How Surabaya Got Its Name, Part 1: The Shark and the Crocodile

Surabaya’s symbol pits a shark and a crocodile against one another in unending conflict. What makes the reptilian and the piscine so integral in this corner of East Java, and where did this story originate?

Many moons ago, stories foretold of a great battle in Java. Two animals would wage this conflict, which would profoundly affect the development of the nascent land.  The story began, as these things often do, with a pair of friends: Sura the shark and Baya the crocodile.

These friends lived in the water and enjoyed each other’s company very much. But the pair were also ravenous creatures, and when plagued by hunger, which was often, they became selfish and uncontrollable and violent. Sura and Baya fought one another many times, and always over scraps of food.

However, Sura and Baya were uncomplicated beasts. They could forgive each other’s acts of savagery because they understood that such an urge stemmed from their compulsion to fight. Mostly, Sura stalked beneath the waves while Baya did the same in shallower waters. 

Except for one day, when a malicious imp plagued the two friends. ‘This will be fun to watch,’ said the imp, who was of uncertain origin but clearly from a place that didn’t like sharks and crocodiles. ‘I’ll cause some trouble and watch these two friends go to war’. So doing, the imp transformed into a troublesome current and crossed the paths of Sura and Baya, one after the other, and knocked them just off course enough to lay an egg of irritation in their minds. Imps’ eggs, as we all know, hatch quickly and bring forth quarrelsome offspring that float invisibly through their and, upon finding a host, suffocate them, like poison ivy slowly consuming a wall.

Short fuse

And so it proved. The day was hot, and tempers had become frayed. Suddenly, Sura and Baya espied one another in the distance: one out to sea and the other minding his own business in an inlet. And between them, bobbing up and down in the brine, floated a juicy roasted goat, which neither Sura nor Baya knew was the last remnant of a boat capsized by the mistress of the Java Sea, who was greatly bored and wanted some relief from the monotony of godhood.

Each roared a warning to the other to stay away; Sura wanted the catch for himself, as did Baya. Their animal instinct arose sharply, and neither would consider compromise. They propelled themselves at the goat carcass at fearsome speed. So furious were the creatures at the other’s impertinence that they quite forgot about the food and instead set about one another. They collided at tremendous speed, sending a crashing thud many fathoms deep into the ocean and alarming a sizable portion of the local population into retreat.


Read more: Crocodile Country: How Reptiles Shaped the Course of Timor-Leste.


All, that is, except a gigantic jellyfish, hovering below the water’s surface. The giant sea jelly, colourless and amorphous and gently pulsating, bore none of the aggression of the advancing shark and the snapping crocodile. Instead, the blob creature floated with divine grace, seemingly content to change shape with the passing of the tide and transform the sun’s rays that shone through its translucent body into crystalline shards of light. 

It was a uniquely beautiful scene that distilled the essence of angelic inspiration into a tableau as vivid as any portrait drawn from the life. But despite bestowing a cathedral-like grace upon the vicinity, it was ill-suited to a scene of battle, where aggression always trumped majesty. 

Sura and Baya tore into one another with snarling ferocity, sending out huge currents that rocked the jellyfish and, picking it up in a rough grip, deposited it a long way away. Unperturbed, the jellyfish floated serenely off to find a place where it could shine its light upon a more deserving stretch of water. Sura and Baya didn’t notice. Each had a glazed look in his eyes that placed him in the thrall of some innate instinct that had acquired control of his body and neglected to inform his mind, which could only watch on as the fearsome beasts waged their terrible fight.

Fighting question

But even sharks and crocodiles get tired. This is especially true when those same beasts suddenly realise they are fighting their friend for no good reason save greed. ‘Enough is enough, Sura,’ Baya said to his friend, who readily agreed, but with enough of a delay to indicate that he could have carried on. Both bore signs of heavy wear and scarring, and both were secretly glad that the other had brought the fighting to a stop. A compromise was in order.

Sura readily agreed, which he emphasised with a swish of his mighty tail. Sharks are strong and powerful and renowned as one of the lords of the water, but even they realise a dead-end when they see one. Trying to best a crocodile, thought Sura, was a dead-end..

To save face, Sura made a suggestion: ‘I have an idea, Baya.’ The crocodile arched his head in anticipation. ‘Let us stick to our domains. I see how the other animals in the swamp keep their distance from you. And I often sense a wariness from most other creatures in the ocean whenever I approach. I admit that’s partly because I, the shark, attack them, the non-shark, pretty much often.’ 

Baya asked his friend to get to the point. ‘Very well. My point is this: you stick to the land, and I’ll stick to the ocean, and whatever we find there belongs to us.’ Buoyed by a moment of inspiration, Sura put forth a final flourish:  ‘And the beach shall be the border neither can cross.’

Baya thought for a moment and spoke. ‘You have no legs, and you can’t breathe on land, Sura,’ the crocodile reminded the shark. ‘And if one day, I found you walking on dry land, I’d consider you a very impressive shark. So your plan hasn’t really changed anything. But you make a good point, and I agree. Your turf and my turf. I must admit, though, I’ll be sad not to see you so often.’ The shark agreed, and each nuzzled the other affectionately as they went their separate ways. The crocodile stalked landward; the shark scythed through the ocean.

And there they stayed for a good long while. Sura and Baya enjoyed the sway they held over their space. However, strange as it sounds, the ocean ran out of food. Or, more likely, the creatures that would have become Sura’s food tired of the constant chasing and decided to stay away from him forever. Cunning Sura couldn’t work out what had happened. 

Full stomach

But he did know that he couldn’t function without food for long. Just then, he espied a sandbank and, behind that, a tributary river from the swamp where Sura knew Baya very rarely ventured. Perhaps a little excursion might reveal some food. And he wasn’t breaking any agreement if the other couldn’t see it, Sura reasoned to himself. He advanced upriver, not even trying to conceal his intentions as he snapped at any living thing he could. In so doing, his belly became full, and he quickly turned into a very pleased shark.

But Baya happened to be ransacking a nearby forest, so he could see what was happening. He could see it very clearly, sharks on the mainland being something of a rarity. He did see the shark breaking their agreement, and he did see Sura, full from feeding and looking somewhat larger than when they last met, letting the river current glide him towards the ocean. Sura radiated self-satisfaction, which drove Baya to fury. To break their agreement was one thing, but to be so brazen about it was quite another.


Read more: No Patience: How Lake Toba Got Its Name.


Baya waited for the oathbreaking shark where the river met the sea. The crocodile, usually such a cool and collected character, albeit one prone to acts of wild abandon, shuddered so angrily that the surrounding wildlife thought he might explode. Startled Sura tried piecing together an argument that since he technically hadn’t ventured out of the water, the agreement was still intact: but he felt even less convinced that Baya looked, which was very unconvinced indeed. 

‘The sea is over there,’ Baya motioned with his snout, from which spouted great plumes of vapour, like a volcano preparing to explode. ‘We are here.’ He pointed directly down to the inlet beyond the beach barrier, where he now stood and a few feet from where the shark hovered in the water. ‘I am here, and you are here.’ Sura nodded, approximating a grimace, which is difficult for sharks to do. 

Once more, the creatures from the imps’ eggs gave the animals’ brains a little squeeze, driving the pair to blind anger. The imps sat in the far distance and prepared for the coming entertainment. A ripple of applause emerged as the shark and the crocodile gave in to their basest urges, rolling into a pool at the heart of the beach, attacking one another as they tumbled. They snapped and they snarled and they bit and they tore, and the water became as red as a dying sun.

Final fight

Each gave as good as he got. Sura, reverting to his shark instinct, parried Baya’s blows for long enough to take a chunk from the base of the crocodile’s tail, which left it hanging crookedly to the left. But Sura couldn’t celebrate for long, for Baya returned the favour, squirming like an eel to tear an equal-sized chunk from the shark’s thrashing tail before removing a portion of Sura’s fin. In retaliation, the shark wriggled free and bit off one of Baya’s claws, drawing a roar of the purest rage from the crocodile. Repeatedly did they advance until the water became a bubbling, churning pit. 

Bowed and bloodied and not a little beaten and sporting more stumps than they had that morning, Sura and Baya fell into deep exhaustion. They eyed their opponent with wary respect, as one fighter to another. But neither could find the energy to fight on. Both were too proud to feel sorry for themselves and, in fact, had enjoyed the ferocity of their battle, but they came to realise that the interlude had to have consequences. One was a blankness of mind, for they quite forgot, as was usual, why they had begun fighting. The other was a rapid depletion of energy and the onset of drowsiness that attached itself to them like a bag of lead weights.

This would not do. The pool was very small, and the urge for personal space grew rapidly. Baya channelled the last kernels of force to dig a trench seaward so that Sura could float back to his ocean. The shark duly obliged, lowering his head in respect to his friend as he went. Sura nodded when the crocodile responded in kind.

Baya then dragged himself off to his favourite swamp to tend his wounds and promptly fell into a deep sleep from which he never arose, wondering briefly before the darkness descended whatever happened to old Sura. It would no doubt have been a crumb of comfort to the crocodile that the shark did exactly that before he also succumbed to the same eternal slumber and dropped lifelessly to the ocean floor.

Many moons later, the two-legs populated the same area. These new masters of the land were an enquiring bunch, who noted in accounts of bygone ages a recurring motif: a shark and a crocodile circling one another, always primed for combat and eventually finishing each other off in a climactic battle. The two-legs found this symbolism appealing and named their enclave Surabaya, in tribute to the shark and the crocodile, and hoped always to exhibit the same strength as the creatures from which they took their inspiration.

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