Dragon Rock. A “shape shifting Rock” or Batu Hidup (growing and changing) of the Naga Sisit Emas or Dragon with Golden scales is an underworld being seen as a guardian of the aquatic realm. The dragon faces North East looking toward Miri or Sabah, even China.
For most, Kampung Santubong is just a sleepy fishing village, straddling the delta of the Sarawak river. But Santubong is so much more than that; it is in fact a fascinating site of mysterious rocks embellished by magical legends and lore. One legend tells how Dato’ Merpati, the renowned ancestor shared by the Sarawak Malays and the Sarawakian Natives, was fighting another regional leader for supremacy. His opponent decided to play dirty and cursed Merpati’s beloved son by turning him into a dragon or Naga. You can meet the petrified remains of this dragon on the beach of Santubong village to this day. According to local lore, this rock is a Batu Hidup (Living-stone) which can transform itself at will to reveal its true form, though only to the lucky few. What distinguishes the typology of these rocks is that a Batu Hidup is a petrified rock, not chiselled nor carved but moulded and therefore believed to be imbued with supernatural powers such as metamorphism.
Dragon Rock at a resting stage, with marks of vitrification and some faded Indic letters possibly a spell for protection.
Many of the mysterious megalithic sites in Sarawak are associated with Dato Merpati’s family, from the petrified crocodile of Jepang, and the mythical Golden Dragon king rock, to the menhir and idols of Bongkissam and Bukit Maras, the Batu Gambar, stretching as far as the sacred Kelabut rock of Dato Nyikot in Kampung Tembawang Taup, Serian. According to one version of the famous legends concerning Datu Merpati and his family, the renowned Santubong or Pasir Kuning hero known as Dato Merpati Raden Gusti, son of Rajah Jawa Parbaita Sari, was in fact the first Majapahit King, Gusti Raden Wijaya, son of the Singahsari Monarch.
The Batu Buaya or Crocodile Rock lurking near the edge of the river mouth of Kuala Batu Buaya, beheaded by Dato’ Merpati Jepang, with his legendary sword of Langkapura.
His first wife Dato Permaisuri was from Johor. They lived in Santubong and bore the offspring Jepang, Putri Bulan and Maharaja Naga Sisit Mas (the Dragon Emperor with Golden scales). Later, Dato’ Merpati Jepang married a Bidayuh lady name Suhom with whom he had a son called Dato’ Nyikot.
In Santubong, the unique complex of Megalithic sites stretches from inland Sungai Jaong, Kampong Santubong, which includes Bongkissam and the village coastal sites, up to the area of Pantai Puteri. The series of sacred rocks in Santubong act as guardians of the coastal site and protectors against unseen disaster, including a giant cursed crocodile represented as a monstrous villain to be feared. This Batu Buaya is situated at the mouth of the river Santubong. According to legend, it has lain there since being petrified by Dato’ Merpati Jepang. It is told that, once upon a time, Santubong was attacked by hundreds of crocodiles. Merpati Jepang recognised the challenge that he faced, but would have rathered to die fighting these monstrous crocodiles than to run away. So, he took the legendary sword of his family, the Sword of Langka Pura (which many believe to have been on Java), called Segentang Lada and slayed the monsters, beheading the biggest crocodile, 9 fathoms in length, with his supernatural powers. The giant crocodile’s head plunged into the muddy confluence of Kuala Santubong and the tail was thrown across to Sungai Mas, where each was instantly metamorphised into stone.
But one must tread carefully around it. According to local octogenarian, Hamid bin Ramli, both rock sites are protected by a powerful spirit queen. Once, he was warned by this tutelary spirit in the shape of an old woman standing near the dragon stone who told him never to go near either of these rocks in bad weather. To do so would be to risk injury even death. Villagers often warn their children to stay away from these rocks – perhaps a clever way of parenting via mythology, ensuring that the children stay away from the treacherous shores. Though unfortunately, in the last couple of years there have been several deaths near these rocks, many attributed to crocodile attacks. In fact, the last Sultan of Sarawak, Sultan Pengiran Tengah, reportedly died at the Batu Buaya, murdered by kris around 1641 AD.
A monument to him stands in Santubong, restored in May 1995.
The bad omens of death from the cursed stone of the Batu Buaya are associated by the traditional fishing community with Kempunan, or ponek locally. This is the taboo that stems from an unsatisfied craving or an unrealised desire. Anyone who fails to complete an action, in taking food or drink or even in the case of sexual desire unfulfilled, must avert this bad luck, for example by touching the food. To avoid the danger of Kempunan attack, pregnant women and the vulnerable are not allowed to go near the river. A journey to the river must be accompanied with eating rice to avoid becoming crocodile food and there is also a taboo against mentioning crocodile at all, even if one is directly in view. The kampong folks give offerings of food and drink to the Batu Buaya to avoid crocodile attack. There are even occasional findings by the villagers of gold and ceramic cultural deposits near the Batu Buaya Megalithic site. Hence, any plans to remove or destroy the rocks will not only destroy the heritage but also will incur the wrath of unseen spirits and result in disastrous consequences.
The petrified Dragon King with Golden Scales or Maharaja Naga Sisit Emas is different from the crocodile rock. The Batu Buaya is the villain in this Sarawakian saga, while the Naga or Dragon King is a hero just like his brother Merpati Jepang. Hence, the Dragon Rock has a role as a tutelage icon or guardian while the crocodile rock is an evil guardian or penunggu in Malay. One epic story tells of the beautiful queen, Dato Permaisuri, who was kidnapped with her daughter while her husband and son were on duty somewhere else. She was abducted by the Yuan Mongols as a war prize and threatened with rape by their leader. But she managed to fool the Mongol and fought him off with her Majapahit dagger. So her son, the Dragon, sent the Permaisuri to a place near Miri, where his sister would be married to a Prince of Temasek, son of Parameswara Sang Nila, as a great queen. In the meantime, Dato’ Merpati was en route to Santubong at Kampong Batu Buaya only to find it deserted and that his wife and daughter had been taken by the Mongol army. He went to the island of Natuna. His wife and daughter were not there, but he found a brass canon called Bujang Timbulan. Finally, the heroic Dragon King led his father to Brunei safely for a family reunion But before he disappeared to his home in the ocean, he offered his father some golden scales or Siskin Emas.The gold was not to be sold otherwise he warned that those who sold it would become poor. Instead, they were only to be used to invoke the dragon’s help in time of dire need. It is rumoured that some of these golden scales are still in the possession of some of Dato’ Merpati’s descendents, to this day.
The Batu Hidup are not the only features of Santubong’s megalithic mystery. In the same area as the Batu Buaya and the Dragon Rock there are about twenty boulders covered in rock carvings of various shapes and sizes. Archaeologists have attributed these to various sources, perhaps ancient Hindu or Chinese pilgrims or maybe even sailors. This fits with archaeological evidence from ceramics which shows that there was a maritime trade network linking China with the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago, from the first centuries of the Common Era. In Island Southeast Asia, these trade links developed first in south Sumatra, centred on what became Srivijaya and in east Kalimantan, in the 4th Century, at Kutai. Santubong, strategically located on the South China Sea, also is one of the most important early historical sites of trade and Indianised civilisation in Borneo and southeast Asia, more broadly.
The Sarawak River and its delta have numerous features which would have stimulated a thriving trading entrepot in ancient times - it is rich in minerals, gold, silver, iron, cinnabar, camphor, incense wood, ivory, diamonds, rare timbers, tortoiseshell and rice. In fact, gold, copper and mercury from the Sarawak River basin were essential to this trade. Therefore Santubong could be regarded as one of the oldest civilizations in Southeast Asia, just like ancient Palembang, Kutai and Kedah. My own research of these motifs suggests that these carvings are perhaps proto- Semitic or Middle Eastern in origin. Whatever the origin of these inscriptions and petroglyphs is, most importantly they represent a very real link
1. Chinese seals, Fu Lu related to a country which pay tribute to ancient China in an island called Pu Lo Chung/Zhou and Po’ni, the Santubong site. Fulu is also an ancient Taoist talisman to summon spirits and protect spirits and protection against diseases. 2. A magical diagram (Proto Semitic), for safe passage to the river and sea as none can predict when it’ll be safe to embark a journey.3. Carved Ancient Sabean(Yemenite), letter Heth or H, concerning meditation, spirituality and wisdom or Hikmah. 4. Proto Semitic mystical letters, may represent astronomical deities for conjuration of celestial beings.5. An Iron Age Proto Semitic alphabet like in the Gezer Calendar, also carved on lime stone rock. Here the letters L-H-D are designated meaning
L-Had-ah relating to sharpen (sword). These characters are repeated in South Arabian script on another rock with the sword petroglyph nearby.6. A carved face with long hair and a chignon, perhaps representing a tutelary deity.7. This megalithic spiral petroglyph is unique as it was 'pecked' onto a boulder facing the carved face and Mount Santubong. It may be a sun shrine. 8. Resembling the Magi, the wise men from the East, the Star of Bethlehem which occurs around Christmas. In the Southern Hemispher, it's called the December Solstice.9. The bygone practice of splitting boulders where a fire is lit on the chiseled marks and then water is splashed onto the blazing rock. Subsequently, the rapid tightening causes the stone to split.
With people who lived thousands of years before us. Think of it as an ancient form of graffiti, a human being just like you, sending a message to us: I was here! We don’t know who they were, or what they were doing in this beautiful land of ours but they left a mark for us to ponder and connect.
We often travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars to find adventure and mystery. Often, we forget the wonders that are right under our noses. Santubong is such a place. We need to do a lot more to preserve and publicize these sites and it is people like you and me who can make a difference. If these sites are frequented by many visitors, their fame will grow as will the need for the local authorities to protect them. Many of the rocks have already been destroyed by the construction of the waterfront. So next time you are facing another lazy Sunday afternoon, hop in your car and drive down to Santubong. Ask the locals for directions to Batu Buaya and walk around these magical boulders as the sun sets. Imagine the heroes, ancient pilgrims, iron-workers, traders and sailors who trod the same path as you, maybe even catch a glimpse of the shape- shifting dragon and, believe me, you will feel that there is no better place to be.
Tunku Hilda is an archaeological researcher, currently studying ancient manuscripts, epigraphy, arts and culture of the Nusantara. Previously she was a researcher at Centre of Global Archaeological Research with USM, Penang. She is actively engaged in Santubong and Bujang Valley’s Iron Age material cultures, ancient settlement pattern, temples architecture, ceramic typology and iron smelting technology. She was both a product of Bujang Valley and Bujang Senang, growing up listening to the stories of magical ancient kingdoms, dragons, petrification and demonic crocodiles from both sites.