“What’s in a name”, says Juliet, “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. That was Shakespeare’s romanticism, who didn’t seem to think that name matters. But it does, and it carries weight, especially for a tourist island like Langkawi. Just as a name defines a person’s identity and individuality, it does the same for places too.
Take the names of some famous destinations nearby. Phuket was named after the Malay word “bukit” or a hill. Pulau Pinang derived its name from areca or pinang, the seed of the betel palm. Thailand’s Tarutao island to the north of Langkawi actually means “Pulau Tertua” or the oldest island in Malay. Farther away, Pulau Tioman got its name from Tok Man or the honorific “Datuk” Osman.
When it comes to Langkawi, the source of its name is harder to figure out. The most popular perhaps is the version saying the word “Lang” comes from the easily spotted eagles or “helang” here while “kawi” is a type of stone ubiquitous on the island. Scratching below the surface of traveller reports and scholarly works reveals many facets of the name Langkawi.
In Sanskrit, “Langka” means beautiful and “wi” means many. Langkawi could therefore mean “many beautiful islands”. It is little wonder that maps drawn in the 16th century often referred to Langkawi as “Langa” or “Lanka” or “Lansura” or “Langapura”, again pointing to its unbridled beauty. In the same vein the chronicles of Kedah or “Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa” mentioned “Langkapuri” as the home of the Garuda – Vishnu’s mythical bird.
The famed Chinese envoy, Laksmana or fleet admiral Cheng-Ho of the 15th century Ming dynasty wrote about “Lung-Ya-Kiao-Yi” or Langkawi in his map. Earlier in 1349 the navigator Wan Dayuan chronicled his experience sailing twice across the Indian Ocean including Southeast Asian shores. The “Dao Yi Zhi Lue” document or “The Brief Records of Subsidiary Countries of the Yuan Dynasty” also includes a description of the island Long-Ya-Pu-Ti (Langkawi) which he observed among 200 ports and countries. Much later in the 1817 sailing directory book by James Horsburgh, the island was given the name Lancava or the Loucava Group. In 1813, William Milburn, condescendingly wrote about “the great Ladda” which is “…inhabited by a race of Malays, who are in general great thieves [sic], and commit frequent acts of piracy”.
It was our forefathers from Acheh who started planting pepper or “lada” in Langkawi. To them Pulo Ladda was their preferred moniker for the island. The Acheh Sultanate was in full control of the pepper regions in Sumatra throughout the 16th century. By 1540 Acheh was recognised the world’s largest producer of pepper commodity. However, by the early 17th century Kedah and especially Langkawi have overtaken Acheh as the best pepper producer. As a result, in 1619 Sultan Iskandar Muda of Acheh resorted to attacking Langkawi with its pepper vines destroyed. The Achehnese had the intention to stop Langkawi pepper export which was rivalling its own. By the time the French explorer Augustin de Beaulieu came to buy pepper from Langkawi sometime in August 1621, the island had lost its production capacity. Captain de Beaulieu’s reflection about Langkawi or “Lancahui” as he put it was recorded in his book “Mémoires d’un voyage aux Indes orientales, 1619-1622”.
As remote as it may be, the island was never entirely free from the geopolitics of the day. In 1642 the Sultan of Kedah consented for invalid Dutch army to recuperate in Langkawi following the siege of Malacca. What a spectacle it must have been for an island of 3,000 population to nurse 300 ailing European soldiers!
A strategic moment arrived by the turn of the 20th century which saw the growth of German maritime and trade interests in Southeast Asia. The Hamburg-originated Behn Meyer & Co. for instance was already the region’s largest trading company in the second half of the 1800s. To protect the German commercial interest, its Imperial Navy tried to obtain rights for a naval base on the secured bays of Langkawi island from the Kingdom of Siam. Inevitably such an intent poses a threat to the British naval supremacy and political interest. When diplomacy failed, the British launched a military campaign to annex Langkawi and four surrounding provinces. In 1909, the Union Jack flag was raised over the Langkawi archipelago following the signing of the British-Siam Treaty.
Perhaps the least known names of Langkawi are “Birama Dewa” and “Maha Hairan” island. Such obscurity is understandable given that these names are used in the forgotten Malay fiction “Hikayat Nakhoda Muda” or The Tale of a Young Captain from the 19th century. The Hikayat tells the story of a prince who sailed to Langkawi vowing never to return until a child is born from his barren wife. Unbeknown to the prince, the wife followed him to Birama Dewa island disguised as a young captain. She visits him at night and eventually bears him a child who reconciles them. A similar plot appeared earlier in Shakespeare’s famous play “All’s Well That Ends Well” whose origin is traceable to the 11th century Kashmir tale of “Katha Sarit Sagara”.
Langkawi of today attracts almost 4 million visitors annually. It has made its name as an archipelago of great natural beauty almost on par with Mauritius, Bali and Jeju islands. With 500 million years of unique geological history under its belt, Langkawi holds the record as the first UNESCO Global Geopark in Southeast Asia. The island also offers more than 12,000 hotel rooms from luxury brands and five-star accommodations down to budget homestays and motels. In every sense of the word, Langkawi is Malaysia’s tourism powerhouse.
Be that as it may, its cultural identity leaves much to be desired for. Save for the tale of injustice and seven generation curse of the innocent Mahsuri, the history, culture, and folklores of Langkawi are insufficiently unearthed and celebrated. This is about to change. Efforts are now underway to position Langkawi as a culture, dance and arts destination. The signature event Langkawi Festival will feature the cultural wealth of the island and its peoples for the whole world to enjoy.
Stay home for now. Stay tuned for 2021 for everything Langkawi.
The author is Chief Executive Officer of the Langkawi Development Authority, Ministry of Finance, Malaysia. The article is also available on TTR Weekly https://www.ttrweekly.com/site/2020/04/langkawi-whats-in-a-name/