Kemaro Island, a tragedy of love and filial misunderstanding

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(Photo: IO/Dessy Aipipidely)

IO, Palembang – In the native dialect of Palembang, “kemaro” means “drought”. The island was thus named because it is never had water pooled on it, even when the mighty Musi River is at high tide. On the contrary, Kemaro Island seems to be floating serenely above the raging river. 

In fact, Kemaro Island is a pure island delta formed from the debris carried downstream by the Musi for centuries. It is a tiny island merely 30 hectares in area, with only a few hundred residents. It is reachable from the Kuto Besak Fort Pier using getek raft at IDR 200,000.00-IDR 250,000.00 per crossing. 

Kemaro Island is filled with unique Chinese sites like the 9-story pagoda built in 2006, graves of the Island’s caretakers, and a temple where people burn paper money and put wishes up on the love tree. The Hok Tjing Rio Temple, or Kuan Im (Guan Yin) temple, was built in 1962. It was built behind the empty grave of the legendary Chinese merchant Tan Bun An and his bride, Siti Fatimah. It is said that their tragic love story caused the Kemaro Island to be formed out of the river. 

According to local, a long time ago, the great young Chinese merchant prince Tan Bun An fell in love with Siti Fatimah, the daughter of the King of Palembang. Like the gentleman he was, Tan Bun An formally proposed for her hand in marriage to her father, who accepted the proposal for the sake of his daughter’s happiness. The marriage went off smoothly in Palembang. After the feast, Tan Bun An took his bride Siti Fatimah back home to China to meet his own parents and to pay their respects. When the newlyweds returned again to Palembang, Tan Bun An’s parents gave them seven large urns to start off their married life. When he arrived back in Sriwijaya, Tan Bun An duly submitted his parents’ urns to the King of Palembang. 

Much to Tan Bun An’s shame, the urns turned out to have been filled with vegetables when opened. Ashamed that his parents should dare to give their royal in-laws such a humble gift, Tan Bun An apologized and threw the urns into the river. However, the final urn dropped and broke before it could be cast into the river. It turned out that gold had been hidden under all of the vegetables. Tan’s parents deliberately did this because vegetables are precious for living, and because they want to prevent pirates from stealing the urns on the trip from China to Palembang. Consumed with regret and shame, Tan Bun An jumped into the river to retrieve his parents’ precious gifts. Alas, he never returned. Siti Fatimah jumped after him out of loyalty, and she was never seen again either. However, from the spot where they drowned, a small piece of land rose. It was very fertile and very good for planting vegetables. 

And that was the unique back story of Kemaro Island. The best time to visit it is when the Chinese are celebrating something, like the Chinese New Year or Cap Go Meh. These are the most auspicious times for being blessed with good fortune, especially in love. During such celebrations, people of Chinese descent or adherents of Buddhism or Confucianism pray, burn incense and paper money, and write out their wishes and put them up a tree in the temple yard. (Dsy)