Sunday, April 11, 2010



Our history spans more than a millennia. And there is certainly a continuum of history that is preserved through the very legends of the land. Many of our Malay Hikayat originated from a Sultan’s wish to record his royal lineage. The Sejarah Melayu, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa and Misa Melayu are clear examples of this. The origin of Sejarah Melayu or the Sulalat us-Sulatin may never be uncovered but throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, versions were zealously updated, it was time consuming work, each volume faithfully copied by hand. Professor Dr Ding Choo Ming of ATMA, UKM says:

Dua perkara penting telah dinyatakan dalam definisi itu [classical Malay manuscripts]. Pertama, media karya sastera itu ialah manuskrip. Ia lahir di celah-celah tradisi lisan dan percetakan. Kedua, karya itu lahir di istana dan bukan daerah pedalaman dengan sastera lisan berkembang dan diperkembangkan.”

“Two important factors define the classical Malay manuscripts. Firstly, the media is in manuscript form, a transition between the oral storytelling and era of printed publications. Secondly, the stories and legends originated from the royal houses, and not from the rural and plebeian society, where royal scribes worked zealously to improve literature works.”

To the sultans and their royal scribes, and to many historians, whose interest in the Malay Hikayat became a lifelong passion, we owe a profound debt for the survival of these manuscripts.

The Malay Cultural Revolution and classical literature were shaped throughout a period of changing influences which fused effortlessly in the region. Buddhist tenets during the Srivijaya Empire and Hindu teachings during the Majapahit kingdoms found deep roots in the Nusantara existent until today. Our epic legends are collaborated in other classical text especially in Java, China throughout the 13th to the 17th centuries and more modern writers in the 18th and 19th. When Portuguese traveler Tomes Pires of the 16th century in his Somu Oriental recounted the story of Parameswara from Palembang who commanded his Orang Laut, his version closely corresponded to that of the Malay Annals which alludes that the descendents of Seri Teri Buana of Palembang founded Singapore and his descendents founded Malacca.

Islam arrived as part of the Muslim world expansion. In the medieval period of Islam up to the 14th century, the Muslims led the world in their pursuit of knowledge and in science. Muslim scholars were aggressively studying Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese documents, amassing huge libraries and making astounding discoveries in astronomy and mathematics. Muslims were also purveyors of stylized art and literature. In this way, the Islamic influence extended to our shores, and, to our literature. This is where the word hikayat originated. Some epics such as Hikayat Hang Tuah actually bear witness to this transition from Hindu influences in the beginning to Islam in the ending.

Historian, Prof Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim elaborates on the term hikayat:

Although the word sejarah has long existed in Malay vocabulary, hikayat was more widely used. Many historical works tended to focus on the genealogies of ruling families-these were called salasilah. When history appeared in verse form, it was also known as syair. The term hikayat indeed tends to imply that, in traditional Malay thinking, history was not punctiliously distinguished from literature.

And in the words of Ruud Spruit, the Director of the Westfries Museum,Hoorn,the Malay Hikayat is:

a mixture of classical romance and factual description.’

No doubt, the world found the Malay epics fascinating to study. Though R.O. Winstedt was critical, he was totally dedicated to the study of the Malay romances and sought to collect many of the surviving books. Amin Skinner, Teeuw and Shellbear poured over the Malay manuscripts, studying its content and influences. Today, European museums hold the bulk of the old manuscripts.

We need to bring forth these epic legends through theatre, story telling and books and other media.


For one, these legends are priceless and part of the world’s intangible heritage. Given the due recognition and appropriately showcased they would be as just as monumental as any historical structure such as Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Java’s Borobodur. In the intricacies of our classical literature, we will rediscover a civilization so cosmopolitan and complex.

Our continuous documentation of these stories is important. It is our responsibility to popularise these legends, give them legitimacy, its due worth and world recognition. More so, if we do not revive the stories for future generations, they will actually disappear.

HIKAYAT is the result of years of research, interviews and inspiration.

We hope readers would come to appreciate this legacy.

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