The Old Palace of Seri Menanti: One of the Malay architectural gems that still survives

The Old Palace of Seri Menanti
The Old Palace of Seri Menanti

The heritage building in Negeri Sembilan that I admire most is none other than the Old Palace of Seri Menanti.  The majestic grand timber palace oozes so much charm and character.  It is the living proof of the mastery of carpentry, craftsmanship and architectural skills belonging to Malay carpenters and craftsmen a century ago.

This magnificent five-storey palace was designed and built by two skillful local carpenters known only as Tukang Kahar and Tukang Taib.  Tukang in Malay literally means carpenter or craftsman but when it becomes a proper name and a title it indicates a highly skillful one. Its construction was started in 1902 and completed six years later in 1908.  The timber palace was built using tropical hardwood called chengal which was harvested from a forest in Bukit Pergai, Jelebu and transported about 64km to Seri Menanti.  No wonder it took 6 years to be completed.

The entire structure was raised on 99 chengal pillars including four main pillars rising up to 20 meter (65ft). Each pillar represents a warrior belonging in various groups or clans in Negeri Sembilan at that time whereas  the roof was made of ironwood.  More remarkable however is that the pillars were delicately and intricately carved with stylized images of flowers, holy verses from the Quran, geometric shapes and other abstract designs. The carving is noteworthy because the pillars are made of chengal wood, which is extremely tough to carve, easily dulling even the sharpest of blades.  One can only marvel at the patience and dedication of the craftsmen who had to deal with such a difficult material.

Another factor that makes this structure unique is it was constructed without using a single piece of metal nail or screw!  The construction method adopted especially in jointing the main frame of the building is called tebuk pasak in Malay (mortise and tenon) while the wooden panels were pieced together using dowels and rivets instead of metal nails or screws.


Mortise and Tenon
Mortise and Tenon
Upon completion in 1908, the palace served as the official residence of the seventh ruler, the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan Tuanku Muhammad Shah ibni Almarhum Tuanku Antah (1888-1933).  The first level of the palace was used for official functions, while the second level was used for private, family affairs.  The third floor of the palace was reserved for the Yang Di Pertuan Besar’s private apartments. The topmost fourth floor is known as the Tingkat Gunung, or Mountain Level, and once served as the ruler’s study and treasury, where only he could ascend. It was believed that Tuanku Muhammad Shah would watch his people toil in their rice fields during the day and enjoyed performances such as the chaklempong at night from this topmost floor.  And in addition to its uniqueness, at the apex of the structure is a projection type known as “open scissors” – this design style is rarely seen in Malaysia, and one of the few rare examples is the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur.

In 1926, the palace was the scene of the triennial mengadap (homage ceremony) attended by the British High Commissioner, Lawrence Guillemard.  This architectural masterpiece was occupied by Tuanku Muhammad Shah as the official residence until 1932 after which he moved to a new and bigger palace nearby which was made of bricks.  This palace has then been turned into a Royal Museum since 19 July, 1992.  It was recognised by the Malaysian Book of Records as the tallest wooden palace in Southeast Asia.

Contrary to popular belief that its architectural style was influenced by Minangkabau architecture, more recent studies found out that it is actually Negeri Sembilan Malay architecture.  Rosrita Nordin, Seri Menanti Palace royal museum antiquities curator, was reported by NST dated 16 December 20012 as saying that the architecture of the palace and the town was not Minangkabau but actually that of the Negeri Sembilan Malays. She added that the function of the palace followed the Malay tradition of having a serambi (main verandah), rumah ibu (main house), gajah menyusur or the way to the kitchen, all of which were absent in Minangkabau heritage. She said the fact had been uncovered following extensive research by local historians.

That’s what makes this architectural masterpiece more intriguing to be studied.  It is hoped that more architectural scholars and historians will come forward to contribute their inputs so as to further enlighten us on this priceless architectural and cultural heritage.  I am also glad to note that the government has put in its effort in preserving this structure of course with the help and permission from the Negeri Sembilan previous and current Yang di-Pertuan Besar. 

All the necessary care needs to be taken by the relevant authorities as the palace has shown early signs of decay.  The topmost floor called Tingkat Gunung (Mountain Level) is off-limits to visitors for safety reason as the structure is said to be not that strong anymore.  Despite using the toughest tropical timber called chengal, timber structure is more susceptible to fire, water, termite and neglect compared to its brick or concrete counterparts.  And this is worsened by the hot and humid tropical weather.  The present timber palace itself was built to replace an older, grander palace that was destroyed in a fire.  However, despite all the careful preservation work done on the Old Palace of Seri Menanti, eventually, inevitably, time will take its toll and Malaysia will lose another irreplaceable treasure.

To end on a more positive note, I was made to understand that the relevant authorities have started the process of applying for the UNESCO World Heritage Site status for this majestic structure.  The UNESCO World Heritage Site status is the due recognition befitting this treasured national heritage.


The Old Palace of Seri Menanti is located in the royal town of Seri Menanti in Kuala Pilah district, Negeri Sembilan.  It is only approximately 1-hour and 20-minute drive from Kuala Lumpur and approximately 30-minute to 45-minute drive from Seremban, the capital city of Negeri Sembilan.  If you are from Kuala Lumpur you have two options.  The first option is you can use PLUS Highway which starts from Sungai Besi Entrance and exit the highway at Senawang Interchange.  After exiting Senawang Interchange drive straight towards via the trunk road to Kuala Pilah but do watch out for the signboard as Seri Menanti is located before Kuala Pilah town. The second and a better option is choose the Kajang-Seremban Expressway (LEKAS) by driving to Kajang and from Kajang, the LEKAS Expressway takes you straight to the Jalan Kuala Pilah-Senawang junction (Paroi Interchange). From there, you can easily proceed via the trunk road to Sri Menanti and Kuala Pilah.


The Old Palace of Seri Menanti
The Old Palace of Seri Menanti

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The Old Palace of Seri Menanti

The Old Palace of Seri Menanti
The Old Palace of Seri Menanti

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