The Malay culture has many interesting stories that have been handed down over the centuries. Some of them are based on historical events and others are more in the form of legends. Sadly, many of these tales are not well known to the average modern city dwelling Malaysian and are perhaps today found only in the libraries of academicians and in the memories of some elders in the remote villages.
However, there are still several enduring legends which are still relatively well known. One of them is the legend of the Princess of Mount Ophir or as she is known in Malay, “Puteri Gunung Ledang”. Puteri means “princess” and Gunung Ledang is the Malay name for Mount Ophir. The legend was recently made into a movie and a musical which has greatly helped to keep its magic alive in the people’s consciousness.
The legend dates back to the 15th Century at the height of power and prosperity of the Kingdom of Melaka. The Kingdom had grown rich and strong by being an important port of call for trading vessels plying the profitable marine trade route between India and China. In recognition of the power and importance of the kingdom, Sultan Mansur Shah received from China a princess bride and he had another princess bride too from a nearby Kingdom in what is now the island of Java.
Yet this did not satisfy the growing ego of the Sultan and his desire for recognition. Since he considered himself superior to the surrounding kings and sultans, he wanted a queen that no other ordinary king or sultan could possess. To the horror of his advisors, he declared that he wanted to marry the Princess of Mount Ophir.
Now there are many stories about the origin of this Princess and many of them ascribe to her mystical powers and claim her to be more than a mortal being. She lived on the top of the tallest mountain (Mount Ophir) in the south of the Malay Peninsula. It is said that her court consisted only of women that could appear and disappear with the mists on the mountain top and that could become pregnant by the power of the wind that blows there. It is also said that she was protected by tigers which were actually jungle peoples with the power of transformation. The Sultan believed that he had been chosen by God to be the sultan and having the Princess of Mount Ophir as his queen would give legitimacy to his claim of divine appointment.
He called on his most trusted warrior, Hang Tuah, who is a legendary warrior in his own right, and sent him on the mission to secure the princess’ hand in marriage for the Sultan. Hang Tuah and his men went up the mysterious mountain and after some adventure, found the Princess and her court and conveyed the Sultan’s desire for marriage.
The legend tells of how the Princess really does not want to marry Sultan Mansur but in recognition of his power decided not to embarrass him by saying no. Instead, she tells Hang Tuah and his men to tell the Sultan that he must first provide a suitable dowry. She requested the following; a bridge of gold and silver from the foothills of Melaka to the top of Mount Ophir, seven trays full of the hearts of mosquitoes, seven trays full of the hearts of mites, a bowl of water wrung from dried areca nuts, a bowl of tears from virgins, a cup of the Sultan’s blood and a bowl of the blood of the Sultan’s baby son.
When Hang Tuah heard this, he knew immediately that these conditions would never be fulfilled and felt that he had failed the Sultan. Rather than face the Sultan in disgrace, he threw his magical keris (curved dagger) Taming Sari into the Duyung River and vowed never to return to Melaka unless the keris floated to the surface. With that, some stories say that the mighty warrior that had kept Melaka safe from her enemies, faded into the mists of time.
Nevertheless, the Princess’ dowry demands are delivered to the Sultan. The legend says that the Sultan was so driven with his desire to claim the Princess’ hand, he actually sets about fulfilling the dowry conditions. He actually builds the golden bridge and collects all those wonderful items. However, when it come to collecting a bowl of blood from his infant son, the Sultan realises the baby would die in the process and finally realises that he is not able to make that sacrifice.
The legend tells how this mad endeavour had bankrupted the Kingdom. The Sultan himself was a spent man and withdrew himself more and more from the real world. In this manner, the mighty Kingdom of Melaka was fatally weakened and finally fell when Hang Tuah was not there to defend it when the Portugese fleet attacked in 1511.
Although this legend may sound fantastical to the modern listener, it is actually hard to tell myth from truth as it is so well woven with historical events and actual physical locations. Elements of the story are also found within the texts of serious historical records written by the conquering Portugese and even the Arab and Chinese traders. Believers will tell you that final definitive proof is still available in the form of the remains of the golden bridge now hidden by the jungle and Hang Tuah’s keris lying at the bottom of a dark pool of water on the Duyung River. Squirrel’s Believe it or Nuts.