Johor is known for a lot of things among Malaysians: their bangsa Johor, their football team, their Sultan, their laksa, and Singapore, to name a few.
Precious gemstones, however, probably wouldn’t be one of them. Yet if you were to ask a Malay-educated person to come up with a Malay word that’s as close to Johor as possible, you might get ‘jauhari‘, from the peribahasa ‘hanya jauhari mengenal manikam’ (only a jeweler would recognize a jewel). Jauhar (jewels), the Arabized Persian root word of jauhari (jeweler), is actually the most likely explanation when it comes to why we call Johor that.
So why is Johor named after jewels? No, it’s probably not named that in the metaphorical sense, as in Johor is the jewel of Southeast Asia or something. The jewels that gave Johor its name may have referred to actual gemstones, and…
According to lore, there might be jewels buried deep under Johor’s riverbed
Because of Johor’s geographical location as the southernmost tip of the Southeast Asian sub-continent, its ancient names usually revolved around that fact. For instance, when the Bugis-Portuguese writer Manuel Godinho de Erédia (1563 – 1623) wrote of Marco Polo’s expedition to Johor in 1292, he called it ‘Ujong Tanah’, meaning ‘Land’s End’. A similar name was used by the Buddhist monk Mpu Prapanca in his Javanese text ‘Nagarakertagama’, referring to it as ‘Ujong Medini’ (same meaning). Besides those, other Javanese names for Johor also existed, such as ‘Wurawari’ and ‘Ganggayu’, which both mean ‘calm waters’, as well as the word ‘Lenggiu’, which is the name of a river.
It was later that jewel-based names for Johor came to be: the Siamese used to call Johor ‘Klang Kio‘ (Treasury of Gems), the Javanese called it ‘Galoh‘ (gems), and Arab traders referred to the place as ‘Jauhar’ (gems). The sudden shift in theme may have something to do with the story of Parameswara’s flight from Temasik (Singapore). As it was told, he was attacked by the Siamese there, so he fled using the Johor River as his route. He encountered many gemstones along the river, which he commanded his people to gather and bring along to Malacca.
After he opened the port in Malacca, Arabian traders were intrigued by the gemstones sold by the locals, and it was here that they were told of the jewel-bearing river. As for the Siamese, they encountered the gemstones as well while chasing after Parameswara along the river. It was said that they abandoned the pursuit as the jewels were worth more. And so the fame of the river spread.
However, in the years that followed, numerous conflicts involving the Portuguese, Acheh, Jambi, and Bugis people took place along the river. The use of cannons caused the riverbanks to collapse, and the chopping down of trees by the riverside to make fortresses caused landslides and erosion. While there were said to be plenty more jewels in the river then, they were all buried deep under now, and people eventually forgot about them.
So that’s the story behind why Johor was named after jewels, even though they weren’t exactly known for their jewel mines. If you want to discover more interesting origins of our states’ names, pick one from the list below!