Awaiting the rebirth of a historical icon: Old Masjid Bandar Kuching to rise again

Old Masjid India Kuching along Gambir Street, ust opposite the new floating mosque.

Kenyalang Portraits

By Ling Hui and Lian Cheng

The 186-year-old Masjid Bandar Kuching hidden among Gambir Street’s spice shops will soon be revamped into a tourist attraction consisting of a historical library surrounded by a community of cubicle boutique shops.

Even as all eyes were on the new RM21 million Masjid Bandar Kuching dubbed Sarawak’s first floating mosque when it officially opened on March 1, 2019, the local Muslim community were hopeful that the old mosque which is also known as Masjid Tambi could somehow regain its past glory.

After the launch of the floating mosque on March 1, 2019, the old mosque continued to be called Masjid Bandar Kuching but will be used as a religious school to carry out various religious education programmes.

Growing up under the eaves of the mosque

At first glance, the old mosque may seem empty and abandoned today. However, the old mosque which served as a revered place of worship and an education centre for Muslims in downtown Kuching and from across the river for almost two centuries is silently awaiting its transformation to regain its former splendour.

Gambir Street shopowner Peter Pui recounted to DayakDaily how the mosque was almost demolished and how the local business community and Muslim community rallied together to prevent that from happening.

They signed a petition against the demolition and the whole idea was abandoned. That perhaps was a blessing in disguise as when an attempt to build a new mosque in its original location did not pan out, it gave the opportunity for a new idea to build a brand new mosque sitting majestically over the river to be explored. In the end, there was a happy resolution: the old mosque was preserved while the new one, better equipped to cater to the needs of the community, was built and has become a must-visit landmark for locals and tourists alike.

Peter Pui

Pui, who was born and raised in the neighbourhood, said he and his friends of all races and religions including Indian and Chinese Muslim converts still see the mosque as a very significant building with sentimental and nostalgic value.

He reminisced that in his younger days, he would hang out with the mufti (Islamic scholars) and play with his Muslim friends at the mosque after school hours, and how he had over time learned to recite bits of Muslim prayers.

As an ethnic Chinese who grew up in the neighbourhood, his greatest hope is that the mosque which has great historical significance for the community and the city be maintained as a heritage landmark. There are few mosques in Sarawak or Malaysia which are as unique or carries such great charm and mystique, beginning with the mystery as to how it came to be so well hidden that few outsiders will notice it unless a local points it out.

Situated amongst shops selling aromatic spices and other local traditional and essential goods, the mosque was more than just a place of worship. It was also an important community hub that welcomed travelers from far and wide, comforted the people in their times of weariness and spiritual distress, and bore witness to the birth of Sarawak as a nation and Kuching as a city. Walking through its quiet halls and passages, one can’t help but wonder what great stories the building would tell if it could speak.

The old mosque is inconspicuous among shops and the crowd at Gambir Street.
Motorcycles are seen parked at the entrance of the old mosque.

Restoring its former glory

To put all, including Pui at ease, Kuching City Mosque Welfare Trust Board president Dr Shajahan Sayed Ahmad assured that demolishing the old mosque is not on the cards because it was declared a heritage site by the Sarawak government about two years ago.

Not only is its existence assured, but the mosque will be turned into a historical library surrounded by little shop cubicles, like jewels surrounding a crown.

“There is a proposal by the trust board on the renovation of the old mosque and the development of the surrounding trading area, which was supposed to be in pipeline some two years ago but was postponed due to the Covid-19 crisis,” said Dr Shajahan.

Based on the development plan, the upper part of the mosque which bears floral designs with historical value will be retained while the bottom section will be renovated.

After the mosque is repaired and refurbished with the advice of Sarawak Heritage Council, it would be turned into a historical library where the history of the mosque itself and how the Indian Muslim settlers first landed in Kuching would be stored, Dr Shajahan added.

“We want to put the history there, how the mosque came into existence in 1876. So, all the history, we will keep it for the tourists to come and have a look, together with some books and so on.”

The Kuching City Mosque Welfare Trust Board owns many shops near the mosque. It has been leasing out the shops for traders to operate at minimal charge. It thus would not be difficult to open up spaces surrounding the mosque.

Dr Shahajan, who also owns a textile shop at India Street, explained that under the new development plan, one out of the 24 shoplots along Gambir Street would be demolished to make it a walkway leading to the current ‘mosque lane’— a narrow, unroofed passageway from India Street Pedestrian Mall cutting through to the shops of Gambir Street.

The entrance to the ‘mosque lane’ from India Street, leading to the old Masjid India Kuching at Gambir Street.
A plaque describing the ‘mosque lane’ which is also known as ‘Jalan Sempit’.

The areas surrounding the mosque are marked to be developed into boutique business areas hosting cafeterias, souvenirs and handicraft shops. Part of the space will be turned into a mini-park. Dr Shajahan envisages the whole area as the liveliest, coolest and most artistic place for Kuchingites and tourists to hang out at.

The initial design for the development involved a Peninsular Malaysian architect who was not able to travel to Kuching due to Covid-19. After two years of delay, the trust board could not wait anymore and decided to improvise.

“Now we cannot wait anymore, it’s almost two years. So, we have engaged local architects to come out with the design. Once the design is there, we will get in contact with the heritage council, then we will ask for some funds and once we have enough funds, we will start developing the area.”

Sixty Sarawak Dollars

In terms of the physical building, Masjid Bandar Kuching is the second oldest mosque in Sarawak after Kuching City Mosque. It was build in 1834 as a simple hut on vacant land by Muslim Indian traders who landed here and needed a place to worship. In terms of congregations, it is actually the oldest mosque in Sarawak.

Soon after it was established, the traders managed to gather enough funds from their businesses and with the help of some donations from local people, the hut was turned into a surau in 1856.

In 1871, the Indian Muslim community managed to save more money and bought the piece of land from the government during the Charles Brooke administration, at a cost of 60 Sarawak Dollars. Between 1871 and 1876, a committee which later became the trust board was formed.

From 1976 until 2019, all prayers and functions for the local Muslim community were held in the old mosque. During the years when surau and mosques across the Sarawak River and in the vicinity had yet to be built, this old mosque was the busiest with the congregation even spilling out on to the Gambir Road during prayer times.

It also served as an Islamic education centre, and young Muslim boys going in and out of the mosque was a common sight.

Dr Syajahan speaking about the history of the old Masjid India Kuching at his textile shop in India Street.

“When I was studying in St Thomas, the school ended only at 12.20pm and by the time we reached there (old mosque), it will be full and there will be no room for us to pray. What we did was to clear the areas where they keep the slippers and pray there,” recalled Dr Shajahan.

When more surau were built in nearby villages and towns, the number of worshippers started to decrease and later on, heavy traffic and the limited number of parking spaces also contributed to declining numbers of the faithful visiting the old wooden mosque.

Despite the drop, the old mosque remained overcrowded especially during Friday prayers and that was the main reason why the floating mosque, the brainchild of Yang di-Pertua Negeri Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, came about.

Sarawak’s first floating mosque on the Sarawak River, with the State Legislative Assembly (DUN) Complex in the background.

The new Masjid India Kuching which has a capacity of 1,600 worshippers extends majestically over the Sarawak River. Apart from providing a more conducive place of workshop for Muslims, its design also complements other attractions such as the Darul Hana Bridge, Darul Hana Musical Fountain and State Legislative Assembly Complex on the opposite river bank.

If all goes to plan, the rejuvenated Old Masjid India Bandar Kuching which served the Muslim community as well as the business community of Gambir Street faithfully for almost two centuries will soon take its rightful place alongside these beautiful structures as one of the state’s most iconic historical landmarks. — DayakDaily