The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 5/Malay Folk-Lore

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THE Night-Jar (Raprimulgus macrurus). One of the names given to this bird by the Malays is burong cheroh, and it is explained as follows:—

A woman was once engaged in making paddy by moonlight (this is done by pounding the grain with a wooden pestle in a large mortar and then winnowing it to separate the chaff from the rice. After the first winnowing the rice is pounded again, for the first process does not thoroughly clean it). She was pounding her rice for the second time in the process called cheroh, when for some reason or other, it is supposed in consequence of a quarrel with her mother, she was changed into a bird, and is now to be heard on moon-light nights repeating her monotonous "chunk-chunk-chunk," which the Malays think resembles the sound of the pestle descending in the grain with the measured stroke.

Burong "diam 'kau Tuah."—I have not identified the bird to which this name is given by the Malays of Perak (West Coast, Malay Peninsula). It has a curious call of six or seven notes, and the Malays discover in them the following refrain:—

"Diam 'kau, Tuah!
Kris aku ada."

The story is that this bird was once a man who lost his temper with his slave (Tuah by name), and threatened his life because the latter answered him. The Malay words mean "Keep quiet, will you, Tuah! I've got a kris!"[1]

Burong untong,—also unidentified, is said to be a small white bird about the size of a canary. It is called burong untong, "the bird of good fortune," because its nest, a very small and quite white one, secures a good harvest if it is found and placed in a paddy-granary. The nest is rare, and a genuine one will sometimes fetch as much as ten dollars in places where its virtues are believed in.

Tinggal anak.—A Small bird with a plaintive call of three notes, which the Malays interpret to be tinggal anak! "Good-bye! children." They believe that this bird never lives to see its young ones grow up. As soon as her eggs are hatched the mother-bird dies on the nest, and the young ones are reared on the maggots which breed in her dead body. It is in anticipation of her fate that she utters her mournful cry, which is always heard in the spring of the year when the young paddy is sprouting.

Owls.—There are several kinds of owls, all of which, more or less, are believed to be the harbingers of sickness or death. Of one kind (jampuk), which often enters hen-roosts at night, the Malays entertain the extraordinary belief that it lives on the intestines of fowls, which it draws out with its claws a tergo without causing pain to the bird, all feeling being dulled by the use of a spell called pe-lali.

The great Malay Hornbill (Onceros rhinoceros, L.).—The Malays tell the following legend about this bird to account for the curious cry which it makes:—

A Malay, in order to be revenged on his mother-in-law who had offended him, shouldered his axe and made his way to the poor woman's house and began to cut through the posts which supported it. After a few steady chops the whole edifice came tumbling down, and he greeted its fall with a peal of laughter. To punish him for his unnatural conduct he was turned into a bird, and the tëhang mentuah (literally, he who choppered down his mother-in-law) may often be heard in the jungle uttering a series of sharp sounds like the chops of an. axe on timber, followed by Ha! ha! ha! ha![2]

The White-crested Hornbill (Berenicornis cornatus).—Col. Yule in his Glossary of Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases has a note about the toucan, and remarks upon the coincidence observable in the fact that, in Malay, the word tuhang means "an artificer," and is said by Jerdon to be applied "in some of the Malayan isles" to the hornbills, while in South America toucan seems to be a Brazilian name for a Brazilian bird (Rhamphastes or Zygodactyle), which is also called by the Spaniards "Carpintero" from the noise he makes. Col. Yule also notices that Malay dictionaries show no application of the word tukang to the bird.

Dr. Jerdon was right, and I am in a position to assert positively that the word tukang is applied in Kedah (West Coast Malay Peninsula) to a species of horn-bill, which I believe to be the one named at the top of this note. Kedah Malays make buttons of the yellow beak or horn of the tukang, and believe that they change colour according to the state of health of the wearer. If he falls sick they become discoloured like a bruise and turn black on the approach of poison.

The Malay Heron (Ruwak-Ruwak).—The bird about which the following beliefs are held by the Perak Malays is perhaps Ardea Sumatrana:—

The Malays say that its nest is never found. Should it be found the possession of it gives to the finder the power of making himself invisible (alimun), Having no nest or eggs, it is of course childless, and when this bird is heard calling in the swamps, Malays say sarcastically that the ruwak-ruwak is bathing her young one. If one goes near and looks, the bird will be seen to be dipping a twig or else its bent leg into the water, in the attitude of a native woman bathing a child on her knee, uttering its call all the time.

The Spotted Dove (Turtur Tigrinus),—About this bird, burong-te-kukur, which is a favourite cage-bird with the Malays, the following legend is related. There was once a maiden, who with her little sister lived with her parents far up country. Her father opened up a hill-farm for rice cultivation, and day after day used to go forth to his work accompanied by his wife. The elder girl importuned her parents to let her go too and help, but being just of a marriageable age she was kept at home according to Malay custom. So she was always put off with some excuse, being told first that she might come some day when all the trees had been pulled, then when the wood had been burnt off the clearing, then when the paddy had been planted, and then when it should have been cut. When the paddy had been cut she asked to be allowed to go out, but was told to wait until the grain had been trodden out. This last disappointment was too much, and after her parents had left the house she took off her earrings and bracelets and put them down behind the door, and, having put her little sister in her swinging cot, she took the shape of a dove and flew to the clearing. She retained her necklace, and this accounts for the speckled ring which is on the neck of the te-kukur to this day. She found her parents busy plucking their paddy, and, alighting on a stump close by, she cooed to her mother. "Mother, mother, I have put the earrings and bracelets behind the door, and have left my sister asleep in the swing." This she repeated three times. The amazed mother running home found her daughter gone. Then she returned and with her husband made ineffectual attempts to catch the dove. In vain did they cut down the trees on which it successively alighted. It always flew away after repeating the same words, and does so to this day.

  1. Is this perhaps the red-wattled lapwing, the cry, of which, according to Dr. Jerdon, sounds like "Did he do it? Pity to do it?"—See Kelham's "Malayan Ornithology," Journal, Straits Branch, Royal Asiatic Society, No. 12, p. 180.
  2. See "Malayan Ornithology," by Capt. Kelham, Journal, Straits Branch, Royal Asiatic Society No. 9, p. 130.