Sri Gumum

Sri Gumum
Peter A. van der Helm

Stories of the Lake
Cerita Dongeng Tasik Chini

The Origin of Tasik Chini Dragons of the Lake The Tasik Bera Connection

Cerita Dongeng

The notion of cerita dongeng is an intregral part of the Orang Asli's oral tradition. The term cerita dongeng could be translated by "fairy tale" or "legend", but it is probably translated better by "story-teller's story". That is, it is the act of story-telling that counts. Story-telling is a cheerful social event during which a story-teller interacts with listeners (usually family members) who may have heard the story before and who may modulate the story as it is passed on to the next generation. Hence, the telling of a story is more important than the question of whether the story is true. Likewise, where the events in a story occurred is more important than when they occurred, that is, the stories connect people to the world they live in.

Story-teller Seman bin Samad
Orang Asli story-teller Seman bin Samad

The perfect setting for story-telling is at night, when daily work is done and family members gather around oil candles (pelita) to  talk about anything that might come up; now and again, this social talk turns into story-telling by the elders. At Tasik Chini, this facilitating setting largely disappeared, in the mid 1990s, with the introduction of electricity in the village. As a consequence, story-telling occurs less nowadays, and new generations loose touch with their oral tradition. One way to counter this, is by making oral tradition part of education at Orang Asli primary schools. The video below (shot at Tasik Chini in 2008) is about a UNICEF-funded iniative to use folklore to promote Orang Asli education, which may also help to keep Orang Asli oral tradition alive (the text, spoken in the video, can also be read here).

A specific cerita dongeng is characterized by specific motifs but, rather than being a fixed written-down account, it is basically an oral account that may change with time, place, cultural background, and world view. For instance, stories by the Orang Malayu (the nonindigenous people of Malaysia) usually include motifs refering to Islam and to sultans; such motifs are typically absent in Orang Asli stories. Furthermore, Orang Asli are not surprised by Darwin's evolution theory — they have a story in which snakes descend from bamboo — but their oral tradition also contains the following "Noah's ark plus Tower of Babel" story (as told by Seman bin Samad):

The peoples on earth
Long, long ago, the entire world population was one people [out of Africa?] that traveled across the seas on a boat — until this boat shipwrecked. Then, one group swam in one direction, another group swam in another direction, and so on. This is how the different peoples on earth arose. Each group managed to take along one book, keeping it above their head while swimming. Each book was written in a different writing. This is why the Chinese have the Chinese writing, why the Thai have the Thai writing, and so on.

Legenda Naga Tasik Chini

Tasik Chini, home of Sri Gumum, plays a central role in many stories. In Orang Malayu stories, Sri Gumum is a to-be-feared crocodile. In Orang Asli stories, however, she is the to-be-respected spirit of the lake, who may take various shapes but usually appears as a naga ular (snakelike dragon).

In one Orang Malayu story, Sri Gumum and her husband left Tasik Chini via Sungai Chini and Sungai Pahang (see Satellite Photo), and by mishap became islands (Pulau Daik and Pulau Tioman, respectively) in the South-Chinese Sea. In another Orang Malayu story, Sri Gumum is now dormant in Tasik Chini, and it was her predecessor Sri Pahang who went to the sea to fight a royal battle with naga udang (shrimplike dragon) Sri Kemboja — Sri Pahang lost, died, and was burried at Pasir Panjang.

In Orang Asli stories, however, Sri Gumum is still alive and kicking in Tasik Chini. She has no husband or predecessor but she had a child who went to the sea after a family dispute, ran into a fight with Sri Kemboja, was shot by a golden bullet, and died at Pasir Panjang. Sri Gumum resides at an underwater rock that may move around but usually is in Laut Gumum (see Satellite Photo). From there, she watches over the lake and over an ancient city at the bottom of the lake. There are archaeology reports of findings of ancient artifacts near the lake, and it is said that not so long ago (before logging had troubled the water), one sometimes could still see walls and trees of this city that had been built on top of a mountain that later turned into Tasik Chini.

See The Origin of Tasik Chini to read the celebrated story of how a mountain turned into a lake.

See Dragons of the Lake to read how to recognize Sri Gumum if you meet her.

See The Tasik Bera Connection to read how tales of two lakes connect two Orang Asli groups.

I thank Rosemary Gianno for helping me with the Orang Malayu and Semelai stories.
I am grateful for the many conversations, in the years 1989-2007, at Tasik Chini with my father-in-law
Seman bin Samad (1930-2008) who was an Orang Asli story-teller and who told me many Jakun stories.