The origins of the name 'Brunei Darussalam'


AS ONE of the ancient kingdoms of the Malay archipelago, Brunei's historical legacy is long and compares with, even exceeds that of other better known empires in the region.

Among others, its strategic geographical location and well- sheltered harbour has made it a safe place for ships plying their trade in the Southeast Asian region from as early as the sixth Century.

Brunei had been known by many names in the past.

In the Chinese historic annals, Brunei was mentioned as far back as 1,500 years ago in the Liang Dynasty (502 to 566 CE).

Then the Brunei predecessor state of Poli sent tributes to the Chinese bearing the produce of the country.

Subsequent visits by other Chinese travellers to Brunei included that during the Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE), in the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE) and Sung Dynasty (960-1279 CE).

During those years, the name Poni had also been spelled as Bu-ni, Fo-ni, Po-ni and Po-lo.

It was recorded that the King of Po-lo had sent a mission to China in 669 CE.

The differences of the names are said to be caused by the changes of the Chinese dynasties, each preferring its own way of spelling.

The Arabs, however, called Brunei by other names, including that of Sribuza.

It was believed that around the seventh century, Brunei was captured by members of the royal family of Funan who in turn had fled when their own kingdom was attacked by Chenla, another historical empire.

The captured Brunei was renamed Vijayapura which the Chinese referred to as Fo-shih-pu-lo and the Arabs rendered as Sribuza which, in the 10th century, would have been pronounced "Srivijaya". Other Arabic names for Brunei include Dzabaj and Randj.

When did Brunei became Brunei?

The local historians and narrative transmission through the centuries such as the Syaer Awang Semaun, Brunei's legendary epic poem, agree that the name "Brunei" came about when it was discovered.

A group of 14 brothers led by Pateh Berbai and 90 dayaks went in search of a new place to live.

At the time, they were living in the present Temburong district area called Garang.

They landed at a place called Burit at the Brunei River and found that the place seemed to be the most suitable as it was flanked by hills with ample water supply and a river abundant with fish.

When they found the place, it was said that they exclaimed baru nah! which loosely translated into "Now we found it" and became "Brunei".

The Brunei epic poem, Syaer Awang Semaun described the discovery thus:

Pateh Berbai then said,

We entered into the country of Brunei River

With a total of ninety in number

All of them were Sakai.

They rowed up the river,

And caught a lot of sharks and rays,

Pateh looked left and right,

For a good place to rest and open a country.

To Damang Sari, Awang Alak says,

After looking left and right with Pateh,

If Awangku agrees with me,

In Brunei we shall build a country.

Each member of the group set up his own house on the Brunei river and eventually more people came to stay there.

The move and the change in name was said to correspond to Chinese records of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1643 CE).

It was stated that in the year of 1397, several countries which, before then, had stopped sending gifts to China, had resumed sending gifts to China and included among the few was a country called "Bruni".

It can be summarised that the move to the Brunei river and the changing of the name to Brunei took place around that time.

The Chinese later described Brunei as Wen-lai and Bun-lai.

In historical annals around the region, in the earlier days, the word "Brunei" appeared in many forms including as Buruneng, Bornei, Burneau, Borney, Borneo, Bruneo, Burne, Bornui and Bruni.

The Europeans called Brunei "Borneo". Hugh Low in 1848 wrote: "The name Borneo, by which the island has always been distinguished on European charts, and which was probably applied to it by the Portuguese from information received prior to any of their visits to the island, is a corruption of the word 'Bruni', the name of a kingdom and town on the Northwest Coast of the island — Bruni being thus called by the inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula."

In another writing in 1812 by a J Hunt, we find: "Borneo was the name only of a city, the capital of one of the three distinct kingdoms in the island. The natives pronounce Borneo 'Bruni', and say that it is derived from the word 'brani', courageous."

Historically, it is possible to trace the word "Brunei" to yet other sources.

J R Hipkins wrote in 1971 that the word Brunei is said to have come from the Sanskrit word Bhurni which means "land" or "country".

Brunei could have been called Karpuradvipa which means "camphor land", as camphor was one export Brunei was well known for in ancient times.

One J H Moor writing in 1871 noted that the Sanskrit word Varunai meant "seaborne" — again another characteristic of the Bruneian of old, who were seafarers, mariners and lived on water as still illustrated in our times by Kampong Ayer.

Interestingly enough, one Leon de Rosny writing in Paris in 1861 noted that when the Po-ni characters were transposed into Japanese Hira-Kana script, Po-ni became "Borneu" or "Bornerei".

And "Darussalam"?

It was said that the Arabic construct "Darussalam", which means "abode of peace", was used by the third Sultan of Brunei, Sultan Sharif Ali.

However, according to Groenvelt who wrote in 1960, the Ming Shih mentioned that Emperor Yung-lo conferred upon the Kinabalu mountain range behind Po-ni the title of "Mountain of Lasting Tranquility". The latter translated into "Darussalam".

In the Chinese records in 1408 Po-ni was known as Chang-ning Chen-Kuo or "City of Lasting Tranquillity" — the Brunei Darussalam of today.

The author runs a website on Brunei at

The Brunei Times
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