Stories of Batu River from the City

There’s more to Kuala Lumpur’s mysterious river than flood.

It takes a village

Floods have always been a problem in the Malaysian peninsula. They were recorded extensively since the late 19th century, giving local rivers a fairly unpleasant reputation.

In 1881, bridges were swept off the Klang and Gombak rivers while 92 mud houses were destroyed.

In 1911, the Padang, now Dataran Merdeka, saw water levels higher than its goalposts.

In 1926, 50 hours of consecutive rain cut off access between different parts of the city.

But the 1971 floods killed 32 and left almost 200,000 homeless across the country. Rivers were beginning to seem unpredictable and dangerous so a RM111 million flood mitigation plan was implemented over the next two decades.

The plan gave the city immense control over its water supply and river flow. Part of it entailed the construction of Batu Dam, executed in 1984 and completed in 1987. Located 16 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur, the dam is built upon the confluence of Sungai Tua and Sungai Batu.

Though many parts of Kuala Lumpur were submerged during the 1971 floods, none crop up as frequently the iconic Dataran Merdeka when it came to news media and archive material.
Courtesy of the National Archives

By this point in time, only two other dams served the city. Klang Gates Dam, completed in 1959, supplied water to the city centre, while Langat Dam, completed in 1979, covered Cheras. Though bigger in capacity than the Klang Gates Dam, Batu Dam was smaller than its predecessor and it serviced the Gombak region.

The dam’s completion may have heralded an end to Kuala Lumpur's flood crises. Though flash floods continue to hit Kuala Lumpur, their scale remain a fraction of 1971 levels.

Batu Dam is now a vital water catchment for residents of the Klang Valley. It’s become a popular tourist destination too; the dam’s picturesque surface often scores mentions in local travel blogs and listicles.

Many have forgotten the village that once stood at the base of the dam. Kampung Sungai Tua was a small yet thriving community which existed by the Tua River. Founded by Sumatran settler Datok Empat Kalam, the village was mostly populated by men and women of Sumatran origin, and eventually had two schools, a paddy field, a rubber plantation, several fruit orchards and even a graveyard. Most of this was destroyed before the construction of the dam, but the village had been abandoned long prior.

In 1951, communist threats pushed the government into relocating the village to higher ground. The villagers proceeded to rename their village Kampung Sungai Tua Baharu after their short exodus. Kampung Sungai Tua Baharu currently sits between Batu Dam and Batu Caves, with close to 600 houses and also boasts amenities such as a community hall, a football field, and a women’s centre.

Only ghosts left around

Having lived close to Batu Dam for the past 10 years, Nizam is absolutely sure that water levels have depleted over time.

“There used to be tengas, sebarau, baung, temoleh, toman, ikan mata merah, ikan mata besar…” he recalls, an eye on his young daughter who ran into the house in response to strangers on the driveway. He was on his way to the mosque when he was interrupted with questions about Batu River. Decked in white prayer robes, he spoke while leaning against the boot of his car.

Though Batu River has transformed over the years, it remains a popular recreational spot with youth north of the city.

But was there kaloi?

“Yes, there used to be kaloi in the river, but I haven’t seen one in a long time.”

Nizam was rattling local names for native fish species. The Batu River like the rest of Kuala Lumpur’s waterways was once home to a vibrant selection of freshwater fish, most of them prized in Malay cuisine. Known in the West as the giant gourami, the kaloi is endemic to Southeast Asian rivers and lakes. It’s a fairly large fish which can exceed half a meter lengthwise. Kaloi has always been an important food fish in Malaysia for its size and availability, but sightings of wild specimens are becoming rarer by the day.

“Have you gone into the dam yet?” Nizam asks. “Just go up there and see if they’ll let you in. Otherwise go downstream to the kampung, people often fish there and they might be able to tell you more about the river.”

Nizam tucks his shoulder-length hair under his black songkok. He has to make his way, so he politely bids his farewell and starts the engine. His daughter runs out from the house. Also in white prayer robes, she jumps into the car. They leave as the azan reverberates in the air.

Further down the road by Jalan Nakhoda Kiri, three young boys lean precariously over the edge of a river’s high banks with fishing rods in their hands. A thin steel bridge, big enough for a single motorcycle to pass, connects Kampung Nakhoda to the Pinggiran Batu Caves bus station across the river. Every minute or so, a bike would make its way across the river, leaving just enough room to lean over the rails of the bridge.

Batu River is brown and muddy, measuring approximately 20 metres wide at this point. What could the children possibly catch in those waters?

“Tilapia” yells one of the boys back. He had a fishing rod in one hand and a net in the either. He looked very determined.

From Batu Dam to Kampung Nakhoda, Batu River runs close to squatter residences, animal farms, an inert landfill, and a sewage treatment plant. It also absorbs the flows of two smaller tributaries coming in from the direction of Gombak and Rawang.

Sungai Batu was once the habitat of a wide variety of creatures including fishes prized in local cuisine.

The river has tripled in volume but it also beginning to smell unpleasant. The vegetation on its banks however is lush. Wild plantain wrestle with zealous Mikania micrantha, together obscuring a road sign. Two tapioca plants and a serai bush suggest that not all these plants grew on their own. What looked like thriving Tridax procumbens from afar turned out to be Bidens pilosa up close. Both, invasive weeds collectively named bunga kancing baju in Malay, have purported medicinal properties.

Frustrated with the day’s catch, the young boy begins venturing towards a narrow pipeline suspended over the river, parallel to the metal bridge. Clinging on for dear life with both hands and feet, the boy makes his way across the pipeline.

Once he reaches the middle, he gets in seating position and casts another line.

A brief guide to Batu River

Rivers are like the planet’s task force of mothers. These curvy, temperamental structures go long distances nourishing life on earth while influencing regional climate and culture.

Batu River is one such example. She flows out of dense tropical rainforests north of Batu Dam, her source beyond the reach of casual observers. Though generous throughout the Batu region, she’s also a bit of a wallflower.

Batu River sprawls across an area north of Kuala Lumpur known as Batu since the 1800s. Having been re-organised into a federal constituency, the Batu region currently encompasses villages and towns situated between Sentul and the towering limestone hill known as Batu Caves.

Difficult to avoid but easy to miss, Batu River crops up frequently on major routes north of the city centre, especially through Selayang, Batu Caves, Taman Wahyu and Sentul. The river measures 15.2 kilometres in length from the mouth of Batu Dam -- 8.1 kilometres currently lie in the federal territory.

Batu River runs through many villages and suburbs in the city, including the historic Kampung Sungai Tua Baharu.

Though Batu means “stone” in the Malay language, how and when the river obtained its name is unclear. It is of popular belief that Batu Caves was named after the river, suggesting that people were familiar with Batu River even before the caves launched to fame.

Historical accounts of Batu River are sparse and often mixed up with archived information on other similarly-named rivers. Letters from colonial times also don’t speak of the river’s history. Rarely documented beyond the subjects of silting and flooding, the river’s stories could possibly be trapped within oral tradition.

Present day awareness of Batu River is largely limited to her provisions to Batu Dam and the floods she sometimes wreaks.

Though folk within the federal territory have trouble recognising her, Batu River enjoys strong recognition up north. Upstream from where she meets Jinjang River, people speak off her glory days, when village folk swam and colourful fish made rare trips from Ulu Yam.

The waters were once clean enough for wuduk, insist tea-drinking men at Kampung Dato Haji Abdul Karim. People used the river to wash their clothes, says a mother waiting for her child outside a primary school in Kampung Sungai Tua.

But it is in full view of ancient limestone hills that she comes alive. Used traditionally by Hindus for spiritual cleansing, the river appropriates India’s well-known Ganges during the Tamil festival of Thaipusam. Batu River’s sacred portion lies by the feet of Batu Caves. Each year, pierced paraders wash off blood and sweat in the river, next to believers seeking new beginnings in a bath.

Batu River has seen plenty over the years. The people, on the other hand, have seen less and less of her.

Redemption in a bath

“My grandfather said that before we do our prayers or take the palkudam, we must first go down to the river,” explained a soft drinks vendor in front of the river.

Under an overhead bridge on Jalan Station, there were many like Sharmilla catering to the visitors of Batu Caves. Batu River looked unkempt, dotted with plastic bags and bits of polystyrene. The steps leading down to it were strewn with rubbish. People who prayed and conducted holy rituals by the water frequently left behind plastic bags, plant matter, and drink cartons on the steps.

It is known that the city council, empathetic to the needs of devotees, installed standalone showers by the river’s banks. These showers flowed with water from the city’s water supply rather than the river itself, but devotees have begun adopting it.

Priests at Batu Caves perform prayers and cleanse the sins of Hindu devotees by the river.

“It was a family rule; the only way to celebrate Thaipusam is to come to Batu Caves so we can pray and wash ourselves in the river,” continued Sharmilla.

Sharmilla carried only Malaysian favourites: lychee, chrysanthemum, Coke, Milo, 100 Plus, bottled water, two types of Lipton ice tea and sirap limau.

“God left this river for us to clean ourselves, because it can...” she trailed off, calling on her daughter to elaborate while she attended to a transaction. Sharmilla’s pre-teen daughter arrived within seconds. Her face is powdered, her forehead dotted with a single black pottu. She is confident and bold while speaking.

“We bathe in the river to wash away the sins we’ve done during the year,” the young girl explained solemnly.

Though Thaipusam was a week away, the turnout was strong.

Men shaved their heads at makeshift barber shops by the road, families brought milk down to the shrine by the river, and teenagers huddled away in a corner demonstrating the latest games on their smartphones. The girl with the powdered face excused herself. Business was picking up -- it was time to put her math into practice.

The curious case of the Lumpur River

Kuala Lumpur literally translates to “confluence of mud”.

The word “kuala” meanwhile dictates the point at which a river flows into a body of water. For instance, the town of Kuala Balah, Kelantan is situated on the confluence of the Balah River and the much larger Pergau River.

In that sense, the name Kuala Lumpur should reference the confluence of a river named Lumpur with another body of water.

The Chairman of the Sanitary Board submitted a contract in 1891 detailing the construction of a wooden bridge over Batu River as part of a new cart road. The proposed bridge was to be built “where the new road from Maxwell Road to Batu Road crosses”. Both roads have since been renamed Jalan Tun Ismail and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman.The river that flows between them is known today as the Gombak River.

Contributing to the puzzle is a journal by The Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. Dated 1955, its author brings up the existence of a Lumpur River supposedly located upstream from the confluence of the Gombak and Klang rivers. According to the journal, the river might have existed “north of Batu Caves in the Sungei Tua area where there is now no trace of it”. There are few rivers which fit the description; Batu River is the most obvious suspect. But the journal bizarrely makes no mention of Batu River.

“Sungei Tua” meanwhile is Tua River, a popular tourist destination north of Batu Dam. It runs through the Tua River Forest Reserve and is frequented for its pristine waters and unique river rocks.

An 1895 map of Kuala Lumpur by the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society depicts the city’s streets as they were formerly known

Could Gombak River have once been considered a tributary of Batu River? Was Batu River another local name for Lumpur River?

An Utusan Malaysia editorial titled “Jangan Hairan SMART Tidak Berkesan” from 2007 goes as far as to claim that Batu River is indeed the Lumpur River. Its author, Ampang resident Syamsul Fadzli Mat, also contends that Sungai Gombak was considered a tributary of the Batu River for a period of time.

If this holds true, then it would finally make sense why the city was named Kuala Lumpur and not Kuala Gombak. The mystery remains.

Divine disappointment

There is a small mountain of empty milk cartons and containers next to a shrine by the river. A Hindu woman with a plastic bag speaks to the gurukkal, a Brahmin man on duty at the shrine.

The woman takes out a bottle of milk from the bag and hands it to the gurukkal. The gurukkal pours the milk into a metal pot. He ties a bright yellow cloth around the top of the pot and dabs it with red powder. He proceeds to chant standing in front of the the shrine.

The shrine by Batu River consecrates milk brought by devotees to bathe intricate Hindu idols in the caves.

The gurukkal is clad in an orange lungi. His name is Anbarasan and he has been a spiritual guide for over 20 years.

The shrine is coloured green and it is built of cement and tiles. On its outer wall is a hand-painted pair of white horses in red saddles. The river is brown. The steps leading to the water is littered with mineral water bottles, banana leaves, milk cartons, coconut shells and plastic bags.

The gurukkal completes his ritual. The woman puts a small token into the temple’s donation box and takes the consecrated milk pot, known as the palkudam. She carries it on top of her head with one hand and begins walking across the road.

“When I was a child,” Anbarasan recalls, “We used to play at this spot by the river.”

“Four or five of us would take a 20 or 50 cent coin and toss it into the river. Then we’d jump in and look for it. Whoever finds it gets to keep it and everyone else would have to pay him an equal amount of money.”

Born in Kampung Nakhoda, a village which lies northwest from Batu Caves, Anbarasan has always been close to the river.

Locals claim that in a matter of decades, the river has degraded to the point of no return due to public littering.

“Back then, you could see the coin sinking into river. The fishes in the river would glisten under the light of the sun and you’d be able to see them from here.”

Anbarasan doesn’t think he will live to see the river clean and alive again. Having served the people within the region for so long, he thinks positive change isn’t sustainable with the kind of behaviour evident in the city.

“The river is too far gone; people have and will continue to dump in the river,” he sighs. “There are share-houses constructed with sewerage systems leading directly into the river. Some of the culprits are foreigners, some are villagers themselves.”

One of Anbarasan’s horror stories involves an unfortunate trip to Ulu Yam in which human faeces flowed down the waterfalls to the bathers below.

“Not even the government can do anything because the people are too stubborn.”

Reconciling river and city

Our people build around rivers like they’re a nuisance.

From within the city, Batu River is not often scenic. When she isn’t obscured by commercial development and convenient landscaping, she resembles a manmade ditch or a storm drain.

It remains a challenge pinning good locations to appreciate Batu River. There are good vantage points from within Kampung Batu where she flows past clusters of tropical plants, evoking images of pre-industrial Malaya.

Jalan Sungai Tua adjacent to Batu Dam provides a view of the river as she crawls out of the forest. Sadly, the road is often littered with soiled diapers, bags of rubbish, cigarette boxes and other types of domestic waste.

Further downstream, as the river reaches the city, she grows disenchanted; she despises the gray cement banks and the things people make her bring to her brothers and sisters.

As the land slowly turns to stone, the river is no longer her calm self. She has nowhere to go. The ground has grown too dense; her exit routes are barricaded with human garbage. The only place left to go is land.

Disastrous floods don’t happen anymore in Kuala Lumpur due to the many flood mitigation implementations made in the last forty years. If there’s any worry at the moment, it’s that our rivers are actually dying from pollution.

Our river levels and water supply have depleted over the years, reducing the likelihood of floods but potentially creating other challenges.

Thankfully, Malaysia has grown aware of this predicament. River of Life, the biggest river rejuvenation project ever undertaken in Malaysia, is cleaning out the city’s waterways to bring them back to life.

With an allocation of RM4.4 billion towards the treatment and beautification of Kuala Lumpur’s waterways, River of Life seeks to make our rivers safe for human interaction. Batu River is one of the project’s beneficiaries.

After all, she has mellowed down like an old mother. It’s time we pitched in and cared for her.