Did Sang Nila Utama really see a lion?
by Ian Chew
Nobility, strength, and majesty are just a few traits that come to mind when one thinks of lions. A place so named—like Singapura, the Lion City—would benefit from association with such a powerful and charismatic animal. But what if the origin story of Singapore, steeped in mythology, is based on a 700-year falsehood?
Everybody knows that the King of Beasts is not found on Singapore. In fact, lions have never occurred anywhere near the dense forests of the equatorial tropics, preferring the open, dry habitat of woodland savannas.
The farthest east Panthera leo, as the lion is scientifically known, ranges today is more than 3,000 km from Singapore, in the Gir forest of Gujarat, western India. Even during the most recent ice ages over 10,000 years ago, its close relative the Cave Lion (Panthera spelaea) would have roamed the more northern latitudes of Eurasia and not the warmer regions of Southeast Asia.
So why would Sang Nila Utama, a Srivijayan prince from Palembang, Sumatra, claim to have seen a lion on Temasek? Spying its gleaming white beaches from nearby Bintan, the prince and his royal party set out for Temasek in 1299, encountering a majestic creature soon after landing near the mouth of a river:
Puzzled, the prince turned to his advisors, one of whom remarked that it fit the description of the ‘Singah’, Sanskrit for ‘lion’, of Hindu and Buddhist mythology. The island was thus renamed after the beast, the sighting deemed auspicious, and a new settlement founded shortly after.
The figure of ‘Singah’ has wielded considerable power and respect in South and Southeast Asia for centuries. Lions have been present in India since antiquity, where they were royal creatures associated with kings. A formidable symbol, its usage soon spread throughout East Asia, as Indian cultural influence expanded eastwards. In Sumatra, Buddhism became a core tenet of the Srivijayan empire, centred at Palembang from the 7th to 13th centuries.
In fact, Singapore was just one of several places named after the lion in Southeast Asia—at least three others have existed in history. As none of these places have ever had lions in the wild, their names point to ‘Singah’ as a symbolic word and not a literal description. The Temasek lion in the Malay Annals may well be a widely accepted tale or an origin myth about the founding of Singapura. Other aspects of the story, such as Sang Nila Utama casting his crown into the sea to gain safe passage to the island, support this; the gesture symbolises the transfer of the royal seat from Palembang to Temasek/Singapura.
Landing on what was deemed a promising site for a new kingdom, the prince then named the place in Sanskrit—the official court language—making use of the powerful symbol of ‘Singah’, befitting his own royal title of ‘Sri Tri Buana’, or Lord of the Three Worlds (of gods, demons, and men).
But let’s take the prince at his word, for now. If the description was literal, what could the creature have been, if not an actual lion?
Keep in mind that it was only 500 years after the fateful encounter that a systematic, Western approach to the naming and study of Southeast Asian flora and fauna was attempted—and, more important, documented—by British, French, and Dutch colonials. Some of the following animals may have been unknown to the Srivijayans in the 14th century, or perhaps known only by different local or indigenous names.
Also, other than the wild boar, none of these animals are presently found in Singapore. Some have become locally extinct, while others have never been recorded on the island—at least not by Europeans. Of course, the lack of records does not prove that these animals have never wandered the largely forested, nearly unpopulated Temasek back then. They all inhabit the adjacent Malay Peninsula, and many are proficient swimmers that would find the narrow Straits of Johor no obstacle.
A size comparison of the animals
We may never know what animal (if any!) the prince and his party saw the fateful day they landed on our island. That said, if one were to make an educated guess, the Asian golden cat seems the most likely candidate.
When not being an assistant taxonomist at a natural history museum, Ian Chew enjoys reading about and exploring the rich natural and cultural history of Southeast Asia. He hopes to spread appreciation for and interest in local heritage in the face of rapid environmental homogenisation.