Langkawi island’s iconic legend of Mahsuri, a woman unjustly killed by the false charge of adultery, is known to many. The curse she laid on the island as she bled while professing her innocence, is said to have cast bad luck to last through 7 generations.
Since her execution, presumably in 1816 A.D. Langkawi has seen its share of war, pestilence, rice crops failing, and other tragedies. As someone who had visited Langkawi in the 1970s, I had personally experienced the island’s general listless atmosphere of malaise.
All that changed in 1987, when Langkawi, having acquired duty-free status, became an international tourist destination.
To this day, locals and visitors alike can’t help but wonder if Mahsuri has been the stuff of fairy tales or fact.
For Ku Aliff Qayyum, manager of Kota Mahsuri, the legend is decidedly true and affirmed as a historical event.
“Yes, Mahsuri did exist because there is a direct 7th generation descendant of Mahsuri. Her name is Wan Aisyah. This has been proven by historians and researchers,” Ku Aliff tells me as he brought me on a tour around Mahsuri’s tomb (Makam Mahsuri) now known as Kota Mahsuri. He shared the stories related to the island’s legend and history, with anecdotes on Mahsuri’s kampung home and well, supposedly filled with water that is sweet to taste.
“This place is surely the heart and soul of Langkawi,” he said.
Looking around at the awesome backdrop, I couldn’t help but agree. Langkawi’s mountain range, the green vista of paddy fields, eagles soaring against the magnificent cloud cover, white egrets accentuating the landscape – all seem to congregate invisibly towards the nucleus that is Kota Mahsuri.
It is clear why this enduring legend can and should be the creative catalyst for Langkawi’s arts and culture.
On Saturday, November 27, 2021 , “Hari Mahsuri” takes off at the Holiday Villa on Pantai Tengah. The all-day event will feature a myriad of activities, which are connected to the Mahsuri legend in some way or form. The public can partake in them from 11am to 7pm.
The activities planned for the day are free of charge, except for some workshops, which will require a small fee for materials.
Organizer, Liz Tajuddin of Gerak Langkawi said the community initiative was conceptualized to breathe new life into the island’s iconic legend of Mahsuri.
“By drawing attention to her story, the different interpretations of it, and the contemporary perspectives and possibilities, we aim to create a new relevance for locals and visitors alike.
“We need to expand the Mahsuri universe through ‘Creativity meets Mahsuri’, and more importantly, to ensure that the activities include the various communities in Langkawi, especially the local Langkawians. This year we are showcasing the home-grown traditional Asli Music group from Kota Mahsuri and there are many other activities throughout the day,” said Liz.
Hari Mahsuri will kickstart with, Sukaneka Mahsuri, a family-fun telematch on the beach, where participants will be able to learn about Mahsuri.
Other activities include Art on the Beach, which will feature large-scale sand art and workshops where you can learn to create your own. There will also be a Pasar Kreatif bazaar, that will be open for the duration of the event.
To listen to stories, head to Pokok Cerita, the story tree where there will be storytelling of the origin Mahsuri story, new stories based on Mahsuri, stories for children, poetry reading, and reading excerpts of new works. There is also Nada Ukelele (similar to a drum circle) and a silent auction on paintings donated by artists.
Closer to sunset, there will be a Batik in the Breeze Sarong Parade – organised by Gerak Langkawi and Lanwilx of The Island Life, featuring The Island Life Boys. The evening performance entitled “Pulau Sri” is a ticketed item – an original work supported by ArtsFAS, Yayasan Hasanah initiative.
If Langkawi is strategized to move from mass tourism to the more qualitative status of ecotourism, edu-tourism, and cultural tourism, government and private sector support are crucial and necessary.
Hari Mahsuri is slated to become a yearly calendar affair. Its debut has won the support of more than 10 local community groups and Holiday Villa Beach Resort as the partner venue – comprising more than 100 volunteers and participants.
The group, consisting of artistes, artists, artisans, musicians, poets, readers, vendors, got together to organise and plan all the activities, which will be free for the public to partake in. To ensure continuity and eventual sustainability, strong funding patronage is required.
“Hari Mahsuri is a good event to stimulate local Langkawians’ traditional and contemporary culture. There is a need to develop this because there is not much opportunity currently. Support should be given, said Anthony Wong, The Frangipani Resort.
Guesthouse owner and one of the volunteer readers under “Pokok Cerita”, Norhayati Abdullah of Langkawi Country Lodge said the locals are already exploring their own ways of providing international and Malaysian guests a taste of kampung-style performances and activities.
“While there are many sun, sea and sporting activities, and duty-free shopping, what is missing is an authentic cultural showcase and activities – such as wayang kulit (shadow play) and wayang kulit workshops, drama shows, poetry sessions that feature puisi, sajak, pantun or haiku and Malay herbs workshops,” said Norhayati.
Francis Samuel, Junglewalla agreed, saying, “We definitely need more arts and culture in Langkawi. And Hari Mahsuri is a good catalyst as well as an interesting story. History defines a nation. The Mahsuri story provides an insight into the past, and through society’s weakness, her tragic death. All that is material for theatre.”
“Langkawi is in dire need of quality performing arts showcases. International tourists who come here are not looking for urbanization. They want Langkawi the way it is. Authentic traditional shows are what they are looking for. They will look for it but no one is providing,” added Kevin Eu of Aloft Langkawi.
Sharmini Andersson of MegaWatersports, said recognizing the importance of community and culture is part of the UNESCO Geopark philosophy.
“…But traditional culture is not being passed down, let alone showcased. Take “Jikey” which is a Langkawian dance drama – you cannot find it anywhere. Because no one is doing it. Most arts and culture showcased in Langkawi is brought from outside,” she said.
Born and bred Langkawian, Alif Aiman is a founding member of Sepakat Langkawi, a non-governmental organisation of young entrepreneurs whose mission is to provide an administrative, economic and social development platform for Langkawi’s future.
“There is so much to learn from the Mahsuri legend which we can apply to our world today. There is that fake news element; How a single rumor can be lethal. These stories are there to teach us lessons. Some will claim it is true. Some will say the tragic incident coincides with the 7 generations of bad luck that followed etc, etc. For Hari Mahsuri, we created Sukaneka Mahsuri, a kind of telematch of games linked to the life of Mahsuri, what a day in her life would have been like. ”
For this writer, Hari Mahsuri represents the centre of a ripple – one where traditional arts and culture, undiluted and pure, can develop from local community grassroots and showcased FOR the local community. But to make it palatable to a younger audience, visitors and residents, contemporization must happen alongside. Beyond these endeavours, I truly believe there is a place for arts and culture from “outside” – the rest of Malaysia and the world. Because arts and culture in all forms, through all boundaries have one facet more powerful than any other – it unites humankind.
Cover image sourced from Illuminasi.