Gazing upwards into the serene skies of the Malaysian coast, flocks of vibrant colours soar across rugged shores and balmy forests, distant calls echoing as twilight approaches. An attentive photographer finishes their pilgrimage to spot a White-Collared Kingfisher from its surveying point on a post; across the sand, an artist paints a portrait of a Pacific-Reef Egret, metallic hues gleaming. But whether observer, story-teller, or painter, the birds of Malaysia have enjoyed a long and revered tradition of prestige and intrigue among locals and travellers from afar for centuries. As with every culture, the mythological power surrounding the animal which takes flight is limitless, and even today continues to ignite the inspiration for several Malaysian artists.
Bringers of Life
Perhaps it is because birds are one of the few extraordinary creatures who can take in the complete essence of air, water, and earth – but they undeniably represent a dramatic transition between both physical and spiritual boundaries when it comes to folk legends. In the peninsula island of Perak, it is said that the soul of an unborn child lives in the shape of bird, nesting in a tree which is chosen by the pregnant mother. Just before birth, the bird is ritually hunted and consumed by the mother so that Kari, the tribal god, can complete the metamorphosis and ensure a long and healthy life for the newly born.
There are other widespread practices which celebrate the artistry and spiritual presence of birds – particularly in rural Malaysia. In some regions, when a wild bird flies into a house it is gently captured, prepared with oil and released into the wilderness along with a bidding to take all ill-luck with it so that the house is left pure. This symbolic occurrence demonstrates an integral association with the domestic sphere as well as the spiritual one – where birds are not only seen as magical, life-giving creatures, but as blessings which play a strong role in the harmony of the household. Even beyond the human realm, the associations with practices of bird species itself is remarkable, with stories of birds laying eggs during flight, and hens laying their chicks on the backs of their mate.
Creatures of Night and Shadow
As varied and diverse as the species themselves, birds enjoy a vast array of legendary attributes – and their importance is not only bound to life-giving and luck. The Geroda is said to be a mighty bird with great breadth whose talons are strong enough to carry an elephant; the Cenderawasih is a bird of paradise who stands vigilant guard over a holy jewel in kayangan (heaven). Crossing over into the scientific realm, poetic connotations find their way into the language, with birds like burung hantu (owl) translating into “ghost bird.”
As creatures of supreme capabilities as well as transfixing beauty, they have been the awe and wonder for artists and story-tellers since time began, invoking magnificent stories and pieces of art. Some of the most beloved and popular tales feature native birds, such as Kisah Burung Gagak dan Merak (The Crow and the Peacock), Kisah Burung Murai (The Mockingbird), Kisah Burung Kakak Tua (The Cockatoo) and Kisah Burung Gagak yang Haus (The Thirsty Crow)
Just as the poets become enraptured by the mysterious and breathtaking allure of the bird, so do travellers from around the world who are seeking new and exciting places to experience in a variety of ways, from cruises to birding expeditions. Birding in Malaysia is a pleasure which is easily accessible to both avid twitchers and beginners alike, with tours offering several different programs which cater to every taste and aspiration. Some of these range from energetic work on the field to incorporating the myths and legends which have become such an important part of Malaysian mythology and folklore, and their timeless tales have struck the imaginations of visitors through brilliant renderings of both art and music where birds continue to dominate the theme. As well as their presence within niche tourisms – particularly in ecotourism which is becoming a rapidly-growing industry – folk legends and field studies are offered as additional elements to tours as well, adding that exciting aspect to an all-round balanced journey.
Not only are these wonderful stories a vital part of Malaysia’s ancient cultural traditions, but the honour and affection which is bestowed on them by Malaysian people sheds light on their environmental importance as well. As spiritual creatures which must be protected and preserved, the folklore of the bird is as alive and relevant today as ever.
By: Missi Davis