Sang Nila Utama and the Lion City of Singapore

Today Singapore is a thriving, bustling, modern, cosmopolitan city that is a meeting place for many people of different cultures and ethnicity. This provides a melting pot that exudes its own unique and vibrant character. It is a place where people live the multicultural experience to the full. Singapore is a major trading centre and plays an important part in the economies of the region and the rest of the world.  Presented here is a version of the legend of the founding of Singapore pieced together from different sources but mostly from the Malay Annals which is an important cultural text from Malaysia and registered with UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme.


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The legend of the Rise of Singapore

The Malay Annals are also known as The Sejarah Melayu and among other stories tell of the legend of how Singapore was founded by Sang Nila Utama, who was also known as Prince Niltanam, or Sri Tri Buana. He was the ruler of the Srivijaya Empire of Sumatra and his capital was Palembang.  According to the legend he was one of the princes who were believed to be descendants of Raja Iskandar Dzu’l-Karnain who was also known more commonly as Alexander the Great, the ruler of the great Macedonian Empire.  however some scholars dispute this.

The Quest of Sang Nila Utama

Sang Nila Utama decided he wanted to build a new city where he could live and rule. He set out to sea with a fleet of ships on a quest to find a suitable place. His ships visited many islands and coves around the coast of South Sumatra. Eventually he and his fleet arrived at the Riau Islands.

The  queen of the islands gave them a stately welcome and the he decided to rest his men for a few days on these most hospital of islands. For personal recreation he and his Chief Minister sailed to a neighbouring island to try their hand at hunting.

The Stag

They came across a stag or deer of some kind and immediately gave chase. The stag ran to the top of a small hill. Although the Prince and his Chief Minister were in hot pursuit, the animal disappeared fro sight. Looking around the summit of the hill the Prince found a large rock which he stood on in order to gain a better view of the countryside below. However, he could see no sign of the animal.

Finding the Island of Temasek

From his vantage point he could see out across the sea and there not far away was another island. On the island he could see a patch that was like shimmering white cloth. In fact it was a beautiful beach with fine white sand that was shimmering in the sunshine.

Calling to his Chief Minister he asked what the island was called. His Chief Minister told him the island was called Temasek. The prince decided that he wanted to visit the island so they returned to the ship and set sail for Temasek.

The Storm

While out in the open sea a great storm suddenly arose. Huge ways tossed the ship and it began taking in water. Soon the ship was in peril of sinking so the order was given to throw all heavy objects overboard. Still, huge waves assailed the ship and water poured into the hold.

At last, fearful the ship would sink, the captain advised Prince Sang Nila Utama that is was his grandfather, the Lord of the Sea, who was causing the storm. He urged the prince to throw his crown overboard as an offering to appease his grandfather’s rage.

The prince agreed and threw his crown into the sea. As the crown sank below the waves the storm abated and stopped, leaving the ship to safely reach Temasek. The ship found a secure anchorage at the mouth of what is today known as the Singapore River.

A Strange Beast

The prince decided he would explore the region while also hunting for game. Telling his Chief Minister to form a hunting party they began to make their way inland. All of a sudden the party came across a strange beast which none of them had seen before.

It had a black head, an orange body and a white neck and breast and was a very handsome animal. At the approach of the hunting party the animal disappeared swiftly into the jungle, where they could find no further trace of it.

Prince Sang Nila Utama asked his Chief Minister if he knew what the animal was called. The Chief Minister was unsure, but told the prince he thought it most likely that it was a lion.

A Good Omen

Although they had lost the animal the prince was pleased. He believed that its sighting was a good omen and he decided to build his new city on the island of Temasek. The Prince sent out to his homeland for help while he and his men remained on the island beginning their work in building the new city.

The Lion City

Prince Sang Nila Utama decided to call the new city “Singapura,” which means “Lion City” and it was founded in 1324. To gain international recognition of his new city state he established diplomatic links with China who recognised it in 1366. He ruled the Lion City for 48 years. When he died he was said to have been buried with his wife at the foot of Bukit Larangan, now known as Fort Canning Hill, though his remains have never been found.

What was the Creature they saw?

Modern studies indicate that lions have never inhabited the region. Many people think that the animal the princes and his men saw was actually a tiger. This is argued against by many on the grounds that tigers were fairly common in Southeast Asia and that the prince and his men would have had no problem identifying a tiger.

This gives weight to those who claim the animal was a mythical creature that resembled a lion, but was the guardian of the island of Temasek. What ever kind of creature it was the Prince was right in believing its sighting was an auspicious sign.

His Lion City grew and flourished to become one of the most important places in the region attracting many different people from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds. From its legendary beginnings it has become the busiest port in the world and also one of the most prosperous countries today.

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References and Attributions

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