Discussion Notes: Researching riots and processions in the 19th century

As part of our efforts to encourage research for the upcoming blogging initiative, O for Other, we recently organised a reading seminar on ‘Riots and Processions in 19th Century Straits Settlement’. The reading seminar was facilitated by Simon Soon (Malaysia Design Archive and the Visual Art Program, Cultural Centre, University of Malaya) together with Syukri Shairi (Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia).

19th-century colonial Straits Settlements were port cities that attracted people from different parts of the world. As a result, cities were also sites of constant negotiations and contestations over many different understandings of space. This seminar will explore riots and processions as cultural events that characterized the colonial port city’s sensorial modernity. This will be discussed principally in relation to the ‘Taboot’ or ‘Tabut’. 

‘O’ for Other is a blogging project co-organised by
Malaysia Design Archive
Imagined Malaysia
Visual Art Program, Cultural Centre, University of Malaya

‘O’ for Other is a recipient of the 2018 INXO Arts Fund 

Did you happen to miss this workshop? Keep reading to find out what our discussion entailed  👇 :


Figure 1 Opening and final lines of Syair Tabut. Courtesy of University Library Leiden, ref. KL 191 (a and b).

The ‘Tabut’ refers to effigies constructed to represent the tombs of the imams Hasan and Hussein which were paraded during Muharram celebrations. These are often thought of as a ‘Shia’ processional ritual but was in fact also arguably a cultural practice widespread amongst Sunni Muslims prior to orthodox reformation in the early 20th century. The reading seminar hopes to consider the Tabut in relation to questions of control and misrule in the colonial ordering of space by examining visual materials, colonial archives, and local textual sources.   

In addition, reading the ‘Tabut’ also allows us to consider the ‘Tabut’s relationship to cross-ethnic secret societies, riots that took place across 19th-century colonial port cities, the emergence of Boria as minstrel troupe in the urban kampungs of Penang. We also hope to consider the Tabut’s relationship to Chingay processions, organized by the Chinese communities for the veneration of either Mazu (Taoist Sea Goddess) or Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara).  

About the readings

Figure 2 ‘View of a“Tabut”(shrine) procession by Shia followers’. Source: E. Schlitter, Erinnerungen an Singapore 1858. Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board, accession no.HP–0064–S.17

 The three texts for required reading were:   

  • ‘One story ends and another begins’: Reading the Syair Tabut of Encik Ali by David Lunn and Julia Byl (here).

This is the first treatment of a hitherto unknown text, a hybrid lithograph-manuscript from 1864 called the Syair Tabut, or ‘Poem of the tomb effigies’, by Encik Ali. The only known copy of the Syair, held at Leiden University in the Klinkert collection, and transcribed and translated by Byl, Iskandar, Lunn, and McCallum (2017), describes the Muharram commemorations at Singapore that year. As the poet describes the procession and its consequences, he reveals much about inter-community participation in this ritual event. Significantly, the 1864 Muharram procession ended with an altercation that resulted in the banning of the ritual by the colonial government, and led to two major court cases on native culpability and police corruption. Encik Ali’s poem offers an alternative perspective, conditioned by the wide-ranging vocabulary and conventions of Muharram, a vivid description of diverse performances and events, a knowledge of Singapore’s urban geography, and the parameters of Malay poetry.

  • The Syair Tabut of Encik Ali: A Malay account of Muharram at Singapore, 1864 by Julia Byl, Raja Iskandar bin Raja Halid, David Lunn & Jenny McCallum (here).

This is an annotated transcription and translation of the Syair Tabut (Poem of the Tomb Effigies) of Encik Ali, a Malay-language, Jawi-script syair account of the Muharram commemorations of 1864 at Singapore. The only known part lithograph and part manuscript of this text, on which this edition is based, is held in the library of Leiden University, shelfmark Kl. 191. For a full discussion of this Syair, see the accompanying article by Lunn and Byl (2017).

  • Boria Muharram: Antara Kreativiti dan Masyarakat Melayu di Pulau Pinang Abad Ke-19 dan Ke-20 by Mahani Musa (here).

Antara dekad pertama abad ke-19 sehingga pendudukan Jepun merupakan satu tempoh yang penting dalam sejarah perkembangan boria. Namun aspek menarik ini jarang sekali disentuh dalam kajian-kajian tentang boria. Persembahan boria dalam tempoh ini dikenali sebagai boria Muharram kerana dimainkan bersempena sambutan Muharram. Bermula sebagai satu bentuk upacara keagamaan, borio Muharram lama-kelamaan bertukar corak menjadi satu kegiatan budaya dengan mempamerkan kreativiti seni yang tinggi dengan segenap aspek persembahan. Namun, yang lebih penting dan jarang pula ditinjau ialah boria Muharram juga mewakili sikap serta pemikiran orang Melayu Pulau Pinang terhadap sasiah sosioekonomi dan politik mereka sebelum merdeka.

  • Witnessing Fun: Tamil-speaking Muslims and the Imagination of Ritual in Colonial Southeast Asia by Torsten Tschacher (here). 

Beginning in the late 19th century, Tamil-speaking Muslims in Southeast Asia began to utilize print media to put forward and content diverse visions of identity and belonging. Religion played an important role in the discourse generated by these media, and shifting images of Muslim ritual were part of the way in which Tamil-speaking Muslims created public spaces for themselves in the Southeast Asian environment. Investigating these images is therefore a useful entry into studying wider socio-cultural transformations, underway among Tamil-speaking communities in colonial Southeast Asia. 

Summary of comments

Figure 3 ‘Shia Muslim procession to celebrate Muharram’, postcard, late 19th century. Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board, accession no. XXXX–00423. 

– Tschacher says something completely different from Anderson on print capitalism. According to Anderson, the printing press spreads ideas of the nation. But Tsacher says there is another part of the story, which is the role of printing press to tell religious events, rituals and practices. It conveys different identity formations, it can be communal, sectarian or multiracial. It can even be geographically varied.

– The Muslim elite offer a different account of religious public life in contrast to British colonial records. This would be through poetry, according to Tshcacher. From local accounts, we see less divisions within the community but for the British, they perceived antagonisms between different groups.

– These events are very different from the early 20th century nationalism that dominates discourse. The tabut processions transformed into borias which became vehicles for Malay nationalism, prominent social issues and reaffirmation of locality. 

– Boria could be compared to fancy colonial elite balls where officers would dress up in costumes eg. as noted in The Selangor Journal. The power to transform themselves based on fixed knowledge of race and culture of the colonized. The Boria in a way could be form of parody towards the balls. It cannot be a protest or resistance in response to the balls. 

– Even the disenfranchized, the most marginalized of natives could transform themselves through Boria, which is more like an appropriate of the balls. This could be a way of creating tension and anxiety for the colonizers because they are not conforming to the fixed images. 

– Why did the British fear the ‘secret societies’? Is it because they are not able to rationalize the way in which these groups organize labour? But it most likely felt threatened by interethnic solidarity that was evident in secret societies. 

– After the Penang Riots 1867, the language and tone of the British administration was very harsh. They felt the British law should be the only law on the Malay land, and impose punishments. During the 1860s, it was a lot of scapegoating of Chinese because of they make up the majority in these secret societies (refer back to Taming Babel by Rachel Leow).

A Tazia carrying procession in 1790-1800 by Shia Muslims on Ashura (Muharram) in the Indian subcontinent (c. 1790-1800). The Tazia were immersed into river or ocean. Source: Wikipedia.

Useful resources (uber cool extras, just sayin’)

Depiction of a tabut procession in a palace during the India’s Mughal era. Source: Uday Arts

Thanks to our dear friend Simon for being extremely tech-savvy as an archivist and millenial historian, he shared with us some of his go-to websites that would be useful in seeking primary sources when embarking on research on the 19th century. Aaaaand we are glad to share them with you!  😍  😍  😍 

Did you find this captivating?

 You might be interested to undertake additional research and readings over the next month in preparation for the reading seminar. Some of the suggested materials are as follows:

  • Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia (Copies can be found on
  • Straits Times Archive (
  • Khoo Salma, The Chulias in Penang, Patronage and Place-Making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque, 1786–1957, Penang: Areca Books, 2014.
  • Anoma Peiris, ‘Secret Histories of the Colonial City: Penang Viewed through the 1867 Riots’, Penang and Its Networks of Knowledge, Penang: Areca Books, 2017
  • Jenny Mccallum, ‘Conflict and compromise over processional sound in 19th-century Singapore’, Indonesia and the Malay World, Volume 45, 2017 – Issue 133
  • Jan van der Putten, ‘Burlesquing Muharram processions into Carnivalesque Boria’, Shi‘ism in South East Asia: ‘Alid Piety and Sectarian Constructions, London: Hurst Publishers, 2015 (here)

FIN! Do you think we should write more discussion notes like these? Don’t forget to comment below to share some of your insights on this topic. We also hope this would make you want to geek out with us at future O for Other workshops.  🖖