Pulau Penyengat (Wasp Island), a stretch of land of 2500 by 750 metres, is located in the bay just across Tanjung Pinang. In the 19th century this island was inhabited by about 9,000 people and it once was the cultural capital of the Malay world for a short time. About sixty books were written here, among them the famous Tuhfat al-Nafis, a Buginese-Malay historical story by Raja Ali Haji, and the rulers of the island were known as strong islamic and well-educated people.
At the end of the 18th century Penyengat was an outpost in the line of defence, created around Bintan, by the Buginese underking of haji. A that time, the Malay sultanate Johor was ruled by Buginese rulers, which demanded the throne by marriages and cultural influence in the Malay elite. In 1804 sultan Mahmud of Johor gave Penyengat to his Buginese wife, Raja Hamidah, as part of the bridal treasure. What he in fact did, is splitting up the small archipelago. Her son ruled over the Riau islands from Penyengat after that, and his half brother ruled over Lingga in the south.
This separation between two rivalising brothers was easily exploited by Stamford Raffles in 1819. In trade for protection by the British crown and a big bag of money he took him over to appoint the island of Singapore to him forever. Partially as a result of this, the next century that followed, became the Golden Century for Penyengat. It was governed by a developed Buginese elite and financially supported by the English. It used the rich, islamic Malay cultural heiritage and attracted wise guys from as far as Mecca.
Now, about 2,000 Malay live on Penyengat, many of them descend from the Buginese-Malay royal family of the 18th and 19th century. This is a fascinating location to visit, not only because of the nice mosque and the remains of the 19th century colonial houses, but also to relax and taste the live in Malay villages. A network of paved roads runs zig-zag over the island, and with a little fantasy, you will go back in time rapidly.
Penyengat is to be reached by motorized sampan from the main pier in Tanjung Pinang in 15 minutes. The late afternoon is the best time for a visit, because it can be very hot in the afternoon. The warm afternoon sun also creates a game of lights over the ruins and mosque, which makes them even better. Have a walk over the island after three o'clock and don't hurry to see everything.
A trip on foot
Penyengat has two main piers; ask to be dropped at the left one. At the end of the pier a path towards the right will bring you to an attractive kampung along the coast; too bad, many of the old wooden houses are being replaced by white concrete ones. A few hundred metres ahead a path to the left heads to the graver of Engku Puteri (Raja Hamidah), the original Buginese 'owner' of Penyengat. Her grave is seen as keramat (miracle-prone) and is visited by people who are asking for help or for doing a wish. They do this by tieing a yellow cloth to the gravestone (yellow is the color of the Malay royal family). Outside the mausoleum is the 19th century wise man and historicus of Raja Ali Haji, a grandson of Raja Haji and author of Tuhfat al-Nafis (The Precious Gift), an detailed history of the Malay world from the 17th to the 19th century, which was used for prooving his right to occupy the Malay throne. On Penyengat he is also known for his gurindam duabelas, twelve short poems with islamic character.
Turn back to the main path and walk ahead along the ruins of the house of the main doctor. Turn left onto a path that leads to the other side of the island, and go left again to climb Bukit Kursi (Chair Hill). On top of the hill is the grave of Raja haji, which ruled over this area in the 18th century. He was killed by the Dutch in Malakka in 1784. His remains were replaced to Penyengat in the 19th century, on the condition that his grave would not become a place of pilgrimage. That's why they placed the grave of an respected islamic wise man, Habhb Syaik, next to it, so it was not suspicious anymore. Close to the grave is an authentical, egg-shaped Buginese gravestone from the 18th century.
After that, walk towards the southern coast of the island to have a look near the remains of the palace of Raja Abdurrahman. Further to the east is the earlier house of Raja Ali Haji. More towards the west is the sad remainder of an 'English landhouser', complete with ironwork decorations above the main entrance, which belonged to Tungku Bilek (Miss Room), named this way because she always spend her time in her room. The trip will also take you along the new Balai Adat room, which is used during ceremonial events, and a small fishing village. In the 19th century, the inhabitants of the island lived here, with an open view on the south; in a later stadium the Dutch forced the rulers to move towards the side of Tanjung Pinang, where they could be controlled better.
Now go to the north, along the palace of Raja Ali, a orthodox islamic follower. Make a short detour towards his grave, and the one of his dad, Raja Jafaar. Raja Ali forbade gambling and chicken fights, meeting of unmarried men and women, carrying gold and silk. He paid wise men to teach in a mosque, and even appointed a morning guard to be sure that his people woke up on time for the morning prayer. His covered grave is painted in a bright yellow color, and has two basins with water.
The palace of Raja Ali a little ahead along this path has became a ruin which is covered with rainforest again, but it is being restored piece by piece. The south entrance has a nice porch with along it's both sides two curls with European, Arabian, Jawanese and Indonesian motives. There used to be a channel from here to the river, but this was later filled again because of the mosquito's. Have a walk on the terrain of the guardtower and climb it for a splendid view.
At the end of the path is the green with yellow royal mosque. The mosque, which was completed in 1884, is supported from the inside (on Jawanese way of construction) by four big pillars and has four Moghul minarets, reachable by steep stairs. The roof has thirteen domes which should perfectly match on an European-style castle. From a distance, this mosque can be places on one of Disney's stories.
The white of thousands of egg was mixed with chalk to create the fine concrete which is used for building the mosque. The beautifull woodcarved closets near the entrance contain islamic books from India, Caïro, Mecca and Medina. A nice quran from the 17th century is behind glass for displa; watch the glass chandeliers and the fine woodcarved nimbar of speechchair in the main hall. This mosque was an important centre of islamic Malay science in the 19th century. When entering a mosque, dress properly, long sleeves on both trousers and blouses, no skirts for the women. Women in their period are not allowed to enter any mosque.
A track right of the mosque ends near the common well, with on the left side an attractive, chalked stone bathing pavilion. When it's not in use, you can have a look inside at the source and the stone seats. Go back to the mosque and turn right just after the shops, onto a wide and shadowy path. One hundred metres ahead is a gunpowder room dating from the 18th century. This was the place where the gunpowded of the three fortresses was kept.
Walk further onto the hill to a big graveyard and have a look at the grave of Abdurrahman, the 15th century Yamtuan Muda (Buginese underking) which ordered the construction of the mosque. Along the left side a stair leads to an astonishing ruin of a stone fortress. This was constructed at the end of the 18th century by Raja Haji to divert the attack of the Dutch on the River Riau in 1873. The visitor is welcomed by two cannons which have been found during the latest restaurations. The fortress offers a view over Bintan and the sealane towards the east. From here, a short trip to the pier near the mosque, for the boat to Tanjung Pinang.