Could Melaka have gotten its name from a tree?Written by Alexander Wain
Precisely why is Melaka called Melaka? This deceptively simple question is loaded with ideological baggage. It has been used to establish religious authenticity and to justify elevating certain groups over others in Malaysian history. For the sake of an accurate reconstruction of the past, resolving it is therefore crucial.
The roots of this question lie in Melaka’s court chronicle, Sejarah Melayu. Written in 1612, this text provides two, quite separate etymons for “Melaka”.
The first (and most well-known) appears alongside the story of Melaka’s founder, Iskandar Shah. Also known as Parameswara, Iskandar was a descendant of the Buddhist rajas of Palembang, the old centre of Srivijaya.
After fleeing a Javanese attack on Singapore, he travelled to Sungai Bertam; while hunting there, he sheltered under a tree, where he saw a white mousedeer attack his hunting dog.
Impressed by the small animal’s bravery, Iskandar decided to establish his new capital on that very spot. Asking his officials which tree he stood under, he was told it was the Melaka tree, and so the new city gained its name.
The second etymon was, until recently, more obscure. Mentioned briefly in the context of Mansur Shah’s reign (1459-1477), it describes how Melaka’s commercial rise under that ruler prompted the Arabs to call it Malakat, “or the mart for collecting all merchants”.
So, which of these possibilities is the more plausible? And what might that tell us about Melaka? Beginning with the second, Sejarah Melayu’s “Malakat” is the Arabic mulaqah, meaning meeting or encounter.
In recent years, Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas has strenuously championed this etymon, claiming both Jawi and Portuguese texts originally spelt Melaka with a “q” not a “k”, thereby confirming mulaqah as the correct etymon.
This has allowed him to privilege Arabs in the conversion of both Melaka and the Malays.
There are, however, problems with this argument.
FIRST, the name “Melaka” does not originate from the period 1459-1477. The Chinese Ming shi-lu is clear that Melaka already bore this name in 1403, when it was still only a fishing village, long before the Arabs began to frequent it.
SECOND, early Portuguese authors could not speak Malay. Their renderings of Malay words were inconsistent, inaccurate, and incapable of informing us about early Malay spelling conventions.
Tomé Pires, for example, spelt Melaka as “Malaqa”, “Malaca” and “Malacca”. No reason exists to accept the first over the other two, especially as the latter became the accepted norm.
Finally, contrary to al-Attas’ claim, early Jawi manuscripts spelt Melaka with a “k” not a “q”. As this form also lacks the final alif and ta’ marbutah of mulaqah, little reason exists to equate it with the latter.
Indeed, mulaqah appears separately in Jawi (pronounced as mulakat). This only confirms a lack of equivalency. There is also no evidence the Arabs actually called Melaka “mulaqah”.
The navigational treatises of Ahmad ibn Majid and Sulayman al-Mahri are the only surviving early Arabic texts to mention Melaka. Neither author spells the city’s name “mulaqah”, instead calling it either malaqah, mala’qah, or ma’laqah.
Often appearing side-by-side, these differing forms suggest the Arabs — just like the Portuguese — were unsure of how to spell Melaka, presumably because it was a foreign word. This is hardly conducive to their having given the city its name. If we can therefore dismiss this etymon, what of the other?
It is entirely plausible that Melaka was named after a tree; many early Southeast Asian toponyms (a place name) were derived this way. Majapahit, for example, was named for pokok maja, whose fruit is very bitter (pahit).
Moreover, a pokok melaka does exist. Bearing the scientific name Phyllanthus emblica, its habitat extends across the Indian Ocean and into Southeast Asia.
Although some dismiss its Malay name as fiction, intended merely to conform to Sejarah Melayu’s story, in Sanskrit the plant is called “amalaka”. It is easy to see how amalaka could become “Melaka”, especially as Malays also call the tree laka, demonstrating a tendency to shorten its name from the front.
But, if “Melaka” derives from amalaka, what does this tell us? As mentioned, Melaka’s rulers hailed from Buddhist Srivijaya; when Melaka was founded, it too, was Buddhist.
According to Buddhist tradition, 24 Buddhas came before Gautama Buddha, the lives of whom were celebrated across mainland Southeast Asia, including in Thailand, which once dominated Melaka.
The 21st of these figures, Phussa Buddha, gained enlightenment under the amalaka tree. Given the Buddhist Iskandar Shah is similarly depicted under the Melaka tree, is Sejarah Melayu trying to identify him with Phussa Buddha?
Certainly, Buddhist symbolism permeates other sections of Sejarah Melayu. For example, Iskandar’s ancestry is traced to Sri Tri Buana, a semi-divine figure who descended from heaven atop of Palembang’s sacred Bukit Seguntang Mahameru.
The signs of sovereignty bestowed upon him, including the right to reside on the sacred mountain, an elaborate crown studded with jewels, and the ability to turn the hilltop into gold, replicate the sovereign powers of the Bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara. This suggests Sri Tri Buana was an incarnation of that figure.
Plausibly, Iskandar Shah represents something similar: an enlightened being, a bridge between Muslim Melaka and ancient Buddhist Srivijaya.
If so, he embodies the inherent cosmopolitanism of Malay society, a quality as important today as in past centuries.
Alexander Wain, is Associate Fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia
Published in: New Straits Times, Wednesday 18 September 2019