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Gedembai

by Micha F. Lindemans

A long time ago there lived a strange creature on Langkawi, called Gedembai, who could turn any human or animal into anything she wished just by saying the words. If she said to someone, "You look like an ox!" that person would instantly be transformed into an ox. She could also turn people into inanimate objects such as rocks, and this meant certain death. Gedembai was feared and hated by everyone and her unusual power virtually made her the queen of the island. Her wishes were fulfilled unquestioningly and no one dared to disobey her.

She was described to appear in various forms. The Malay dictionary Kamus Dewan describes her as a ghost and the Encyclopedia Malaysiana describes her as a creature like a human being but of giant size. Both however mention her ability to turn people into stone. Contrary to what may be expected, the Langkawi Gedembai was a beautiful, luscious woman in her early thirties. Her character was devoid of love or compassion and her deadly ability taught people to stay away from her. Many people left the island and those who could not afford to leave lived in great fear. They learned that appearing docile and weak kept them safe from Gedembai, as long as they did what she wanted.

Gedembai lived in a beautiful timber house that was build for her by villagers. One day as she was walking along the beach of Tanjung Rhu, she noticed a cave and took a liking to it. This cave, called Gua Cerita, was already inhabited by a family but Gedembai turned them all to stone. For some time, stones could be found in the cave in the shape of beds, tables, pots and pans, and other household items, and of a man, woman, and three children, but they have been removed over time.

There are many stories connected to her and to people and animals who have been turned into stone, and stones shaped as animals or humans can be found all over the island. One of these stories tells of how Gedembai came across a woman giving birth. Gedembai asked what they were doing but the pregnant woman and the village midwife were so engrossed in the work of delivering the baby that they ignored her. This enraged her and she turned them all into stone: the midwife became Pulau Bidan (Midwife Island), the mother became Pulau Bunting (Pregnant Island), and the baby became Pulau Telur (Egg Island).

The story of Gedembai ends when King Solomon came to rule the earth and she lost all her powers. She tried to turn Solomon into stone but was unsuccessful and fearing his punishment, she fled to an unknown destination.

A variant of the Gedembai legend is told on Pahang, where she was called Kelembai. Here she is described as an ugly woman with thick eyebrows, a flat nose, big elephant ears, fanged teeth, and about three times the size of a normal person.

In a second Pahang version she is also called Gedembai. Here she is a giantess in human form who lived in Kampung Hulu Singai. She took great pleasure in turning people into stone and did so to many villagers, including the headman Tuk Sali. One day a mysterious youth appeared in the village, smartly dressed and armed with a small kris with an ivory handle. He said his name was Putera Indera Sakti, son of the king of Panca Perseda. He asked why people were looking so sad and they told them about Gedembai. He then asked where he could find her and set out to face her. Gedembai was amused when he appeared before her and thought of humoring him before turning him into stone. She asked where he was from and what he wanted, but the youth refused to reply. This made her very angry and cursed him into stone.

To her great surprise, the prince did not turn into stone but stood there as if nothing had happened. Gedembai tried again and again, but to no avail. She became afraid and started to run away. Then the prince drew his kris, placed it to his forehead, recited some magic words, and pointed the blade towards the fleeing Gedembai. She suddenly stopped in her tracks and began shrink. She became smaller and smaller until at last she was turned into a small frog.

The villagers, who had been watching from a distance, ran forward and trampled the frog. Then they dug a deep hole and buried the frog in it. The prince then asked them to show those who had been turned into stone and they did. Again the prince drew out his kris and pointed the blade towards the stones. All the people, including their beloved headman Tuk Sali, returned to their original form. The people prepared a big feast and started to celebrate and in their excitement forgot about the prince. They searched for him everywhere but he had vanished into thin air. Then they suddenly realized that the young man might have been send to their village by God to help them overcome Gedembai and that their prayers must have been answered.


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