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Himanshu Bhatt tells of his fascinating search to uncover the secret behind a set of ancient giant footprints in Penang.

Batu Maung is a secluded district on the south-eastern tip of Penang island with apparently little to offer visitors - wooden coffee shops, kampung houses, an old Chinese temple, a mildly active jetty and a private sculpture park.

But, unknown to many, the area is also home to an ancient site that has existed for more than a century, and whose mystery may well rival the mystique of such legends as North America's Bigfoot and the Himalayan Yeti.

Right: The Batu Maung footprint measuring 33 inches in length.
This picture was taken in 1993 before the site was enshrined.

Stamped upon a solid rock in Batu Maung's beachfront is a gigantic footprint. Its origin is unknown to even the oldest of the  town's inhabitants. The best explanations for its existence are swamped in myth and folklore.

 Right: The complementry right foot print in the jungle behind Kampung Mesjid, Bayan Lepas. This photo showing the writer measuring the print was taken after its discovery in 1993.

. . . it was
 of the great monkey god Hanuman who, while leaping
 over the ocean had taken a thunderous step on Penang island . . .

I had seen the print as a child and heard strange stories about it. But when my adult curiosity pushed me to investigate the mystery some 7 years ago, I became involved in a fascinating revelation of facts and stories hitherto untold.

The most astounding discovery I made was that the collosal Batu Maung print - of a left sole - was not alone. I found a  complementary right foot print of the same size in a jungle in Bayan Lepas, at least ten kilometres away. To this day, both prints lie quietly, away from widespread attention, in an almost contented,placid concealment of

their secret origins; while at least two other prints are said to exist in the nearby islets of Pulau Aman and Pulau Jerejak.

I had first heard local Indians talk about the Batu Maung footprint - it was of the great monkey god Hanuman who, while leaping over the ocean had taken a thunderous step on Penang island. According to one tale, he was searching for a herbal cure for the legendary Rama's brother, Lakshamana, who was wounded during the great war depicted in the Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana. Another story says that he was on his way to secretly meet Rama's kidnapped wife Sita in Lanka (assuming a popular Indonesian belief that Lanka was in Sumatra).

The footprint in Batu Maung resembles the imprint of a left foot some 0.85 metres (33 inches) in length. When, accompanied by my colleague Dharmaraj, I surveyed the print in 1993, it had been left on an open granite boulder with burnt-out incense sticks and decayed banana offerings lying in front of it. The footprint faced south-west towards the sea, and interestingly enough, in the direction of Sumatra.

Today, the print is carefully enshrined in a small temple built by the local Chinese community. A common Chinese belief has it that the footprint was made by Cheng Ho (also called Sam Poh), the famous Chinese admiral who visited Malacca in the fifteenth century. The site is now officially called "Sam Poh Footprint".

My big discovery came when Dharmaraj and I found two elderly Malay villagers - Haji Manaf Ibrahim and Haji Shafie Kulab - both in their eighties. The two had spent all their lives in Batu Maung and both confirmed that the print had been there even before they were born. They then narrated to us a fascinating and rarely-told Malay myth passed on by their ancestors.

Hundreds of years ago, the story goes, there lived on the island a giant named Gedembai who was strong and feared by folks. One day, while chopping down bamboo, a villager inadvertently caused a long piece to fly high into the air. Gedembai, seeing this from afar, mistook the bamboo for another giant. Frightened, Gedembai bolted, thumping heavy steps on the earth. He was never seen again, but his footprints remain to this day at the very spot which local Malays call Tapak Gedembai.

The story was a captivating piece of folklore, but what struck us was that there were meant to be three more surviving footprints of the mighty Gedembai - one in Penang, and the other two in Pulau Aman and Pulau Jerejak. Thrilled, we immediately obtained the whereabouts of the other print on Penang island and within minutes found ourselves racing towards a remote kampung in Bayan Lepas. The footprint, we were told, lay near a waterfall in a jungle behind the kampung.

It took us an hour to find Kampung Mesjid. Located about a mile away from the Bayan Lepas main road, we had to turn off into a winding stretch that led past wooden houses, mosques and a rural school.

We accosted some elderly villagers who assured us that the footprint did exist, but no one had seen it in ages. Left untended, it had been covered with silt and dust. We also learned that water had collected in the print, making it a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Someone had therefore covered the print with cement.

A villager who wished to be identified only as Daud suggested that if the area of the footprint were cleared, the print may be found. We walked through a jungle path to the waterfall with Daud, and waited as he cleared and patted the ground to feel the cement.

It took his simple exclamation to launch us on a frantic clearing of the ground. We brushed aside earth, leaves and dust, and within minutes, the cement-covered footprint of the mythical Gedembai lay before us.

Today, the footprint lies just metres away from a multi-million ringgit development project that has polluted the waterfall and flattened much of the jungle. In a very short time, the mighty Gedembai's right foot print will be inevitably covered forever by the encroaching development.

 Right: The cement covered right print
 of the mighty Gedembai.

No one has been able to explain how the two complementary footprints have come into being without delving into traditional tales and folklore. All we know is that they have existed for more than a century. They may have been produced by old natives who wished to re-enact an age-old myth. If so, there may well be more prints elsewhere.

During a recent visit to Batu Maung, I sat near the new shrine, letting a cool sea breeze blow at my face. As I watched a mother guide her child to offer joss-stick prayers to the ancient footprint, I could only bear out the conclusion I felt years ago.

Whatever the prints' real origins may be, they have left an indelible mark in the hearts of several cultures and, in a curious way, they have left their prints by bearing the faith and beliefs of a people through time.

But perhaps, just perhaps, it was Gedembai?

About The Writer

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