Upai Semaring and Awang Semaun: The Lundayeh and the Brunei Royal House

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak by FoSM

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Dr Monica Janowski

Tales from the Heart of Borneo


STORIES are told both among the Lundayeh of the highlands and in Brunei about links between the Lundayeh and the Brunei sultanate. In the royal genealogy displayed in the Brunei Museum in Bandar Sri Begawan, a name is displayed at the very top, as the father of the first sultan: I-Pai Samar Yang. This is another version of Upai Semaring, a major culture hero from the Lundayeh highlands. According to Brunei legend, I-Pai Samar Yang was born from a giant egg found by Sang Aji Brunei, and he married Sang Aji Brunei’s daughter. In the genealogy displayed in the Brunei Museum and in Brunei legend, I-Pai Samar Yang is the father both of the first sultan of Brunei and of a central Brunei culture hero, Awang Semaun.

Awang Semaun

The names I-Pai Samar Yang/Upai Semaring and Awang Semaun are made up of elements from both the Lundayeh (Lun Bawang) language and the Brunei Malay language. Upai is a common personal name among the Lundayeh. Semaring does not have any meaning for the Lundayeh and perhaps originates in Brunei. Semaun is equivalent to the Lundayeh term Si Ma’on, meaning ‘The Ancient One’. Awang is an honorific used in Malay as a term of respect for someone important.

Brunei legend focuses on I-Pai Samar Yang’s son Awang Semaun, who is, in Brunei, a focal culture hero. In Brunei, many stories are told about the exploits of Awang Semaun, particularly in the Syair Awang Semaun, an important Brunei epic poem. In 2015, a film was made about Awang Semaun. Stories about him highlight his superhuman powers; and he is often said to be a giant. One story told in Temburong, for example, is that Awang Semaun left behind a giant water jar, which sometimes magically appears briefly to certain people. When it appears, this is in the river, where it is half-submerged. However, the story goes that only those who are not looking for it will ever see it.

Awang Semaun is closely associated with the conversion of the people of Brunei to Islam. He is said to have converted to Islam in Johore, taking the name Pengiran Temenggong, when he went on a visit to bring back a wife for his brother Awang Alak Betatar. Awang Alak Betatar is said to have travelled to Johore with Awang Semaun for the marriage ceremony and to have himself converted to Islam while he was there, taking the name Mohammed. He later became the first sultan of Brunei, Sultan Mohammed Shah. Awang Semaun/Pengiran Temenggong became one of the four viziers who controlled Brunei. He is said to have lived at Garang near Kuala Labu in Temburong.

In Lundayeh legend, Upai Semaring, like Awang Semaun, had superhuman powers and was a giant. He is one of the ancient legendary Lundayeh culture heroes who shaped and looked after the landscape. Upai Semaring’s home was on a hill near Long Bawan, and he was a great carver. His responsibility was to care for the huge lake that previously existed near the settlement of Long Bawan in the highland area, on the other side of the present international border in Kalimantan. However, as the population expanded, there wasn’t enough land for farming, so the people asked Asai, the culture hero who was responsible for carving out the rivers, to drain the lake. Asai did this, cutting through the mountains and creating a gorge, through which all the water drained out.

After this, Upai Semaring had no role to play, so he set off to travel across the landscape, making his way down to Brunei via the upper Padas and the upper Trusan, to Limbang and finally to Brunei. Here, Lundayeh legend relates that he became the ancestor of the Brunei sultans of today—something that is echoed by the Brunei royal genealogy displayed in the museum, in which I-Pai Samar Yang (Upai Semaring) is the father of the first sultan of Brunei.

On his way down to Brunei, Upai Semaring left many stone marks on the landscape, which can be seen to this day.

Upai Semaring/I-Pai Sama Yang’s hearth stones (batuh angan) at Ba’ Kelalan. Photo: Carolyn Hong

As he was a powerful giant, these are also gigantic: huge hearth stones, enormous sharpening stones. He left marks on stone where he jumped from place to place across the landscape, using his great power.

Upai Semaring’s footprint at Long Pasia.

It is said that he once made a hole in a cliff overhang near Long Bawan when he stood up forgetting about the low roof—the hole that he left can still be seen, including the outline of his ears! As a skilled carver, he is also said to have left carved stones.

Carving said to have been made by Upai Semaring, found by Dedius Tako, Long Lamai, Ba’ Kelalan. Photo: Monica Janowski

For the Lundayeh, it is Upai Semaring who is the subject of legends about his amazing exploits. In Brunei, it is Awang Semaun about whom tales of astounding feats are related. Interestingly, Lundayeh legend relates that Upai Semaring changed his name to Awang Semaun when he reached Brunei; in other words, for the Lundayeh, Upai Semaring and Awang Semaun are actually regarded as being the same person.

It seems that in Brunei there is a folk memory of the fact that their country’s royal house has its origins in the far highland area. The people of Long Bawan relate that pilgrims come regularly from Brunei. From Long Bawan they go to visit the hill near the town where Upai Semaring/I-Par Samar Yang is said to have lived before he left to make his stone-strewn way down to Brunei. Judging from the pilgrims making their own way up the steps leading up the hill, Surud Upai Semaring, it would seem that it is not only the people of the highland Lundayeh area but also the people of Brunei who see a link between their legendary culture hero Upai Semaring and the lineage of the sultanate of Brunei.

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.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.

— DayakDaily