The Legend of Ulik Mayang


Excerpt from Traverama magazine, June 2007

By Amie Xu

The fishermen of this region have a number of superstitions. One of them is not wearing anything green when going out to sea because green is the royal colour of the Spirits of the Sea. Another is to touch the water when arriving at a fishing spot, and asking permission from the Spirits before throwing in the net.

Other superstitions include ritual bath ceremonies, sacred offerings, and even worship to the Spirits of the Sea. While most, if not all of these sacraments are no longer practiced in Malaysia today, one particular myth has evolved into a cultural dance masterpiece. It tells the story of man’s encounter with the Spirits of the Sea.

This is the legend of the Ulik Mayang.

The story of this dance began a long time ago. According to legend, a band of fishermen living on an island off the coast of Terengganu went out to sea one evening to catch fish. They rowed their sampans (narrow wooden boats) far out to sea where suddenly, they encountered a terrible storm.

The wind blew unnaturally from every direction and waves crashed into all their sampans.

All the fishermen were tossed violently into the sea, where each of them struggled to keep their heads above the water and swam with great difficulty towards the shore. Eventually, they tired out and submitted themselves to the mercy of the raging waves.

A stormy night passed and the next day, the bodies of the fishermen washed up to the shore. Miraculously, the fishermen woke up one after another, thankful to be alive. Almost all that is. One fisherman remained in a deep state of unconsciousness. He remained motionless, as if dead.

The other fishermen were saddened by this, as he was a great friend of theirs. They suspected that while physically he was on the beach, his soul might have been enticed to wander into the another world. And so they summoned a bomoh (shaman) to bring their friend back. The bomoh prepared several items for the summoning ritual. Among them were kemayan (incense), coloured rice and mayang pinang (strings of areca nut flowers). Night fell, and the ceremony to revive the lost fisherman began.

Shaking the mayang pinang (palm frond) and chanting over the body of the fisherman, the bomoh falls into a state of trance, and discovers that the fisherman has been put under a spell by playful Spirits of the Sea. A Spirit Princess had tried to charm all the fishermen, but only one surrendered to her seductive beauty. He now wanders in a state of daze in her world. The Spirit Princess is garbed in an exquisite traditional dress with a beautiful yellow sash shawl. Her hair is held in an elaborate French pleat and she wears earrings of fine ivory.

The bomoh attempts to bring the soul of the fisherman back to earth. Sensing that her grip over him is slipping, the princess summons her sister, and the two of them put charms on the fisherman. In a fierce battle between the medium and the spirits, two more sisters are summoned to charm the fisherman, and then two more.

A fearsome battle between the bomoh and six Spirit Princesses erupts and shakes the world. The earth quakes but the steadfast bomoh battles on. As the clash built up towards a devastating climax, a seventh – the eldest – Spirit Princess enters the showground. Far more beautiful, more powerful and the wisest of her sisters, the bomoh takes this opportunity to plea to her for the return of the fisherman’s soul. Learning of the mischievous behaviour of her sisters, the eldest Spirit Princess puts a stop to the battle.

“I know all your origins,” she tells and commands everyone, “Let those from the sea return to the sea, and those from the land return to the land.”

Grateful for the release of the fisherman’s soul, the bomoh presents the Spirit Princess with coloured rice. The fisherman awakens. From then on (and until the introduction of Islam in Malaya), offerings were ritually presented to the Spirits of the Sea, whom the fishermen once worshipped.

Over the years, this story has evolved into a number of versions. Nevertheless, they all tell of both the treacherous and caring relationship between the fishermen and the Spirits of the Sea. The legend of the Ulik Mayang is unravelled in an amazingly choreographed folk dance, which was once a form of spiritual worship, but now performed purely for cultural appreciation and entertainment purposes.

Most popular in the state of Terengganu, the dance is accompanied by its song which is both haunting and vigorous. While the music
of the song has several contemporary interpretations to it, as seen in the 2000 Malaysian movie Spinning Gasing directed by Teck Tan, many dance troupes prefer a composition of traditional instruments. These include traditional drums, gongs, seruling (a flute) and rebab (a bowed lute).


5 Responses to “The Legend of Ulik Mayang”

  1. 1 kirena riko

    i think that ulik mayang is very interesting
    the song, the dance, the legend – everything!
    but from what i’ve heard,
    it was the seventh princess that fell in love with the fisherman, and the seven princesses were worshipped to heal fishermen who fell ill. but obviously it was one of the versions that came out from the original one. but it was the most popular version, though. since every ulik mayang performances that i have seen used that version.
    i like the song best when it is sung in Spinning Gasing. i watched the movie mainly because of the song. it is the theme song of the movie. and it suits the movie well. a song that resembles two hearts that are too different to be together.
    this song is really special. i love it. simply love it 😉

  2. 2 amro

    well here is the thing, although am sudanese who study in malaysia, i really admired this song,
    it was once performed in a cultural show in UTP under an event called FESCO, it was interesting, because the act was very good and the song was haunting, so you got the feeling that it is popular or you have heard it before,
    one my friends told me that he saw the real act of this version of the song, he said he doesnt get scared easily but at that time he saw really some strange things like blood in particular and a hollowgram of the ferry some kind of a ritual stuff,
    well regarding the “spooky” part of this song it is nice and you can’t forget it easily.

  3. 3 Lind

    Yes, the ritual song is hauntingly beautiful but when Islam arrived the ritual was banned. However, some believed that certain group of fishermen still use the ritual when they felt necessary. About 20 years ago, my uncle went to Terengganu and witnessed the ritual. It was done at night by the beach and no one was allowed to go to sea that night after the ritual is held. My uncle said that the night after the ritual was done was so eerie.

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