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Langkawi History and Lifestyle


Langkawi, the beautiful archipelago of Malaysia, is shrouded in mythological legends. Its actual history & origin has lost its course in the passage of times. According to the legends, the term ‘Langkawi’ is said to have connections with the kingdom of Langkasuka, which is centered in the present Kedah. The historical documentation is little; however, the Chinese Liang Dynasty record (500 AD) refers the kingdom of ‘Langgasu’ as being established in the 1st century AD.

Another reference of the island’s name has been made in the book The Legends of Langkawi by Tun Mohamed Zahir. It says that the term ‘Langkawi’ is a combination of two Sanskrit words, Langka (beauty) and Wi (innumerable). As per the book, Langkawi means the place of immense beauty. One more reference states that Langkawi means Eagles’ Island. According to it, the term Langkawi is a combination of two words Lang and Kawi. Where ‘Lang’ is a corrupt form of Malay word ‘helang’ which means eagle, ‘Kawi’ means marble. Since both eagles and marble are found in abundance in Langkawi, probably the place was named after the fact. Indeed, the Eagle Square at the island was built to commemorate its name.

About 200 years ago, according to the folklore, a young woman, name Mahsuri, was accused of adultery and was executed by the people in spite of her earnest innocence. Just before her death, Mahsuri laid a curse on the island that it will remain barren for seven generations. That’s about the mythological history of Langkawi.

As far as political history is concerned, the Sultanate of Kedah used to rule over the island. In 1921, when Kedah was conquered by Siam, Langkawi also passed in the ruling hands. The Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 transferred the holding power to the British, who held the state until freedom, excluding a brief period of Thai rule under the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II. The Thai influence can be still seen in the culture and food of Langkawi. In fact, Thai language is also understood by many people on the island.

The name Langkawi is the last surviving place of the ancient kingdom of Lankasuka. Lankasuka whose capital is said to have stood at the base of Kedah Peak south of Alor Setar on the mainland, is mentioned in Chinese accounts of the area as far back as 500 AD. According to the Liang Dynasty records, the kingdom was founded in the first century when its Hindu king, Bagatta, paid tribute to the Chinese Emperor of the time. The names of its kings resurface time and again in Malay legends and fairytales.

Local folklore has it that Langkawi derived its name from the eagle or “helang” as it is known in the Malay language. “Lang” for short and in old Malay, “kawi” denotes reddish brown; hence, Langkawi simply means reddish brown eagle Langkawi steeped in legends was cursed by Princess Mahsuri who was condemned to death in 1355 for adultery. Her dying curse was that the island would remain barren for seven generations. Shortly afterwards Thais attacked Langkawi, razing all the settlements to the ground.

Tourism took off in 1986 when Chinese dominated Penang lost its duty-free status to the then Malaysian backwater, Langkawi. Billions of ringgit has since poured into the area and the once sleepy fishing villages and endless paddy fields now harbors and resorts of world class standards.

Most of the development is in the main town, Kuah and along isolated beaches on the west and northern coasts. Away from the built up areas, Langkawi is still fairly rural, though many of the paddy fields have now been left to wandering buffalo and are no longer cultivated due to there being more money to be made in tourism, for the local ex-farmers.

The Langkawi you see today has been transformed almost beyond recognition. This is the legendary island is now major international businessmen meet to form new ventures and conclude deals whilst relaxing. Langkawi has now completed its seven generation cycle and seemingly, if all the development and prosperity now in so much evidence on the island, is anything to go by, the curse has finally been lifted.