Astana Negeri — Emblem of Sarawak’s unity and progress

A file photo of the Astana Negeri Sarawak.

By Ashley Sim

NESTLED gracefully on the northern banks of the Sarawak River, Astana Negeri Sarawak, often simply referred to as ‘Astana Negeri’ or ‘Astana’, stands as a silent witness to the myriad of historical chapters that have shaped Sarawak’s destiny.

This architectural marvel, which serves as the official residence of the Yang di-Pertua Negeri (Governor) of Sarawak, holds a unique place in Sarawak’s history and culture, a symbol of the State’s transition from colonial rule to modern statehood.


Brooke Dynasty and Sarawak

The Brooke Dynasty’s story began with Sir James Brooke, an English adventurer who was the first British man to rule over the territory of Sarawak. For his assistance in quelling a rebellion against the Sultanate of Brunei in the 1840s, he was given the governorship of Sarawak. As a result, James became the first White Rajah, establishing a dynasty that would govern Sarawak for roughly a century. Under James, reforms were implemented, and the foundations for a unique rajah-led governance structure were laid.

His nephew, Charles Anthoni Johnson Brooke, succeeded James after his death in 1868. As the Second White Rajah, Charles continued to modernise and develop Sarawak. His administration was marked by numerous reforms, infrastructural projects, and efforts to combat piracy and headhunting, which were prevalent in the region.

Charles and Margaret Alice Lili de Windt were married on September 28, 1869, in a ceremony that took place in England. It was under Charles’s reign, in 1870, that the Astana Negeri was built. The purpose was twofold: as a wedding gift for his bride Margaret, who became known as Ranee Margaret, and as a formal residence to reflect the Rajah’s growing political stature.

While initially called ‘Istana’, which means ‘palace’, to reflect its role as a royal residence, the name transitioned to ‘Astana Negeri’ over the years. However, its informal title, ‘Government House’, remained a nod to its continuing significance as a centre of governance and authority.

Sir James Brooke (1847). Portrait by Francis Grant.
Sir Charles Brooke. Photograph by Bassano. Wellcome Collection. (
The Astana built by Charles Brooke.
Ranee of Sarawak, Margaret Brooke.

Architecture and Design

The Astana’s design reflects both colonial and local architectural influences. The palace exudes an old-world charm, blending Victorian architectural elements with indigenous nuances, indicative of the cross-cultural interactions that characterised the Brooke rule.

According to the book ‘Kuching in Pictures 1841-1946’ by Ho Ah Chon, the original palace design was unusual in that it was actually three separate buildings fused together into one, with one building connected to the other by short and narrow passageways.

Among the three buildings, the tower generates the most interest. It was constructed in the style of an ancient fortress and features battlements at the top and narrow windows throughout the building. These windows were strategically placed to allow the people inside to fire their guns at any outside invaders or enemies.

The Rajah’s family coat of arms, which later became the crest of Sarawak, was displayed above the main gate of the tower together with the number ‘1870’, indicating that the tower was constructed in that year.

“Once the tower was overgrown and covered with creepers and legend had it that the removal of these creepers would bring bad luck. Another legend had it that should the creepers be removed, heavy rain would fall unceasingly for three days and nights with flood water rising to such height as to cover the whole tower itself. With such beliefs, the tower building had never been cleaned of the creepers and mosses until recently,” read a part of ‘Kuching in Pictures 1841-1946’.

Referring to the ‘Sarawak Long Ago’ book by W J Chater, before the Second World War, the tower was covered in what we used to call ‘ivy’, though it was actually a local creeper. However, there was a superstition that the tower should not be whitewashed or the ‘ivy’ removed, as this would bring bad luck. During the war, Prince (Toshinari) Maeda of Japan occupied the Astana and cut down the ‘ivy’. Three days later, he was killed when the plane he was in crashed into the sea near Bintulu.

The tower was built in the style of an ancient fortress, complete with battlements at the top and narrow windows throughout.
The tower.
The Rajah’s family coat of arms and the number ‘1870’, indicating that the tower was constructed in that year.

Life at Astana Negeri

According to Chater in ‘Sarawak Long Ago’, although the structure was complete when Rajah Charles and Ranee Margaret arrived in 1870, there was little furniture, so they had to stay with Bertha and Arthur Crookshank in their bungalow near Fort Margherita. This caused Ranee much embarrassment, as the wife of Resident Crookshank had previously regarded herself as the First Lady of the land and resented the arrival of the ‘little convent girl’. The Ranee was 20 at the time, while the Rajah was 40.

Behind the Astana, there was once a plantation of areca nut (betel nut) trees. The Rajah used to cultivate these for the benefit of his Dayak friends, who frequently contacted him for supplies of these nuts when they planned to host large feasts. He would provide the nuts in inexpensive jars for them to transport back to their homes. Some of these jars can still be found in certain Dayak villages, where they are highly prized.

As soon as the Astana was constructed, Chinese merchants began sending gifts. Law Kian Huat and his business partner, Sim Ah Nio, of Ghee Soon & Company gave a very generous gift of 12 pairs of Chinese lamps.

“Almost as soon as the Ranee entered the Astana, she started to bear her large family. First, there was a girl, Gita, born in September of the same year, 1870, and then twin sons, James and Charles, in February 1872. All were destined to die on their way home to England in 1873. Then a still-born son followed the Ranee’s fall on a steamer. The fifth, who became the third Rajah, was born in England, while the Rajah and Ranee were on leave, but the sixth and seventh children, Tuan Muda and Tuan Bunsu, were born in the Astana. The Malays of Kuching always held the Tuan Muda in special esteem as they regarded him a true son of the soil,” wrote Chater in his book ‘Sarawak Long Ago’.

A white marble cross was erected in memory of Rajah Charles and Ranee Margaret’s three children Chita, Harry, and Clayton, who died at sea in the ‘Hydaspes’. Erected by Charles and Margaret, it was a poignant Christian symbol, with the phrase “suffer little children to come unto me” wrapped around its base.

The second Rajah, who ran his country like an English country estate, would stand on the Astana verandah with a telescope to observe the arrival of his officers at their respective offices. A few minutes later, should any of them be tardy, they would receive a note reminding them of the official office hours.

There was one fixed rule that the second Rajah always followed. Everyone in Astana awoke to the sound of the five o’clock gun in the morning and dined to the sound of the eight o’clock gun in the evening.

After Charles’s reign, his son, Charles Vyner Brooke, became the third and last White Rajah of Sarawak. Vyner occupied the Astana following his father’s tenure.

Vyner’s reign was marked by many changes, including efforts towards a more democratic form of governance. However, the turbulence of World War II and the Japanese occupation of Sarawak posed significant challenges to his rule. After the war, Vyner ceded Sarawak to the British Crown in 1946.

When the Cession occurred in 1946, the Astana became the sole property that the Rajah retained in Sarawak. Over time, it has been occupied by Colonial Governors and, after gaining independence, by Sarawak-born Governors.

The Royal Visit of the Duke of Edinburgh

In the annals of Astana Negeri’s history, a chapter stands out – a visit that bridged continents and generations.

In 1959, the stately rooms of the building resounded with the footsteps of royalty when Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, visited and walked through its revered halls. The visit marked a significant moment in the history of Sarawak, as it brought together the British royal family and the people of Sarawak, intertwining their destinies.

The late 1950s were pivotal years for Sarawak. On the cusp of a new era, the region was transitioning from the reign of the Brooke dynasty, and the impending formation of Malaysia in 1963 would further alter its geopolitical landscape. Against this backdrop, Prince Philip’s visit to Astana Negeri carried a particular symbolic significance.

Welcomed by local dignitaries and the colonial administration, Prince Philip’s visit was marked by ceremonial rituals, cultural performances, and engaging dialogues that highlighted the rich tapestry of Sarawak’s heritage. The grandeur of Astana Negeri, from its majestic ballrooms to its opulent lounges, became the setting for many of these interactions.

The images of the Duke, engrossed in discussions with local leaders or appreciating the nuances of traditional performances, underscored the idea that relationships are built on understanding and respect also highlighted the importance of cultural diplomacy and its power to forge enduring ties.

A photo of Prince Philip (right) and Sir Anthony Abell, Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Sarawak, at Astana Negeri on February 27, 1959, hangs on the walls of Astana Negeri.
A photo showing Prince Philip (seated back row, right) and Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Sarawak, Sir Anthony Abell (seated back row, left) taking a car ride on Feb 27, 1959.

Taib Mahmud and Astana Negeri Sarawak: A Journey of Leadership

Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud is a significant political figure in Sarawak’s contemporary history. Serving as the Chief Minister of Sarawak for 33 years (from 1981 to 2014), Taib Mahmud is also one of the longest-serving chief ministers in Malaysia. Following his tenure as Chief Minister, he was appointed as the Yang di-Pertua Negeri (Governor) of Sarawak, a role he took on in 2014.

Throughout his tenure, both as Chief Minister and later as Governor, Taib utilised Astana Negeri as a crucial hub for Sarawak’s state affairs. Whether hosting international delegations, presiding over official state functions, or engaging in dialogues to shape Sarawak’s future, Astana Negeri’s grand halls have witnessed many of the defining moments of Taib’s political journey.

Under Taib’s leadership, Sarawak underwent significant changes, with efforts focused on modernisation, infrastructure development, and elevating the State’s presence on both the national and international stages. Astana Negeri, in many ways, stands as a witness to this evolution. As the State progressed, so did the functions and significance of Astana Negeri, adapting to the changing times.

Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud
Taib (left) receives the Darjah Kerabat Laila Utama Yang Amat Dihormati medal of honour from Sultan of Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah at Balai Singgahsana Indera Buana, Istana Nurul Imam in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei on Aug 14, 2014.
Taib’s office in Astana Negeri.

Whispers of Time: The Battle with Age

A visit to Astana Negeri today is like taking a journey through time, guided by the whispers of history. Intricate wooden carvings grace its interiors, narrating tales of craftsmanship that have spanned generations.

Over the decades, while the core of the majestic building has remained unchanged, certain parts have borne the brunt of time and elements. The walls might show signs of weathering, and some corners may hint at dilapidation, but these imperfections weave a narrative of endurance.

What’s fascinating about Astana Negeri is its resilience. Despite showing signs of aging, it remains a prominent landmark in Sarawak. The slightly rundown sections tell stories of the ever-changing dance of history. They remind us that like the people of Sarawak, Astana Negeri has faced challenges but continues to stand tall, preserving the past while looking towards the future.

As discussions about restoration and conservation gain momentum, there’s hope that the rundown parts of Astana Negeri will be restored. Yet, even in its imperfect state, the palace serves as a poignant reminder of the transient nature of time and the lasting legacy of structures that endure.

Dragon motifs behind Astana Negeri’s main reception hall.
More dragon motifs can be found in the palace.
Motifs featuring various animals and creatures can be found throughout the Astana.
A section of the Astana Negeri where the walls have weathered and some corners have signs of dilapidation.

Present Day

Astana Negeri Sarawak continues to host important functions in the present day. The palace is a venue for hosting various State functions, official receptions, and ceremonies. This includes events such as the swearing-in of the Governor, diplomatic meetings, and gatherings involving State officials and representatives.

While the palace is primarily used for official functions, public access is occasionally given for historical tours and special occasions, allowing visitors and outsiders to appreciate the palace’s architectural splendour and learn about its history.

The continued use of Astana Negeri Sarawak for official and cultural functions contributes to the preservation of the State’s heritage and history. It keeps alive the legacy of the palace and the stories associated with it.

The Dewan Besar Astana Negeri Sarawak is where ceremonies such as the bestowment of State honours and medals take place.
This room is used to host official functions and gatherings with dignitaries.
Another room used to host meetings with dignitaries.
This room is used to host banquets.

Getting to Astana Negeri Sarawak

To reach Astana Negeri, you have a few transportation options depending on your starting point.

Taxi or Ride-Sharing Services: You can easily take a taxi or use ride-sharing services like Grab from various points in Kuching to reach the palace.

Walking and Water Taxi: If you’re in the Kuching city centre near the Kuching Waterfront, you can enjoy a leisurely walk along the waterfront to the ‘tambang’ (water taxi) boarding point. Take a water taxi from the Kuching Waterfront to cross the Sarawak River. Water taxis are a traditional mode of transportation and offer a unique experience. Once you’ve crossed the river, you’ll be within walking distance of Astana Negeri.

Water taxis are a traditional mode of transportation and offer a unique experience.

Darul Hana Bridge: You can also reach Astana Negeri by walking across the Darul Hana Bridge, which spans the Sarawak River. The bridge offers a scenic route and connects both sides of the river. After crossing the bridge, you can continue on foot to Astana Negeri.

Rental Car: If you prefer driving, you can rent a car from Kuching and follow directions to Astana Negeri. GPS navigation or mobile maps can help guide you to the palace.

Keep in mind that access to the interiors of Astana Negeri may be restricted due to its status as the official residence of the Yang di-Pertua Negeri of Sarawak. Even if one can’t explore its interiors, the external view of the palace, set against the river, is a popular photograph subject in Kuching.

When researching your visit, consider reaching out to official sources, tourism agencies, or local guides who might have up-to-date information on guided tours, visiting hours, and any special considerations for visitors to Astana Negeri Sarawak.

Astana Negeri Sarawak is illuminated at night, enhancing the nighttime landscape.

Accommodations near Astana Negeri Sarawak

Kuching has a variety of accommodations available, from luxury hotels to budget-friendly guesthouses.

Given that Astana Negeri Sarawak is situated opposite the famous Kuching Waterfront, any hotel or accommodation near the waterfront would be relatively close to Astana Negeri.

For the most up-to-date information, it’s recommended to consult a travel or hotel booking platform or contact the local tourism board in Kuching.

— DayakDaily