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Bawang Merah Bawang Putih

An Indonesian folklore about kindness and greed


Published: 10 May 2024

Time taken : ~10mins

Bawang Merah Bawang Putih is a popular folklore from Indonesia, which tells the tale of two sisters and how kindness always prevails over evil. Bawang putih is Malay for garlic, while bawang merah is Malay for shallot. This story has since been adapted and reimagined into various versions and mediums within the Malay Archipelago.

Once upon a time, there lived a girl named Bawang Putih. She lived in a quiet village with her widowed stepmother and stepsister, Bawang Merah. Her father had died and left her in the care of her stepmother and in the company of her stepsister. 

Bawang Merah was lazy and proud while Bawang Putih was kind, honest and hardworking. And while Bawang Merah was given everything she wanted by her mother, Bawang Putih was made to do all the chores in the house. However, Bawang Putih never complained.  

Bawang Putih was treated like a servant by her stepmother and stepsister Bawang Merah. Each morning, they would shout and order her to complete all the housework. Bawang Putih cleaned, cooked, washed all the clothes and even had the difficult task of looking for firewood. If she made any mistake, her stepmother would punish her by not feeding her.  

One day while Bawang Putih was washing clothes by the river, her stepmother’s favourite scarf was suddenly swept away by the current. Knowing that she would be punished if she had lost the scarf, Bawang Putih followed the path down the river after the scarf. On and on she walked until she came upon a cave. The river continued into the cave. At the entrance of the cave stood an old woman.  

Bawang Putih approached the old woman and asked, "Did you perhaps see a scarf floating down this river?” 

“Oh, why yes, dear,” the old woman responded. Bawang Putih was thrilled! She may not be punished after all.  

“But I will only return you the scarf if you can help me complete some chores, my dear girl,” the old woman continued.  

Chores were not new to Bawang Putih and she gladly obliged. She thought to herself how the old woman must be weary with age and would need help.  

All day, Bawang Putih helped the old woman cook, clean the house and wash her clothes. Finally, Bawang Putih had completed her chores and it was time to leave for home.  

The old woman was grateful for Bawang Putih’s help and handed her back the scarf. But before Bawang Putih could leave, the old woman said, “Bawang Putih, I want to give you a gift. I would like to give you a pumpkin to thank you for helping me. Please choose one.” 

In front of Bawang Putih, the old woman laid two pumpkins—one big and one small.  

Not being greedy, Bawang Putih chose the small pumpkin so that the old woman could keep the big pumpkin for herself and headed home. 

When Bawang Putih reached home, her stepmother and Bawang Merah were angry that she had been gone for the whole day and that dinner had not been prepared. Bawang Putih told them about the old woman and how she was given a pumpkin for helping her. Her stepmother was furious and snatched the pumpkin from Bawang Putih’s hands and smashed it onto the floor.  

Lo and behold, a slew of gold and jewel came out of the pumpkin. It turned out that the pumpkin was full of treasure! Her stepmother was speechless for a moment but suddenly turned to Bawang Putih and huffed, “Why did you not pick the larger pumpkin?!” Bawang Merah was envious seeing all the gold and jewellery. 

The next day, greedy Bawang Merah decided to follow in her stepsister’s footsteps. She let her mother’s scarf float down the river and followed it until she found the old woman by the cave. She too went up to the old woman and asked slyly, “Did you see a scarf floating down this river?” 

Once again, the old woman answered, "Oh, yes indeed I have, dear. But before I can return it to you, would you mind helping me complete some chores?”  

Bawang Merah, who had never done a chore in her life, haughtily replied, “Chores?! I’m not here to do your chores, I want the large pumpkin!”  

The old woman was silent. However, she did not argue back and went into the cave to retrieve the large pumpkin and handed it to Bawang Merah.  

Bawang Merah was thrilled! "Hah! I got a larger pumpkin and I didn’t have to lift a finger," she proudly thought to herself.  

She brought home the large pumpkin and together with her mother, they smashed it onto the floor expecting to see gold and jewels. To their horror, the pumpkin was filled with snakes, centipedes, scorpions and spiders. 

“Ahhhhhhhh!!! “What is this? Where is the gold? Where are all the jewellery?” the pair screamed.

"Aw! Aw! It hurts!” “Aw! Aw! Ouch!” “Mum…Ouch…Aw…What should we do Mum?”  

“Run, before we get bitten by these creatures!” her mother screamed. 

They ran away deep into the forest but the animals gave chase, snapping and lunging at the two of them every step of the way. Both mother and daughter ran as fast as they could, never to be seen again. 

Bawang Putih was finally free from the evil hands of her stepmother and stepsister and with the gift of gold and jewels by the old woman, she was able to live comfortably and happily ever after. 

Food for thought

Teater Ekamatra's Bawang Putih Bawang Merah, that was presented as part of Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts 2024, is loosely based on this folktale and this film adaptation.

If you've seen the show, here are some things you can think about and discuss!

1. What are some similarities and differences you have identified between this folktale and what was presented on stage? 

2. Can you list some of the ways the show has been modernised for today's audiences? 

3. What new themes did the show explore that were not in the original story? 

4. What new characters were added in Teater Ekamatra's adaptation of the folklore? 

5. What would your own reimagination of Bawang Merah Bawang Putih be like? 

Bonus activity: Watch the film adaptation of the story. How is it similar or different from the original folktale and Teater Ekamatra's adaptation? Compare all three different versions!

Take the quiz!

Does the story of Bawang Merah Bawang Putih sound familiar to you? That's because it has similarities to one other story we all know and love—Cinderella! Did you know that there are actually many folktales from all around the world that is similar to Cinderella and Bawang Merah Bawang Putih? Take the quiz below to find out where some of these stories are from!

The good vibes continue

Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts 2024

Celebrate the icons and treasures of the Malay community in its diversity and richness through the best in theatre, dance, and music from the Nusantara (Malay Archipelago).

9 – 12 May 2024
Find out more