by Nin Harris
The South East Asian region consists of hybrid nations straddling the waterways and trade routes between India and China. Rich with much-disputed spices, regions yielding gold, tin ore and precious wood such as teak, the clashes between different cultures, civilisations and religious beliefs were inevitable. Sometimes, there would be assimilation, whether peaceful or violent. Growing up, I enjoyed tales of pre-Islamic empires such as Sailendra and Srivijaya, which spanned major parts of the Nusantara (the Malay Archipelago), as well as the stories of Indochinese empires and the clash between the forces of Siam and China in their bid for the Malay Peninsula. This historical backdrop provides the fodder for many stories. The tales of Thailand and Cambodia are rich with Buddhist iconography melded with local animism, while the Malay archipelagoes developed their own unique, intrinsic culture which assimilated the storytelling patterns of both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions with that of local animism. Later, as Islam became the main religion, the Islamic motif added a new, distinct note within the weaving of the tales.
Looking for the translations of some of the more obscure texts presented me with a challenge. I have included some personal translations included on blogs, as well as those found on the pages of commercial websites. One might say that to a certain extent, tourism commodifies these stories, but perhaps the connection between commerce and folklore is more entrenched than we think it is. The following is a list of fairytales, folklore and mythology found in some South East Asian countries, along with annotations. I would definitely recommend following up on this.
- While I was stalking the folklore and myths of Thailand and Indo-China, I came across a reference to the Himmapan Forest which intrigued me. The Himmapan Forest is said to exist somewhere between India and Nepal.
- Stories about the forest are steeped in both Buddhist lore and local folktales, and many of the figures in Thai art which have these hybrid animals are said to live within this mystical forest. I was particularly taken by the Thep Kinnaree and would like to do a visual representation of it someday!
- There are many other creatures within the Himmapan Forest, however, and here are artistic depictions of Thai mythical creatures such as the Naga, the Hong, the Kinnaree, and the Garuda (some cross-over with Indonesia here). Life in Vientiane has an intriguing account of the Himmapan Forest, describing it as a “secret palace” where there are people who are half-bird and half-human.
- Nusantara Folklore is an Indonesian website which collects and displays folklore from all countries in the Nusantara region.
- A fascinating page offering the basics of Indonesian Myths and Folktales, connects it to Indian Mythology. In particular, the writer explores the evolution of the Five Pandawas who were found in the Mahabarata and the Bhatarayuda within Indonesian folklore.
- I also discovered a page about the Myths of Origins and the Deluge of Indonesia, I was particularly taken with this, because I’d been looking up different versions and manifestations of the Deluge. It’s inevitable that an archipelagic region would have tales such as these.
- This waterlogged tale from Indonesia is a tale of transformation and retribution, found within the Legend of Lake Toba.
- Unbeknownst to most of the western world, the Malay Archipelago had more than one woman warrior or queen in its arsenal of tales. In Hikayat Panji Semarang, the entire heroic romance in old Indonesian Malay features a female princess who cross-dresses as a man so she can be a warrior! One of the most famous Malay female warrior queens is Cik Siti Wan Kembang. I found it interesting that the most helpful pages on Cik Siti Wan Kembang were anecdotal blog posts but it was inevitable. Daring to Speak Bahasa is a thoughtful post which touches on malay folklores and legends. The blogger writes about how the legends personally affected and influenced her, delving into the complexities of Malaysian race politics. On the other hand, Reunited in Negeri Cik Siti Wan Kembang is a less political blog post detailing a journey into Kelantan, with foodbloggery and a painting of the warrior queen.
- Another strong female icon within Malay folklore is The Princess of Mount Ophir, or Puteri Gunung Ledang. This story revolves around a princess (or demigoddess) who lived up a mountain and who swore to take no one as her husband. Of course, such an oath would be a challenge to most powerful patriarchs, and so the legend was born. The Fairy Princess of Mount Ophir (Puteri Gunung Ledang) features both the story and the popular culture references in Malaysia by Sejarah Melayu, which is in itself an extensive site dedicated to the documents, archival research and folktales behind and surrounding the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) manuscript. Malacca Tourism’s pithy and concise (as well as accurate) version of the Puteri Gunung Ledang tale is also a helpful read, particularly because it doesn’t serve up the overblown, romanticized versions that now exist due to popular culture. Like many of these tales, mysticism is tied with a message about the abuse of power.
- Another example of this may be found in the Mahsuri stories.The legend of Mahsuri is the prototype tale of the virtuous wife who has been wronged by nobility, due to gossip, ill-will and the abuse of power. Up till the late-80s, it was said that the island of Langkawi was put under a curse for seven generations by Mahsuri, which is why it could never develop. Around the 1990s, there was a tourism boom on Langkawi, and it was said that the curse had lifted. Many of the attractions on the island revolve around Mahsuri’s story, and there is also a musical about the whole thing, which I saw as a kid. Here’s a fairly accurate and decently written rendition, for the website of an Australian Satay House, of all things!
- One of the things I love about the stories of the Far East as well as those of South East Asia is the deep romanticism mixed with pragmatism. There are elements within these tales which are very much public-spirited, containing elements of therapy or catharsis. Happy endings are not typical or required; some tales may be moralistic, while others are peculiarly enigmatic. The legend of Ulek Mayang has always been one of my favourite stories, and is particularly enigmatic. The story is part of a ritualistic performance that includes song, dance and mantras. Like many, I was first introduced to it via a dance performance on a school concert day. The story put chills through me, as it should, because it was both otherworldly and incredibly sad, filled with the human longing for different realities. This is pretty much consistent in other East Malaysian performances, such as the Mak Yong. The story is of the relationship between the fishermen and the spirits of the sea (or mermaid princesses), and is about seven playful sea princesses who caused the fishermen to go unconscious. There are mantras within this performance which has all the hallmarks of psychotherapeutic healing linked to ritual (The book, Religious and Social Ritual: Interdisciplinary Explorations edited by Michael B. Aune and Valerie DeMarinis has very good examples and explanations of this. I’ve used it before in my Masters in Literature thesis, and it will likely be helpful for those of you interested in ritual.). Here’s a page with a clear, concise and well-written exposition of the legend.
- For further reading, First Day Covers has a page on Malaysian folktales, served in concise paragraph form. Also, here’s an interesting variation of the Raja Bersiong(fanged king) story I was not aware of, related to the origins of the town, Baling. And yes, Raja Bersiong is another wicked king, who developed a penchant for human blood in his curry after a cook accidentally cut his hand while cooking a royal feast.
- Africa has Brer Rabbit, Malaysia has its own, witty little mammal, Sang Kancil. The fragile mouse-deer is an iconic figure within Malaysian folktales and children of different races would have been told these stories both at home and at school. Most of the tales are about resourcefulness when you’re outwitted by bigger and stronger animals in the forest. Sejarah Melayu details the connection between the Kancil and the legend of the founding of the Malacca Sultanate by Parameswara. I’ve always been interested by the significance of the tree within this tale. The Sultanate takes its name from the Malacca tree, but the entire experience is mystical.
- Outwitting a Crocodile seems to be the most well-represented Sang Kancil tale on the world wide web, but I am interested in finding more.
Cambodia evokes images of a hidden empire within a tropical forest, with sacred apsaras guarding its ornate, stonework enclosures. I was enchanted by the following sites which gave me a glimpse into Khmer folktales which were a mixture of folk wisdom and Buddhist beliefs.
- Khmer Folktales by My Cambodia News.
- A page of Khmer Folktales by Cornell University’s South East Asia Outreach division.
- Khmer Fashion Lab‘s translated Khmer folktales.
- To Sell a Donkey (folktale).
- Alamat, A Phillipine Folktales, Myths and Legend Page is a site that lists out the different folktales, myths and legends according to different elemental domains, featuring creation myths as well as legends. Beautiful in both its organisation and its sentiment, I would definitely list this as a must-visit if you’re interested in pinoy myths and folklore.
- For something a little older, Folktales from the Phillipines by D.L. Ashliman provides interesting reading and context, while, for something more local, there’s a blog dedicated to Pinoy folktales.
- Vietnam has one of the most intriguing myths of origin I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. According to the folktale, the people of Vietnam sprang into existence from the union of the descendants of Fairies and Dragons. Recently, there was an exhibit in the Children’s Museum of Houston based around the intriguing folktales of Vietnam. Elsewhere on the internet, there exists a .pdf file with five of the core tales which are featured in the exhibition. If any of you had the pleasure of going to the exhibition, we’d love to hear from you about it!
- There are also other Vietnamese fairytales which do have some connections to variants found everywhere in the world, the Tale of Tam and Cam, is a good example, as it has some correlations to the Cinderella variant, which has appeared in the Malay Archipelago as Bawang Merah, Bawang Putih (red onion, garlic).
- If you’re intrigued and would like to read more, this website has a list of books featuring Vietnamese folk and fairytales.
- Thanks to the output of bloggers as well as academic folklorists such as Wajuppa Tossa of Northern Illinois University’s Lao Folk Literature course, there are sites which are treasure troves filled with Lao folklore. Dr Tossa has also authored a book along with Kongdeuane Nettavong, edited by Margaret Read MacDonald, Lao Folktales. An excerpt from the book may be found here, featuring the folktale The Crow and the Peacock.
- The Laotian blogger Nye has a good write-up on Lao Folktales here, featuring one of the stories, Phi Kongkoi, the Ghost Named Kongkoi. Also on her blog, a write-up about an intriguing tale called The Birth of Xiang Ming features a video presentation.
- Another book that anyone interested in Lao folktales should look out for is Ten of the Best Lao Folktales.
- The writer O. Dohn Paditsone has a couple of intriguing write-ups of Lao folktales. I enjoyed reading The Magic White Swan as well as The Cresent Moon Comb.
This list is by no means extensive, and is meant as a starter list both for the lover of folklore and fairytales and for writers interested in world folklore, myths and legends. If you have more knowledge about the folk and fairytales of any of the South East Asian regions listed as well as those I have not yet explored, do feel free to comment in this post. Educate us!
This post is an edited version of Nin Harris’s collection of annotated links for The Mythogenetic Grove and is part of her Arthropod Trails series of posts.The featured mixed-media painting is “The Lilypad Princess” by Nin Harris, inspired by the stories of the ancient kingdoms of the Malay Archipelago.