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September 6, 2017

The Search for the Gardens of the Sultan

Tom McLaughlin

Santubong, Malaysian Borneo – The gardens of the Sultan were supposed to be a place where we could see plants planted around 1600 for the Sultan to enjoy. There were going to be flowering plants and fruit trees planted long ago.


My wife and I wanted to explore this paradise as recommended by the Dukun (person who acts as a medium between the spiritual and physical world. I know. I know) who we have been working with on the history of the area.


According to him, the wooden palace was built by the first Sultan of Sarawak, one Sultan Abdul Jallil, in the 1580's. It was later destroyed by the forces of Brunei around 1620.  We were looking for both.


We found the location of the Palace almost immediately. It was on a huge plat of land recently bulldozed by somebody for a housing estate. We walked across the land with our metal detector which occasionally sang, but we had forgotten our shovel to dig up whatever was there.


The Dukun showed us where the palace was next to an old, and I do mean old, tree. We looked for the well and espied a few sites on the possible location. The sites were two-deep-but-small craters with water in them close to the tree, which I guessed had once shaded the palace. There was no way of telling which one was the ancient well.


The view from the site of the rivers coming from the South China Sea was incredible. The Sultans could see any ship or canoe arriving from anywhere for trade or defense. One could readily understand why the palace had been built there.


Our next goal were the gardens. According to lore, we were able to mentally draw a line from the old tree we had seen at the former site of the palace to another very old tree diagonally across a road. This was the entrance to the garden.


We aimed for this tree but first had to slash through ferns which were waste high and contained hidden thorn bushes. My legs were bleeding from the scrapes. We entered the forest next to the huge tree and the cool relief flooded over us. I immediately started searching for the old plantings.


The Dukun led us up hill toward where he said was an old house/shack where a person lived until the mid-1970's. On the side of the hill a berm had been formed to shore up the land and to keep the house from sliding down the hill. There were old barrels for burning trash, an old white ceramic pot and hundreds of old bottles. The bottles were placed as steps that led down the hill forming the sides.


Sheikh Ismail, or Pak Pet in the local dialect, lived there as had his forefathers before him to tell the story of the palace and the Sultans that were once there. The Dukun said families had lived there for generations before him. He died childless, nobody to carry on the traditions.


As we climbed further, I looked desperately for any old plantings. My wife spotted a pokok Bunga Pudin plant. It was about the size of my forearm with three leaves on it. She said this species was never found in a location like this one. She also said the plants found today in the villages were not like those found here. The plant was used for mystical purposes.


When we dug into the soil we could see it was attached to a very large root. I asked the Dukun if there were any more fruit trees and he said yes, further up the hill. I said let’s go and find them. He wouldn't go. I suspect because Mount Santubong has mystical powers which he had not yet encountered.


We also found some recesses dug in the sides of the hill to hold water. The Dukun suggested it was the water holes for the Sultan to take his bath when prayer time rolled around. I could not tell if they were man made or natural.


What we did find were rubber trees of long ago but not harvested for their liquid. They were all in a row. Scattered among them were some fruit trees and a few of pudin plants as well as the usual jungle offerings. Fruit was collected by the locals for eating and sale along roadside stands.


From what I am able to piece together, the bull dozed field once had a well. The tree at the corner of the lot was saved possibly because of some mystical purposes. The wall at the south end was also destroyed by the machines, possibly to hide any historical significance of the site. The sites location was perfect for watching the comings and goings on the river. The oral history states this was the site. From what I am able to see, I have to agree.


The gardens were another story. People built the berm, not any easy task, to hold the land and to support a house. They also constructed steps out of left over bottles for people to come and visit.


There were pudin plants connected to ancient roots. A huge old tree marked the entrance to the gardens. Three places to hold water were either built or were natural. From oral history, this is the site of the famed gardens of the Sultans. I agree.


It is said that Sheikh Ismail, aka Pak Pet in the local dialect, and his ancestors waited for a person to come along and tell their story.


Pak Pet, here I am.


...Life is good. . . . .


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