Throughout Malaysia there are a number of places bearing the toponym of bĕrhala, which in modern Malay means 'idol'. It is generally accepted that it also meant 'pagoda' to the first Portuguese, who pronounced it as varela. The etymology of bĕrhala is uncertain, although either a Hindu or an Indonesian connection has been suggested. Unfortunately, this cannot be resolved by a perusal of the several dictionaries of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP, Board of Language and Culture) that was established in the middle of the twentieth century to standardize and develop the national language in Malaysia. When the DBP ably addressed this task, grammarians took firm control but their several excellent dictionaries eschew etymology.

William Marsden defined berala as 'idol'as, indeed, do others, ignoring its alternative meaning as a synonym for bĕrarah. Malay is a language of affixations, including ber, or more correctly bĕr (see Note 1: The Prefix Běr and Běrhala as 'Directional'). In some dictionaries it was customary to hyphenate bĕr when connecting it with a root-word, a practice followed by Marsden, but not in defining bĕrhala, treating it as an object. The only exception appears to have been W. G. Shellabear, who had an idol as 'ber-ha'la'. In this form it represents the Jawi syllables, with the root hala, meaning 'direction, course'.

Bĕrhala, which on its own was never referred to as a 'pagoda', is defined solely as an 'idol'. It has another oft-overlooked meaning of 'toward', 'in the direction of', but only rarely is it connected as a synonym of bĕrarah. Among several dictionaries only the Kamus Dewan treats these words as synonyms in a single-line entry that reads merely 'berhala, berarah'. Thus it seems that the original meaning has been overshadowed by the 'idol', so that many Pulau Bĕrhala are 'idol islands' in translation but are really navigational markers.

In the Malacca Strait the island of Barala was called Polvoreira which, it is submitted, was the Portuguese pronunciation of Pulo Bĕrarah ('Directional Island'). At Singapore a stack of rocks Batu Belayerwas dubbed the varella del China, while a nearby Tanjong Bĕrhala was ignored. Somewhere on the shores of the South China Sea the river Tinacoreu, which bears no resemblance to bĕrhala, was called Varella by the Portuguese. There is not a single combination of bĕrhala/varela by them at those early stages, and the coupling is a latecomer among other Europeans.

The Portuguese varella attached to both religious objects and geographical positions. Varela of the temple/pagoda/monastery variety were found in several clusters in a northern arc from southern India/Sri Lanka, through Burma (Myanmar) to the ancient kingdom of Champa in Indo-China (Vietnam) and beyond. The 'pagoda' section in Yule and Burnell is followed by 'topographical' examples, noting that the name was used for a river and the cape of Champa. It might well have also observed that in Vietnam the name was also applied to a region as well as to nearby cities.

In coastal navigation along the Maritime Silk Route from Sri Lanka, through the Malacca Strait and South China Sea to the coast of Indo-China (Vietnam) varela as an idol and an assumed pagoda was, it seems, mistakenly found among the Malay maritime marks of berhala. It will be submitted that berhala as an 'idol' was adopted from the Portuguese usage of varela and not the other way round.


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