The Lady in the Lake

A dispatch from the coast of Malaysia

By / March 2014

“Fifteen minutes to Pulau Danyang,” Basuki, the Malay boatman informed us, “fifteen minutes to the Island of the Pregnant Maiden.” Immediately he increased the throttle. The noise of the motor and wind quickly silenced any attempt at conversation, leaving us to mull over Basuki’s words. Thick tropical foliage blanketed this archipelago of 99 islands off the northwest coast of Malaysia in the Malacca Strait. We passed craggy cliffs, at the base of which yawned the mouths of underwater caves.

As we came upon a large island of towering hills, Basuki killed the motor. Stretching out his arm, he pointed to the ridges. “These hills form the shape of a pregnant women,” Basuki said. “She lies on her back, hiding a freshwater lake behind her. You can see her shape there.” As he pointed, I could indeed make out the shape of the woman, reclining comfortably, her hands folded placidly over her heart.

“Many people believe that the ridgeline is an image of a heavenly princess named Manbang Sari,” Basuki continued. “She and her maidens would come to enjoy the beauty of a small pure lake. Legend tells of how she met a local man named Mat Teja. On the shores of the lake, they fell in love. They were married and she conceived a son.” I waited to hear more. The story seemed unfinished, but our guide only turned the boat towards Maiden’s Island.

We disembarked on the vacant pier. As if in greeting, fiddler crabs waved their oversized claws. With no one on the quay but monkeys eyeing us for food, we made our way into the dense rain forest and up a granite stairway. The climb led to the top of a boulder-crested ridge, then down a twisting, narrow set of stone stairs to the Tasik Dayang Beranak (Lake of the Born Maiden). A pontoon pier floated in the water. Enormous trees ringed the shore. On the far side of the lake, the rain-forested ridges swelled into a thousand-foot mountain of green.

A plaque by the dock gave me the rest of the Pregnant Maiden story. It turned out the couple had married and given birth to a son, who died seven days later. “Having reconciled with their misfortune,” it read, “they placed their dead son’s body to the depths of the lake.” The plaque told of how the couple’s departed child eventually took the form an albino crocodile that became the lake’s guardian. According to the legend, “only those who are pure of heart are able to see it.” I peered into the lake and, seeing nothing, leapt into the emerald water.

I tried to touch the bottom, but as I swam farther and farther down, it became clear that this bowl between hills and mountains had no shallow end. Reemerging from the depths, I looked toward my wife and kids, who were now in the water, too. My thoughts returned to the words I had read earlier: “Saddened by the loss of her own child, the princess returned to heaven, never to return to the island. Legend maintains that before she left, she blessed the waters of the lake to be source of healing for women who could not bear children. All that was required was a dip in the lake.”

For many years, barren Malay women have come to this lake with the hope that the waters might grant them fertility. The pilgrimage has been spurred on by the account of a Malay woman, who, though barren for twenty years, reportedly conceived a child after swimming in the lake.

Late in the afternoon we returned to the beach harbor. I asked Basuki if there were any legends associated with the main island of Langkawi. “Many years ago,” he began, “a maiden named Mashuri arrived from Phunket with her family, seeking a new life. She was the most beautiful woman on the island. Many men wanted her as for their wife.”

Mashuri, the story went, married a warrior named Wan Darus. Soon thereafter the jealous wife of the village chief started a rumor that Mashuri had committed adultery. Standing trial before the whole village, Mashuri maintained her innocence but was pronounced guilty and sentenced to death. At her execution, she was tied to a tree and stabbed in the heart with a dagger. When the blade pierced her chest, white blood streamed from her wound. The villagers took this to be a sign of her innocence, but the wound proved to be fatal.

With her dying breath, she cursed the island with bad luck for the next seven generations for the injustice committed to her. “Cursed?” I asked. “Do you really think it was cursed?”

“So it seemed for many generations.” Bashuki replied. “Not long after Mashuri’s death, our island was invaded. Our crops failed many times and the people of the island were very poor.”

From where I stood at the beach, I could see modern resorts, private marinas, and new homes emerging from the unspoiled forests. “So, I suppose things have now changed for the better?” He looked at me and grinned. “The seventh generation,” he said, “just passed.”


Scott Robertson is a travel writer living in India.