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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Bujang Valley - 1,200 year old archaeological site being demolished to make way for housing estate...

If you had an 1,200 year old archaeological site in your country, would you not do everything to protect it? Apparently not in the case of Bujang Valley (Lembah Bujang) in Malaysia. I was shocked to find out that it was not even gazetted as a historical monument. And recently it seemed, a developer was allowed to demolish some of the chandi/temples to make way for a housing estate... the infamy of it is unbelievable.

In the last few days, researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) have announced that bricks from a newly excavated jetty complex, uncovered at the Bujang Valley have been dated to the 5th Century BCE. A report from the Korea Basic Science Institute in South Korea, which tested samples from four sections of the jetty using OSL dating technique, has dated them to 487 BC. OSL or Optically Stimulated Luminiscence dating technique is used to date items which are inorganic e.g. bricks, ceramics, glass, sediments etc as opposed to radiocarbon dating which is used to date organic remains such as wood, seeds, bones etc

This discovery makes the neglect and destruction of the candis at Bujang Valley even more appalling - this archaeological site may be the oldest settlement in Southeast Asia. The kingdom, which was based on Bujang Valley, could predate Champa (200 - 1500 AD), Sri Vijaya (800 - 1300 AD) and the Khmer Empire (800 - 1400 AD). However, there has been too much talk of the Cholas - the first influence was definitely the Gupta Dynasty (200 - 500 CE). Gupta brilliance made Southeast Asia fall in love with Hinduism. Later the Pala Dynasty (700 - 1200 CE) converted many to Buddhism. The Chola Dynasty (800 - 1300 CE) came much later and they were perhaps more interested in conquest and gold than trade and culture. They attacked Sri Vijaya at least twice in the 11th Century.
I've blogged about the Bujang Valley before in a post The League of Vampires on 10/8/2012. The oldest story of a vampire ever recorded, that of Raja Bersiong or the Fanged King, came from Malaysia as mentioned in the Chronicles of Merong Mahawangsa. Raja Ong Maha Perita Deria is also mentioned in the Genealogy of the Kedah Sultanate. I speculated that he probably lived in the Bujang Valley, as the concentration on candis here indicate that it must have been a cultural and political centre in the past. 

I first researched the Kedah Genealogy for a folktale entitled Princess Hidden Moon or Puteri Lindungan Bulan for my first book Timeless Tales of Malaysia. According to legend, the princess had white blood (!) a sign of faerie lineage. Apparently two characters from folklore - Raja Bersiong and Puteri Lindungan Bulan were ancient Kedah royalty.

I'm writing a new book based on Raja Bersiong as well. No worries, it's not going to be anything like the old P Ramlee film, Raja Bersiong, or the dance drama staged by the Petronas Performing Arts Group; although the notorious blood-tainted gulai bayam (spinach broth) does make an appearance. My forthcoming book will have an actual plot, in the lines of Twilight meets The Queen of the Damned!

Ornate entrance to a splendid Baba-Nyonya  House in Malacca

As for the Bujang Valley, one can only hope that the authorities finally recognise it for what it is: Malaysia's most ancient cultural heritage. Apparently, documentation have been completed to obtain  recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both Malacca and Georgetown, Penang were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 7 July 2008. They are the 'most complete surviving historic city centres on the Straits of Malacca...' Georgetown in particular has been described as 'a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia.'

Beautifully restored house (now serving as a guesthouse) in Georgetown, Penang

Surely the Bujang Valley deserves to be recognised as a unique UNESCO World Heritage Site as well? In fact, it should have been the first to obtain recognition. I hope this step is not a case of 'too little, too late' and that the largest chandis which were demolished by bulldozers will be restored and the entire site protected.


The more factual article below came from

The Bujang Valley or Lembah Bujang is a sprawling historical complex and has an area of approximately 224 square km. Situated near Merbok, Kedah, between Gunung Jerai in the north and Muda River in the south, it is the richest archaeological area in Malaysia.

These archaeological remains show that there was a 
Hindu-Buddhist polity here. The name itself is roughly translated into "Dragon Valley". The area consists of ruins that may date more than 2000 years old. More than fifty ancient tomb temples, called candi (pronounce "chandi"), have also been unearthed. The most impressive and well-preserved of these is located in Pengkalan Bujang, Merbok. The Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum is also located here. In the area of Bujang Valley known as Sungai Batu, excavation have revealed jetty remains, iron smelting sites, and a clay brick monument dating back to 110AD, making it the oldest man-made structure to be recorded in Southeast Asia.

Research also indicates that there was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom here possibly as early as 110 CE.

The local rulers adopted Indian cultural and political models earlier than those of Kutai in eastern Borneo, in southern Celebes or Tarumanegara in western Java, where remains showing Indian influence have been found dating from the early 5th century. Relics found in the Bujang Valley are now on display at the archaeological museum. Items include inscribed stone caskets and tablets, metal tools and ornaments, ceramics, pottery, and Hindu icons.

For the past two decades, students from universities around Malaysia have been invited for research and have done their graduate works at the Valley. Much of the historical links is still vague considering not many of the scriptures and writings survive. Even the temples did not survive the onslaught of age because their wooden roofing has rotted and withered over the past 1200 years. The museum itself is inadequate and not organized, much of the findings are elsewhere scattered from Museum Negara to Singapore (which once formed a part of Malaysia. Folk stories and oral history also provide place for a magnificent kingdom of jewels and gold. Outside peninsular and insular Southeast Asia, there is oral history in India that suggests the presence of golden chariots and jewels in hidden caves at Bujang Valley and Mount Jerai. Some visitors to the antiquity department at Muzium Negara has eye witness recollection of magnificent objects such as a 10 feet tall Raja Bersiung Throne and various idols and items from the Valley.

On 1 December 2013, it was reported that, a 1,200 year old Hindu Temple at the site, identified as Candi No. 11, had been demolished by a land developer.[4]

In the face of public criticism, the Kedah State Government sought to deflect blame by claiming that it was powerless to do anything because the land was privately owned and further, that the site had not been gazetted as a historical site.[5]

The Deputy Chief Minister II of Penang (a neighbouring state of Kedah), Dr P. Ramasamy, who visited the demolished ruins, was said to have learnt that the Merbok Land Office of Kedah had authorised the developer to clear the land after finding that there were "no historical sites" at the location.

As at the time the Temple was reported demolished, the Federal Tourism and Culture Minister had failed or neglected to respond to the situation, despite the fact that Lembah Bujang is Malaysia's richest archaeological site and home to South East Asia's oldest recorded man-made structure.

LEMBAH BUJANG: This is history destroyed in front of our eyes. History destroyed forever, says an emotional Datuk V. Nadarajan, chairman of the Bujang Valley Study Circle non-governmental organisation.
"What they did to Candi 11 is akin to murder," he added, leaving no doubt as to his passion for this cause.
In August, an ancient Hindu temple or candi believed to be more than 1,000 years old, located in Sungai Batu Estate, Lembah Bujang, was demolished by housing developers who claimed not to have known the historical significance of the stone edifice.
"How could they not have known what it was? It was a huge structure, so big that it could not be relocated to the Bujang Valley Archaeology Museum grounds," explained Nadarajan.
Candi 11 was one of the most ancient of the old Kedah kingdom and was amongst 17 registered candi. Registration, however, did not stop it from being levelled.
Somehow, one of the oldest surviving structures in Malaysia, one of our most concrete links to a distant yet tangible past, is now gone.
The site where the candi stood is now empty land, bulldozers having razed every bit of stone from the area.
In the 1960s and 1970s, 10 candi were reconstructed and some relocated to the museum where they were preserved. Sadly, not all the structures were as well kept.
"Many are gone, thanks to developers," said Nadarajan.
Originally, studies in the 1970s and 1980s located more than 50 candi within 87 archeological sites, but the number is much fewer now and many are unaccounted for.
The way forward must surely be to cordon off the area and prevent further encroachment.
"All these sites must be gazetted by the National Heritage Department with the help of the Kedah state government," said Nadarayan, who urged for the area to be classified as Unesco heritage sites.
"We must also introduce an archaeological impact assessment (AIA) to protect places which are heritage-sensitive," he added.
Relics excavated from Lembah Bujang date back to the 1st century AD and ranged from objects made of gold, ceramics and statues carved from various stones and irons. All the findings are further proof of the valley being a vast archaeological treasure trove.
Since research is still being conducted, the size of the archeological complex is inconclusive.
General belief is that the compound ranges 200 sq km. Others argue that it spans 400 sq km but Nadarajan believes it to be much bigger.
"From USM's satellite photography, I suspect it may be as large as 1,000 sq km," he claimed.
Prof Mokhtar Saidin from the USM Centre for Global Archaeological Research also spoke out against the demolishment of the 32 x 68 foot (995.7 x 2067.6 cm) candi.
"Evidence and archaeological finds of the ninth century are scarce. The candi represent the heritage of ancient Malaya and serve as priceless archaeological structures. It is important that we preserve these vestiges of antiquity, as the candi are some of the few historical remnants that we have left," Prof Mokhtar said.
The Kingdom of Kadaram
Contrary to popular belief, Lembah Bujang was not a valley teeming with bachelors. Rather, the name derives from the Sanskrit "bujangam", meaning serpant or dragon as a nod to the nearby meandering river.
"The kingdom that flourished within the valley was known in its time as 'Kadaram', Sanskrit for iron," said Nadarayan. His statement is substantiated by a recent Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) finding in the area which unearthed ancient furnaces and evidence of iron smelting activities dating back to the fourth century BC.
Due to its strategic location between China and India, Lembah Bujang served merchants from both the east and west, and had an especially strong Indian connection because of its proximity to India.
At first, the population of the time were animistic but later adopted Hindu and Buddhist religions before the advent of Islam to the peninsular.
"In the first century, Indian traders arrived and introduced their culture, way of life and political systems to the native inhabitants of Malaya," said Nadarajan, who said that ancient Lembah Bujang resembled an Indian polity.
When Hinduism and Buddhism began to grow, monuments of various sizes called candi (named after Candika, a manifestation of the Hindu goddess Durga) were constructed and used for religious rites.
All that can be seen from the preserved candi now are its large stone bases. Unlike the candi in Angkor Wat and Borabodur which are mainly carved out of rock from nearby mountains, the candi in Lembah Bujang were constructed out of mixed material.
Because of a flatter terrain, the stone bases were hewn out of rock from nearby river beds. Wooden columns were then fastened and clay roofs were erected. As the body, columns and roof of the candi wore out in time, the stone bases still remain as they were a thousand years ago before becoming victims of development.
Now a lawyer, Nadarajan, 68, is still pursuing his life-long fascination of Lembah Bujang and is the author of a book on the valley.
He spent 10 years as a secondary school history teacher, and made it a point to educate his students on Lembah Bujang even though the topic was not included within the school syllabus.
When news came to him of the demolishment of Candi 11, Nadarajan reacted by informing authorities, making a police report and calling on the media to highlight the plight.
"Although I am sad that candi 11 is no more, there is a silver lining to be had. People are now aware about the importance of the area. In a way, the demolition of one candi brought about the preservation of all the other candi that are still standing."

Friday, November 8, 2013

Saya and Diva... the Half-Blood Queens

It's been almost a year since I wrote Saya and Diva - posted on November 11, 2012 - so I thought I should conclude the saga of the twin vampire sisters. The previous post ended with Saya swearing to destroy Diva and all her chiropteran minions. Each season of the four-part series has its own striking opening song: Aozora no Namida by Hitomi Takahashi, Season's Call by Hyde, Colours of the Heart by Uverworld and Raion by Jinn.

The title 'Half-Blood Queens' is to counter fan blogs which insist that both Saya and Diva are full-blood chiropteran queens. Their mother was a full-blood chiropteran queen and there was nothing human about her mummified remains. In fact she must have been quite a terrifying monster in her true living form. She was probably the last of a race of vampiric chiropteran shapeshifters who could take human form. The cocoons Joel and Amshell Goldsmith removed from her, on the other hand, contained very human babies - clearly indicating a human father, most probably a chevalier. The fact that both Saya and Diva never reverted into a chiropteran in the most extreme of circumstances also indicate that they must be part human and being human is their true form. Fans also speculate that their mother must be blue-eyed and closely resemble Diva in her human form. I tend to agree. It's possible that the red-eyed twin was born to be a warrior while the blue-eyed twin was born to procreate.

Saya and Diva's mother was a full-blood Chiropteran Queen
Although the focus of this post is on the overall story arc, I'm visiting one of the sub-plots in the series - Saya's two missions to Vietnam. Saya's first mission to Vietnam occurred during the Vietnam War and was horrifying. She was the equivalent of Weapon X and military scientists decided to wake her up prematurely from hibernation by giving her a blood transfusion. Saya went berserk and started attacking friend and foe alike in a military facility being overrun by chiropterans. She almost hacked off Hadji's hand and nearly killed one of Diva's chevaliers. The injury to Hadji was permanent and the injured hand could not revert to human form. Later she escaped from the facility and went on a murderous rampage. Hadji fled in despair and left Saya in the hands of George Miyagusuku, who took her to Okinawa and placed her in the family mausoleum to complete her hibernation. Saya later woke up naturally from hibernation and appeared to be a seemingly normal 16-year-old with a sunny disposition and no memory of her past. She was adopted by George Miyagusuku who already had two sons, Kai and Riku.

In her second visit to Vietnam, Saya went undercover as a school girl in the Lycee de Cinq Fleches, while Hadji posed as the gardener. Red Shield decided to send her there to investigate the mysterious deaths of dark-haired girls through desanguination; girls who oddly enough closely resemble Saya herself. Saya managed to befriend  a girl called Min who recounted to her the legend of The Phantom - a mysterious man in a cape who gives a blue rose to a chosen girl. According to the legend, the chosen girl mysteriously disappears... or more accurately, dies from blood loss. Saya and Hadji search the school ground after dark and one night, Saya actually ran into The Phantom who handed her a blue rose as his chosen one.

Kai, Saya and Riku undercover in Vietnam.

At a lavish school ball, Saya caught the eye of the most handsome and dashing man present - Solomon Goldsmith. Solomon was in fact one of Diva's chevaliers but neither were aware of the other's identity. In fact, Saya and Solomon actually felt a mutual attraction to one another. However, Solomon later overheard someone referring to her as Saya and realised that she was Diva's twin sister.

Saya discovers the identity of The Phantom, who is none other than
Karl Fei-Ong

The Phantom cornered her one night on the streets and during a fierce sword fight she uncovered the identity of the Phantom as Karl Fei-Ong, the principal of the school! Saya did not realise that he was also one of Diva's chevaliers. He was actually obsessed with Saya as she had almost killed him years ago during the Vietnam War. In fact, his obsession with her had led him to attack the Saya lookalikes in the school. But Saya had no memory of either him or their battle during the war. Karl felt intense bitterness and angst, and fled from the scene.

Diva and her five Chevaliers - Amshel Goldsmith, Solomon Goldsmith,
Karl Fei-Ong, James Ironside and Nathan Mahler. The five chevaliers
are known as the Cinque Fleches or Five Arrows
We return to the main story arc - Saya, Kai and Riku are in France in their attempt to track down Diva. Since the death of George Miyagusuku during a chiropteran attack on Okinawa, Kai and Riku are under Red Shield's protection as well. They decide to visit the Zoo and its grounds with members of the Red Shield. While there, Riku hears the beautiful voice of a woman singing and is lured into the tower. It is of course Diva. In one of the most harrowing episode of Blood+, Diva attacked Riku and drained his body of blood. Perhaps Diva attacked Riku because he was the most vulnerable member of the team or perhaps she knew that attacking Riku would be the one thing which would push Saya over the edge. When Saya discovered Riku covered in blood and close to death, she almost went berserk again. She sets out to hunt Diva down but Kai called out to her and his voice somehow managed to restore her control. They take Riku to safety and Saya was again faced with an impossible decision - she decided to save Riku's life by giving him her blood even though it means turning him into one of her chevaliers.

After the attack on Riku, Saya corners Diva in the tower of the Zoo.
Solomon Goldsmith, managed to warn Red Shield agents that Diva and her chevaliers will attack them again. They leave France and seek refuge in the Red Shield headquarters, which is actually a battle ship at sea. Riku's transformation into a chevalier creates tension among the four friends - for one thing Riku developed feelings of jealousy towards Hadji and of Saya's relationship with him. Kai also experienced intense difficulty in accepting that his younger brother is no longer human now. His loss is almost akin to grief and he blamed Saya for it. Riku however managed to allay his misgivings.

Diva's chevaliers track them down and attack the ship. Although Riku was told not to get involved, he felt compelled to protect Saya and joined the battle. Diva's chevaliers are surprised to find out that Saya has created a second chevalier - Riku. They return home to tell their queen of the new development. In a shocking turn of events, Diva and Karl board the ship at night. While Karl distracted everyone, Diva lured Riku into an empty cargo hold and seduced him. She also took his life by giving him her blood. In another harrowing scene, a horrified Saya discovered Riku's dead body which was slowly crystalising.  There was nothing Saya could do to save him. Sick at heart, Saya and Hadji abandoned the ship. The ship was blown up by Diva's chevaliers but Red Shield members managed to escape in life boats. However the leader of Red Shield, Joel Goldschimdt IV, was critically injured. Kai managed to salvage a shard of the red crystal and wore it around his neck in remembrance of Riku.

The final stage was set in New York City, a year after the destruction of the Red Shield ship. Red Shield members have set up a base in the city; Joel Goldschimdt had survived the attack on his ship but was now confined to a wheelchair. They also managed to discover Diva's and Amshell's master plan -  to turn the whole world into chiropterans (somewhat far fetched) through the live telecast of her singing at a concert hall. What they did not know was that Diva had conceived and was carrying twins. Judging that they were ready, Amshell Goldsmith removed the twin cocoons from her womb to feed them with blood.

Team Saya regroup in New York City.

Hadji, Saya and Solomon Goldsmith
Saya and Hadji made an unexpected appearance in New York when Kai and Red Shield agents are attacked by chiropterans. Saya destroyed them and the team regroup in a large apartment. Meanwhile, Solomon Goldsmith, who now openly admitted that he was smitten with Saya, abandoned Diva and moved into his own apartment in Manhattan. He also managed to abduct Saya, who was entering her hibernation phase again and was no longer in peak form. Saya was in a dark place; she felt drained from her battles with Diva's cohorts and the harrowing experience of losing Riku.

Saya's abduction led into open confrontation between Solomon and Hadji. In the end Hadji prevailed by revealing a powerful but hitherto unseen winged form. Hadji brought Saya back to the Red Shield group. Saya finally acknowledged her need to feed on her chevalier's blood to regain her strength in the final confrontation with Diva. She also reminded Hadji of his promise to her - that he would kill her the day she managed to kill Diva so that the world would be safe from chiropterans.

The final confrontation took place at a magnificent concert hall. An epic battle between the two sisters ensued since both were evenly matched. In the end, they both ran through each other with their swords - coated in their own blood. It should be noted that the blood of one sister is fatal to the other. However, Saya survived the ordeal as it turned out that Diva's blood is no longer toxic to her. Apparently, Diva's own body had to neutralise her blood in order for her to bear Riku's children. As Diva's body crystalised, Saya was again overcome with sorrow as she held her dying sister in her arms. At that dark moment, Saya decided to kill the twins still wrapped in their cocoons before taking her own life. However, Hadji confessed his feelings for her and begs her to live. Kai  begged her to live as well and to spare the twins, promising that they would not be used by anyone. Saya finally admitted that she wanted to live as well. The series ended with Saya in deep sleep in the Miyagusuku mausoleum in Okinawa. Kai, accompanied by twin six-year-old girls, visited her often. A blue rose with a red ribbon has also been placed near Saya - a gift from Hadji, who kept vigil from a distance.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Dragon of Lake Chini

Saffron Tree, a blog/website dedicated to children's and YA books, based in India and the United States, reviewed my book Eight Treasures of the Dragon recently. The reviewer, Sathish Ramakrishnan, and his two young sons actually seemed to enjoy the book! All, except for the one story from Malaysia, entitled the Dragon of Tasik Chini. I can't say I blame Sathish as I wasn't all that keen on the story either. Unfortunately, even after going through several old books and an extensive Internet search I could only uncover that one dragon story. Fortunately, Sathish seemed really taken by the story from India, Prince Mombathi (The Candlewax Prince), even more so because it was completely new to him. The story is based on The Wax Prince, by Shovona Devi from her book The Orient Pearls: Indian Folklore (1915). The fact that she was Rabindranath Tagore's niece added to the allure.

The link to the review is here:  Saffron Tree: Eight Treasures of the Dragon

The cover depicts Nyai Rara Kidul, the She-Dragon of the South Seas,
a legend from Java, Indonesia

Eight Treasures of the Dragon
MPH Group Publishing (2011)
160 pages
ISBN: 978-967-5997-29-7

RM24.90 | Buy from

I also did a Q&A for Saffron Tree, where Sathish posed this all important Question: Are Nagas in fact Dragons? The truth is, I asked myself the same question while researching the book and I'm quite sure they are... nagas are the precursors of the dragons. Dragonlore is prevalent all over East Asia - China, Japan and Korea; but in South Asia and Southeast Asia, it is the naga which takes the place of the dragon.

The link to the interview is below:
Interview with Tutu Dutta-Yean

In any case, how many countries can boast of a real lake associated with an authentic dragon (or naga) legend? The story of Naga Sri Gumum, for that is the name of the dragon, has been told in oral folklore for centuries in the Lake Chini area.

Tasik Cini or Lake Chini consists of 12 interlinked bodies
of water.

The lake is the second largest freshwater lake in Malaysia; the largest being Lake Bera. In fact, Chini is actually made up of 12 interlinked lakes and may also be connected to Bera through a subterranean waterway (the last info is based on folklore). The size of the lake depends on the season; during the monsoon rains from October to January, the water of the lake rises and the 12 lakes  may turn into a single body of water. Lake Chini is also a UNESCO Biosphere reserve with 100 species of fish and 200 species of birds and is a bird-watchers paradise. If you are interested, there are plenty of cheap but comfortable home-stay accommodations and small chalets around the lake.

Certain parts of the lake are covered with lotus plant.

But more important is the folklore associated with the lake - there is supposed to be an ancient Khmer city or more likely a citadel at the bottom of the lake. In fact, it has been suggested that the city dates back to the 5th Century and was intentionally flooded to keep it from enemy hands. Fascinating of course, except that the Khmer Empire (9th Century - 14th Century) did not yet exist in the 5th Century, what existed then was the kingdom of Chenla. If there is a Khmer citadel under Chini, perhaps it originated from the 11th Century. It was during this time that Harshavarman III is said to have abandoned Angkor to take refuge in the south when the throne of Angkor was usurped by the conqueror, Jayavarman VI. Harshvarman's followers and successors continued a long struggle against Jayavarman VI and may have sought refuge in the Lake Chini region.

The sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, covers the lake from
June to September every year.

Or it could have happened in 1400 AD when the Thais sacked Angkor, twice, effectively causing the demise of the Khmer Empire. It's quite possible that when Angkor was attacked, a group of people may have sought refuge in a safe haven such as Lake Chini, which may have reminded them of Tonle Sap, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Photo by TK Chuan
Why does such a legend persist? There are some clues - for one thing the profusion of sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, growing on the lake. This is a plant not normally found growing in the wild in Malaysia. Some scientists have speculated that the lotus seeds were brought by Hindu priests (if it happened in the 11th Century) or Buddhist monks (if it happened in 1400 AD) centuries ago and planted in the lake.

Can the lotus plant survive for so long? A group of scientists, led by J Shen-Miller in fact succeeded in germinating a 1,300 year old sacred lotus seed recovered from a dry lake bed in northeastern China in 1995. Located in Xipaozi Village, Liaoning Province, the dry lake bed used to be a large shallow lake used for lotus cultivation at least 1,300 years ago. Scientists speculated that a massive earthquake in 1484, may have drained Xipaozi Lake into the Bohai Gulf (the Bohai Gulf is connected to the Yellow Sea.)

 Shen-Miller's article cited the work of Japanese botanist Ichiro Ohga in the 1920s. Ohga was the first person to report the presence of old viable fruits in the lake bed. He also realised how old the fruits were and postulated that the lake was drained during the 1484 earthquake. Ohga was the Government Botanist of South Manchuria during the Japanese Occupation of northeastern Manchuria in the 1920s. He was helped in his field work by a local farmer, Liu Guay San. Farmer Liu collected most of the lotus fruits specimens Ohga used in his studies from the soil of his ancestral village. Unfortunately, farmer Liu was executed after the war for being a Japanese collaborator. Perhaps this goes to show that no good deed goes unpunished - however, I find the story fascinating. Who would have thought that one would find the plot for a novel in the American Journal of Botany?

According to Shen-Miller et al, the sacred lotus has been cultivated in China for 5,000 years. All parts of the plant - seeds, rhizome (roots), leaf, stalk, flowers and fruit receptacle can be used as food.

Note the fruit receptacle containing seeds to the left
Photo courtesy of
And not just any food - one of my favourite dessert is the lotus seed mooncake.

The golden paste inside the thin layer of pastry is made from
ground lotus seeds and sugar. This special dessert is only available
during the Mid-Autumn Festival also known as the Mooncake Festival.
Another culinary delight is the lotus root soup:

To return to Lake Chini - the other clue is the fact that the indigenous people living in the lake area, the Jakun and the Semelai, use languages which contain Khmer words.

So what has this to do with the dragon? There is a huge amount of dragon lore or naga lore in Cambodia. Not surprising, as the Khmer Empire was based on the mastery of water. Water is all around and Tonle Sap and the Mekong River dominate the landscape.

Although all the blogs about Naga Sri Gumum state that the Chini dragon legend has no connection with the Khmer lost city, I think there is a connection. I also feel that the legend of the dragon of Lake Chini is connected with the Lake Bera dragon. In fact, I connected the two in my retelling of the legend.

In the Lake Bera story, a grandmother and her grandson were foraging in the forest when they came across a large, leathery egg - an egg unlike anything they have seen before. The grandmother warns the boy not to touch the egg but he secretly hides it in his shoulder basket and brings it home. The boys father finds the egg and eats it all by himself which leads to his transformation to a naga. The father is abandoned by his family and he swims away down the river. This leads to the Chini story - some boys find a carcass of a leviathan by the side of a lake and start to eat pieces it. An old woman finds out about it and warns her grandson not to touch the carcass but she is too late, he has already eaten some of the fat. This unleashed a curse - it rained continuously until the entire valley is flooded. Everyone who ate the carcass is drowned. Read my book for the full story...

There is in fact a Khmer legend about a naga prince who is captured and sacrificed. Apparently, his body was also eaten by the people of that city. This of course unleashed a terrible curse - a deluge drowned the entire valley and killed all the people. This legend is however set in Cambodia, probably around the great lake of Tonle Sap, the largest and most extraordinary lake in Southeast Asia.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Mystery of Ulek Mayang

A Ritual Offering to the Seven Princesses of the Sea

There is a dance ritual from the state of Terengganu, on the east coast of Malaysia, called Ulek Mayang. This dance is accompanied by one of the most haunting songs I've ever heard, also called Ulek Mayang. I first heard it as a teenager and I made up my mind to unravel the mystery behind the song - unfortunately, I'm still not quite there yet.  

There is no doubt that both the dance and song are offerings to the spirits of the sea.  In Trengganu, these guardians of the sea take the form of seven beautiful princesses.

(The video is by Hajar Aznam, University of Technology, Sydney. The music/song is from the Ministry of Tourism, Malaysia)

The tale behind the  folk song is as follows:

A group of fishermen who were out at sea were caught in a storm. One of them, a young man, was swept overboard by a huge wave. The man finds himself being dragged deeper into the sea. While he fights for his life, he hears a haunting song and two lovely maidens appear before him. They charm him with their beauty and their song and pull him deeper into the water.

                    (A more complete version of the song and dance ritual is depicted in this video)

However, the other fishermen managed to pull the young man out of the sea and drag him to shore. They try their best to revive him, to no avail. They look for a pawang (shaman) for help. The pawang told them that although the young man is alive, his spirit is still lost. The pawang burns some incense and asks the other men to bring offerings such as mayang (long sheaves of areca flowers) and rice coloured with turmeric.

The pawang should be waving mayang (sheaves of Areca palm flowers)
instead of coconut leaves in this re-enactment. 
The pawang began his incantations, when he became aware of another presence. He was shocked when two beautiful young women appear near the young man. The pawang realised that they were two of the seven legendary princesses of the sea. A battle of will ensued between the pawang and the two princesses. When the two princesses realised that they were about to lose, they summoned two more of their sisters. The epic battle of will continued, and finally the four sisters summoned two more sisters. The pawang felt his hold on the young man's spirit slipping away, when the seventh princess emerged. She is the eldest and the most powerful of the seven princesses.

The seventh princess proclaimed that she knew the origins of everyone present (when vanquishing demons/spirits it is always necessary to know their true name and origin) and that those who belong to the sea must return to the sea and those who belong to land must return to the land. The six princesses have no choice but to yield to their eldest sister, they relinquish their hold on the young man. Then all seven princesses walk into the sea and vanish.

The young man regained consciousness with no knowledge of what had just transpired. However, he  remembered a dream where six beautiful princesses enchanted him. The pawang and the young man gave offerings to the seven princesses of the sea. These consisted of bowls of coloured rice and flowers.

The words of the song (somewhat simplified)
Harvesting the extraordinary inflorescence
of the Fishtail palm. 

Ulek, mayang ku ulek
Ulek dengan jala jemala
Ulek, mayang di ulek
Ulek dengan tuannya puteri

Tuan Puteri berbaju serong
Tuan Puteri bersanggul sendeng
Tuan Puteri bersubang gading
Tuan Puteri berselendang kuning

Umbok, mayang diumbok
Umbok dengan jala jemala
Nok ulek, mayang diulek
Ulek dengan tuannya puteri

Ku tahu asal usul mu
Yang laut balik ke laut
Yang darat balik ke darat
Nasi berwarna hamba sembahkan

Umbak, mayang ku umbak
Umbak dengan jala jemala
Pulih, mayang ku pulih

Pulih balik sedia kala

Areca catechu inflorescence
The name of the song Ulek Mayang refers to the inflorescence of the Areca catechuMayang is the long sheaves of flowers, while ulek means entreat. The song entreats/summons the spirit of the flowers or perhaps uses the flowers to appease the spirits of the seven princesses i.e. pleading with them not to take the lives of fishermen and those who are at sea. If you are wondering how the inflorescence of a plant could have so much power, consider the Welsh legend of Bloduewedd (refer to my post, Adapting Asian Folktales for Children's and YA Literature /2013/05/adapting-asian-folktales-for-childrens.html  ), a woman created from the essence of the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet by a powerful sorcerer called Gwydion.

Incidently, the term mayang mengurai also refers to a woman's unusually long luxuriant hair which resembles Areca catechu inflorescence.  Mayang could also refer to the inflorescence of the coconut flower, although coconuts have less ritual significance than the areca nut.

The song also describes the seven princesses - all seven are dressed in exactly the same way. They are dressed in a garment which is askew; their hair is knotted on the side; they are adorned with ivory ear-rings and each carry a yellow selendang  (a long scarf).

Bunches of ripe areca nuts hang froma palm tree.
The areca flowers produce a huge amount of fruits
 which turn bright red when ripened.
However it is the nut inside which is of value.
The areca palm or areca nut palm is also known as
betel palm because thin slices of the nut is chewed
wrapped up in a betel leaf. When chewed, the nut and
betel leaves act as stimulants; the betel quid play a
very important role in the culture of India and Southeast Asia
(refer to my post Betel, Banyan, Basil &  Bamboo.)
The areca nut is known as pinang in Malay,
bunga in Filipino and supari in Bengali and Marathi.

A traditional  hantaran for a bride incorporating
betel leaves and a string of jasmine buds.
Areca nuts and betel leaves from the plant Piper betle, (known as sirih in Malay and paan in Bengali and Hindi) are widely used in rituals and as offerings in temples in India and parts of Southeast Asia. In ancient Burma, being offered a chewed piece of betel quid by royalty signifies one is held in high esteem! In old Vietnam, being given a betel quid signifies a proposal of marriage...

Not surprisingly, betel leaves and areca nuts play an integral role in traditional Malay marriages. The hantaran (bridal gifts) of five, seven or nine items, must include a floral arrangement incorporating betel leaves. The other compulsory items are a wedding ring and a set of traditional clothes. In the past, an expensive betel box (tapak sirih) was also one of the hantaran, especially for members of the bangsawan (nobility) and for royalty. However, as betel chewing is no longer popular (in fact, it is frowned upon), the betel box is no longer produced.

Traditional tapak sirih.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Cracking the Sundal Tree Code

The Kenanga/Ylang-Ylang and the Chempaka

I've uncovered two other candidates for the title of Sundal Harum Malam recently: Cananga odorata, and Michelia champaca (or Magnolia champaca). Both trees yield flowers which are highly valued for their scents.


Pale yellow ylang-ylang flowers

Cananga odorata is commonly known as ylang-ylang (ilang-ilang) or kenanga in Indonesia and Malaysia. It is a tropical tree, native to South Asia and Southeast Asia. The now famous name ylang-ylang is derived from Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. According to Wikipedia ylang-ylang does not mean 'flower of flowers'; the name probably came from ilang, which means 'wilderness' or it could be ilang-ilan, meaning 'rare.' In the past, it used to be known as the Macassar oil tree (Makassar is the largest city in Sulawesi, an island of Indonesia). Macassar oil is a combination of fairly cheap coconut oil mixed with essential oils distilled from the ylang-ylang flowers. It was popular during the Victorian and Edwardian era as a hair-dressing aid for both women and men.

The flowers are also used as an aphrodisiac and strewn on the bed of newly weds in Indonesia. The ylang-ylang together with the jasmine (sampaguita in the Philippines) are used to decorate bridal beds in many parts of Asia. On course the sweet, pure white jasmine (Jasminum sambac) is the flower of flowers for both bridal and bridal bed decorations and also for garlands and as offering in temples. Its essential oil is also widely used as a top note in perfumes.

The essentials oils from the ylang-ylang are used in aromatherapy and are supposed to promote relaxation. However, in high concentration, ylang-ylang can cause headache and nausea. Essential oils extracted through steam distillation of the flowers are widely used as a middle note or 'heart' of perfumes. The fragrance of the ylang-ylang is rich and deep with notes of rubber and custard and bright with hints of jasmine and neroli. A famous example of a perfume with ylang-ylang is Chanel No 5.

The fruits of the kenanga/ylang-ylang is also attractive to birds.

Orange chempaka flower

Michelia champaca or Magnolia champaca is a very tall tree native to the Indomalayan region. A member of the Magnolia family, it is known for its strongly scented flowers which varies in colour from creamy white to yellow and orange. However, the tree is valued more for its timber rather than its flowers; it is also used in landscaping as its fruits are attractive to birds.

The flower is commonly known as chempaka in Indonesia and Malaysia and as champa in India and Laos. Oddly enough in India, champa refers to both the frangipani as well as the chempaka.

The flowers are also used as offerings in temples and floated in bowls of water to perfume rooms. However, the chempaka is not as popular as the jasmine and the ylang-ylang for bridal decoration as its fragrance is considered to be too overpowering.

The chempaka is being referred to as the Joy perfume flower on the Internet. This is nonsense, of course. Joy actually refers to the perfume by Jean Patou, first formulated in the 1930's just before the Great Depression. It is nevertheless, considered as one of the greatest fragrances ever created and was voted 'Scent of the Century' in 2000, beating closest rival, Chanel No 5. But my research shows that Joy is actually made from the essences of rose and jasmine, with ylang-ylang and tuberose as the heart, and maybe (just maybe) some chempaka. However, you can get champaca absolute as a single note perfume  - Ormonde Jayne launched Champaca in 2002 and Tom Forde created Champaca Absolute in 2009; both are outrageously expansive.

White chempaka flower - the Sundal Harum Malam?

So apart from the night jessamine, described in the previous post, there are two more contenders for the title of Sundal Harum Malam - the ylang-ylang/kenanga and the chempaka. Although the night jessamine fits the fragrance profile best, the fact that it originated in the Caribbean casts some doubt. A plant has to be growing in this region for hundreds of years to become part of the folklore.

However a blog I recently came across ( ), mentioned that the white chempaka or kantil is said to be the favoured haunt of the kuntilanak (the Indonesian version of the pontianak) in Javanese folklore. So perhaps the chempaka (Michelia champaca) is the Sundal Harum Malam after all - an immensely tall tree with strongly scented white flowers.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

In Search of the Sundal Tree (Sundal Harum Malam)

For reasons unknown, I feel compelled to pursue this subject further. Perhaps it is the slew of misinformation on the Internet regarding the identity of the sundal. Some Malaysian bloggers even assert that the sundal harum malam (night-scented sundal) is actually Polianthus tuberosa. Seriously?

Like the sundal of folklore, the tuberose is a night-blooming, heavily scented flower. The odour profile is described as 'carnal, creamy and fleshy floral notes, which can present mentholated facets when blooming or even rotten meat off-notes when ripe.' The scent is a complex mix of flower shop freshness and velvety opulence, and is used as a middle note in perfumery; however only the most costly perfume has real tuberose extracts. It is also said to be extremely polarising i.e. some people love it and some hate it.

But the sundal of folklore is associated with the pontianak - in fact, this vampiric creature is supposed to haunt the sundal tree. It is possible that pontianaks or langsuir absorb the scent or essence of the sundal flowers to increase their powers of attraction over men. But how can a plant, barely three feet (one metre) tall, give shelter to a pontianak?  The other problem is that all species of Polianthus are native to Mexico. I suspect that since the plant has no common name in Malaysia, local gardeners decided to give an exotic plant a local name, as a form of identification. Anyway, the tuberose is in a class of its own, with an intensity and creaminess beyond any other. The natural blooms are so powerful that they can fill a room and continue exuding fragrance for days. The tuberose is seductive alright, but it is definitely NOT the sundal of folklore. However, if you are desperate to get hold of a tuberose-based perfume, Fracas by Robert Piguet is supposed to set the benchmark - according to

Can the Polianthus tuberosa be the
sundal of folklore?

Beautiful Polianthus tuberosa flowers 

So what are the serious contenders for the title of sundal harum malam? After an extensive internet search (and several false leads), it seems that the sundal could be one of the following trees:

the Frangipani/Champa/Bunga Kemboja
The first contender is the frangipani (Plumeria sp), also known as champa in Laos and India, and bunga kemboja in Malaysia. This seems to be the ideal candidate as the frangipani is thought to be haunted by ghosts and demons in local folklore and often planted in cemeteries, in fact another name for the tree is graveyard tree. But it is also known as the Temple Tree in Sri Lanka and often planted around Buddhist and Hindu temples. But the spanner in the works is that the Plumeria supposed to have originated in the New World! This means that botanists think it was only introduced in Asia by Portuguese and Spanish sailors, probably in the 16-17th Century. But the frangipani is widespread in Asia (from India to China) and so steeped in ancient folklore, that I find this hard to believe. I think it has been around for at least a millennium - after all, people from this part of the world sailed all the way to Hawaii and New Zealand before any Western sailors did, there is no reason why people from the New World could not have sailed here too.

However, the frangipani has large sparse leaves - hardly a place for a creature of the night to hide. We had a large frangapani tree growing in the front yard of the house when we were living in Federal Hill, Kuala Lumpur but I never felt any supernatural energy from the plant!


The next candidate is the parijata, harsingar or shefali; other names for this flower are coral jasmine and night flowering jasmine. Nyctanthes arbor-tristis is also known as the sad tree or the tree of sorrow as its flowers are shed like tears, at the first light of dawn. The parijata was one of the treasures thrown up, by the churning of the primordial ocean, samudra mantha, by the devas and asuras (refer to my post, The Devas and the Asuras). It is also the only flower which can be picked from the ground to be given as offerings at temples; all other flowers have to be hand-picked from the plant. The parijat or shefali is also the state flower of Bengal. There is another charming story associated with this flower: Parijata was a beautiful and sensitive princess who fell in love with Surya, the sun god. Unfortunately, her love was unrequited. The sun god spurned her and she pined away. When she was cremated on her funeral pyre, a beautiful tree sprang up from the ashes of the sad princess. But she could not stand the light of the sun and bloomed only at night, shedding her flowers in sorrow at dawn.

Heliotrope flowers follow the sun as it moves across the sky
The story of Princess Parijata bears striking similarity with the myth of Clytia (or Clytie) and Helios, the sun god. In the Greek myth, Clytia, a water nymph, was madly in love with Helios (or Apollo, in some versions of the story). Unfortunately, Helios only had eyes for her sister, Leucothea. Helios even disguised himself as a woman to visit Leucothea in her chamber. Clytia was consumed with jealousy and betrayed her sister, by informing her father about Helios' deception. Instead of confining Leucothea in the dungeon, as most normal fathers of that time would do, her father had her buried alive... Helios was devastated and tried to revive his beloved Leucothea, but to no avail. Finally, he drenched her body in perfume so that her essence would evaporate in the sun and follow him on his journey across the sky. Helios could not forgive Clytia for her betrayal of her sister and spurned her. Clytia went insane when she realised that she had lost Helios forever; it's also possible that she felt remorse for causing her sister's death. She sat on the cold hard ground and stared at the sun, from sunrise to sunset, for nine days without eating or drinking. Eventually, she wilted and died. Helios finally felt sorry for her, and turned her into the heliothrope - a plant bearing deep violet-blue flowers which follow the sun as it moves across the sky. In some versions of the story, Apollo turns Clytia into the sunflower, but this is highly improbable because (yes, you've guessed it!), sunflowers originate in the Americas and was unknown in Europe, until about a century or two ago.

The fragrant tanjung blossoms are thought to be the tears of a faerie
Another candidate found throughout tropical Asia and Southeast Asia is Mimusops elengi. Known as the tanjung tree in Malaysia/Singapore and bakul/vakul tree in India. The tanjung flower or bunga tanjung appears frequently in Malay folklore, sometimes to represent a lost lover. There is an enchanting folktale about the tanjung flower, which like the parijat, is sweet-scented, blooms at night and is shed at the first light of dawn. According to the folktale, the flowers are actually the tears of a faerie, who was stranded in the forest because she was unable to find her magic selendang (a long scarf) which allowed her to return home. Similar folklore of stranded faeries (usually because someone has hidden her magic cloak) appears in many Asian cultures, from India to Japan. There is a re-telling of the Tanjung Blossom Faerie in my book, Timeless Tales of Malaysia. But the tanjung or vakul is the exact opposite of the sundal in folklore. It is considered as sacred by the Hindus and its frangrant 'flowers of paradise' are offered to both Vishnu and Siva as offerings. The flowers are also said to chase away evil spirits, unlike the sundal which is supposed to attract ghostly spirits!

Night Jessamine/Sundal tree?

The fourth candidate is the night jessamine (Cestrum nocturnum) also known as Raat Ki Rani or Queen of the Night, in India. A member of the nightshade family, the night jessamine seems to have all the right attributes - a tree bearing quantities of small white flowers which produce an overwhelming sickly sweet frangrance at night. The plant is native to the West Indies and South Asia. The heavy scent from this plant can cause breathing difficulties, headache and nausea in susceptible individuals. The plant is poisonous in all its parts and can cause feverish symptoms, rapid pulse rate and delirium if ingested. The small ovoid purplish fruits are especially toxic. The flowers are also used in shamanic rituals in Nepal.

Buy from
Although I mentioned that the sundal tree might be the parijata in my latest book, Rigih and the Witch of Moon Lake  (refer to post The Jugra Chronicles), it seems now that the most likely identity of the sundal tree is the night jessamine, Cestrum nocturnum. The only obstacle is that it does not seem to be native to Southeast Asia. But then again, there are ancient carvings of flowers which look like the frangipani in Sri Lanka, which scientists claim originated in the New World so its quite possible that the night jessamine has been around much longer than we suspect. At the moment, I've picked the night jessamine for the title of Sundal Harum Malam but I'm still researching the true identity of the Sundal Tree!