seri Maha Inderawangsa (aka Maharaja Karma) acquired the craving for human blood through a meal. His maid had pricked her finger and a few drops of her blood were inadvertently mixed into his meal. He started killing prisoners, and when his prisons ran empty, turned his attention onto his subjects. His fangs grew menacingly longer with each drop. His insatiable craving for blood could not be quenched. His subjects revolted, and he was finally banished from his kingdom.
Inderawangsa wandered aimlessly upstream Sungai Petani river in hope to find a cure for his blood craving. Legend has it that he was gradually cured of his craving, somehow miraculously the further he wandered from his palace at Kota Aur. To rid himself of the wretched curse, he wrenched out his fangs and threw them away. His fanged teeth whistled forlornly away from into memory and Inderawangsa faded into legendary history.
With passage of time, Inderawangsa’s wandering did weave immutably into recorded history. Interestingly, one could still find the towns of Tawar, Merbau Pulas, Baling and Wing, west of Sungai Petani, meaning “cured”, “wrenched out”, “thrown away” and “wing” whistling sound in local Malay, purportedly the very footprints of Inderawangsa’s pilgrimage. There is even a small village in Baling district named Siong where the fangs landed. Some claimed that Inderawangsa then wandered south to his final resting at Kampong Kota Raja Bersiong, Perak.
Separating myths from facts, Inderawangsa was probably adorned with a necklace made from the longest of wild boar tusks as mark of supreme kingship and he was definitely not fanged. He was not a benevolent ruler. He terrorised his subjects. His rule was cruel, tyrannical and may be even bloodthirsty but blood addiction for human blood he was definitely not. He was probably partial to boar’s blood curd cuisine and his royal sty and hunting ground had run out of boars. His subjects did rise up to overthrow him, casting him out to wander and perish alone into legend.
Prior to 1912, SP was just a flat swath of empty land between Penghulu Him, a small riverside Malay village along the Sungai Petani river and Pekan Lama, a small migrant Chinese settlement further upstream. Pekan Lama is today SP’s very own Chinatown. The land was surveyed and developed into a new and vibrant market township of migrants of Chinese and Indian descents attracted and fueled by the boom in the rubber industry.
Probably, the very first structure constructed by W.G. Maxwell during the founding days of SP would be the train station, the heart of the town’s life line. The station has been recently upgraded (double tracking), and gratefully the historic station transplanted brick by brick and plank by plank to the town’s Silver Jubilee Park on her 100th anniversary.
Alighting at the train station, travellers would be captivated by the town’s 12.1m golden dome Clock Tower. The iconic Clock Tower is constructed in 1936 by a local philanthropist, Mr Lim Lean Teng to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V, then Prince George Frederick Ernest Albert the Duke of York, to Princess Victoria Mary of Teck, who became his consort with the title Queen Mary.
Next to the Clock Tower, stands the iconic HSBC building of red bricks against white washed walls with domes of Moorish design. HSBC bank still operates from the same premise since 1923 with its operations temporarily halted during the Japanese Occupation when the building was occupied by the Imperial Army. Both structures still stand proud today as the town’s grand ole dames.
Metaphorically, SP was built on rubber which explains the strong Indian community’s presence in the town today. As incontrovertible testament, Thaipusam is reputed to be most spiritedly celebrated second only to Batu Caves’. Further, the mere mention of rubber estates like Harvard Estate, Scarborough Estate and UP Estate would always stir up fond and endearing childhood memories like rubber seeds cracking contest or rubber seed copters amongst Sungai Petani’s older residents.
It has been oft said that whenever two or three Englishmen get together they form a club with a race track or golf course. Hence, it is not surprising when English officers and planters did just that within the first year of the founding of SP. The first clubhouse was a bungalow opposite the old general hospital. They went on to formally set up the SP Club and moved to her present location in 1922, a decade later. That is how SP Club was founded, and her clubhouse still stands proud today just across Silver Jubilee Park.
Unknown by many, SP was the home base for the 21st RAAF fighter squadron and 27th RAF bomber squadron (RAF Aerodrome) which was bombed by Japanese high altitude bombers on the very first day of Imperial Japanese invasion. SP town which is situated some 2 km away shook when the aerodrome’s fuel depot exploded from a lucky direct hit from the bombers. The bombing also destroyed most of the Brewster Buffalo fighters and Bristol Blenheim bombers on the ground and cratered the airstrip. Rendered inoperative and deemed indefensible, the air base was immediately abandoned. The aerodrome is today occupied by Ibrahim Secondary School and its main air control station built in 1936 is still being used as the school’s library and administrative office.
Indeed, SP my old hometown is truly a historical town founded on the very ashes and ground of her almost forgotten most ancient predecessor.