Power, image, history and mystery – these are just a few elements that go into a country’s choice of symbol. In Southeast Asia, there is typically a reverence shown for the real-life, everyday animal but nothing is simple when mankind mixes with critters, national or not. Let’s explore a few of the standout symbols and their backgrounds.
One of Southeast Asia’s youngest countries, Singapore was founded in 1819, though it was first settled around 100 A.D. First launched into modern times in 1959 by becoming self-governing from British rule, today’s island nation, known as the Republic of Singapore, gained independence from its merger with Malaysia in 1965.
According to the Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals), it was in the 13th century A.D. during the reign of Sang Nila Utama, that the king spotted an island with blindingly white sand. On the island, called Temesek, the king and his entourage were said to have encountered a multi-coloured, fast-moving beast, later determined to be a lion.
The king named the island Singapura; singa in Malay means ‘lion’ and pura means ‘city’. Since historians and scientists doubt lions ever existed on the island, they attribute the name to a melding of singha, or ‘stopover’, and pura. Either way, the name ‘Lion City’ stuck and remains today.
The unofficial national animal of Singapore is a more fantastical creature known as a merlion. The mythical beast has the upper body of a lion and a lower body of a fish. It is said to have guarded the island centuries ago. With the sculpting of a 37-metre-tall merlion in 1972 by Lim Nang Seng, the national symbol of the island is now used primarily to promote tourism around the harbour area.
Land of Elephants
Thailand’s national animal is one familiar to most Thai citizens, as well as any visitors to the Land of Smiles, as it is a vital part of the nation’s culture and history. The elephant has historically been important to Thai villagers for its ability to lift and move large objects such as logs harvested during logging.
Due to deforestation and urbanisation there is less logging, and precious land for elephants is disappearing. Increasingly, elephants are used in jungle safari tours and for short tourist rides, and the majestic animals can be seen in many historic and religious images all over Thailand. The Thai flag once had an elephant on it. Postage stamps have elephants on them. March 13 is Thai Elephant Day. Every November sees Surin, in northeast Thailand, turn into a huge Elephant Festival to celebrate the strength, skills and beauty of the animals.
Historically, Thai kings have had a stable of white elephants, as they are considered to bring prosperity and luck to the king and the kingdom. A mythical creature often seen in Buddhist art and statuary in Thailand is usually referred to as a Kinnari or Kinnaree – with a male form known as a Kinnon.
Depicted as a young woman in an angelic costume but with the lower body of a bird, Kinnaree is reputedly able to flit between the human world and the spiritual realm. The tale derives from stories of the Buddha’s past lives, and concerns Manorah, a Kinnaree who flew to Earth and fell in love with a human who followed her back to her mountaintop kingdom.
Isle of Kingly Birds
Brunei is locked in between Malaysian and Indonesian territory on the island of Borneo, which holds one of the world’s most pristine rainforests. These forests are a native home to some 622 bird species, with 49 of these endemic solely to the island.
As a result, it is perhaps natural that a bird, the white-bellied sea eagle, is the national animal. The large bird is national animal of several other nations, and can be seen across Southeast Asia, Australia and some Middle East nations. It lives in littoral (near water) climates, which makes Brunei an ideal habitat with much ocean coast, Kinabatangan River and other bodies of water. About half of the bird’s diet is fish.
Several legends exist in Malay culture about the white-bellied sea eagle. Its night calls are said to foretell danger, and the Malay name of barung hamba sipit, or ‘slave of the shellfish’, comes from the supposed calling of the bird to shellfish to tell them the tide is turning.
Lively Komodo Lizards
The Republic of Indonesia is an archipelago composed of thousands of islands, one of which is Komodo inside Komodo National Park. The park was established in 1980 to safeguard Komodo dragons, the largest lizards on Earth, and the national animal of Indonesia. Like Brunei’s eagle, there’s some crossover from myth to history.
Dutch colonists, coming to Indonesia in the early 1900s, had heard natives talk about an island known as ‘the land of crocodiles’. A Dutch ship crew had reported seeing such creatures so colonial official J.K.H. Van Steyn Hensbroek went to investigate. He found many of the gigantic creatures, giving substance to many cultures’ beliefs in dragons.
Indonesian folklore surrounding the huge lizards is richly coloured. Long ago, it is said, a dragon princess married a human named Najo and gave birth to a Komodo dragon named Ora (this is the native word for Komodo dragon), and a human child ‘twin’, Gerong. When the two went hunting, Gerong had to stop Ora from eating a deer, and the princess had to remind the two of their blood bond.
- Komodo Dragons can grow up to 10 feet in length and weigh up to 300 pounds; that’s a lot of lizard! While the beasts eat live animals, they also eat carrion. Their saliva is bacteria-laden, and they also deliver venom with a bite. They have been known to attack humans on occasion, with deadly results, so don’t come too close.
- White-bellied sea eagles can hunt on land or water. They can dive into water to grab fish, and are known to fly directly toward the sun or at right angles to it. This technique helps to avoid casting a shadow and frightening the fish away.
- When visiting Thailand’s many temples, take note of the murals; they will almost always have an elephant depiction and commonly also stories surrounding the holy white elephant.