The ironsmiths of Pekan Darat
Preserving an amazing apprenticeship culture of more than 150 years
Somewhere off a quiet rural road in a secluded area known as Pekan Darat (literally translated, “the town on land”) is an unassuming little village unheard of by the outside world. Nothing much really seems to stand out as one enters Permatang Benuan among the small houses and huts that lie scattered around. One sees chickens scuttling about and children playing in the neighbourhood.
The atmosphere appears monotonous – except when the sounds of clanging and rattling sometimes ring out, quavering the placidity of the village, from a number of workshop sheds that are sited here.
Within these sheds are metal craftsmen busily forging away blades of various shapes and sizes for sickles, chisels, axes, knives, cleavers and choppers. The items will be sold across farmlands, plantations and hamlets in the northern Seberang Perai district.
One would not think of these ironsmiths as being anything out of the ordinary until one finds out that they have been operating here under an amazing apprenticeship tradition that has endured for more than 150 years. The ironsmiths of Pekan Darat, as they are known, hail from an unbroken professional lineage since the early 1800s when northern Seberang Perai was ruled by the ancient Kedah Sultanate.
In the olden days, though, their predecessors were better known for making weapons like daggers, swords, arrowheads and lances. In fact, based on records, the Sultan of Kedah appointed these blacksmiths specifically to manufacture weapons for his royal army to attack the British who were occupying Penang island and lands south of the Muda River.
They are also said to have made weaponry that included cannonballs for the Kedah army to fight against Siamese invading forces during a protracted war from 1821 to 1842.
The ironsmiths today still make weapons, such as the traditional Malay dagger the keris, for ceremonial and ornamental use when there are orders. They are in fact now among the last few makers of traditional Malay iron weaponry in peninsular Malaysia.
However, the bulk of their work, which has kept their profession surviving all this while, is from the agricultural sector. Their skills in crafting iron tools and implements are in high demand from communities who ply in the vast paddy fields, fruit farms and estates of oil palm and rubber trees, to keep the ironsmiths going for many decades.
There are now about twenty skilled men who have inherited the professional talent. A strong apprenticeship scheme has ensured that the secrets of the Pekan Darat ironsmiths continue to be safeguarded and put to use.
Written by Himanshu Bhatt
Photographs by Adrian Cheah