Friday, August 20, 2010

St. Paul's Church & the Lure of the Hill - Melaka Part 6

St. Paul's Hill from Jalan Kota

Man and altitude are strange bedfellows. We always seek ways to go higher, test our limits and endurance to ascend. But man has been destined to the pull of gravity, and anything that takes us away from it is designed to be arduous. Is it any wonder why Asia and much of the far east are seeking ways to conquer the skies? Towers are rising like mushrooms from Shanghai’s Pudong and Taipei’s Xinyi District, to the arid geography of an emirate country. Even during the time of kings, there was “perceived might” in escalations. Otherwise, why would Sigiriya’s King Kassapa I (477 AD) favor an elaborate palace above a steep 1,214 feet (370 meters) mound arising abruptly from a flat plane in Sri Lanka’s Matale district.

Perhaps it is man’s attempt to approximate the might of God? I am suddenly reminded of the Tower of Babel and how it came about when a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, came to the land of Shinar. They resolved to build a city with a tower - the Tower of Babel - "with its top in the heavens...lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the Earth." God, probably sensing their insolence, came down to see what they did and said: "Come, let us go down and confound their speech." Thus humanity is scattered upon the face of the Earth, and confused their languages. Then a million languages and races abound in the face of the earth.

Is it ungodly and blashemous to unite the nations and speak a common language? It is a debatable concept.

Biblical narratives aside, men seeks homology with the heavens, taking pains in climbing that which is onerous and toilsome to conquer. Elevation affords us a sense of triumph and a different perspective: it imparts to us the chance to view our world from a broader scope. Such power exhilarates the soul.

St. Paul’s Church is perched on a hill (St. Paul’s Hill) and though climbing up the top is hardly Sigiriya-caliber, it entails a degree of stamina. The rightful entrance is through an old Portuguese Fort called Porta de Santiago directly facing Jalan Kota where canons guard the fa├žade. Entry into the cloistered fort will reveal vendors selling hand-painted drawings, at 10 ringgit a piece (or 2 for 15 ringgit). Though the coat of arms is a Dutch addition, the whole structure is Portuguese.


Porta de Santiago was one of the 4 main gateways into the Portuguese fortress of A’ Famosa. Alfonso de Albuquerque, leader of the Portuguese army that conquered Melaka in 1511, started the construction of A’ Famosa in 1512 from which they fended off attacks by the armies of the Sultan of Melaka and Aceh for over a century!

The squarish fort surrounding Melaka Hill had walls 3 meters thick, using parts from demolished palaces, mausoleums and mosques. A 40-meter high watch tower once stood in the northwest corner of the fortress. All these employed slave labor for its construction. The Dutch enlarged the fort but not by much, placing their “VOC” and coat of arms on it. But it was actually the British that almost completely obliterated the fortress in 1795 for fear it might be used against them. In 1807, the British, under resident William Farquhar, used gunpowder to blow-up the fort. With the intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles and Lord Minto, this was prevented. The fort stood in shambles until it was gazetted as a historical site in May 1977.

Porta de Santiago

Art works being sold inside.

Dutch coat of arms

One of the art works I bought from Porta de Santiago. I bought 3 during my first visit, then another 3 from my last visit. Some are watercolor-painted; others pencil drawn at 10 ringgit a piece, or 15 ringgit for 2.


Ascending up the hill is through a gradual rise of well-paved steps with hand rails, so if you’re in crutches or a wheel chair, it would be quite an climb for those who will carry you. It is not an easy endeavor for those with weak knees either, and stamina is required for the climb.

But once on top of the hill, you are greeted with cool winds and a spectacular vista that encompasses the bluest seas from the Strait of Malacca, red-roofed buildings and the mushrooming edifices down below, the Eye on Melaka, the Revolving Tower and everything else that you can identify. It is by no means my singular favorite spot in the whole of Melaka!

The southern view midway from the top of the hill. To the left is the Independence Building, while to the right is Dataran Pahlawan Mega Mall (blue dome). The yellowish building beside it wasn't there at my 1st visit. In fact, I took a 7 ringgit lunch from a small "carinderia" that lined a street full of ramshackle stores. Nowadays, the same street is lined by a posh hotel (Equatorial) and elegant shops (as part of the Mega Mall).

The western view: the Strait of Malacca, Eye on Melaka and Menara Taming Sari (Revolving Tower).

Strait of Malacca


Perched at the apex is a Portuguese church which was originally a small chapel constructed by a Portuguese Captain – Duarte Coelho – in 1521, ten years after Portugal conquered the city. He called it “Our Lady of the Hill”. After handing it over to the “Society of Jesus”, the chapel was enlarged and a second storey was constructed, renaming it as “The Annunciation”.

When the Dutch took over Melaka, they had no place of worship. They renamed the church to “St. Paul’s Church” where for 112 years, they held their mass, until they were able to construct their own – Christ Church, completed in 1753.

The British didn’t use the church as a place of worship. We are familiar with their deference to religious authority: if rules from a religion won’t allow them certain liberties, then they shall establish a new religion to fit their lifestyles. Henry VIII, anyone? Poor Anne Boleyn! Under their rule, what was once a sacred place of worship became storage room for their gun powder!

Front of St. Paul's Church

These days, the church is an empty shell, with giant slabs to remind us that during the rule of the Dutch, this became a burial ground. Another historical significance is that St. Francis Xavier’s body was temporarily interred here before it was taken to Goa, India.

St. Francis Xavier was a pioneering Roman Catholic missionary born from an aristocratic family in Spain. He would become one of the founders of the “Society of Jesus”, better known as the Jesuits. While traveling in China (at Shangchuan Island), he developed a “fever” that would eventually take his life. His remains was transferred at St. Paul’s Church in Melaka – at an open grave , now adequately gated. His remains stayed in Melaka for 2 years! This “burial ground” now looks like a dried-up well filled with coins. Catholics - and even Muslim visitors - would throw coins and wish on them. From Melaka, St. Francis Xavier’s remains were exhumed and moved back to Goa – at the Basilica of Bom Jesus. The saint is, however, not spared from criticism and ridicule. In his time, he made it a point not only to convert the people, but also to destroy the idols and their ancient places of worship.

As humans, we all have our Achilles heel, even the saints. If they were perfect, their stories would have been less fascinating. That we look up to them as we are made aware of their human flaws is really a testament of men’s ability to fine tune our vulnerabilities and shortcomings. That each sunrise is an opportunity to better ourselves.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Up next: Images from the hill!

St. Francis Xavier: He was influential in the spreading and upkeep of Catholicism most notably in India.

A saint's burial ground: filled with coins! It has become a dried-up wishing well of sorts.

Frau Van Riebeck's grave stone.

St. Francis Xavier: Born from a Spanish aristocrat family; student of St. Ignatius Loyola.

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