The Legend of Awang Semaun

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Foundation narrative: Awang Semaun was said to have 13 siblings from 13 different mothers, all legendary Brunei warriors who found Kampong Ayer and whose cries of 'baru nah' ('now we found it') gave Brunei its name. Picture: Rozan Yunos collection

If one were to mention the name Awang Semaun to any Bruneian, he or she would conjure up a description of a strong brave warrior who has contributed to the existence of Brunei.

According to legend, Awang Semaun is said to be the younger brother of Awang Alak Betatar (who eventually became the first Sultan of Brunei, Sultan Muhammad Shah). Awang Semaun was made a Damong by his brother and he also later became the Pengiran Temenggong (one of the four wazir or viziers) who assisted the Sultan in governing the country.

Who was Awang Semaun? According to Brunei legends and one of the most famous epic poems which bore his name, Syair Awang Semaun, he 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 is mentioned in another epic poem, Syair Negara Kartagama, written in 1365 where he was known as Sang Aji Baruwing (a variant of the name "Brunei").

According to oral legends, despite being married for quite some time, he was childless. One day while walking outside his palace, he found a giant egg and brought it back to the palace. That night a young boy by the name of I-Pai Samaring was hatched. He later married the daughter of Sang Aji and gave birth to Alak Betatar.

While the princess was pregnant, she was craving for a tembadau (wild cow). I-Pai Samaring went hunting and managed to hit a tembadau with a spear but it got away. I-Pai Samaring followed the bloody trail through several villages. At each village, he married the daughter of the chieftain as it was considered a great honour. He married 13 times before he eventually found the tembadau.

Each of those wives later gave birth to the brothers of Awang Alak Betatar. When Awang Alak Betatar grew up, he went in search of his brothers and brought them together. They later went in search of a new place to build a country and when they found the location at the present Kampong Ayer, their cries of baru nah — "now we found it" — gave Brunei its name.

Awang Semaun is mentioned in a number of local folklores and legends. Whether he is the same Awang Semaun in all the other legends, one will never know.

According to Iban folklore, Awang Semaun or Sumaun is the son of Derom anak Sabatin. Derom, together with his father, alighted in Tanjong Batu (bordering Sarawak and Indonesia). Sumaun and his brother Serabungkok moved to Naga Rajang when they were grown up. Serabungkok married Lemina and gave birth to Dayang Ilam who later married Raja Semalanjat. The Ibans are said to be descendants of Serabungkok.

On the other hand, Semaun had a son name Tugau and the Melanaus are said to be the descendant of Tugau. According to Iban legend, Sumaun went to Brunei in search of his fortune.

According to the Muruts in Ulu Lawas, Semaun was said to be a seer and a very strong man. One rainy day when he was taking shelter under an overhang by a hill in Long Bawan, he stood up forgetting that he was under an overhang. An existing hole where he stood up — complete with the shape of his ears — can still be seen today. In another place his footprint can be seen when he jumped from one hill to another.

It was said that he went away to Padian (Brunei) and was never heard of again.

However, the Brunei legends stated that Awang Semaun was the brother of Pateh Berbai and is of Brunei origin.

According to local Temburong folklore, Awang Semaun left behind a giant vase used for keeping water. The local people said that the giant vase can sometimes appear and a number of locals have claimed to have seen that magic vase.

One local head village who worked in the area in the 1920s said that he saw the vase at least 10 times. He described the vase as having an opening of about two feet in diameter, its length up to 30 feet and a broad middle of about 20 feet in diametre. The vase will be found half submerged in the river. The British Resident who heard the stories tried to search for the vase in vain. The elderly folks said that a magic vase like that will not be found by those who went searching for it.

It was said that Awang Semaun converted to Islam in Johor. During the reign of Awang Alak Betatar, he instructed Awang Semaun to go to Johor in search of a Johor Princess who became Awang Alak Betatar's consort. The Johor Princess had a bird named pinggai (burong pinggai). When the Princess was taken to Brunei, the bird came to Brunei to search for her. It came together with a ship which sank when it arrived in Brunei. The sailors were said to be assisted by the Kedayans who lived in Berakas. From the Kedayans, the sailors heard that the bird had flown to a place which eventually became Kampong Burong Pinggai.

From that village, the emissary from Johor discovered that the Princess had married the Brunei Sultan. However, the Princess, together with her searchers from Johor, managed to persuade Awang Alak Betatar to return back to Johor for the Johor marriage ceremony there.

In Johor, Awang Alak Betatar converted to Islam and took the name Sultan Muhammad, Pateh Berbai became Pengiran Bendahara Seri Maharaja Permaisuara and Awang Semaun became Pengiran Temenggong.

On their return back to Brunei, the Johor Princess' followers stayed in Kampong Burong Pingai.

Some also said that the Johor Sultan "persuaded by her happiness and the fame and glory of Brunei" — as described by Saunders in his History of Brunei — journeyed to Brunei and formally installed Alak Betatar as Sultan and his brothers, including Awang Semaun in the offices of state which became traditional to Brunei and presented the new Sultan with the royal regalia.

We only know Awang Semaun through legends. We do not even know of his descendants. We will never know the truth about him. But the name Awang Semaun lives on as one of Brunei's great warriors.

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There have been quite a number of articles in this column which referred to Syair Awang Semaun.

In fact, there are a number of articles written about the history of Brunei which used Syair Awang Semaun as the basis for those articles. Many Bruneians have heard about Syair Awang Semaun but have not actually read it or know much about it.

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. Interestingly enough, there are a number of interesting facts about the Syair Awang Semaun which many Bruneians do not know despite knowing something about it.

The Syair Awang Semaun contained a number of stories about the beginning of Brunei. Among the stories included the stories about Awang Semaun and his thirteen brothers and their origins said to begin 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 defeated 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 founding of Brunei from the search from Garang to the founding of the Brunei River as the new capital was described in Syair Awang Semaun. The possibility that the name Brunei came from the word "Baru Nah" or now we found it were also spelled out. Awang Semaun's eldest sibling, Awang Alak Betatar was appointed as the first Sultan of Brunei and named Sultan Muhammad Shah.

The Syair described the first conquests of the newly established Brunei Empire. Awang Semaun together with his brothers, Awang Jerambak and Awang Damang Sari attacked and defeated the Melanau empire which then stretched from Mukah to Tutong. Not only was the Brunei Army able to defeat the armies of the Melanau empire and their allies but they also went southwards and northwards to defeat other territories.

When the fighting settled down, Brunei found itself to have controlled Tutong, Belait, Miri, Mukah, Oya, Igan, Sambas, Saba, Tungku, Bugis, Banjar, Utai, Bolongan, Sadungan, Suluk and Kinabatangan.

The newly established kingdom attracted the nearby empire of Majapahit to come and trade and to keep Brunei as a vassal state. Majapahit also sent its sportsmen such as Mambang Dewa and Raja Bulkis to challenge the Bruneians to a spinning top match. In an epic match, the tops of Mambang Dewa and Raja Bulkis were easily defeated by Awang Sinuai's top.

Its king, Raden Angsuka Dewa, also came to Brunei to a cock fight. The King of Majapahit dictated that should he lose he will give the 40 ships laden with goods to Brunei; but should he win, he will gain more territories of Brunei which it owns and controls then. Another version talked about should Brunei lose, it will continue to be a vassal state of Majapahit. Both Asmara and Mutiara were both meticulously trained for the cockfight in front of the Sultan's Palace.

On the day of the fight, many people came to watch it. The fight commenced with the roosters pouncing, pecking, attacking and kicking each other cheered on by the excited spectators. Suddenly Asmara flew out of the ring followed by Mutiara.

Asmara had been stabbed during the fight and was seriously injured. Asmara fled out of sight and succumbing to his wound, fell down into the sea turning into a rock becoming an island (Pulau Pilong-Pilongan). Mutiara who tried to give chase, fell into the river cursed by the King of Majapahit. He too turned into a rock and became an island (Lumut Lunting).

There were other tales in the Syair. One was about the kidnapping of a Johor Princess who later became the wife of Awang Alak Betatar. He later converted to Islam and became Sultan Muhammad Shah. Sultan Johor came to Brunei. He also awarded several territories in the Sarawak areas to Sultan Muhammad Shah.

The story about the dragon's pearl and two Chinese princes at the top of Mount Kinabalu was also in the Syair. The unsuccessful one ran away to Brunei and married one of the princesses. The other prince later married into the family of the Suluk and with the Spanish, came to attack Brunei. The attack was defeated by Awang Semaun.

The Syair Awang Semaun manuscripts are found and kept in a number of places in Brunei which not surprisingly included the Brunei Museum, the Brunei History Centre, the National Archives Centre, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and also among private individuals and collectors. There have been a number of scholarly written articles about the manuscripts of Syair Awang Semaun and published in a number of local and international journals.

The Syair Awang Semaun too have been discussed in a number of conferences, seminars and is always referred to by historians, experts in languages, cultures, sociologists and the likes.

What most people do not know is that there is no one complete Syair Awang Semaun. The various manuscripts kept in the different places throughout Brunei are either incomplete or not one has been identified as the sole complete and authoritative one. Although Dr Haji Mohd Yusof bin Haji Awang Damit in his article 'Syair Awang Semaun Sebuah Karya Sastera Sejarah' published in Beriga in 1999 and Haji Abd Hamid Jaludin in his article Syair Awang Semaun Sebagai Epik Bangsa Melayu also published in Beriga in 1997 stated that the Manuscript No.56 kept at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka as the most complete one.

The other unknowns about the Syair are the author and when it was written. Many historians attempted to say that it was written as far back as the end of the sixteenth century. This was based on the fact that it should have been written during what was considered as the golden era of Brunei's history. Some claimed the 18th century as that was the era of the literature genre of Brunei including the sajak. But upon closer investigation, the syair contained several place names which could only make it exist after the 18th century.

Places like Selangor, Pulau Pinang and Labuan. The Selangor Sultanate was founded in 1742, Penang became the British administrative centre in 1786 and Labuan was taken by the British in 1847. Sir Hugh Low who obtained the text of the Batu Tarsilah and the Silsilah Brunei in 1873 did not mention the syair. He would have obtained the Syair as well if it had existed then.

Sultan Muhamad Jamalul Alam was the last Sultan to be included in the syair. Sultan Muhamad Jamalul Alam's reign was at the beginning of the 20th century. This could mean that the syair was written as late as the 1930s. However the tales in the syair were certainly based on oral legends about Brunei and legends from the other races in Brunei. These tales were certainly as old and can be go back to the origin of the Brunei Sultanate.



Source: Rozan Yunos of The Daily Brunei Resources - http://www.bt.com.bn/life/2008/05/25/awang_semaun_tale_of_a_brunei_warrior, http://www.bt.com.bn/art-culture/2010/08/16/legendary-exploits-awang-semaun