In a time long forgotten, in the Calm Sea, there lived a great queen, of strong will and quick mind. She had visited the kingdoms on the vast continent to the north and was also the first among the rulers to use the drums of sovereignty. She ruled over an island long named Bintan.
It then came to her that three princes descended from He of the Two Horns had appeared on the Hill of Siguntang, and that the eldest among them had been made king to rule over the kingdom of Palembang. She also learned that this king had set out to seek new lands and that his ships had been sighted near Bintan’s shores.
Unto her two trusted ministers, she commanded: “Go and welcome this king. If he be old, give him from me a sister’s obeisance; if he be young, a sister’s greetings; and if he be but a child, a mother’s welcome.”
I regained my balance and continued to make my way to the exit. I held on to the iron bars on the side of the door, hopped off the ferry and for the first time in my life set foot on Indonesian soil.
The journey from Singapore’s Tanah Merah sea terminal had filled me with anticipation. The ferry that took me on the one-hour journey was named Indera Bupala, after one of the two trusted ministers of that oh-so-famous Queen of Bintan (the name of the other minister was Aria Bupala, a name taken by the other ferry operating on the same route). Even seeing these names on the departure information display was enough to evoke all images I always had of Bintan: an island steeped in history, fables and romance.
For ever since the Queen of Bintan welcomed those princes who claimed descent from Alexander the Great, Bintan has become inextricably bound to the fate and history of the Malay people. And though the forces of history have divided a land that was once united, separating brothers from brothers and fathers from sons, memories have remained.
And I am here to find traces of those memories.
The two ministers set out with 400 vessels to meet the king who had appeared on the sacred Hill of Siguntang. Upon laying their eyes on him they said, “Hail to Your Majesty! We bring greetings from our Queen your sister.”
To ally her kingdom to a king of so exalted a lineage, the Queen of Bintan wedded her daughter to the king’s son, Sang Nila Utama. Sang Nila Utama would linger in Bintan, but he would eventually leave the island forever, carried by the unerring hands of destiny.
He would take with him a golden crown brilliantly bright, a gift from his royal father. And he would receive the drums of sovereignty from the old Queen. A storm would force him to cast the crown into the depths of the Calm Sea, but the drums of sovereignty would remain in the hands of his children and his children’s children; a sign of their birthright and royal authority.
The sinuous road that took me across Bintan's hilly hinterland to the capital, Tanjung Pinang, was in excellent condition. All around, there was nothing much to see but green shrubbery, a painful reminder of rampant gambier planting on the island during the 1800s and the 1900s that destroyed much of Bintan’s forests and natural landscape.
Continuously visible throughout the journey, however, was the misnamed 400-metre high Mount Bintan, a faithful witness to Bintan's checquered past. As legends would have it, the fabled Queen of Bintan herself built a palace at the foot of this mountain.
Mount Bintan must have been the silent spectator to the enthronement ceremony of a ruler where the nobat, the royal orchestra, was first played. When the Queen of Bintan started employing these musical instruments - which included a set of drums that later came to be called the "drums of sovereignty" - for the ceremonies of her court, little did she know that centuries later, the nobat would become the only sign of royal authority in the Malay world. For the Malay kings that came after her, being enthroned to the strains of the nobat was the only way to attain legitimacy: for without this ancient royal music, no succession would be valid, and no prince would truly be king .
On that fateful journey, Sang Nila Utama sighted from afar delightful beaches as white as cotton and as fine as flour. He set foot on that virgin island and called it Lion City, a name that even the passing of time would not erase. The prince decided to make himself king over this new land, never to return to Bintan ever again. He sent emissaries to the old Queen for all those with which he could build and people his new kingdom.
The Queen of Bintan sent him labourers and craftsmen and elephants and horses and ships, upon which the new kingdom prospered and grew rich. Its new king who carried the blood of He of the Two Horns would sire a line of mighty kings who commanded the Sea People and became Lords of the Calm Sea.
But the unerring hands of destiny bear a double-edged sword. For as surely as a queen of Bintan had succoured and nourished the seed of that worthy royal line, a lord of Bintan would bring it to its end.
It was through help from Bintan, the Malay Annals told us, that the first ruler of Singapore established his rule on the island. And though ousted by the Javanese - some say, the Siamese - descendants of this adventurer from Palembang later moved up the Malay peninsula to found the mighty kingdom of Melaka. The prestige of their exalted lineage allowed them to command the fealty of the Orang Laut - "Sea People" or the sea nomads - whose sea know-how and fighting prowess contributed so much to Melaka's ability to channel trade into its port and protect passing merchants from pirate attacks.
The authority and dominance of Melaka reached such heights that at their pinnacle, Melaka's military prowess and political power were feared, and things Melakan became associated with everything that was cultured and refined. When the last king of Melaka fled the attacks of the Portuguese invaders, he sought refuge at the foot of Mount Bintan, on the island that had welcomed his ancestors centuries before.
The descendants of He of the Two Horns - or Zulkarnain, as the Arabic name of Alexander the Great would have it - would weather the storm of the Portuguese invasion, and re-establish their rule in Johor, south of Melaka. The Kingdom of Johor prospered and all those who before served the Melakan kingdom of old now converged on the Johor court in Kota Tinggi.
Among those who came to serve the king of Johor was an enigmatic man named Megat Seri Rama, who moved to Johor with his young wife Dang Anum. Due to his Bintanese origin, he was given the sobriquet Laksamana Bintan, or Lord Admiral of Bintan.
A piece of jackfruit would bring the fall of a proud line, and the tyrant on the throne would kill and die unrepentant. The kris of Laksamana Bintan found its prey and spilled the blood of the last of the Siguntang line.
The crime of rebellion would stain all, tearing asunder all that once held together, breaking apart that which once stood strong.
I arrived at Tanjung Pinang and went to the waterfront, squinting my eyes towards the Bay of Bintan. It then hit me that I was walking on the land that once gave birth to he whose name would go down in Malay history as the perpetrator of that unspeakable crime: regicide.
The murder of Sultan Mahmud Syah of Johor in 1699 sent reverberations throughout the Malay world. An unspeakable crime had been committed, and its repercussions were made worse as the king left behind no heir. For a kingdom that had survived defeats at the hand of foreign invaders on the faith of the divinely ordained sovereignty of its rulers, it was a vicious blow. For how could a kingdom survive without a ruler descended from the sanctified line of Siguntang; one that carries the blood of Alexander the Great?
The popular lore behind the regicide of 1699 talked of a jackfruit. The sultan, apprised of a ripening jackfruit in his orchard, ordered the Lord Chamberlain to collect it for his consumption. Bearing the fruit on the way back to the palace, the Lord Chamberlain met the wife of the Admiral of Bintan, Dang Anum, who was pregnant. The Admiral was away at that time fighting on one of Johor's campaigns against rebellious dependencies.
The pregnant Dang Anum had been having strong cravings for jackfruits in her pregnancy and begged the Lord Chamberlain for a piece of the royal fruit. Though he initially resisted, out of pity for the lonesome young woman, the Lord Chamberlain relented and gave her a piece of it, hoping that the sultan would not notice so small a piece missing.
But the sultan noticed and went livid with rage, incensed by the fact that a commoner presumed to have him eat her leftovers. Dang Anum was seized and asked to explain her behaviour. Begging for her life, she told the sultan that it was not she who so desired a taste of the jackfruit, but the baby in her womb. Upon hearing this, the sultan ordered her belly cut open so that he could see for himself this insolent unborn child that dared have him eat its leftovers.
Needless to say, the Admiral of Bintan learned of this cruel act, and the rest, as they say was history (though some would say, not quite). The Admiral stabbed the sultan as he was borne by servants on a palanquin to the mosque for Friday prayers. The sultan, as legend has it, threw his royal kris at the Admiral, and though he missed, the force of his sovereignty brought his assailant down. On his dying breath, he cursed the Admiral and all his descendants, that they would vomit blood should they ever set foot on Johorean soil. The sultan died on the palanquin and was given the posthumous title Marhum Mangkat Dijulang - His Majesty on the Palanquin Deceased.
Though this version of events has often been repeated, historians have been quite sceptical. An emerging view seems to be that the regicide of 1699 was the result of a conspiracy by the nobles, who were all involved in a plot so thick that it penetrated into the highest echelons of the Malay aristocracy. The nobles, it seems, conspired to have him murdered and Megat Seri Rama was chosen to carry out the act. The story about Dang Anum was probably fabricated later to pin down Megat Seri Rama as the ultimate scapegoat for the heinous crime against the king. Indeed, the death of Sultan Mahmud Syah saw the rise in the power of the Bendahara family, which eventually saw them elevated to the throne of Johor.
No matter what the circumstances surrounding the regicide were, the event caused an irreparable rift in Malay society. The Sea People, who before served the Melaka-Johor kings, no longer felt that they owed allegiance to the Bendahara line of kings. Dependencies of the Johor empire, which before were held in awe of the Melaka-descended sultans, would start challenging the legitimacy of the new dynasty.
And thus, a new era began.
Like all good stories, mine does not really end.
Legend has it that the reproductive organ of the dead Sultan Mahmud Syah of Johor grew erect just before he was interred. A concubine was ordered to satisfy this last royal urge and later gave birth to a prince who would return to claim his right of succession. But that is another story.
To this day, those who believe themselves to be descendants of Laksamana Bintan refuse to come into the vicinity of Kota Tinggi in the state of Johor, for fear of fulfillment of the ancient curse.