The most detailed description of the early Malay kingdom of Langkasuka is found in the Liang-shu, a Chinese history written in the early seventh century. Referred to as Lang-ya-hsiu, Langkasuka’s frontiers were described as thirty days’ journey from east to west, and twenty from north to south. Its capital was said to be surrounded by walls to form a city with double gates, towers and pavilions.
“When the king goes forth he rides upon an elephant. He is accompanied by banners, fly-whisks, flags and drums and he is shaded with a white parasol. The soldiers of his guard are well-appointed. The inhabitants of the country say that their state was founded more than four hundred years ago. Subsequently the descendants became weaker, but in the king’s household there was a man of virtue to whom the populace turned. When the king heard of this he imprisoned this man, but his chains snapped unaccountably. The king took him for a supernatural being and, not daring to injure him, exiled him from the country, where upon he fled to India. The king of India gave him his eldest daughter in marriage. Not long afterwards, when the king of died, the chief ministers welcomed back the exile and made him king.”
This account, and that of other Chinese histories, describe a kingdom that began in the second century A.D., located somewhere along the east coast of the Malay Peninsula. The most important piece of evidence as to its location is provided by the Wu-pei-chih, which firmly places a Lang-hsi-chia to the south of Songkla (Singora), up to the Patani River.
Early Malay literature, however, is quite explicit in indicating a location on the west coast. From the Hikayat Marong Mahawangsa (a king who is said to have sailed from India) we can extract the following relevant passages:
Then King Marong Maha-Wangsa asked an old wise man in his ship, who answered, ‘That large island, almost touching the mainland, is Pulau Seri, the small one is Pulau Jambul, and further landwards from there is Pulau Lada, my lord’. Then King Marong Mahawangsa said, ‘Let us land at the cape of that island’.
King Marong Mahawangsa came upon good land, very beautifully situated. He did not return to his ships, so eager was he to build a fort and a hall, very large and beautiful. When the palace hall was completed, he called it Langkasuka. The city, grew more and more populous from month to month and from year to year . . . One day King Marong Mahawangsa was granting audience to great numbers of ministers, courtiers, commanders, chamberlains, pages and officials, who were all crowded into his palace hall Langkasuka. . . Then King Marong Mahawangsa said to the Roman envoys, ‘I have installed my son as King. Now we should give our country a name’ . . . ‘We shall name this our country Kedah Zamin Duran’ . . . King Marong Mahawangsa saw how Pulau Lada had joined the mainland, finally being called Bukit Lada, just as Pulau Jambul was finally called Bukit Jambul. Pulau Seri was almost joined to the mainland and was eventually called Gunong Jerai on account of its height.’
Thereupon King Marong Mahapodisat [son of Mahawangsa] made his son mount the elephant Gemala Johari . . . The elephant raised its head and set off towards the rising sun, accompanied by the ministers, commanders and soldiers. They entered a vast forest; later a plain came into sight. The King, on the elephant Gemala Johari, crossed several hills and mountains. After some time, when they had almost reached the sea, they came upon a great river flowing into the sea. On that plain the elephant Gemala Johari stopped.
The princess-consort said, ‘Go back to Kedah, to my royal father, and tell him that this is the country called Patani’ . . . Now King Sari Mahawangsa did not wish to stay at Langkasuka as it was very far from the sea. So he ordered his four ministers to gather lime and mussel-shells with which to build a fortress downstream, for the river was big and wide, broadening out and with a very swift current. The ministers carried out the royal command. King Sari Mahawangsa unceasingly visited the downstream area where the moated fortress was to be built. Upstream in that area he built a small palace called Sirukum.”
It is clear from these passages that Langkasuka has passed into Malay folklore as a west-coast kingdom, the predecessor of modern Kedah, with its capital at the foot of Gunong Jerai. The evident association of its rulers with Patani “beyond the forests and hills” may suggest a kingdom that spanned the peninsular to the east coast, where most of the Chinese accounts place Langkasuka. It is evident that the fortunes of Langkasuka ebbed and flowed with that of its larger neighbours. It seems to have entered a decline when it was conquered by the Funan Empire of Cambodia between the third and sixth century. It then experienced a resurgence after the fall of Funan, only to succumb to the Sri Vijaya Empire some time in ninth century.
Indian and Javanese texts also suggest a western kingdom. Ilangasoka is named as one of Rajendra Chola’s conquests in his expedition against the Srivijaya Empire, described as a kingdom that that was “undaunted in fierce battles”. The Majapahit epic of 1365, the Nagarakartagama, described Lengkasuka as a west coast state subject to the overlordship of Majaphit (though it is more likely that, at the time, Langkasuka was part of the territory of Majaphit’s arch-enemy Sri Vijaya). Langkasuka then mysteriously disappears from written history – leaving only a legendary name to peasant mythology. The spirit land of Lakawn Suka still features in the mythology of Patani Malays, while Kedah peasant folklore interpret the realm of Alang-kah-suka as the domain of the fairy princess Puteri Sadong, ‘who rules over the Little People and wild goats of the limestone hills, and persistently refuses all suitors, be they never so highborn or otherwise eligible”.
Finally, when it had been erased from the map of the peninsula after some many centuries, the name ‘Langkasuka’ again appeared in our history when it was mooted by our founding fathers as a possible name for independent Malaya.