Folktales of Mount Kinabalu

Komuhakan Movement
14 min readJan 17, 2021

Written by Shireen Ali | Published for the Komuhakan Movement
Link to full text (PDF).

Mount Kinabalu stands tall in the heart of Borneo as one of Sabah’s most beloved natural wonders. Imbued with rich history and culture, the mountain is home to legends and lore that have echoed through our local communities. The ones retold here, sourced from both old and recent sources, are just some of the many stories Sabah has to tell — divine creation, the romance between a prince and a village maiden, and even tales of a dragon.

The origin story of Mt. Kinabalu intertwines with traditional Kadazandusun creed surrounding the supreme beings Kinoingan and Suminundu [1], who together as husband and wife, created the universe. As Kinoingan shaped the sky, Suminundu moulded the earth.

One day, the eagle Kondiu was sent to assess the deities’ creations only to find the clouds far too small in comparison to the globe, devastating Kinoingan’s godly pride. When Kinoingan set out to form bigger and better clouds, Suminundu instead decided to remake the world to equal her husband’s designs. As the earth was reformed, the mountain of Kinorungoi (Kinabalu) was created as the centre of the world.

“Once upon a time there was a giant living… at the foot of Mount Kinabalu.”
Ansow Gunsalam, 1983 (Jacobson, 1996) [as cited in Bidder et. al, 2014].

Gayo Nakan (literally ‘big eater’) was once an ancient giant king residing at the foot of Mount Kinabalu with an immense appetite locals struggled to satisfy. Upon learning of the villagers’ plight, the giant decreed he was to be buried alive to ease the people’s burden. The task of burying a giant being too formidable, the people of the mountain worked tirelessly to no avail. Finally, the king who had grown impatient, ‘uttered magic words and sank into the rock up to his shoulders.’

As a result of man’s meek efforts, the giant cursed the land with drought and famine but promised to come to his people’s aid in times of war. Fearful of the disasters that could come, the local people performed sacrificial offerings at ‘the wishing pool below the summit that was the king’s grave.’

‘In this hole [on the mountain], Kuro tells us, the Dragon lives. […] The Dragon, he says, has been heard to roar once to-day by himself and Kabong — Mr. Low, he says, also heard it; but unfortunately one of my men fired off a gun, which the Dragon objected to, so he did not roar again.’
(Whitehead, 1893, p. 174).

Once upon a time, there was a great dragon living on the peak of Mount Kinabalu, guarding precious treasure. Many Chinese adventurers had embarked to seize the precious stone atop the mountain, only to be devoured by the dragon. Hence, the mountain was named ‘Kina Balu’- the Chinese Widow. (The history and meaning behind the name Kinabalu has been the subject of discussion for centuries, with numerous theories being brought to light, which we’ll retell in our article next weekstay tuned!)

The Emperor of China, desiring the dragon’s precious pearl, ordered the ministers Ong Bong Kong and his brother Ong Sum Ping to retrieve the treasure. Ong Sum Ping, devising a clever plan to deceive the mighty beast, crafted a glass box fitted with a brightly lit candle and fashioned a kite. While the dragon was distracted looking for food, he hoisted himself up onto its lair and seized the pearl, leaving the glass box in its place.

Having taken the treasure, Ong Sum Ping’s men pulled him back onto their ships, and the convoy set sail for home. After returning to find the treasure gone, the dragon frantically looked around for its stolen possession. Spotting the pearl’s bright luminescence over the ocean, the dragon gave chase, swimming right towards the men.

Seeing the dragon approaching at incredible speed, Ong Sum Ping came up with yet another idea to ignite metal spheres till they burned red. When the dragon was dangerously near, opening its mouth wide to capture the ship, the men hurled the blazing metal directly into the dragon’s mouth. The dragon swallowed one, two, and eventually twenty of the projectiles, before falling weak and drowning in the sea.

Having successfully defeated the dragon and kept the pearl, the men continued on their journey. Sometime along the journey, Ong Bong Kong requested to hold the pearl, but Ong Sum Ping refused, saying it was he who successfully got hold of it to begin with. Ong Bong Kong was insistent, threatening to attack Ong Sum Ping’s ship if he declined his request.

Ong Sum Ping, not wanting to quarrel over the treasure- let alone against his brother- handed it over and said, ‘alright, bring the treasure to our country; I’m not following you home.’ With that, Ong Sum Ping and his crewmates turned back to Borneo. Settling in Brunei, he wedded the royal princess- the daughter of Sultan Muhammad- and adopted the title of Sultan Ahamat, serving as the second Sultan of Brunei [2].

Dumbong’s version of the tale retains the basic plot, with some attributes changed. While the original was written of the brothers Ong Sum Ping and Ong Kang, Dumbong tells of the Emperor’s sons Wong Song Ping and Wong Wang Kang. Here, the dragon’s treasure was not a pearl, rather a luminous jewel known as the Butiza. Instead of the glass ornament, a colourfully lit lantern resembling the jewel was used to trick the dragon.

Jealous of his younger brother’s triumph, Wong Wang Kang snatched the treasure from Wong Song Ping, claiming the elder of the pair should be the one to present the Butiza to their father. However, the wise Emperor was aware of Wong Wang Kang’s antics and instructed the jeweller to manufacture a replica of the gem to hearten Wong Song Ping.

Knowing the gift was not authentic, a disappointed Wong Song Ping decided to leave China to avoid any further conflict. Leaving port, he voyaged across the sea until arriving at the coast of Brunei. Welcomed by the royal family, Wong Song Ping married the sultan’s daughter and was named heir to the throne.

Many years ago, there was a colony of three thousand Chinese settlers in Putatan- one of whom was Po Kong, who fell in love with the daughter of a local Dusun chief. Nevertheless, her father opposed the union as she was already set to marry another member of her tribe. The couple, not willing to break apart, fled Putatan. After wandering around the region, the pair eventually found themselves on the peak of Mount Kinabalu.

One night, a strange light was spotted flickering in the distance. Going to investigate, they spied a dragon outside its cave swallowing and spitting out what looked like a great ornament of light. The couple grabbed two handfuls of mud and, when the time was right, flung it right at the dragon’s eyes. As the dragon was blinded, Po Kong seized the jewel and tucked it away in his coat. Without the luminescence of the treasure, darkness fell over the area. Po Kong, eager to escape, left his wife behind and leapt an enormous chasm. Chasing after the jewel, the dragon blundered and met its end.

Discourteously, Po Kong never returned for his wife. Eventually, he made his way to Saiap Village in Tempassuk, where he settled down and took up crafting enormous jars- some of which are still around today. The Dusun village headman at the time of Rutter’s writing claimed direct descent from Po Kong. Whatever happened to the dragon’s jewel remains a mystery.

On the summit of Mount Kinabalu rests a large lake, inhabited by a great dragon god called the naja. In the middle of the lake was an island, where a fair Chinese princess was kept guarded by the naja. Many princes had tried in vain to rescue the princess, some turning themselves into birds, fish, and other animals to aid in the mission; yet, all the men perished at the hands of the naja.

According to legend, the princess can only be saved by a very powerful man. However, attempts to free the princess declined in fear of the lake overflowing and the mountain collapsing.

‘ Thus, from this resting place of the The Chinese’ widows on its slopes, has the sacred mountain taken its name Kina Balu, and her lofty peaks for ever keep watch and ward over the souls of the departed.’
(Menteri Babu, as cited in Skinner, 1928, p. 65)

Long ago, the rivers of Borneo were far grander than they are now. One of these rivers began at a waterfall running down the great mountain, flowing down into a large lake which streamed out into the ocean.

Living around the slopes of the mountain were the Murut people, who held the mountain sacred as they do today as the resting place of the dead. Chinese merchants would sail up the river to the Muruts, trading China’s brassware and jars for the Murut’s camphor, spices, and rhino horn.

One day, there came a ship much bigger and much finer than any other ship that had arrived before- on board was the Prince of China, cast away as an outlaw. For a year, he made camp with the Muruts, spending the time trading with the natives and collecting spices along with other treasures of the jungle.

At last, when the time came for the Prince to return to China, he prepared his ship for the journey ahead. As soon as the men set sail, ‘then there arose a terrific shaking of the earth followed by a storm with blinding lightning and deafening thunder. The rain came down in sheets and the wind blew a hurricane, the like of which was never known before.’ The river rose in a ravaging flood, the trees swept up in its wake bashing against the granite rocks.

The Prince’s ship, heavy with cargo, could not turn back. Night fell, while the elements of wing, rain, and lightning continued to beset the men. Left at the mercy of nature, the ship collided onto a rock and disappeared into a whirlpool. The trade items were lost, ‘and the crew and soldiers, who tried vainly to save themselves by swimming, were either killed by falling rocks from the bank, or swept away and drowned.’

The storm went on for three days, at the end of which the flood subsided as quickly as it had risen. The morning after, while returning from a hunting expedition, a group of Muruts discovered the body of a man lying unconscious by the river. They carried the man back to the village where he was nursed back to health.

The man, who turned out to be the Prince (who by some miracle had survived the ordeal), woke up as if out of a dream: the once great river had shrunk in size to be no more than a normal stream. The horizon of crystal clear water he had first sailed across when arriving in Borneo were nowhere to be found, and the white waves which were but a few nights ago devastating the Prince’s ship and countrymen were gone.

Even the native Muruts were in awe of the strange phenomenon: the massive lake had vanished, with only a sea of mud and a small river in its place. Fear spread throughout the community. Some of the local headmen had called for the Prince to be put to death, wanting to present his head as a peace offering to the Evil Spirits, for ‘surely such a catastrophe must have been caused by the stranger amongst us.’

Others, however, believed the Prince was a god, for ‘who else could have possibly lived through such furious wrath, and for what other mortal man would our great rivers have shriveled up, as if begging for pardon?’

Hence, the Chinese Prince settled amongst the Muruts and wedded two local women. In the fullness of time, when the prince’s first wife passed away, she was buried at the foot of the lofty mountain; when the second met her end, she too was buried alongside the first. As they were the first of the Muruts to have married the stranger, the mountain was thereby spoken of as ‘the widows of the Chinese Prince’- Kina Balu.

The Prince went on to live a long life, becoming a sort of King or Raja amongst the Muruts. He took other wives and had many more children. Mentri Babu goes on to say how ‘from the children of [the] Chinese Prince and Murut wives, we Dusuns believe, is sprung the Dusun race.’

(The legends behind the Chinese origin of the Dusuns have been widely discussed, its story loaded with myths and interesting facets. Stay tuned for our coverage on the topic!)

“Touched by the woman’s loyalty, the spirit of the mountain turned her to stone, facing the South China Sea, so she could forever wait for her husband’s return.”
(Toppeak Travel, 2017).

The love shared between a Chinese prince and a Kadazan maiden has become one of the more popular legends behind Kina Balu, the Chinese Widow, with numerous different versions. In all variations, the fable of the dragon of Kinabalu and its treasure still serves as the foundation of the story.

After slaying the dragon and laying claim to the invaluable treasure, the Chinese Prince became enamoured with a local Kadazan woman and made home in Borneo. As time passed, the prince was called to return to his homeland, his wife unable to follow. Days, months, and years went by as she looked forward to her beloved’s return, to no avail [3]. Grieving the loss of her husband to the spirit of the great mountain, the heartbroken sweetheart turned to stone [4].

In one form of the tale told by Tang (1992), the woman awaited her husband’s return on the peak of the mountain. Another account by Kitingan et. al (2014) depicts both the woman and the couple’s son summiting the mountain to look out for incoming ships, hopeful to find the prince on one. In both narrations, the wife (and child) pass away, never seeing the return of the prince. According to local belief, St. John’s Peak is thought to be the stone into which the woman (and son) were transformed (Bidder et. al, 2014).

“When the people of her village discovered her dead and saw her face looking out over the ocean, they named the mountain “Kinabalu” in tribute to her example of faith, love, and loyalty.”
(Evans, 2017)

The Chinese prince, sailing the South China Sea, was cast adrift after a shipwreck before being rescued by fishermen along the coast of Borneo. As he regained his health in the native village, he met and fell in love with a local maiden. The lovers married, settled down, and started a family together.

Over time, the homesick prince yearned to return to China, so he set course due East. Upon arrival, he was greeted with a hero’s welcome by the Emperor and Empress. However, learning of the prince’s marriage with a local village woman, the royal family forbade him from reuniting with her. Instead, he was to be wed with the princess of a neighbouring country.

In Borneo, the prince’s darling duly awaited his return. Every sunrise, she would climb the tallest mountain in the land to observe the movement of harbouring ships, longing for her husband to be on board one. At sunset, she would go home to tend to her children.

The arduous task of ascending and descending the mountain every day began taking its toll. Her strength drained after a particularly hard climb, the wife fell ill as she stood on the mountaintop. As the sun sunk over the horizon and the cold night approached, her eyes closed for the last time, her hope for her husband’s return never wavering. As a tribute to the woman’s boundless love, the spirit of Kinabalu turned her to stone so she could forever look out for the prince’s ship sailing across the South China Sea.

Although sharing the same root, many of the legends- such as that of Ong Sum Ping and the dragon of Kinabalu- vary in details. As we’ve seen, for example, there are numerous variations of the character Ong Sum Ping (Po Kong, Wong Song Ping) and there are multiple accounts of how the Kadazan woman was transformed to stone. These differences- as well as the similarities- show how these stories were all derived from one source, deviating from one another throughout time.

As argued by Bidder et. al (2014), inconsistencies across the many tales reflect the lack of systematic documentation of traditional Sabahan lore. The legends of Kinabalu have been passed down via word-of-mouth as part of indigenous oral traditions, and have naturally morphed over time.

Even today, tidbits of these legends are still found across Sabah, travelling from one person to another in our every-day chit chat; a chain that would undoubtedly continue — or that we’ll put effort into continuing — to ensure the stories of our past (and our present) can be kept alive for generations to come.

Endnotes

  1. Kinoingan and Suminundu are the names of the Supreme Creators in the Kadazan language. The Dusun equivalents are Kinohiringan and Umunsumundu. Spelling and stylisations have varied across historical sources. In some texts, Kinharingan and Munsumondok (Evans, 1922) and Kinaringan and Munsummundok (Rutter, 1922) are cited.
  2. Sultan Ahamat is written as Sultan Ahmad in modern sources. The accuracy of whether or not Ong Sum Ping was actually Sultan Ahmad, the second Sultan of Brunei, has been widely contested. Kurz (2018), accounting for the various inconsistencies in historical records, concludes the stories and entire character of Ong Sum Ping were fictional.
  3. Tang (1992); Jacobson (1996); and Hoebel (1984).
  4. Jacobson, (1996); and Hoebel (1984).

References

  1. Bidder, C., Kibat, S. A., and Saien, S. (2014). ‘Mount Kinabalu: the Sacred Emblem of the First UNESCO World Heritage Site on Borneo.’ Tourism, Leisure and Global Change, (1), pp. 1–9.
  2. Evans, I. H. N. (1922). Among Primitive Peoples in Borneo : a Description of the Lives, Habits & Customs of the Piratical Head-Hunters of North Borneo, With an Account of Interesting Objects of Prehistoric Antiquity Discovered in the Island. London: Seeley.
  3. Evans, Z. (2017). Petrification Myths: The Legend of Mount Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia. Available at: [https://ztevetevans.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/petrification-myths-the-legend-of-mount-kinabalu-borneo-malaysia/] (Accessed: 7 January 2021).
  4. Kurz, J. L. (2018). ‘Making History in Borneo: Ong Sum Ping and His Others During the Late Yuan and Early Ming Dynasties.’ International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies, 14 (2), pp. 79–104.
  5. Roth, H. L. (1896). Natives Of Sarawak And British North Borneo, Volume 1. London: Truslove and Hanson.
  6. Rutter, O. (1922). British North Borneo: An Account of Its History, Resources, and Native Tribes. London: Constable Limited.
  7. Skinner, C. F. (1928). ‘Mt. Kina Balu. (A Dusun Legend of its Name).’ Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 6(4 (105)), pp. 63–65.
  8. Sweeney, P. (1968). ‘Silsilah Raja-Raja Berunai.’ Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 41 (2 (214)), pp. 1–82.
  9. Toppeak Travel, (2017). The Legends of Mount Kinabalu. Available at: [https://toppeaktravel.com/the-legends-of-mount-kinabalu/] (Accessed: 7 January 2021).
  10. Treacher, W. H. (1891). British Borneo: Sketches of Brunai, Sarawak, Labuan, and North Borneo. Singapore: Government Printer.
  11. Whitehead, John. (1893). Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. London: Gurney and Jackson, London.

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