Mentiri comes of age

[I wrote the following article for the Golden Legacy column which was published on Brunei Times about three weeks ago.]

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IF ONE was to drive along Jalan Kota Batu, one can see that Kampung Mentiri is one of the biggest villages along that road. There are many homes in the village, especially if one was to include the housing estate developed by the Housing Development Department.

The large population is served by a secondary school, primary schools and two mosques, one in the housing estate and another older one. The number of shophouses is also increasing with more being built. The Mentiri Golf Club is also there. The area's main artery is a dual carriageway allowing the populace to travel to the capital in the shortest time possible.

But not many know that Kampung Mentiri has a long history and according to archaeological findings may stretch as far back as 700 years ago.

The findings were found at one of the more modern facilities in Kampung Mentiri: the Mengkubau Dam. The $30-million project covers 13.7 square kilometres. The catchment holds around 9.6 million cubic metres of fresh water and reaches a depth of around 28 metres.

During the construction of the dam in 1997, archaeologists were surprised to discover major finds that proved the area was inhabited as early as before the 12th century.

According to an article written in Berita Muzium published in the January-April 1998 edition, the archaeologists discovered broken vase shards from China dated from the Song Dynasty. Other shards discovered in the same area dated from around the 13th century to the 19th century. There were also remnants of shells found with the vases.

The same article also mentioned three old and no longer used graveyards in the area. These Muslim graveyards were known by the villagers and named as Kubur Sulasih and Kubur Bagunjai while a third was unnamed. In Kubur Sulasih, around 20 gravestones were found. However, in Kubur Bagunjai, there were only two gravestones — and both were for the one grave.

The existence of the graveyards showed that people were living in the area at that time. Nobody knows who the graveyards belong to.

The archaeologists paid close scrutiny to the two gravestones at Kubur Bagunjai. The two gravestones, or batu nisan, indicated the high status of the person buried.

In the older days, most graves would be marked with only one gravestone. Two gravestones indicated someone who was respected or held high status in the area when he died.

Among old graveyards discovered in Brunei, the two gravestones for Sultan Bolkiah's tomb was one of the few found so far.

The gravestones at Kubur Bagunjai were found to be the same design of another three gravestones found in other places in Brunei and dated around the 15th or 16th century.

A similar gravestone found in Jalan Residency showed that the grave belonged to a Brunei noble named Cheteria Pengiran Maharaja. So it is possible that the grave at Kubur Bagunjai would be of someone of an equivalent status.

It would be interesting if one can discover his name and how he ended up buried around Kampung Mentiri.

Most importantly, the discovery of this grave outlined how important Kampung Mentiri was in days gone by.

The history of the village's name is relatively recent. It is said that the name of Kampung Mentiri is derived from an old tall tree.

According to the older folks in the village, the trunk's girth was so big that it took six adults holding hands to reach around the tree. This tree was unique and said to have magical powers. It has to be said, however, that nobody today can identify this tree. A number of elder villagers stated that it used to be located at where the roundabout is now.

In the past, the village was known by many names. Previous monikers of Kampung Mentiri include Kampung Pancur Buluh, Kampung Batu Buluh, Kampung Kiau and Kampung Sungai Sinonok.

Almost all of the original inhabitants of the village were Kedayans. But since the village has opened up to the outside world, the village, similar to others in Brunei, now has other races staying there also.

The opening of the village to the outside world also meant the loss of the original inhabitants' main occupation, which was growing rice. By the 1970s, the production of rice in the village was virtually nil.

Many people from outside the village came and bought land, and today one can see concrete buildings rising up from where rice fields once covered the landscape.

In the mid-1940s, however, there were no concrete houses, the village elders recall. All the houses then were small and made of wood. These houses had stilts of bulian wood, split bamboo walls and nipah palm thatched roofs. Wells were dug to provide water for the villagers. Their produce of rice and other farm products were taken to Brunei Town to be sold.

The village lands were registered mostly in the 1930s, when the British Resident wanted to encourage land ownership, especially for growing rice and other farm produce.

Back then, though, other than the original inhabitants, not many other Bruneians wanted to go there.

There was no road linking the village even though the village is only about six kilometres from Muara and about 12 kilometres from Brunei Town. The only way out of the village was through the river, southwards to Brunei Town and northwards to Muara.

Even by the 1960s, when the road from Brunei Town had reached Muara, there was no road to Mentiri. Villagers going to Brunei Town hiked up to Bukit Sibanging and caught a bus along Jalan Muara.

The Jalan Kota Batu road linking Mentiri to Brunei Town was not completed until 1972. There were a number of developments that required the road to be completed. One was the Brunei Museum and the other was the need to connect to Dato Gandhi for the arrival of HM Queen Elizabeth's visit to Brunei that same year.

HMS Britannia docked at the jetty at Dato Gandhi as the Brunei Wharf was too shallow for the ship and the Muara Deep Water Port was not yet in use.

Despite the lack of roads, the government built a primary school in the village in 1962. Now, there is a secondary school and religious schools in the village.

A surau was built in the 1950s, but it was not until 1984 that a concrete mosque was built on a wakaf land. In the housing estate, there is now a bigger mosque.

In the 1970s, the village had only about four small grocery stores. By the mid-1980s, the number started increasing and today shophouses are still being built in the village. A department store now serves local shoppers, as does an international fast food outlet.

As each new modern facilities arrives, the village is slowly transforming itself into a new town. The villagers who used to own small wooden boats with seagull engines to go to Brunei Town now drive modern four-wheel-drive SUVs on a dual carriageway.

A far cry from barely 30 years ago, when the village was virtually inaccessible by road.

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