The folk stories behind how a strange rock was formed, or why some foods are a certain colour is always fascinating no matter where you are. And with a land as rich as Malaysia, stories like these are bountiful; and many feature women of legendary caliber and mythical occurrences.
Here are some of our favorite myths of powerful Malaysian princesses!
Puteri Zaleha –Kedah
This is a tragic tale of a 16th century princess whose beauty and purity was so powerful it unfortunately became her demise. Blessed upon birth, Puteri (Princess) Zaleha grew up beautiful and so pure of heart, her blood was said to be white. Her father, Sultan Sulaiman Shah, was also granted another beautiful daughter, Princess Mariam, but she had ordinary red blood.
Zaleha became the target of a marriage entourage sent by the powerful yet womanising Sultan of Acheh (known today as Aceh), who saw both sisters in a dream, but wanted only ‘the white-blooded one’ for prosperity. Sulaiman, panicking at the thought of losing his beloved ethereal daughter (and the threat of war), sent Mariam in her place. Having gone through with marriage, her father’s ruse was exposed after she accidentally cut her hand preparing betel. Upon seeing plain red blood, the Sultan of Acheh flew into a rage and declared war on Kedah.
Sulaiman hid Zaleha away in a bunker, praying she would never be found. The legend goes that the moon refused to shine on her location, causing the Acheh soldiers searching for her to lose themselves in darkness. Unfortunately, Sulaiman died during the wars, and no one knew where Zaleha was. She died of starvation.
When finally found, she was buried on the hill of Kota Seputeh where their kingdom was. Some believe that the moon still doesn’t shine on her to this day, hence the nickname Puteri Lindungan Bulan (the Princess Protected by Moonlight).
Puteri Walinong Sari – Pahang
Long ago, when Pahang was Inderapura, there lived a princess named Walinong Sari famed for her mastery of armed combat and beauty. Rumors of her spread so far and wide, it attracted a celestial king from Mount Tahan. Curious, he took on the form of a pigeon to view this mortal beauty himself; but only her unveiled eyes were visible. Undeterred, he morphed into an ugly old man and challenged her to a duel of silat, a Malay martial art. They fought for three days and nights, neither yielding in skill nor strength.
In a moment of exhaustion, the princess stripped her veil. Her bared beautiful face struck the celestial king so much, that he swooned. As she tended to him, his disguise washed away to reveal his true form, and Walinong Sari fell in love.
But his father was angered – how could a mortal defeat a celestial being; his son?! In a storm of thunder and lightning, the celestial king was spirited away. Walinong Sari fell into despair and disappeared from her palace, said to have gone wandering in search for her lost love.
Her legend is preserved through classic saga, and was popularized again through song by Malaysian singer Siti Nurhaliza.
Puteri Ulek Mayang – Terengganu
With every tale of fishermen encountering seafolk, there is always one of a soul seduced to remain in the dark depths by a siren. In this legend, a boatload of fishermen thought themselves dead after their ship sank in a ferocious storm. They awoke to find all of them safe on a beach, but one of them remained catatonic. The crew sought the help of a bomoh (shaman), who discovered that his soul had been claimed by a sea princess.
The bomoh attempted to bring him back, but the sea princess refused, calling her sisters to aid her. With every new attempt the bomoh made to retrieve the fisherman, two more came.
The supernatural battle between land and sea continued until the seventh eldest and final sea princess intervened. “Let those from land return to land, and those from the sea stay at sea,” she commanded, knowing the origin of the scuffle. The fisherman’s soul was release back to his own body, and his crew offered her colored rice with the frond of a Pinang tree the bomoh used during the ritual as thanks.
They called her Princess Ulek Mayang, remembering how they entreated her (Ulek), and for the ritualistic palm fronds (Mayang). An offering was created in her honor, and to appease the sea spirits for the safety of future fishermen.
Due to its roots in animism (the worship of plants and objects), the ritual has been passed over for Islamic disbelief and is rare in practice nowadays. The legend however remains in Terengganu’s heritage, and the once spiritual folk dance is now only performed for its cultural entertainment value.
Puteri Santubong and Puteri Sejinjang – Sarawak
The history of Mount Santubong, Mount Sejinjang, and the islands visible from their peaks are steeped in mythical sibling rivalry. Legend has it that two celestial princesses, Princess Santubong and Princess Sejinjang, were sent down to quell two warring villages in Sarawak’s valley. The gods who sent them gave them one cardinal rule: that the two must not incite hostility themselves.
Santubong bestowed the skill of weaving and embroidery to the village designated to her; whereas Sejinjang granted the knowledge of planting and harvesting paddy to her own. Both regions prospered in harmony, so much that the surrounding areas sought to make connections with them.
Catastrophe struck however when a handsome mortal prince came to visit, capturing the affections of both celestial princesses. In a bid to claim the man, the princesses fought. Sejinjang struck Santubong with her thresher, cutting deep into her cheek. Santubong hit back at Sejinjang so hard her head splintered. Both of their delegated regions fell into ruin.
Angered at their failure and pettiness over a mortal being, the gods cursed the two to be a part of their respective lands forever.
Mount Santubong is whispered to resemble a woman lying on her side, with a large gorge near the top as remnant of the strike by Sejinjang. Mount Sejinjang is noticeably smaller, and the islands visible from their peaks said to be where pieces of Sejinjang’s head had scattered.
The mountains are a popular hiking spot for visitors, and the tale of the two jealous princesses is summarized in folk song.
Puteri Gunung Ledang – Johor
Arguably the most popular of all Malaysian folklore, the legend of the fairy princess of Mount Ledang has been a favorite due to her fabled impossible tasks; and the relation to the disappearance of another legendary figure, Hang Tuah.
Sultan Mansor Shah of Melaka was so engrossed with tales of the fairy princess’ power and beauty, he sought her hand in marriage. Hang Tuah, the Sultan’s most trusted warrior, was tasked to seek out her mythical kingdom with an entourage. He succeeded in meeting the princess, but was sent back with seven impossible tasks.
- A walkway of gold leading Melaka to the mountain.
- A walkway of silver leading the mountain to Melaka.
- Seven trays of mosquito hearts.
- Seven trays of the hearts of germs.
- Seven barrels of young betel nut juice. (The fruit does not produce liquid)
- Seven barrels of virgin tears.
- A silver bowl filled with the blood of his youngest son.
The king in vain actually attempted to fulfill these tasks, but rendered his own kingdom to ruin and refused to lay a single cut on his son. According to some sources, the princess’ tasks came after her outright rejection was ignored, and she herself was healing from heartbreak of losing her lover. Hang Tuah, ashamed at his failure to secure his king’s honor, threw himself and his mystical keris Taming Sari in a river, never to be seen again.
Locals say the princess remains on the mountain, and the two walkways have been swallowed up by the jungle, visible only in the spirit world.
The legend has been adapted as Malaysia’s first ever mega budget movie in 2004, with a production cost of USD 4 million.