Asian and African studies blog

09 November 2015

A Scottish poet’s favourite Malay poem? Syair Jaran Tamasa

The Scottish orientalist John Leyden (1775-1811), ‘the Bard of Teviotdale’, was a close friend and collaborator of Sir Walter Scott who had won renown as a poet even before he sailed for India in 1803. A prodigious scholar of Indian languages, Leyden also had a deep interest in Malay, and built up an important collection of Malay literary manuscripts which is now held in the British Library. Leyden’s Malay manuscripts mostly originate from Penang, where from late 1805 to early 1806 he spent three months convalescing in the house of Thomas Stamford Raffles. Indeed, some of the 25 Malay manuscripts in Leyden’s collection are copies commissioned by Raffles, although older manuscripts are also found. The collection is rich in prose works (hikayat) and also contains a few syair, or long narrative poems composed of four-line stanzas with the same end rhyme, including Syair Silambari and Syair surat kirim kepada perempuan. But Leyden seems to have had a particular interest in a lesser-known Malay poem called Syair Jaran Tamasa, ‘The Lay of Jaran Tamasa’.

OP 220 Lembaga Melayu 001
A view of Penang from the sea. Anonymous watercolour, bound in to a copy of Norman Macalister, Historical memoir relative to Prince of Wales Island (London, 1803), presented by the author to Alexander Dalrymple. (With thanks to Nicholas Martland for first showing me this drawing.) British Library, 571.h.19.  noc

Two manuscripts of Syair Jaran Tamasa are found in the Leyden collection; both have now been digitised. MSS Malay B 9, which is in a brisk cursive hand, was copied by a scribe named Ismail on 10 May 1804. The second manuscript, MSS Malay D 6, is clearly a direct copy of MSS Malay B 9, and reproduces Ismail’s colophon word-for-word, while noting that this copy was made for Raffles by Muhammad Bakhar. Although this second copy of Syair Jaran Tamasa is not dated, it was probably copied in Penang in April or May 1806, for on 24 May 1806 Raffles wrote to Leyden in Calcutta, ‘I likewise send you herewith per favour of Mr Patton, the remaining sheets of the Jaran Tamassa’ (Bastin 2003: 40).   

Opening pages of Syair Jaran Tamasa, copied by Ismail, 1804. British Library, MSS Malay B 9, ff. 1v-2r  noc

Colophon of the original copy of Syair Jaran Tamasa: 'written on 29 Muharam 1219  (10 May 1804), in the year ba, on Monday, at noon; Ismail is the owner/writer of this poem' (pada sanat 1219 tahun-tahun ba pada sembilan likur hari bulan Muharam pada hari Ithnin pada waktu tengah hari akan surat ini Ismail empunya syair tamat). British Library, MSS Malay B 9, f. 103v  noc

Colophon of the second copy of Syair Jaran Tamasa, copied from MSS Malay B 9, which reproduces Ismail's original colophon, and then continues: ‘ordered by Mr Raffles to make a copy, I, Muhammad Bakhar, wrote this poem, and with the help of God the Exalted it has been completed in full, but if there are mistakes your forgiveness is begged for me, an old man with failing eyesight’ (disuruh Tuan Raffles salin senda Muhammad Bakhar menyurat syair ini ditulong Allah ta’ala sudahlah dengan sempurnanya di dalam ini jikalau ada salah pinta tuan2 maaf akan hamba tuan orang tuha lagi mata pun cedera tamat). British Library, MSS Malay D 6, f. 67r  noc

Syair Jaran Tamasa is one of a number of Malay literary works inspired by Javanese tales of Prince Panji, and in its first line introduces itself with the Javanese title Kakawin Jaran Tamasa. As the Indonesian scholar Poerbatjaraka noted, many of the names of characters in the Panji romances bore an animal title such as Bull, Buffalo or Horse, and the name of the eponymous hero of our story, Jaran Tamasa, means 'Horse Affected by the Darkness'. Set at the court of Majapahit in Java, our poem tells of the love between Jaran Tamasa, the youngest of three sons of the vizier Arya Senopati ('Noble Military Commander') who are adopted by the king after their parents’ death, and Ken Lamlam Arsa ('Admiration/Delight of Love/Desire'), who with pleasing symmetry is the youngest of three daughters of Temenggung Singa Angkawa ('Proud Lion'). [1]

Leyden’s papers suggest he spent some considerable time working on the Syair Jaran Tamasa. In his essay ‘On the languages and literature of the Indo-Chinese nations’ first published in 1808 in Asiatick Researches, Leyden discusses Malay works with ‘Javanese relations’, and alongside the Panji stories Hikaiat Chikkil Wunnungputti (i.e. Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati, MSS Malay C 1 is Leyden's copy) and Kilana Perbujaya Cheritra he includes ‘Hikaiat Jarana Tamasa, or the love of adventures of a chieftain of Minjapahit, in Java, composed by Andika’ [2].  The British Library holds a number of Leyden’s manuscript notebooks, and in one (Or. 15936, f. 108v) we find a page headed ‘Jaran Tamasa’ containing explanations of phrases such as ‘Dikichip dunghin ecor mata [i.e. dikecip dengan ekor mata], glance with the tail of the eye’ , evoking the sultry atmosphere of the poem. And in the list of Leyden’s books and manuscripts, purchased after his death by the East India Company, included in item 25 is the ‘History of Tarana (sic) Tamasa, from the Malay’ [3], suggesting that somewhere – albeit presently still unidentified – amongst Leyden’s papers now in the British Library is an English translation of the Malay Syair Jaran Tamasa [4].

The heroine is introduced in Syair Jaran Tamasa: 'The youngest was named Ken Lamlam Arsa / she looked like a royal flower / planted among samandarasa flowers / fit to be worn in the hair of a god' (yang bungsu bernama Ken Lamlam Arsa / Rupanya laksana bunga rajasa / diselang dengan bunga samandarasa / patut disunting dewa angkasa). British Library, MSS Malay B 9, f. 4r  noc

Leyden’s jottings on Jaran Tamasa, including, at top and bottom, the flowers to which Ken Lamlam Arsa is likened: 'Boonga Rijasa - a yellow flower' and 'Boongga semandarasa - a flower of a tree'. British Library, Or. 15936, f. 108v  noc

As far as is known, the two manuscripts in the British Library are the only known copies of Syair Jaran Tamasa, which has never been published. A closer look shows that both Malay scribes appear to have struggled with unfamiliar Javanese names and words. Ken Lamlam Arsa is most likely an error for Ken Lam Arsa, heroine of another Malay Panji story, Hikayat Ratu Anom Mataram, a manuscript of which is held in the National Library of Indonesia (W 135) [5].  Muhammad Bakhar has further transformed the Javanese Arsa (spelled a.r.s) to the (more intuitive and melodious to Malay ears) Rasa (r.a.s). And while John Leyden identifies the author of the poem as Andika, this is actually the Javanese word for 'you' [6], which is written Idika by Ismail in 1804 and Indika in Muhammad Bakhar's copy in 1806.

Muhammad Bakhar was certainly a less accomplished scribe than Ismail; his hand is more stilted and shaky, and he seems to have left out three stanzas, for while in Ismail’s copy there are 1525 stanzas of four lines each, totalling 6100 lines, there are only 6088 lines in Muhammad Bakhar’s. At the end of the manuscript Muhammad Bakhar blames any ensuing mistakes on his age and his ‘failing eyesight’ (mata pun cedera). Poor eyesight must have been an occupational hazard for Malay scribes: on 15 December 1810, Raffles, newly arrived in Melaka, wrote to Leyden in Calcutta: ‘Pray send me a Dozen pair of good Spectacles that all my people may see their way clear – I have had at least half a Dozen broad hints for them’ (Bastin 2003: 51). Muhammad Bakhar's protestations fall well within the range of conventional self-deprecations of Malay scribes (see Braginsky 2002); nevertheless, Raffles should perhaps have sent to Calcutta for spectacles a bit earlier.


[1] With many thanks to Vladimir Braginsky for information on the animal form of names/titles in Panji stories.
[2]  See p.178; in fact, no prose hikayat of this name is known, only the verse form.
[3] The list of Leyden’s collections is published in the Transactions of the Hawick Archaeological Society (1911), pp. 55-6, and reproduced in Bastin (2003: 79-83).
[4] See, for example, the excitement generated by the recent 'rediscovery' in the British Library of Leyden's translations of Panjabi literary works.
[5] With many thanks to Gijs Koster for this identification.
[6] With thanks again to Vladimir Braginsky.


John Bastin, John Leyden and Thomas Stamford Raffles. Eastbourne: printed for the author, 2003.
V.I. Braginsky, Malay scribes and their craft and audience (with special reference to the description of the reading assembly by Safirin bin Usman Fadli).  Indonesia and the Malay world, 2002, 30(86): 37-62.
John Leyden, On the languages and literature of the Indo-Chinese nations. Asiatick Researches, 1808, 10: 158-289.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork 

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