Tales from Syair Awang Semaun


REGULAR readers of this column would have read a number of references to Syair Awang Semaun.

Syair Awang Semaun is probably one of the most important and probably most popular among all the oral traditions in the history of Brunei's cultural literature. There are a number of interesting facts about the Syair Awang Semaun which many Bruneians do not know. In fact, many Bruneians have heard about Syair Awang Semaun but have not actually read it or know much about it.

Syair Awang Semaun is defined as a legend. Syair is a traditional Malay poem or some have described it as a sonnet or ode. The Syair as a legend narrated many tales that are supposed to have taken place in Brunei History. The Syair also contained a number of descriptions which may not be in the realm of possibility and also include supernatural forces or even miracles that are said to have taken place. Despite that the Syair remained as one of the few oral legends which have contributed towards understanding the history of Brunei.

The Syair Awang Semaun contained a number of tales and fables about the beginning of Brunei. Among them included the tales of Awang Semaun and his thirteen brothers who are said to have originated from the Kayangan (Heavens). Awang Semaun himself featured prominently in the epic poem. He is said to be the strongest and bravest amongst his siblings especially after eating the Ikan Sumpit-Sumpit (Archer Fish).

His strength included being able to make two small boats from one big tree trunk. When those boats entered into a race, not only did it defeat any other boats, the boats were able to cut into two, several islands in the Brunei Bay including those of Berbunut Island and Baru-Baru Island, Cermin Island and Keingaran Island, and Pilong Island and Punyit Island, where these six islands were once three islands.

The Syair also contained the exploits of Awang Semaun's other brothers. According to the Syair, Awang Semaun was one of 14 brothers which included Awang Alak Betatar, Pateh Berbai, Pateh Mambang, Pateh Tuba, Pateh Sangkuna, Pateh Manggurun, Pateh Malakai, Pateh Pahit, Damang Sari, Pateh Sindayong, Damang Lebar Daun, Hapu Awang and Pateh Laila Langgong. The brothers all lived in different places with Awang Semaun and his brother Damang Sari living in Garang, near Kuala Labu in Temburong. It was said that the father fathered the 14 children in his journeys. His grandfather was known as Sang Aji Brunei. His name existed in another epic poem Syair Negarakartagama written in 1365 where he was known as Sang Aji Baruwing (another version of Brunei's name).

However it is not just Awang Semaun and his brothers that are in the Syair. There are also other Brunei folk heroes. Amongst them are Awang Jerambak and his son and grandson, Awang Sinuai and Awang Asmara.

Awang Jerambak's name was used to name one of Brunei's official residences at Jalan Gadong. Semaun House and Jerambak House used to house the Chief Minister's and the State Secretary's official residences. Awang Jerambak can be said to be as relatively as well known as Awang Semaun.

Awang Jerambak is said to have come from the heavens too and he eventually formed a government at Bukit Berayung. He is known to be very brave and strong and has a special weapon a spear (penabak) which is made from a piece of strong wood known as mengaris. The description of his spear is beyond belief. Its girth is said to be very wide up to nine men can wrap themselves around the girth. It is also said to be very heavy weighing as much as 100 pikuls (about 6,000kg). This is an old measurement used in Brunei until about the 1970s. A pikul is made up of about 100 kati and one kati is about 600 grammes.

With the spear, Awang Jerambak would have the capability to decimate any country or any place that he wished to and carve out or level out mountains if he needed to. It is said that with his strength that while he was in Hadang, the spear has been said to have taken off the top of several mountains, Bukit Berayung, Bukit Buruk Malau and Bukit Tutong. The spear finally landed in Kuala Limbang and became Takat Kuda.

Awang Jerambak also had another special instrument a flying skin. The flying skin is about 900 arms length long and wide and can fit about 9,000 soldiers standing on it. This is the skin which Awang Jerambak used when he attacked Bugis. Bugis was defended with heavily fortified forts. The Syair described it as follows:

Setelah berhimpun sekeliannya

Si Jerambak mengorak akan kulitnya.

Sekalian Bugis sangat hairannya

Awang Jerambak sangat saktinya

Kulit terbang naik ke udara

Mengusir awan mega antara

Bahana sorak tiada terkira

Berpanjutan rupa kilat sicatra

Awang Jerambak was also indestructible and no weapon is said to be capable of hurting him. During his duel with the King of Bugis, Raja Tuwaju, despite being armed with a sword as big as Bukit Salilah, he was unable to wound Awang Jerambak.

Awang Sinuai was born with a black skin and his face resembled that of a devil that his own father, Awang Jerambak, was said to be disgusted by it:

Si Jerambak melihat rupa anaknya

Seperti hantu rupa parasnya

Terlalu benci di dalam hatinya

Awang Sinuai akan namanya

However similar to his father, Awang Sinuai had special capabilities too. He was said to have crafted a spinning top as big as Mahulu Mountain. He was able to trap a very lucky chicken which was as big as a camel. His ears were capable of lifting heavy things.

When his wife was pregnant, he caught 100 mousedeer to fulfill her cravings. He was said to have caught a very special bird belonging to a Johor Princess. The bird was called Burung Pingai. This resulted in the marriage between Awang Alak Betatar to the princess and Awang Alak Betatar became the first Sultan of Brunei, Sultan Muhammad Syah.

Awang Sinuai defeated Mambang Dewa in a top spinning contest thus winning 1,000 gantang of diamonds and 100 knights.

In another famous tale, in the competition of fighting cockerels, Awang Sinuai's cockerel named Mutiara was able to defeat Asmara, the cockerel owned by Raden Angsuka Dewa. Awang Sinuai also defeated Raja Bulkis thus winning 10 ships from Raja Bulkis.

Awang Sinuai's son, Awang Asmara was equally endowed with strength and special powers. During one of his travels, he landed on an island called Pulau Beriam Dewa. On the island was a Princess who was guarded by a giant and a tiger. Many men have died trying to save her.

Awang Sinuai used his grandfather's flying skin to save the princess by spearing the tiger and avoiding the thrusts of the giant's spear. Awang Sinuai married the princess.

Syair Awang Semaun contained many other tales and fables. Reading it would keep many Bruneians occupied and entertained about tales of the Brunei past.

The writer of The Golden Legacy column the longest running column in The Brunei Times also runs a website about Brunei at bruneiresources.com.

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