Istana Balai Besar, or the Palace with the Great Hall, is one of the oldest palaces in Malaysia. Located on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula in Kota Bharu, this palace was the residence of the local northern Malay Sultanate. Sultan Muhammad II (1839-1886) built Istana Balai Besar in the early 1840s when he decided to move to the province of Kelantan from the island of Saba, where the royal palace was threatened by natural erosion.
The palace complex set the prototype for subsequent palaces on the east coast, which consist of six areas: the porch (arijung), the audience hall (balai besar), the main house (rumah ibu), the middle house (rumah tengah), the kitchen area (rumah dapur) and the veranda (jemuran basah). At the Istana Balai Besar the private apartments are quite modest in relation to the audience hall designated as the sultan's reception area. However, these lesser pavilions are for the most part raised above the ground on piles, as was common regional practice, whereas the audience hall was uniquely built on the ground. The audience hall itself is spanned by a tripartite roof of various inclinations supported by columns. The central, highest roof is supported by a column five meters high. Though the multitiered roof resembles the Javanese style, the space traditionally left between the roofs for circulation and light in Java are not present at Istana Balai Besar. The roof is further distinguished by its polygonal roof extending forward from the hall over the porte-cochere porch. The corner junction of the roof ridges join in a feature locally referred to as pungung itik or duck's tails. Covering the roof are flat, red tiles called "Patini tiles", referencing their resemblance to the tiles produced in the southern Thai province.
Until the 1980s, the entire timber structure was whitewashed but for some light green detailing found on the exterior walls and the gates of the high wooden fortress-like wall which surround the complex. In the 1980s however, the Malaysian Department of Museums and Antiquities replaced some of the timber from the fortress wall which had been damaged by flooding and repainted the wall and gates a dark brown with gold detailing. Much of the original decoration is found in the woodwork itself, including designed paneling and embossed piercing, or tebuk timbul, found in the interior.
In 1855, Sultan Muhammad II built a house in the complex solely for the production of golden flowers, which the Sultanate was obligated to provide annually to the government of Siam (present day Thailand) under whose suzerainty Kelantan was loosely incorporated. This 30 by 17 foot structure with six doors at the back of the complex was said to house artisans who crafted the flowers.
Chen Voon Fee, ed. 1998. The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Volume 5: Architecture. Archipelago Press, 36, 40-41, 60.
Dumarcay, Jacques. 1991. The Palaces of South-East Asia: Architecture and Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 76.