Langkawi History, Myths & Legends

Langkawi history and its mythical legends

Langkawi, a cluster of 105 islands separated from mainland Malaysia by the Straits of Malacca, is a district of the state of Kedah in Northern Malaysia and lies approximately 51 km west of Kedah. The total land mass of the islands is 47,848 hectares. The main island spans about 25 km from north to south and slightly more for east and west. The coastal areas consist of flat, alluvial plains punctuated with limestone ridges. Two-thirds of the island is dominated by forest-covered mountains, hills and natural vegetation.

The island’s oldest geological formation, Gunung Matchincang, was the first part of South-East Asia to rise from the seabed in the Cambrian period more than half a billion years ago. The oldest part of the formation is observable at Teluk Datai to the north-west of the island, where the exposed outcrop consists of mainly sandstone (quartzite) in the upper parts and shale and mudstone in the lower parts of the sequence.

Langkawi history states that the actual name “Langkawi” has two possible origins. First, it is believed to be related to the kingdom of Langkasuka, itself a version of the Malay negari alang-kah suka (“the land of all one’s wishes”), centered in modern-day Kedah. The historical record is sparse, but a Chinese Liang Dynasty record (c. 500 AD) refers to the kingdom of “Langgasu” as being founded in the 1st century AD. Second, it could be a combination of the Malay words ‘helang’, meaning “eagle” and ‘kawi’, meaning “reddish-brown” or “strong”, in old Malay.

According to Langkawi history the island eventually came under the influence of the Sultanate of Kedah, but Kedah was conquered in 1821 by Siam and Langkawi along with it. The Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 transferred power to the British, which held the state until independence, except for a brief period of Thai rule under the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II. Thai influences remain visible in the culture and food of Langkawi.

Langkawi remained a sleepy backwater until 1987, when the development of large luxury resorts started and the island was granted tax free status with the intention of promoting tourism. This spectacular boom also coincided with the end of “Mahsuri’s Curse,” which was lifted with the birth of her 7th generation descendant. The 10,000 hectares of Langkawi and its 99 islands were declared a Geopark by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2007. The islands are a part of the state of Kedah, which is adjacent to the Thai border. On 15 July 2008, Sultan Abdul Halim of Kedah consented to the change of name to Langkawi Permata Kedah in conjunction with his Golden Jubilee Celebration.

Langkawi History: Island Legends

According to Langkawi history record books, the legends associated with the island are very old and known to have existed since ancient times. Many of these legends are vague in their origins and have lost their appeal over the years, but some have survived the test of time and are fresh in the minds of the people of Langkawi. Many of the attractions on Langkawi that are often frequented by locals have a tale or legend attached to them. To tourists this makes them even more interesting to visit.

Langkawi History & Legends: Mahsuri

The best known legend of Langkawi is of Mahsuri, a pretty maiden who lived during the reign of Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah the Second  who ruled Kedah between 1762 and 1800. She died under tragic circumstances for a crime she did not commit. She died a victim of a conspiracy plotted against her out of jealousy by Mahura, her very own mother-in-law for her magnetic personality. Mahura bitterly objected to her husband’s intentions of taking Mahsuri as his second wife and eventually agreed that their son, Mat Deris should seek the hand of Mahsuri in marriage. Since then, Mahura had grown bitterly jealous of Mahsuri for whom she bore much hatred.

In time, Mahsuri gave birth to a baby boy and he was named Mat Arus. This inflamed Mahura even more. Mahsuri was accused of committing adultery with Deramang, a young troubadour who she befriended. The chieftain of Langkawi, Dato Karma Jaya, her own father-in-law was so taken in by Mahura’s accusation that, without a proper investigation, he sentenced Mahsuri to death. As proof of her innocence, some people say, white blood was seen gushing out of her wound during execution at Padang Hangus. Others maintain there was the sudden appearance of white mist that enveloped the spot where she was executed, which is believed to have been a sign of mourning her innocence.

Mahsuri is best remembered for her curse on Langkawi which was uttered before she died. She had said, “For this act of injustice Langkawi shall not prosper for seven generations to come.” The execution of Mahsuri was indeed a tragedy of dramatic proportions. And her curse? Myth, legend or fantasy? History tells us that within a few years of Mahsuri’s death, Langkawi was devasted by the Siamese and Datuk Seri Kerma Jaya and his entire family were killed. Rice fields and granaries were completely set on fire. To this day, grains that appear to be burnt rice grains are still to be found at Padang Matsirat. However, many believe the curse is now over with the numerous development projects undertaken on the island.

Langkawi History & Legends: Gunung Raya & Gunung Mat Cincang

There are two well known mountains in the heart of Langkawi Island, Gunung Raya and Gunung Mat Cincang. Added to the two and appearing to separate them is a hill called Bukit Sawar. The three were said to be human beings with respective names of Mat Raya, Mat Cincang and Mat Sawar. Legend says Mat Raya’s son was interested in marrying Mat Cincang’s daughter, much to the displeasure of Mat Cincang. The boy was said to be of bad character. Despite the reluctance on Mat Cincang’s side to accept the boy the marriage did take place. But unfortunately a fight broke out during the wedding feast.

During the fight everyone became violent and pots and pans were flung at one another. A big pot of gravy was broken and the contents spilt on the ground. The spot where the gravy spilt is known as Kuah (gravy) and where the pot was broken as Belanga Pecah (broken pot). A couldron of hot water was also spilt on the ground and the spot is known as Air Panas (hot water). The fight between the two families went on until it was intervened by Mat Sawar. Both parties reconciled and decided to transform themselves including Mat Sawar into their present forms.

Langkawi History & Legends: Gua Cerita

The Gua Cerita or “Cave with a Legend” is one of the many fascinating limestone caves situated in the north-east of Langkawi. It comprises two limestone caves, one above the other and faces the sea. There are a number of legends associated with the Gua Cerita, one of which was related to Merong Maha Wangsa in the episode involving the Roman and the Chinese Emperors.

The story goes that the emperors of Rome and China had a plan to marry off their children. The scheme was opposed by the legendary Geruda (phoenix) who saw the union of the two great powers as a threat to the other smaller kingdoms. The Geruda was determined to quash the scheme; what it did was to abduct the Chinese pricess and hid her in a cave believed to be on Langkawi Island. It then set to attack and destroy the Roman fleet commanded by Merong Maha Wangsa with the Roman Prince on it.

Merong Maha Wangsa is said to be of mythical origin, the descendents of an indera (a minor divinity) and a gergasi (orge). During the battle Merong Maha Wangsa summoned the help of Jentayu, the mythical bird of water. However the Geruda was victorious.

During the battle the Roman prince fell into the sea and was washed ashore on the island where the Chinese princess was hidden. He was later found by the princess’s maids and the couple were finally united in betrothal. Meanwhile the Geruda had thought he was victorious but came to know later that the couple was united in marriage. In disgrace the Geruda vanished itself from the world. There are other places in Langkawi with equally interesting and mysterious legends. The Gua Langsiar (Cave of the Banshee), somewhat weird sounding, was believed to be a haven for vampires. The caves with its ghost-like appearance immediately strikes a visitor of the semblance of truth with the legend.