If you are not familiar with the legend of a swan maiden, it is a mythical creature who shape-shifts from human to swan form.
The basic story line of this legend is that the male character spies on the maiden while bathing (which is considered sexual harassment by today’s standards). Then the man snatches away the feather garment or some other article of clothing, thus preventing her from fleeing, (which is another criminal act of theft) and finally the man forces her to become his wife (which is actually a case of kidnapping).
Putting aside the multiple criminal offences in this folktale, similar legends are found across the world.
The Ranee of Sarawak Margaret Brooke recorded several interesting legends in her book My Life in Sarawak(1849) and one of them is almost similar to the swan legend. Only, this folktale starts with the safflower plant and has a tragic ending.
The story of Safflower and a man named Laja
Margaret relates how rich the Batang Lupar district is in legends, and tells a story told to her by a fortman’s wife in Simanggang.
“Every one living in Simanggang knows the great mass of sandstone and forest, called Lingga mountain, and all those who have travelled at all (so said the fortman’s wife) have seen this Lingga mountain and know how high and difficult it is to climb, and how a great stretch of country can be seen from its flat and narrow top with the wide expanse of sea stretching from the shores of the Batang Lupar across the great bay of Sarawak to the mountains beyond the town of Kuching,” Margaret wrote.
According to the legend, there was a young Iban man named Laja who lived in the village at the foot of Lingga Mountain. One night, a beautiful lady appeared to Laja in a dream.
She told Laja to “rise early the next morning, before the trees on the banks of the river had emerged from the mist of night, and climb Lingga Mountain, where he would find the safflower at the top.”
The spirit went on to explain that this plant would cure most illnesses, especially sprains and internal inflammation.
Laja and his journey to Mount Lingga
The next morning, Laja woke up and followed everything the lady told him to (because when a mysterious figure in your dream tells you to do it, you should do it).
Halfway up the mountain, Laja saw a rainbow just above the fog. Looking at the bright rainbow, he knew that the spirit of the mountain – a celestial princess – was about to descend by way of the rainbow to bathe in the mountain stream.
Instead of waiting and wondering how she looked like, Laja went on his way to the top of the mountain.
After spending some time looking, he found the safflower plant and brought it home to his village.
Laja pounded the plant and gave it to his people who were sick, but the plant was unreliable.
While some were cured, others did not benefit from it and died from their sickness.
Simpurei and the celestial princess of Lingga mountain
Despite the unpredictability of the safflower plant, its benefits still outnumbered its failures. Eventually, they ran out of the safflower to cure the sick.
One day, a man named Simpurei decided to look for the safflower without telling anyone of his intentions.
Halfway up the mountain, Simpurei saw a rainbow with both ends resting on the sides of the hill opposite the mountain just like Laja did.
He then heard the sound of water and rustling close by. Simpurei peered through the greenery and that was when he saw the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was a celestial princess, who was also the spirit of the mountain.
The woman was naked with hair falling down to her feet. She used a bucket of gold to pour water over her head.
Just like the swan maiden legend, Simpurei stood in awe of the woman’s beauty. Suddenly, he accidentally broke a twig that he was holding.
Surprised at the sound, the woman looked up and saw Simpurei. She fled to a bed of safflowers near where her clothes were lying.
As the woman ran away, a strand of her hair was caught in the bushes.
Instead of a feather garment, Simpurei decided to take the hair as it shone and glistened in the sun.
He took off immediately, feeling happy that he had a strand of a celestial maiden’s hair for his keeping. The man even forgot what he came to the mountain for; which was the safflower.
Simpurei’s tragic end
Unfortunately for Simpurei, he barely reached his home when he was caught with a sudden sickness.
Upon hearing about his illness, his villagers slowly crowded his home to visit Simpurei.
Many tried to help cure him, summoning all the shamans and medicine men that they knew, but none of them could heal Simpurei from his mysterious illness.
In his sickness, Simpurei managed to tell the people of his adventure up in the mountains. From how he watched the celestial princess taking a bath in the mountain stream, to keeping a strand of her hair.
Eventually, he passed away due to his sickness. The elders of the village believed that Simpurei was punished for staring at the celestial princess bathing naked at the mountain stream.