The Legend of Sang Nila Utama | How The Lion Became a Symbol of Singapore

Once upon a time, there lived a prince by the name of Sang Nila Utama. He hailed from the Srivijayan Empire in Palembang on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. One fine day, while hunting on Bintan Island, he spotted a stag and chased it up a hill. As a prey animal, the stag was fast and difficult to catch. But the hunter was in hot pursuit and had no intention of allowing the stag to slip away from his sharp and single-pointed gaze.

When Sang Nila Utama finally reached the top of the hill, the stag mysteriously vanished.

“Where did it go?” he wondered out loud to no one in particular.

Sang Nila Utama was instead greeted by a very large rock. An adventurer at heart, he decided to climb it. When he arrived at its peak, he saw an island with a white sandy beach in the distance.

“What island is that?” he asked his chief minister.

“The island of Temasek,” the chief minister replied.

Sang Nila Utama quickly decided to make the journey to this mysterious island of Temasek with its sandy beaches which appeared from afar to be shrouded in white sheets of fluffy clouds.

But no journey comes without its perils.

While he and his men were out at sea, a great storm erupted and the Ocean threatened to eat both the ship and crew as though it were its lunch. The ship began to toss about in the huge waves and began to take in water. To prevent it from sinking, the crew threw all the heavy things on board into the sea–but to no avail. Those who cross the tumultuous waters of the Great Lady of the Sea have always done so at their own peril.

On the advice of the ship’s captain, Sang Nila Utama threw his crown overboard as a gift to appease and perhaps calm the Sea. Placated by this wonderful gift, the Sea simmered down… and allowed the crew to arrive at Temasek safely.

The Coastline at East Coast Beach, Singapore 2021

Upon his arrival on Temasek’s shoreline, Sang Nila Utama headed out to hunt wild animals near the river on a patch of open ground which is now known as the Padang. He sighted a strange animal with a red body, a black head and a white breast. He was immediately mesmerised by the creature’s beauty. But before he had a chance to fully observe the animal, it disappeared into the jungle.

“What beast was that?” Sang Nila Utama asked his chief minister.

“A lion,” he replied confidently.

Believing this to be a good omen, Sang Nila Utama decided to build his new city in Temasek. As the animal he sighted was believed to be a lion, he renamed the island to ‘Singapura’ which in Sanskrit means, ‘The Lion City’.

After ruling Singapore for 48 years, he passed away in 1347. Sang Nila Utama is buried on Bukit Larangan, which is now known as Fort Canning. The exact location of his grave remains as mysterious as the legend of the founding of Singapore–the mysterious little island which is now endearingly referred to by its inhabitants as ‘the little red dot’.

A statue of Sang Nila Utama by the Singapore River

By Dipa Sanatani

CEO at Sanatanco | The Leading Global Publication and Communications Consultancy for Writers, Readers and Thinkers

3 comments

  1. Oh what a wonderfully told story that takes me back to my childhood! Warms my heart!

    1. The funny thing is the factual account of this story is highly disputed, but it indeed makes an excellent myth as a founding story of Singapore.

      1. At the end of the day, there is no real way to verify what happened back in those days. So might as well enjoy the stories and pass them on.

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