The Snake in the Banyan Tree

2 min read

Have you heard the beating of the kompang? The flat round drum is often used in Malay weddings and makes a very interesting thumping sound. Even more interesting is the story of how the drum came about.


Long ago, in the northwest of Singapore, there stood at the very entrance of a village an enormous banyan tree. The villagers wanted to cut the tree down not only because it blocked their way, but also because every night a haunting melody would float out of the foliage and send everyone into a deep slumber.

Snake+Banyan-01

When the villagers awoke in the morning, they would always find the bones of their missing chickens and goats at the foot of the banyan tree.

The people were baffled. “We don’t know what’s living inside that tree,” said Hussein, scratching his head in dismay. “We have to destroy that tree! It is cursed,” exclaimed Ishyak nervously. His home was located closest to the tree and he was always the first to fall asleep.

“I have lost all of my chickens. I can’t afford to lose any more goats!” lamented Daud, looking down at his five hungry children. The village chief decided it was time to do something about that tree. Grabbing his spear, he ordered the men to surround the tree with flaming torches.

Snake+Banyan-03

When they threw their torches at the tree, the same chilling music resonated from within. It cast a spell on those nearby, causing them to fall asleep immediately. Ali, who was deaf and unaffected by the magical music, was shocked to see a gigantic snake with red patchy skin slithering out of the crackling, charred branches.

“Wake up, wake up!” he cried to his friends as the snake hissed angrily at him. Then an idea struck him. From a nearby well, he quickly drew a bucket of cold water and splashed it on the men to rouse them.

“Wh…what happened?” muttered Hussein. But before anyone could answer, the snake sprang at them. All the men struck the reptile’s body repeatedly with their weapons but its chunky trunk-like body was as hard as a rock. Terrified and exhausted, the men dropped their weapons and fled home.

A vision came to the villagers as they lay in bed that night. They dreamt that the snake could only be destroyed by special fire stones, which would burn when water was added to them. However, they had to wait till the next month when the wicked serpent would drift into a deep sleep.

Days slipped by. Then weeks. At the appointed time, the villagers eagerly gathered again at the banyan tree. Soon, they began hurling fire stones at the tree and flinging water at them. The tree shook violently as it burst into flames and a part of the snake rolled out.

Snake+Banyan-02

A slew of arrows hit the snake in the head but it continued to mesmerise the men with its music. “Stuff your ears with cloth!” suggested Ishyak.

Unable to put his attackers to sleep, the snake was powerless. After countless blows, it squirmed and quivered and collapsed to the ground like a dead log.

The villagers punished the snake by skinning it. They stretched its skin on a bowl and began beating it. As each person struck the skin, it made a surprisingly interesting sound. Played out together, the music was rather delightful.

And thus the kompang was born. So whenever you see or hear a kompang, you will recall the trouble it brought as well as the beauty it created.