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#DearKajo: More legends from Semabang about people being turned to stone

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DearKajo,

I saw your re-publication of the great stories about people or buildings turned to stone.

There are two more that are almost identical and both relate to villages named Semabang in the Sadong River basin.

Because of their similarity in names and stories, I thought they were about one place but they are actually about two.

I’ll give you the oldest first; it’s about the famous and majestic Silabur cave in Serian.

1.This legend of the ancestors of a Sadong chief is recorded in Natives of Sarawak and North Borneo by Henry Ling Roth. It is based on the Mss. of the late Hugh Brooke Low, Sarawak Government Service. 1896.

“It was many, many years ago that a Dyak, of Semabang (in Sadong), and his young son arrived, after a long journey through the jungle, at a village called Si-Lébor. The village was extensive, the Dyaks very numerous. On arriving, the chief of the tribe placed food before the older visitor, but to his young son they offered nothing.

The little fellow seeing this, and being very hungry after his journey, felt much hurt, and began to cry. “To my father” said he, “you have given food, the priok (pot) of rice is before him, the fatted pig has been killed” “everything you have given him; why do you give me nothing?”

But the child’s appeal was useless. These strange Dyaks had hearts of stone; not a morsel was handed to the fatigued and hungry little wayfarer; so he wept on, and wept in vain.

“After a while the boy looked more cheerful; he had dried his tears, and was now engaged in catching a dog and a cat. These he put together on the mat, round which all the people were seated. The cat and the dog played, or more likely, as these animals will do, fought together; but whatever it was, there was something so ludicrous in it all, while the boy sat over them and set them at each other, that the whole assemblage burst into immoderate laughter.

The boy, it would seem, was working some spell there was an object in what he had been doing. Perhaps he was in communication with evil spirits, or under their influence; there was something ominous about it, we know not what.

But, to proceed, presently the sky became overcast, and gradually great volumes of black clouds came sailing up, propelled by great gusts of wind; one by one they rolled along, and were heaped up one on top of another, or got all broken up, as it were, in their collision.

The sky appeared one mass of confusion, looking blacker and more angry as the sun gradually disappeared in the darkness. At last the storm burst forth with a fury never known before; sharp flashes of lightning, followed by awful peals of thunder, succeeded one another, fast and furious; the very ground below shook as the palm leaf quivers in the breeze it seemed as if the great end of all things was at hand.

“Now commenced a gradual but awful change. Amidst the rolling thunder and the dazzling lightning, which only served to make the awful darkness visible, the village, the houses, all began to dissolve, to melt away, as it were, into burning lava, and, with his works, man perished likewise. There you might see the grey-headed chief starting up with his grandson in his arms, but ere reaching the door, being gradually hardened into stone. There mothers would be seen flying with their little ones to escape the same dreadful fate, but all in vain. There a young and helpless maiden would be clinging to her brave warrior, to that arm which had always been the first to help her, which could surely save her now.

Alas, that cruel transformation. The living light in those bright eyes is gone, the tender grasp of that warm hand is cold; from flesh and blood they too pass away into senseless petrifactions, whilst, mingling with the shrieks and yells, and invocations of the men and the Borich, would still be heard the boom of the thunder and the crackling of the houses.

Not a man, woman, or child “no, nor even a visitor” at that fated village, save only the neglected boy, was left alive to mourn the loss of his all. One after another, they all melted, and were changed, when the heat of the storm was over, into solid rock. Houses and all in them succumbed beneath the fiery elements, and when the storm ceased, all lay, not a heap of charred ruins, but huge masses of smoking stone.

“A hill with great precipices now marks the spot where this tragedy occurred, and on the hill (itself the transformed village) are still pointed out, if people speak truth, the traces of petrified houses. An upright rock is shown as the transformed figure of a Malay, an unhappy visitor on that awful day. There he stands with his hand still fixed on his sword hilt, once a living soul, now’ a lifeless stone.

The whole scene indeed is a standing monument at once of the crime of inhospitality and its fearful punishment. Gazing on his revenge, the youth retreated. He returned to his native village, Semabang: and time flew on, and here he died, he was the chief of his tribe, the grey-headed patriarch appealed to by the new and rising generation.

Years and hundreds of years rolled away, fathers and mothers passed off the stage, and young children grew up to take their places, to attain manhood, to work, to become old, to die too; and so time went on, and children danced and played over the same ground that their ancestors had danced and played on for centuries before.

“At last, no great time ago, the tribe of Semabang having flourished and become populous and rich, a young chief, the lineal descendant of the little hungry boy, dreamed that great riches were in store for him and his tribe if they went to Mount Si-Lebor, the petrified village.

The next day a party was organized, and they went there and searched. They at last discovered a magnificent cave. With lighted torches they entered, and found it to be very extensive and full of the celebrated edible birds-nests.

“Ah”, said they, “this is our portion, instead of that which was denied to our ancestor; his due was refused then, it has now been given to us, his descendants; this is our balas (revenge).” Thousands and thousands of birds-nests they brought out of the cave, which realized many reals (Mexican dollars) to the discoverers. The Si-Lebor caves are now said to be the richest, and the tribe possessing them (the Semabang youth’s descendants) the wealthiest and most prosperous in Sadong.”

Charles T.C. Grant, “A Tour amongst the Dyaks of Sarawak in 1858”

The old village of Kg. Gahat Semabang is now known as Kg. Gahat Mawang.

One can see how the story has changed over time here.

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2.The second legend about petrification related to Semabang

Now there is another Semabang that is close to Simunjan. The famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace visited this longhouse around 1856 to collect orangutans.

There is a smaller cave close to this village (no longhouses) now entirely surrounded by palm oil plantation and a legend similar to the one recorded by Charles Grant is known here.

Small boy and his father, small boy is teased and not given food, and he curses the villagers and a huge torrential rain falls that turns the longhouse into stone. Wallace did not mention or know of the cave, it seems, though he must have passed within a few hundred meters on the river.

J. Drawhorn

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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