Back to

The Malays

Rivers deep or mountains high?
The origins of the word 'Melayu'

Melayu or Malayu was the name of an ancient kingdom located at the mouth of the Batang Hari, a river in Jambi, a province on the eastern coast of southern Sumatra. In fact, the names 'Melayu' and 'Jambi' are frequently interchangeable in many historical texts. The word 'Malayu' was also found inscribed on a statue dated around 1286 AD, found in Padang Rocore, near the mouth of the river.
The Muara Jambi Temple

The kingdom of Melayu maintained relations with the mighty kingdoms of Majapahit, Singasari and her neighbour Sri Vijaya. The Chinese monk I-Tsing, who studied in Sri Vijaya,in fact noted that Melayu " is now the country of Sri Vijaya". Scholars have differed in their interpretations of this remark ; certainly the relationship between Melayu and Sriwijaya was a very close one, although there were some period of Melayu's independence when Sri Vijaya was based in nearby Palembang.

Siguntang hill today
This Palembang connection becomes even more striking when you consider that the area Melayu is also mentioned in the Sejarah Melayu. "Here now is the story of a city called Palembang in the land of Andelas (Sumatra). It was ruled by Demang Lebar Daun, a descendant of Raja Shulan, and its river was the Muara Tatang. In the upper reaches of the Muara Tatang was a river called Melayu, and on that river was a hill called Si-Guntang Mahameru'...."

It is from this mythical hill that Sang Utama descends upon a white bull and later becomes Sri Tri Buana. Sri Tri Buana leaves Palembang to found a new city - Singapura - his descendants rule for another five generations. During the rule of the last Sultan, Iskandar Shah, Majapahit attacks and Iskandar flees the island - to establish Melaka and its line of Malay Sultans centuries on.

It should be noted that these two theories may not be completely compatible with each other - Palembang is over 100 miles from the mouth of the Batang Hari. However, the significance of Melayu as a point of origin and 'where it all began' cannot be discounted when considering the origin of the word. The Melayu river mentioned in the 'Sejarah Melayu' is, symbolically at least, the homeland of the Melaka Sultans and their line.

References alluding to the word 'Melayu' can also be found in ancient writings from other sources. There were references to minerals from the kingdom of "Mo-lo-yeu' in Chinese records of the 7th century AD (the same period where I-Tsing made his references to Ma La Yu), with various other Chinese records refer to 'Ma Li Yi Er' and 'Wu Lai Yu'. Marco Polo referred to an area somewhere in southern part of the Malay peninsula as "Malauir'.

The earliest ever related reference, however, occurs in Inian texts, namely the Ramayana and Vayu Purana, which talk of Malayadvipa - one of the provinces in the mythical eastern islands that are full of gold and silver. There is supposed to be a hill here called Malaya that was said to be full of silver mines, as well as a mountain called Mahamalaya. However, the majority academic view seems to be that Malayadvipa was a reference to Sumatra, rather than the Malay Peninsula specifically. Both works are not geographical or historical records per se, so one cannot expect any degree of geographical exactitude.

The next specific mention of 'Malaya' in Indian is centuries later, in the records of the Chola invasion of the Malay archipelago in the 11th Century, with the reference to Malaiur - a kingdom that had "a strong mountain for its rampart" - inscribed on the south wall of the Rajarajesvara temple in Tanjore. Most references cite this Malaiur as the kingdom of Melayu in Jambi, rather than any point on the peninsula.

Guning Jerai, seen from Penang Hill

These various references to hills and mountains have led many to suggest that these early references may indeed be referring to the more mountainous northern Malay peninsula rather than the flat coastal plains of Jambi or Palembang. This suggests the ancient kingdoms of Langkasuka and Kadaram (present-day Kedah) as the cradle of Malay civilisation. If we were to look for physical proof of the existence of the earliest Malay kingdoms on the peninsula, it is inevitably Kedah that has yielded the most ancient archaeological evidence so far discovered.

Gunung Jerai, certainly, is even today an imposing landmark on the flat coastal plains of Kedah and may have been a significant landmark for ancient Indian traders as thet first sighted the Malay peninsula entering the Straits. In the mid-nineteenth century, Captain James Low found "undoubted relics of a Hindoo colony, with ruins of temples ...' and '... mutilated images. ..' extending 'along the talus of the Kedda mountain Jerrei.' "

Another theory is that 'melayu' means 'run' in both Javanese and Mandailing and 'Tanah Melayu' refers to the 'land of refugees'. A major supporter of the 'refugee' theory is the Portuguese historianTome Pires. In his Suma Oriental, the earliest ever written account of Malay history by a European, he writes of Parameswara's first arrival in Bertam after fleeing Singapore: "The said Parameswara told the Celates (Orang Selat) 'You already know that in our language a man who runs away is called a Malayo, and since you bring such fruit to me who have fled, let this place be called Malaqa, which means ''hidden fugitive''.....

Though not a popular theory, there may be some basis to it. Like the much later Chinese and Indian immigrants to the peninsula, people have been running away from poverty, wars, invaders, pestilence, famine, natural disasters and oppressive rulers since the beginning of time. With long, constant wars taking place between powerful kingdoms in both Sumatra and Java, but relatively few wars on the Peninsula, it must have appeared a safe haven to many ancient peoples in the archipelago. If one were to be a poor padi farmer constantly robbed and looted by the marauding armies of Srivijaya, Majapahit, Jambi, Chola and countless others, it would probably be quite sensible to pack up and move to somewhere relatively safer and quieter - and where better than the Peninsula, where there were no large, powerful kingdoms to conquer, and no large cities to pillage and burn.

About the Author

Write to the author:

The Sejarah Melayu website is maintained solely by myself and does not receive any funding support from any governmental, academic, corporate or other organizations. If you have found the Sejarah Melayu website useful, any financial contribution you can make, no matter how small, will be deeply appreciated and assist greatly in the continued maintenance of this site.