The naga and his twin sister — a Malay tale

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak by FoSM

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

This is the first of a four-part series titled ‘The Naga Moves: Dragon Tales from Borneo’.

By Monica Janowski


MORE than a hundred years ago, twins—a boy and a girl—were born to the royal family of the kingdom of Sambas on the island of Borneo, which is now in West Kalimantan.

The little girl was named Raden Hasnah and the little boy Raden Shamsuddin. Sadly, the little boy was born with bow legs, and he looked like a naga (dragon). Because of this, his family decided, with regret, that he should be thrown into the Sambas river.

That night his mother had a dream in which her little son, Raden Shamsuddin, appeared to her. He said that he was very sorry that she had discarded him, as he would have turned into a human if they had kept him in a golden jar for 40 days. But because they had thrown him into the river he would remain a naga and would live in a palace deep in the Sulu Sea with his relatives, the other naga.

When she grew up, Raden Hasnah, the naga’s twin sister, fell in love with a trader from Kelantan, Tengku Naruddin. He was from an aristocratic family but he was not a member of a royal family, and her family didn’t want her to marry him.

So Raden Hasnah and Tengku Naruddin left Sambas and established a new settlement for themselves in what is now Sarawak, calling it Semera, after the place from which Tengku Naruddin had come in Kelantan, which was called Semerak.

Raden Hasnah and Tengku Naruddin’s son Mohammed was a policeman based at Santubong in Sarawak. At Santubong, there is a high mountain right next to the sea. Mohammed lived with his family in police barracks on the slopes of the mountain, facing the sea.

One day Mohammed heard that his mother, Raden Hasnah, had died suddenly. He was very upset as it was too far for him to be able to get to Semera for her funeral. He was sitting on the verandah of the barracks at about 4pm with his children Hamdan, Maimunah and Rose, looking at the sea and feeling sad, when the fishermen began running up the beach shouting that the weather had suddenly changed. The sky became dark and it looked as though the sun were setting. The sea turned green, as though it were full of algae, and it came right up below the barracks where Mohammed and his children were sitting.

Figure 1: Naga. Painting by Marzuki Jamilah, Mahdi Hamdan’s son-in-law. Photo: Monica Janowski

Then a huge naga came up out of the water and placed its front feet on the balustrade of the verandah of the police barracks where Mohammed and his children were sitting. The naga looked like a Chinese dragon except that he only had two horns. These were golden and he was covered with golden scales. The naga had a friendly face.

Mohamed and his children, Hamdan, Maimunah and Rose, all saw the naga, though Mohamed saw it most clearly as the children saw him only through the railings of the verandah. The naga spoke to Mohammed, saying: “Assalamualaikum Mohammed (Peace be upon you, Mohammed)”, to which Mohammed replied “Waalaikumsalam (Peace be upon you, too)”.

The naga continued: “I am Raden Shamsuddin, your mother’s twin brother. I’ve just had a battle with the land naga. I won the battle but I am mortally wounded and am going to die soon. That is why my twin sister Raden Hasnah has died.”

Raden Shamsuddin went on: “I would like to give you one of my golden scales. To get the scale off my back I need to rub against the fish traps down in the water. Come down into the water to get the scale.’ Mohamed was too scared to go into the water and refused.

So Raden Shamsuddin said: “Never mind. I understand that you are afraid. Although I will die soon, you and your descendants can always call out for help from my kin, the other naga living in the palace in the Sulu Sea.” Raden Shamsuddin then went back into the sea and the weather became normal again.

After this Rose, Mohammed’s daughter, was regularly possessed by the spirit of the naga. When she became possessed, she would ask for a drink, saying: “I’m very tired now, as I’ve been swimming such a long way, all the way from the Sulu Sea. I’m also very thirsty.”

So her brother Hamdan would bring a huge jar full of water—five litres of water—and he would give it to her. She was a small, fragile woman, but she would tip it up and drink it all, nonstop. And then she would say: “Now I’ve quenched my thirst.”

The whole family knew that the naga in the sea were very attracted to them. This meant that they must never go into the sea as the naga who live in the sea, who are their ancestors, might take them away. It also meant that the naga were always there, waiting, ready to help them.

Once, when he was a child, Mahdi was travelling with his father Hamdan down to Santubong for his grandfather’s funeral. It was a moonless night and there was no light at all, but Mahdi saw a bright luminescence around the front of their boat, and the boat went faster than it should have, as it had a very small engine.

Afterwards, after they got out of the boat, his father said: “Did you see that? That was our ancestor making us go faster. It’s a good thing you didn’t say anything about it while we were in the boat, though.”

Sometimes members of the family can’t avoid going into the sea and they have to be very cautious if this happens, in case they are taken by the naga. Once, when Mahdi was a child, he and his Aunt Rose had to wade into the sea to get to the cinema, because it was high tide. She was carrying a small child.

While they were wading, Mahdi saw something that looked like a brightly-coloured fish between his aunt’s legs, and he remembers her saying: “Don’t take me now. I’m carrying a child.” When they reached the land again, she said to Mahdi: “That was our ancestor.”

Mahdi himself would love to meet the naga, his kin. He would particularly love to see a naga’s face. In the hopes of seeing a naga, he has regularly been down to the sea to call them. He has even been to Sambas, the home of his great grandmother Raden Hasnah, the naga’s twin, to call the naga. But the naga have not yet come in response to his calls.

Mahdi Hamdan related this tale to me in Kuching in February 2023. Thanks to Marzuki Jamilah, his son-in-law, who introduced me to Mahdi.

Dr Monica Janowski is a social anthropologist who has been doing research in Sarawak since 1986. She has published many articles and books, including Tuked Rini, Cosmic Traveller: Life and Legend in the Heart of Borneo (NIAS Press and Sarawak Museum, 2014). She began researching Borneo dragon stories and legends in 2017. She is currently Curator of the SE Asia Museum at the University of Hull.

This is the first of a four-part series titled ‘The Naga Moves: Dragon Tales from Borneo’.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.

— DayakDaily