Rajah Suran’s Expedition to China

Once, in the time long ago there was a king. His name was Rajah Suran and he ruled over India. But India wasn’t enough for him; he wanted to be the most powerful king in the world. He made all the princes of the countries nearby bow down to him, pay him taxes of rice and gold and call him the most powerful king.

But he still wasn’t happy. There was someone who refused to say that he was the most powerful, that he was the greatest king: and that was the Emperor of China.

This made Raja Suran very angry and he decided he would invade China. He gathered a huge army with soldiers from every part of his empire.

The army was so big that it was impossible to count the number of soldiers. It was impossible to count the number of weapons. It was impossible to count the numbers of horses and elephants.

But Rajah Suran had a problem. You see he wasn’t exactly sure where China was. He thought that it was in the south, so he led his army into Burma and followed the coast southwards.

People said that wherever the Army passed the forests were flattened, the rivers dried up and the mountains trembled. People said it took 6 months for that army to pass by a single village.

Down through Myanmar they went and into Thailand, then further south into Malaysia. They kept on marching for month after month until they reached the beaches of the Straits of Johor and they looked across the water to Singapore, but of course, then it was called Temasek.

Here they had to stop and build boats to ferry them across the water. Building these boats took a long time and Rajah Suran became very impatient.

Every day he grumbled to himself “How long before we reach China? How long before that cocky Emperor says that I am the most powerful king?”

At last the whole army was in Temasek. They marched southwards, but it didn’t take long before they reached the Southern Sea and could go no further.

Rajah Suran realized that if he wanted to reach China he would now have to travel by sea. So he set his men to building hundreds of strong ships. But he still didn’t know which way to go, so he sent men off in every direction with instructions to find the way to China and find it quickly.

Now, Rajah Suran’s journey to Temasek, had not been a secret, could not be a secret, not with so many men and horses and elephants making the ground thunder with their footsteps.

Traders who sailed the coast in trading in gold, spices and aromatic wood heard of Raja Suran’s plan, and they told their friends about the huge army that was looking for the way to China. Now their friends told their friends, and their friends told their friends, and their friends told their friends, until eventually someone told the Emperor of China himself.

The Emperor was very worried. He called his ministers together and asked their advice. “What shall we do? If Rajah Suran finds the way to our land, he will surely defeat us; his army is so much bigger, so much stronger than ours. We must find a way to stop him.”

The Emperor and his ministers sat down to think. They thought and thought and thought all day. They thought and thought and thought all night, and then just as the dawn was breaking, the Chief Minister burst out laughing.

“Oh yes, I have it, I have a very good plan”, he cried. He whispered his plan into the Emperor’s ears and the Emperor smiled for the first time in days. “Yes that is a very good plan, go and get the things you need at once”.

And so the Chief Minister went down to the harbour to find a ship to sail to Temasek, to sail to Singapore.

But he didn’t look for the best ship, the fastest ship, the newest ship. Oh no! He searched the harbour until he found the oldest ship there was. Its planks were worn and its sails were yellow with age.

The other ministers, who had not heard the plan, were very puzzled, how was this old ship, going to help them, how was it going to stop Rajah Suran’s mighty army.

They were even more puzzled when they heard who was going to sail on the ship and what it was going to carry.

The Chief Minister chose the sailors himself. He chose the oldest men he could find. Some of them were so old they could hardly walk and had to be carried onto the ship.

“Old men, sailing an old ship; the Chief Minister’s gone crazy” the people said.

Then the Chief Minister did some thing that seemed just as ridiculous, he ordered that huge fruit trees should be dug up, planted into pots and carried on board the ship.

“Crazy, crazy, he must have gone crazy” the people said.

Lastly he ordered that all the needles in the city, every last one should be brought to the palace. By the next morning the palace courtyard was filled with great piles of sewing needles.

The Chief Minister ordered the servants to pick out all the rusty needles and put them into sacks. The servants worked hard and by nightfall they had gather 50 sacks full of rusty needles.

One of them approached the minister. “We’ve gathered 50 sacks of rusty needles. Shall we throw them away?” “Throw them away! No! Don’t throw them away, put them onboard the ship!” The servants did as they were told, but they were sure that the Chief Minister and the Emperor had both gone crazy.

An old ship with old sailors, old fruit trees and old rusty needles, how was that going to save them from the terrible army of Raja Suran?

The Emperor and the Chief Minister heard what people were saying, but they did not say a word, they just smiled as they waved the ship off on its journey.

A few weeks later the ship arrived in Temasek. Raja Suran and all his men were still there, and they still didn’t know the way to China.

When the lookouts spotted the old ship limping into the harbour, with huge fruit trees growing on its deck and a crew of old grandfathers, they couldn’t stop laughing. Soon everyone had heard about the strange ship and even Raja Suran himself came to take a look. Where have you come from? he said. “What country is it that has such old sailors?”

The oldest of the sailors spoke up: “We have come from China. When we set out we were all strong young men – we were carrying a cargo of fruit tree seeds and shiny new sewing needles. But it took us so long to get here that we have grown old, the seeds have become trees and the needles have become rusty.” And he opened one of the sacks of needles to show Raja Suran.

Raja Suran sighed. If China was that far away his soldiers would be old men too weak to fight when they got there. He would be an old man too. No it was not worth it, he would send his army back to India, and go and conquer other, nearer lands.

And so the huge army turned around and marched back the way it came and China was saved.

But some stories say that Rajah Suran did not go back to India straight away. They say that he followed a dream and went down below the waves of the Southern Sea to marry Princess Mahtabu, the Sea King’s daughter. They say they had three sons and lived together happily for many years. But then Raja Suran began to miss the world above the ocean, to miss the sunshine, the trees and the birds flying free in the blue sky.

He became sadder and sadder until Princess Mahtabu told him that he should go back to his own world, back to his own people. He wanted to take her and their sons with him. But the great King of the Sea said no, his daughter and the boys must remain in the under sea kingdom. But he did promise that when the boys grew into men they would come up out of the sea and become kings on the land.

And some people say that is just what happened; when the boys grew up they came out of the sea near a place called Palembang in Sumatra. And they did become kings. The youngest prince became the king of Pelembang and was given the title Sangsapurba.

In time, Sangsapurba married and had a son. Now, you may have heard of that son before, for his name was Sang Nila Utama, the very same Sang Nila Utama who sailed across stormy waters to land in Temasek, saw what he thought was a lion and gave our country its name Singapura – the lion city. But that as they say is another story.

© Sheila Wee 2003

Storytelling knows no borders. Tales move around from country to country, and change as they do so.

I have heard several versions of the story of a clever king who fools a stronger adversary into leaving without fighting a battle.
But I particularly like Sheila Wee’s retelling of this Singaporean legend which she sent to Storytell listserv.
In her mail, Sheila added:
Please feel free to tell it, but if you want to publish it in any way please contact me for permission.
She very kindly agreed to allow me to include it here.

Thanks for the story, Sheila!

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