Rhyme And Reason - ALiterarySeries

No lions in Singapore but...


We all know how our Lion City got its name, but indulge me for a moment.

"According to legend, Sang Nila Utama, a prince from Palembang (the capital of Srivijaya), was out on a hunting trip when he caught sight of an animal he had never seen before. Taking it to be a good sign, he founded a city where the animal had been spotted, naming it "The Lion City" or Singapura, from the Sanskrit words "simha" (lion) and "pura" (city)." - YourSingapore.com

I heard the name Sang Nila Utama for the first time when, as a newly arrived student in Singapore, I made my tourist's pilgrimage to the Merlion at Sentosa. Nila Utama (Sang being an honorific to show his royal descent) came to life in a cartoon film that co-starred a lion, a raging storm and a sea-monster, with a guest appearance by a prescient stag.

The movie was informative, delightful, engaging - all the things it was supposed to be. But by the time my fellow tourists and I had emerged into the bright sunlight atop the Merlion, Nila Utama and his fable had been replaced with more recent images of gleaming glass skylines and the bustling trade legacy of a multicultural, former-colonial port city: After all, that is what myths are for - to entertain, even astonish and inspire awe, not unlike a fantasy movie saga, but hardly to be taken seriously… aren't they?

Myths aggrandise history, sometimes to the point of distortion, but in doing so they preserve an account of it and ensure that it is transmitted from generation to generation. In all honesty, unless Sang Nila Utama had met the lion or overcome the sea-monster, the millions of visitors to the Merlion wouldn't have ever heard of him. But myth is a twin-edged sword because in aggrandising a story, it sometimes trivialises it. Example:

Me (to person chosen at random): "Hi. Can you tell me who founded Singapore?"

Unsuspecting respondent: "Erm… I think it was Stamford Raffles."

Me: "What about Sang Nila Utama? He came here centuries before Raffles."

Respondent: "That's just a myth. Not real."

And that's where that conversation remained for many years, during the course of which Singapore became home, not just in terms of a tax status but also in very personal ways - love, death, family and career. Even writing is something that happened to me here. It may have been why Sang Nila Utama continued to intrigue me. For a fact, my other books on mythology - or mythohistory as I prefer to call it - have been a means to reclaim identity in one form or another.


Nila Utama was my anchor as I dived into the emotionally loaded question of my identity as Singaporean; a sense of validation that I too belonged here. As a result, the above conversation was extended thus:

Me: "Not real? Why do you say that?"

Respondent (disdainful): "Because there never were any lions in Singapore. The whole story is fluff!"

Now that is an indisputable fact. Lions are not native to this part of the world. Indeed, some suggest that the animal the historical counterpart of Nila Utama may have seen was… wait for it… a tapir.


    She is the author of four novels and one poetry collection.

    She is also co-editor of Body Boundaries: The Etiquette Anthology Of Women's Writing (The Literary Centre, 2013) and her work features in many anthologies.

    She holds a PhD in strategic management from Nanyang Business School, where she works as a lecturer. She is also associate editor and Fellow at the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight. Her next book, a contemporary fantasy adventure novel, is due for release in August.


    3 (Ethos Books/Hachette, 2015)

    With a storyline described by the Bangalore Mirror as "(doing) a Haruki Murakami with an LED focus" , 3 is a book that takes the fantasy out of the legend of Singapore and puts the human element back in.

    Available at the National Library, Kinokuniya, BooksActually and online at: https://www.ethosbooks.com.sg

    Objects Of Affection (Math Paper Press, 2013)

    Described by The Straits Times as "an interesting take on modern-day poetry - succinct, articulate and philosophical", this collection of interlinked prose-poems tells the story of four people from the point of view of the everyday objects that surround them. It is now in its third edition.

    Available at BooksActually and Kinokuniya and online at: http://www.booksactuallyshop.com

    The Aryavarta Chronicles (Hachette, Govinda: 2012; Kaurava: 2013; Kurukshetra: 2014)

    Labelled "unputdownable" by The Straits Times, and described by The Sunday Tribune in India as "fast-paced… full of intrigue and guile", the best-selling mytho-historical series has received critical acclaim and run into several editions, including a box set. Available at BooksActually and Kinokuniya. Audiobooks forthcoming (Audible, September 2016)

    •For more on Krishna Udayasankar and her work, follow her on Twitter at: @krisudayasankar and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/ krishnaudayasankar

I like tapirs. I think they are cute and fuzzy. Honestly, I have nothing against them and make it a point to conduct every tired and happily sated visitor I accompany to the Singapore Zoo to the small, unassuming enclosure at the end of the walking trail despite their many protests; that is how much I like tapirs. The Asian in me, however, doesn't quite reckon tapirs on the same plane as lions, with the result that it was disappointing to hold on to the legend of a prince who couldn't tell the deadly, majestic king of the jungle from a harmless tapir as a source of self-validation.

I tried telling myself "it's just a myth". By then, however, I was far too invested - both in Nila Utama's story and the place I called home. Curiosity had turned into questions, sometimes arguments about what defined a nation and its people, what determined belonging and was the fact that I cared not enough to make me belong here. And from this maelstrom was born a book - "3", the story not just of Sang Nila Utama, but more.

The storyline is drawn mainly from the Malay Annals or the Sejarah Melayu, a genealogical work detailing the line of the Malay Sultanate, founded by Iskander Shah around 1390CE. The Annals identify Nila Utama, along with his father and brother, as descended from the skies in mythical magnificence and magical glory, the blood of Alexander the Great in their veins. For all the rhetoric, however, Nila Utama's antecedents remain historically obscure, enough to justify the aforementioned random respondent's view that Singapore's history can be deemed as properly begun only from the times of Sir Stamford Raffles.

"3" is, however, also a tale of the era, a window on how a relatively small geographical region both affects and is affected by global trends of economic and political change. At a time when the Delhi Sultanate is gaining sway across the Indian subcontinent, against the backdrop of Genghis Khan's aspirations to a Mongol empire and the ongoing Crusades across Europe and the Middle East, the seas become the source of political power and prosperity.

Consequently, it is during this period that the Srivijaya Empire, a thalassocratic state broadly comprising the region of the modern-day Indonesian islands, reaches its zenith and inevitably begins its decline. Trade drives the new trend of commerce as conquest, setting the stage for centuries of colonisation and economic dominion and, the Malay Annals tell us, a hundred longships from the Song Emperor fill the harbour at Palembang.

Was this impressive armada in fact a gift from China to the ruler of Srivijaya; an act that then inspired said Srivijaya ruler to give his daughter as wife and his empire as dower to the Song Emperor? Or are they hints at a history of conquest and exile, hidden in metaphor and preserved as myth so that the story would endure through the cusp of religion - and thus sanctioned record - over subsequent centuries and come to us through a variety of narratives: Indonesian, Malay, Indian and even Portuguese.

An important question, for this is where the story really begins. The exiled ruler leaves Palembang, taking with him his family, including his young son, the prince who will, one day, sail to the white-sand shores of Tumasik. What is it that he finds there, hidden in metaphor and preserved as myth; the myth of a lion?

Nila Utama's story is worth telling, not for the fact that he gave our country the name it now bears, but because he did so for a reason. Myth or history, there were those who welcomed Nila Utama on these shores, those who believed that identity comes from wanting to belong. They believed that a nation was made by those who cared. And that is the story that needs be told.

Sure, there were no lions in Singapore… or Tumasik… or whatever names this island once had. And there are, as yet, no categorical answers to the question of who or what Sang Nila Utama was: a coloniser, a refugee or simply a man looking for himself.

As for the rest of it - call it myth if you like, but I want to believe that it was the heart of a lion and the spirit of one that brought Nila Utama… and me… home.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2016, with the headline No lions in Singapore but.... Subscribe