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Mystery of the Headless Horseman in Singapore Museum


National Museum of Singapore is one of my favourite hangouts since childhood and this 700 year old headless horseman is one of its most fascinating exhibits. This little statuette connects our megapolis of today with the heyday of Singapura, the ancient Lion City of the 14th century.

National Museum of Singapore

Address: 93 Stamford Road, Singapore 178897

Nearest MRT station: 10 minutes walk from Dhoby Ghaut & Bencoolen stations

Tel: +65 6332 3659

Hours: 10:00am - 7:00pm

Entrance to the National Museum of Singapore is free for all (Singapore citizens, permanent residents and foreigners). (Image credit Wikipedia)


The headless horseman on a winged horse is made of lead and excavated on 8 May 1998 from Empress Place between the Asian Civilisation Museum building and Singapore River bank by Professor John Miksic and archaeological team.

The 8cm tall statuette is believed to be from the 1300s during the heyday of the kingdom of Singapura and height of Majapahit empire (modern day Indonesia).


Unfortunately, the head is missing and still not found. Hence, it is simply dubbed the Headless Horseman.

Who might it represent? Without the head, it is harder to know who it might be.

Some historians believe that it could be Raja Suran, the legendary king Rajendra Chola who rose from beneath the sea on a winged stallion.

Who were the Cholas?

Rajendra map new.svg

The Cholas ruled south India (today's Tamil Naidu) from 848 to 1279. Their influence extended to the Malay peninsula and Sumatra. (Image credit CC BY-SA 3.0Link)

Borobudur Temple. Image credit Wikipedia
This caused friction with the Indonesian Srivijaya empire which ruled much of the Malay peninsula, Sumatra and Malay archipelago from 650 - 1377.

In 1025, King Rajendra Chola of the Chola empire attacked the Srivijaya empire as it blocked the sea route between the Chola empire and its trading partner, China's Song dynasty (980 - 1276).

It was one of the greatest sea battles of the ancient world.

A diversionary force from King Rajendra Chola's armada feigned an attack on Kedah (north Malacca Straits). The feign attack drew the Srivijayan fleet out of Palembang (south Sumatra) into the north Malacca Straits. King Rajendra Chola's main force rounded south Sumatra through the Sunda Straits (between Java and Sumatra). King Rajendra Chola's fleet caught Palembang undefended, sacked the Srivijayan capital and went on north to decimate the Srivijayan fleet bottled up in the Malacca Straits.

It was a brilliant naval victory for the Chola empire and a defeat which the Srivijaya empire never fully recovered from. It set the Srivijaya empire on a trajectory that led to its eventual collapse in 1377.

Pause a while to contemplate the brilliance of king Rajendra Chola's naval strategy and skill of the Indian sailors. Remember these were days of sail (wind power) and a thousand years before radar and radio communications. Every move was planned and executed based on imagination and estimates. Utterly incredible.

Some historians believe that the Headless Horseman is 
King Rajaraja I, founder of the Chola empire known as Raja Chulan in Malay. (Image credit Wikipedia)

The winged horse and warrior statuette could be the Raja Chulan (Raja Suran) and his flying steed Sambrani mentioned in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). 

"He [Raja Suran] begged, however, his father-in-law to think of some method of conveying him to the upper world, as it would be of great disadvantage to cut off the line of Secander Zulkarneini [Alexander the Great].  

His father-in-law assented to the propriety of this observation and furnished him with a sea-horse named Sambrani, which could fly through the air as well as swim in the water.   

Raja Suran mounted this steed amid the lamentations of his spouse, the Princess; the flying steed quickly cleared the nether atmosphere, and having reached the  upper ocean, it rapidly traversed it; and the subjects of Raja Suran quickly perceived him." [Source: Chapter 1 of Sejarah Melayu.]

When the Srivijaya empire finally dissolved in 1377, it was succeeded by the Majapahit empire which sphere of influence stretched from Java to Sumatra to the Malay peninsula. The kingdom of Singapura was a vassal state under the Majapahit empire.

Keramat Sultan Iskandar Shah

What is the kingdom of Singapura?

Singapura was founded by a Srivijaya empire prince Sang Nila Utama in 1299. According to the Malay Annals, Sang Nila Utama is the grandson of Raja Suran.

At that time, the Srivijaya empire (650 - 1377) based in Palembang, Sumatra was waning while the Majapahit empire (1293 - 1527) based in Trowulan, Java was rising.

In the chaotic power shift, audacious princes set up their own fiefdoms - one of them, Sang Nila Utama established the kingdom of Singapura. Singapura became a prosperous sea port facilitating traders from China, Indian, Siam (Thailand), Arabia and the Malay archipelago (Indonesia).

The glory days of Singapura lasted five reigns over 99 years (1299 - 1398). The Singapura royalty lived on today's Fort Canning Hill while the commoners lived at the foothills and at the banks of Singapore River (where the Headless Horseman was found).

In 1398, an invasion by either the Majapahit empire or Siam destroyed Singapura and forced its last king Sultan Iskandar Shah to flee to Malacca. According to legend, after his death in 1414, Sultan Iskandar Shah's body was brought back to Singapura and buried on Fort Canning Hill. A shrine known as Keramat Sultan Iskandar Shah is dedicated to the last king of Singapura. You can still visit the shrine on Fort Canning Hill today.


The Headless Horseman (made of lead) belonged to someone (a commoner?) who lived by Singapore River sometime between 1299 and 1398 during the days of the kingdom of Singapura. Fascinating isn't it.

Other historians believe the Headless Horseman could be Surya the Hindu sun deity who is often depicted on horses. Image credit Wikipedia.

So, the identity of the Headless Horseman remains a mystery.


Go see this national treasure up close and personal at the National Museum of Singapore.

Another amazing relic from the kingdom of Singapura - the Majapahit Gold Armlet 👈 click

Written by Tony Boey on 16 Feb 2021

1 comment:

  1. I thought it was written that Raffles "founded" Singapura. No history should exist before that. How can there be civilisation as rich in culture as the Great British Empire? 🤔


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