The events in this legend, popular in the bangsawan theatre, took place during the reign of Sultan Ahmat Tajuddin Almukarram Shah in Kedah. At that time Datuk Seri Kemajaya was in charge on Langkawi island as the Sultan’s representative. Several versions are known. The following derives from Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, Malaysia’s first prime minister..
One day Datuk Seri Kemajaya, the Kedah sultan’s representative and administrator on the island of Langkawi, is in his auduence hall (balai adat) with his officals discussing matters of state and conditions on the island of Langkawi. The announcement is made that the three outstanding warriors of the island–Kelana, Deramang, who is Datuk Kemajaya’s son, and Lela– have just returned from a mission against Portuguese forces in the Straits of Malacca. Arriving in the audience hall, each of the three tells of his encounter with the Portuguese, and also provides details regarding the booty he has managed to capture. It is obvious that they are all out to impress Mahsuri, the extremely beautiful daughter of Datuk Aman, who is among the ladies present in the audience hall. None of the three warriors has seen Mahsuri before.
Datuk Seri Kemajaya, pleased with the success of their present mission and also remembering their previous services to the island, offers as a reward to find suitable brides for all three of them so that they can settle down. The heroes, however, indicate that they are not yet ready for marriage. It is obvious, however, that they have all fallen in love with Mahsuri.
One day, while Mahsuri, seated on her balcony, is singing the highly popular song, lagu bunga tanjung. First Deramang, next Kelana, and finally Lela, who pass by in turn below the balcony, notice her and try to draw her attention. Each of them even attempts to stealthily climb up to the balcony to take a closer look at Mahsuri, but abandons the attempt fearing that he will noticed by the others.
At this point Deramang shrewdly takes the opportunity of inciting trouble between Kelana and Lela; the two good friends are soon fighting against each other. Deramang, hearing the approaching footsteps of Datuk Aman, quickly leaves the scene. Datuk Aman separates the feuding warriors. He learns from them that the source of their quarrel is Mahsuri. They have been fighting for the honour of obtaining her favour.
Datuk Aman calls Mahsuri and asks her whom she prefers between Kelana and Lela. Mahsuri, who respects both and does not wish to offend either one of them, indicates that she will, from her balcony, drop a flower while the two suitors walk below. Whoever manages to get the flower will be her chosen one. Mahsuri times the flower to fall when Kelana can catch it. He thus emerges the victor. Datuk Aman promises that he will soon choose a suitable date for the marriage of Kelana and Mahsuri. The two friends agree that the incident should not ruin their brotherly love for each other.
Following the marriage between Kelana and Mahsuri, Datuk Seri Kemajaya receives a letter from the sultan of Kedah. He is ordered to bring with him a force of able Langkawi warriors to face the Siamese who have invaded Kedah and to rescue the forts already taken by the enemy.
Datuk Seri Kemajaya, conceding to the wishes of his wife, Mahsura, appoints his son, Deramang, as administrator in his place. Lela is to look after the coastal areas of the island while Kelana is to accompany Datuk Seri Kemajaya with his men to the battlefield. Kelana and Mahsuri are thus separated soon after their marriage. Kelana, before leaving Langkawi, asks Lela to look after Mahsuri, whom Lela, following her marriage to Kelana, respects as a sister.
As soon as Datuk Seri Kemajaya and Kelana have left the island, Deramang, who has desired Mahsuri all along, and is intensely jealous of Kelana who has succeeded in marrying her, tries, without success, to win Mahsuri’s favour.
Failing to do so, he arranges to accost Lela one day while the latter emerges from Mahsuri’s house. Mahsuri is falsely accused of having committed adultery with Lela.
Since Deramang has full authority to rule Langkawi during the absence of Datuk Seri Kemajaya, the noblemen and village headmen (penghulu) on the island do not dare to speak up or act against his actions and decrees, even though they are fully aware that Deramang is being unjust. Deramang sentences Mahsuri and Lela to death. Mahsuri is to be killed by the cruel salang method, i.e. by being pierced with a dagger (kersi) in the shoulders close to her neck on both sides. The executions are to be carried out at place known as Padang Mat Sirat.
At the appointed time, when Mahsuri is to be killed, there is a storm and lightning flashes continuously in the sky. Mahsuri curses the disloyal people of Langkawi. They will not be safe or happy for seven generations and Pulau Langkawi will turn into a barrren, unproductive land. When Mahsuri is pierced with the keris by Deramang, white blood spouts from her–a sign both of her innocence and her saintly character.
When Deramang is on the point of stabbing Lela, the warriors led by Datuk Seri Kemajaya are heard arriving near Padang Mat Sirat. Deramang flees. Upon arrival at the site of the execution, where Mahsuri’s body still lies, Datuk Seri Kemajaya, Kelana and their companions are shocked to discover what has transpired. Lela recounts the unfortunate events leading to Mahsuri’s untimely and cruel death. Unable to control both his sadness and his anger, Kelana immediately goes in search of Deramang. Fierce fighting breaks out between them. Kelana succeeds in killing Deramang and thus avenging the death of his wife.
Datuk Seri Kemajaya, repentant at having given so much power to Deramang, offers Kelana any young lady in Langkawi he desires in marriage. Kelana rejects the offer. Swearing that he will never again set foot on the island, he leaves Pulau Langkawi.
Following her death, Mahsuri gained recognition on the islands of Langkawi as a sacred person (keramat), and Padang Mat Sirat is well-known for its burnt rice, one of the effects, it is believed, of her curse.