Penyengat Island: The origin of the Indonesian language

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(Photo: Freddy Wally)

IO – Not many people know that the origin of the Indonesian language, deriving from a root of the Malay language, emerged from a small island with an area of approximately 2,000 square meters, not far from the city of Tanjung Pinang, Bintan Island, Riau Islands. The name of the island is Penyengat or also known as Penyengat Inderasakti. It is actually fairly close to Batam, one of the boundaries between Indonesia and Singapore.

As a border island with a strong historical layer, Penyengat is not only frequented by residents. At certain times a group of travelers from neighboring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia comes to the island to visit the graves of their ancestors on the 850 meter-wide-island.

To visit Penyengat, the trip starts from the Tanjung Pinang crossing pier, using a motorized boat called a pompong by locals, for only 15 minutes. If sunny, this island can be seen from the city of Tanjung Pinang. Many places on Penyengat Island have strong historical marks and ultimately shaped Indonesia as it is today. One of the most important historical strokes is that the island once gave birth to the famous Malay writer, Raja Ali Haji. Through his thoughts, expressed in the literacy of Gurindam 12, Indonesian was born.

The idea of Raja Ali Haji, who is legendary and also known as an ancient Malay writer, was later rewarded by the Indonesian government by being named one of its National Heroes. Raja Ali Haji is the grandson of Raja Haji Fisabilillah, Yang Dipertuan Muda IV from the Lingga-Riau Sultanate. Raja Haji Fisabilillah is also said to have carried blood of the Bugis tribe. Their ancestors sailed to Sumatra in the early 18th century and later settled on Penyengat Island. Now the name Raja Haji Fisabilillah is immortalized as the name of the airport in Tanjung Pinang, Bintan Island. The popularity of Raja Ali Haji and his love for the Malay language was written in a book entitled “The Book of Language Knowledge” which was later established at the Youth Pledge in 1928 as the unified national language, Indonesian.

In Penyengat, to commemorate the important service of Raja Ali Haji, who was born in 1808 in Selangor (now a territory of Malaysia), there is a Malay Language Monument founded on the consensus of 12 Malay cultures in 2010. Raja Ali died in 1873 and was buried on Penyengat Island. The tomb of Raja Ali can also be visited by tourists. There is a poetic inscription on the headstone.

Apart from the memories of the origin of the Indonesian language as we know it today, Penyengat Island keeps its history intact. One of the things that will welcome visitors when they debark at the pier is the greatness of the Sultan Riau Grand Mosque which is dominated by bright green and yellow colors. It is said that this magnificent mosque building is only made of a mixture of white chalk, sand, and egg whites.

The mosque was originally built by Sultan Mahmud in 1803. Then, during the reign of Yang Dipertuan Muda VII Raja Abdurrahman, in 1832 the mosque was renovated. The main building of this mosque measures 18 x 20 meters and is supported by 4 concrete pillars.

At each corner of the building, there is a tower where Bilal made the call to prayer. In the building of the Sultan Riau Mosque, 13 domes are uniquely shaped like onions. The total number of minarets and domes at the Sultan Riau Mosque is 17, symbolizing the number of obligatory prayer cycles five times a day and night.

On the left and right of the front of the mosque, there is also an additional building called Rumah Sotoh or meeting place. In the mosque, there are two handwritten Al-Quran which are neatly stored.

One of the holy books of Muslims is the result of the handwriting of Abdurrahman Stambul, a resident of Penyengat Island who was sent by the Lingga Kingdom (the former government of Penyengat Island) to Egypt to deepen his knowledge of Islam. This Al-Quran by Abdurrahman was completed in 1867.

Another example of architecture that should not be missed is the Palace Office, in the Palace of Yang Dipertuan Muda Riau VIII Raja Ali (ruled 1844-1857), also known as Marhum Kantor. Besides being used as a residence, the palace which was built in 1844 also functioned as an office for Raja Ali.

The Palace Office measures 110 square meters and occupies an area of about one hectare with a large courtyard; the entire area is surrounded by walls almost 3 meters high. Even though it looks worn in several areas, the remaining structure still shows the splendor of the past.

Another example of architecture that would be a pity to miss is the Balai Adat, a replica of the traditional Malay house that once existed on Penyengat Island. Balai Adat is a typical Malay stilt house made of wood, used to welcome guests or host banquets for important people. In this museum-like building, we can see the layout, books of Malay literature, and various art attractions that are used to entertain guests.

Interestingly, at the bottom of the Balai Adat there is a freshwater well which is said to have been drawn on for centuries and until now the water is still flowing and can be drunk immediately. At Balai Adat, visitors can also try traditional Riau Malay clothing which is beautiful and has a bright variety, known as Kabaya Labuh. For photo spots wearing traditional clothes, there is a royal throne background similar to a wedding chapel and also a unique row of traditional wooden windows.

Having a unique name makes Penyengat Island, which was also known as Mars Island during the Dutch colonial period, indeed an important educational tourist destination when you travel around Batam Island or Bintan Island.

Amid  the COVID-19 pandemic situation, it is better to continue to follow the applicable health protocol rules if you want to get around Penyengat Island. Apart from walking around this small and beautiful island, using a rental bicycle is also  the best option. Don’t forget to always wear head protection or sunscreen because some points on Penyengat Island are very hot. (Freddy Wally)