Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What's In The Name Of A Place

September 02, 2008 14:21 PM

What's In The Name Of A Place

By Ravichandran D.J. Paul

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 2 (Bernama) -- The name of a place reflects the history, culture and traditions of the location, and there can be no end to the folklore, myths and reasons for the name.

Many of us may have been amused by such curious names of places in Malaysia; Bayan Lepas (escaped parrots), Gelang Patah (broken bangle), Malim Nawar (the religious pundit who creates charm), Selinsing (roll up your sleeves) and Gertak Sanggul (shaken hair bun).

There are also abundant meaningless names. We may have heard enough of Ayer Kuning , Ayer Putih, Pasir Panjang , Pasir Puteh and Pasir Mas. Yet, how did all these names come about?

An old book entitled `Malayan Places Names - Port Weld to Kuantan by S.Durai Raja Singam provides an interesting account of the meaning and the origins of the names of various places.

The book was first published in 1939, with the authors preface dated January the same year, with G.Hawkins of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society scripting the foreword.

Durai Raja Singham noted that in the early 19th century the most common words used to name a place were: Pengkalan or Bagan (a landing point); Bukit (hill); Gunung (mountain); Kampung (village); Kota (fort); Kuala (river mouth); Pulau (island); Sungai (river); Tanjung (promontory or cape); Tasik (lake); Teluk (bay) and Ulu - (upper reaches of a river).


The author noted that the place names were to a great extend bound with the Malay language and history, though some names were of Javanese, Sanskrit, Tamil, Chinese and aboriginal influence.

However, the book pointed that some names became peculiar due to the local dialect or entirely lost through the metamorphosis of the tongue twisters, clippings, the vagaries of quaint pronunciation by village folk and non- Malay lingual difficulties.

A good example is Ringlet in Cameron Highlands, the rendering of the difficult aboriginal word "Ringgiriok, a tree species known to the Semai tribe, which the colonial masters found difficult to pronounce.

The names of places like Gopeng, Kampar, Taiping are Chinese in origin; Chendriang, Kinta, Selama - of aboriginal origin; Bukit Chintamani (Pahang), and Langkawi are of Tamil or Sanskrit origins.

The book notes that Taiping (everlasting peace) is probably the only pure Chinese name, even displacing Malay influence. The name is often encountered in China.


Many of the place names in Malaysia remain the same since time immemorial while some have been changed or modified to suit with times. Yet the stories behind many of the names baffle both believers in myths and linguistics.

The story how Temerloh in Pahang got its name is a good example. In old Malay 'merloh' means sleep and the prefix 'ter' denotes an unintentional action, hence 'termerloh means to fall asleep unintentionally.

According to folklore there was a big durian orchard there belonging to a Malay man who employed an aborigine to collect the durians. One day the aborigine dozed off and the durians were stolen. When the owner asked for an explanation, the aborigine replied "Termerloh, tuan" (I fell asleep, sir). Thus the orchard, which eventually evolved into a settlement, was named Temerloh.

Then there is this interesting folklore of a giant with a toothache striding along the Baling district. He is said to have seized the offending tooth in Kuala 'Pegang' (seize), twisted it savagely at Pulai (local accent for the word pulas, which means to seize), pulled it out and hurled the tooth away in a great circle at Baling (throw). The name of the place where the tooth landed, which should surely come into the story is not known. Did it go too far?

Do you know how Kajang got its name? The book relates that in those days people travelled up and down along the Sungai Langat and used to stop at a point to buy or mend their kajang-kajang (water-proof matting used on boats). Its probable this is how the town of Kajang got its name.

When the railway department asked the Port Dickson district officer what should be the name for the new station eventually called Sirusa, he replied "Perhentian Siput". It only dawned on the railway authorities much later that they have christened their station as "the stopping place of the snail"!

Today's exclusive address of Damansara is probably the corruption of the original name for the port on Sungai Gombak, which was 'Labohan Sara. But how did this happen? The explanation is given in the book but seems a bit complicated.

Fraser's Hill, formerly part of Ulu Tras, is named after the late L.J. Fraser who pioneered mining in the area. Gambang in Pahang is a mining village and the name refers to Javanese xylophone, the gambang gangsa and gambang kayu.

According to the book, Chukai in Terengganu is where the crocodiles in a river there were reputed to take a toll (cukai) of one fisherman every year.

** Cukai is another town of Terengganu's... about 30 mins drive from my hometown Kerteh

We may be familiar with how Ipoh got is name but early references to this place points as Epu. According to one account the present day city inherited the name from the giant Ipoh tree that existed in the vicinity of the present central market and Laxamana road. However, F.W Douglas in his writings has mentioned that another name for Ipoh as Paloh (pools).


Peninsula Malaysia's highest mountain, Gunung Tahan, where according to legend, the summit holds fabulous treasure in the form of gold and jewels, was initially referred as Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill). The book states the scholar Munshi Abdullah mentioned this name to Colonel Farquhar in 1819.

Gunung Bubu with its strange looking cleft summit that can be seen from Taiping is said to be a fish trap, 'bubu', which a giant used to catch fish. In case of Gunung Ledang, the fairy, the widow of Nakhoda Ragam, still lives on top of this mountain with a tiger to keep her company.

Gunung Kerbau, is the corruption of Indonesian word 'korbu' meaning mountain.

The names of the islands hold the imagination and affection of its inhabitants. There is Pulau Kendi at southwest of Penang. Legend has it that the famous rover Nahkoda Ragam when passing the spot dropped his water goglet (kendi) overboard, which immediately transformed into the island in question.

A close scrutiny of the Penang map would reveal that there are three small nearby islands with names relating to maternity - Pulau Bunting (pregnant island), Pulau Panggil (the island of the messenger) and Pulau Bidan, (midwife island).

Legend says thousands of years ago there dwelt a demon in Pulau Bunting, which today resembles like a pregnant woman lying on her back. One day the demon saw a princess in labour pain lying on the beach. She had sent a messenger to call for a midwife, but he was gone for so long gone that she had to sent another, who out ran the first one and was returning with a midwife.

But the demon wanted to make sure the birth did not take place. Thus they were all transformed into hills, of which 'Bunting' was the princess, 'Panggilan' the messenger, and 'Bidan' the midwife. The legend adds that during this period, the hills along with Sonsong formed a portion of the mainland.

How did Tioman get its name? One day the elders of the island met to decide on a name. While they were discussing different names, there came a boy chasing his bird (a tiong). When they asked him why he was running, he replied Tiong Man (My tiong). One elder said lets call the island Tiongman and they all agreed but with the passage of time the name evolved into Tioman.


Despite the peculiarities in the names, the mythical giants and demons, to the uninitiated foreigners during the colonial days, these names were attractive. Thus an English writer in 1910 succumbed to the magic of the names and had described them not as exactly as stated in the book.

"The playful Changkat has every right to slumber by the Langkat and the chittering Cherosenese Kamuning in their nest is quite idyllic.

The awful effect of the rubber boom on a poet was responsible for the following:

Linggi longer Lucy
By the gloomy Sungei Way
Where the Vallambrosa (near Klang) chanteth
To the crude Anglo-Malay
And the Batu Tiga leapeth
In the Batu Caves at play
In the dark Mabira Forest
The Nilambur is at a rest
And the playful Changkat Slumbers
By the Langkat it loves best
Come see the chittering Chersonese
Kamuning in their nest
Ah my dainty Damansara
From the Sungei Kapar flee
Leave your haughty Bukit Rajah
To his Cicily Jequie
Come share my stock and give
Oh, give the preference to me.

Even now, with settlements expanding continuously, new names and new places are cropping up all over the nation. Places like Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, Kulim-Bandar Baru, Subang Jaya, Iskandar Malaysia, Nilai 1 and Nilai 3 are good examples.

But they are no longer named after rocks, birds, flower or legends but after the goals and aspirations of a progressive nation, Malaysia.


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