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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.