Remembering Dato Koyah, miracle worker of Penang

Then and now – a postcard from the 1900s and the restored mausoleum today.

GEORGE TOWN: The legend of Dato Koyah is one full of intrigue. He is said to have built roads all on his own, cured the sick with medicine conjured from leaves and presented children with sweets pulled out of thin air.

On Sunday, a mausoleum built in his honour at Transfer Road here will be reopened after having undergone a RM1.2 million restoration.

“Penang’s Indian Muslims fondly remember him,” said Dato Koyah Heritage Association secretary Adam Malik Shahul Hamid. “Our mothers used to narrate the tale of Koyah’s mysticism to us as a bedtime story.”

A wooden enclosure with carvings of religious names surrounds the tomb of Dato Koyah.

The three-year conservation effort was supported by Think City, a Khazanah Nasional agency that funded a third of the cost. The remaining amount was funded by donors from the Indian Muslim community.

“We have now engaged people to search the British Library in London for any records on Koyah, anything at all to know him better,” he told FMT.

The mausoleum was previously in disrepair, with the walls starting to crack. It was largely ignored and a row of roti canai stalls sprouted at its entrance.

Window portals from the 1800s have been preserved to allow cross-ventilation.

Dato Koyah Heritage Association president Abdul Rashid Masooth and Adam Malik were in charge of the restoration, carried out with the help of a professional conservator, Gwynn Jenkins. “We used the same materials employed some 200 years ago,” he said.

Adam said the restoration was so accurately done that they even cut down 18,000 normal-sized bricks to just two inches (5cm) in height as those were the type of bricks commonly used in the 19th century.

The timber in the building’s roof and trusses was also nearly authentic, with 160-year-old “cengal emas” first-grade wood put in place there.

The Dato Koyah shrine at Transfer Road was built to honour the holy ascetic who lived in the early 1800s.

“We had trouble looking for two pieces of wood for the flat roof. We were told that they were impossible to find,” he said. “And just a few days later, we were told that wood was available from an out-of-service 130-year-old cruise ship in Lumut. I think it is Dato Koyah’s miracle,” he added.

Adam said much of Koyah’s identity is yet to be known. There are no pictures of him and the exact date of his passing is uncertain.

“All we know is that he died on the fifth day of the Safar month on the Islamic calendar. A 10-day feast and prayers are held on that date every year,” he said.

Works to remove the outer layer of the building in 2015 to make way for restoration.

Oral tradition has it that Syed Mustapha Idris, as Koyah was then known, had sailed to Penang in the early 1800s upon being exiled from Kerala in India where he was wrongly accused of abetting in a murder.

He became known as a holy mendicant who performed miracles, curing the sick, helping the poor and unfortunate, and feeding large crowds from just a small earthen pot of porridge.

His fame grew as a “fakir” or “koyah”, a religious ascetic who lived solely on alms. He rested below a large tree from which he would pluck leaves to turn into remedy.

A temporary roof was constructed to cover the tomb while the roof was replaced for restoration.

British astounded by his feat

At one point Koyah was jailed for demonstrating against the British colonial administration for beating convict labourers.

In the 19th century, many buildings and roads, including the present state police headquarters, were built by Malabari convict labourers.

He was arrested with the labourers but was seen walking free the next day, while the road that was being built was miraculously completed.

Workers chiselling away old lime plasters on the exterior of the building.

The British then used his help to build several difficult roads.

After he died, the colonial administration provided a piece of land near the tree for a mausoleum in his honour.

Dato Koyah Road adjacent to the land was also named after him.

Nearly 2,000 normal-sized bricks were cut to 2 inches to replace damaged walls.

Since then, many have come to the site to seek his intercession for their problems. It also became a spiritual gathering place for Indian Muslims.

Visitors often came to the shrine on Thursdays and recited yassin prayers. Fresh flowers would be placed around his tomb.

An old postcard from the 1900s showing the mausoleum of Dato Koyah in its original state.

Today, the structure is listed as a Category I heritage building, another distinctive feature of George Town as a Unesco-listed heritage city.

Adam said the building was uniquely designed with the walls having portal windows and plastered using lime to allow cross-ventilation. It would be cool inside even on the hottest day, he said.

A “maulud” prayer session will be held at 10am on Sunday. State executive councillors Chow Kon Yeow and Abdul Malik Abul Kassim are expected to officiate at the reopening.

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