Do you know the strange feeling of looking at your home as if it’s an exotic land? After traveling the world for the past 10 years, returning to my home land of Sarawak, on the Borneo island, I began to see my own “backyard” with a new light; like a foreigner excited to explore one of the least visited place on earth, with all its exotic ethnic cultures and traditions.
And of these ethnic cultures, one that I had always been intrigued with yet knew very little about was the Melanau people. In a land with over 40 ethnic groups, it’s easy to see how the Melanau aren’t as famous as the headhunting Dayak or the nomadic Penan.
The Melanau people
In the old days, the Melanau were liko, an animistic people who believed that the world was governed by ipok (spirits); they prayed to the spirits of the sea, the land, the wind, the jungle, etc. Each year, they would set aside a day to give thanks to the ipok for a bountiful year and to pray for a good year ahead. And that’s how the Pesta Kaul (Kaul festival) came about.
Today, most Melanau are either Muslims or Christians, with very few remaining in their pagan traditions. However, the Kaul festival is still being celebrated with fervor by most of them, albeit more as a cultural expression than a religious ritual.
This year’s Kaul festival was celebrated from the 25th of April to the 1st of May. I was very fortunate to be invited by Sarawak Tourism Board to be a part of the media covering the festival.
My first introduction to the Melanau culture was at Kampung Tellian Tengah; and what an intense lesson it was!
Situated a stone throw away from sleepy Mukah town, Kampung Tellian Tengah is a serene village with wooden houses on stilts connected by a series of plank-wood walkways. There were no modern vehicles, except the occasional motor boats that ply the Mukah River that snakes through the village. As we explored the place I saw children playing by the river without a care in the world; fishermen inspecting their fishing net before heading out to sea at night; a little boy stood on tiptoe to peek at us from behind the window and smiled shyly when I waved at him; an old lady, hunched over from a lifetime working harvesting and processing sago, combing her white hair slowly; the place was hypnotically peaceful. Our intrusion only caused mild curiosity in the children and startled a few cats.
We were introduced to Diana Rose (no, not the singer), an entrepreneurial Melanau woman who started Lamin Dana; a homestay cum cultural centre. She told us that she built Lamin Dana in 1999 with the hope of “promoting and strengthening the Melanau identity”, which was on the verge of being assimilated into other culture, especially the Malay culture. The cozy homestay is built on the site of her original ancestral “tall house”. Traditionally, the Melanau lived in “tall houses”, with stilts as tall as a 2-storey building, to protect them from the headhunting Dayak.
A short walk from Lamin Dana is the Sapan Puloh; a Melanau mini museum that contains a treasure trove of cultural artifacts. We met the founder and curator, Tommy, who told us that he started the museum because he wanted to preserve the Melanau’s culture and traditions.
Tommy was very excited to enlighten us about the Melanau culture. He explained tirelessly the intricate and complicated marriage rituals of the different classes. According to him, before the majority of the Melanau were converted into Islam and Christianity, they practiced a caste system of three social classes. Unlike the hindu caste system, the Melanau who was born into the lower caste, could purchase their freedom after serving their master for a certain number of years. Even though this caste system is obsolete today, most Melanuas still know which caste they belong too.
I’m impressed by what Diana and Tommy are doing for their culture. In a world that’s moving towards mono–culture, it’s becoming harder and harder to retain one’s cultural identity; especially when the young are so eager to embrace the globalised culture.
A gruesome history
(2 of the 4 jerunai at Kampung Tellian Tengah)
Dotted around the village are remains of four jerunai (totem pole); testament to the Melanau’s intriguing yet creepy history. In the past these jerunai were built only for deceased Malanau aristocrats/noblemen. The body of the deceased would first be put in a wooden coffin carved in a shape of a crocodile and placed on a raised platform for one to two years. After that the remains would be collected and placed inside the jerunai. Every jerunai would need two human sacrifices: an orphan or slave boy would be thrown into the hole to be crashed to death when the totem was erected, and then an orphan or slave girl would be hung by her wrists from the top of the totem to be left to starve to death. They believed that without the pair of sacrifice, the deceased wouldn’t be able to reach likau-o-matai, land of the dead.
I was completely fascinated by the tale; like a child absorbed in a riveting story from a fairytale. As I lay in bed that night, it struck me how little I know about my own homeland, even though I had traveled to many longhouses. There are indeed many adventures to be had, but there are also boundless interesting cultures to be explored.
The next morning, I woke up at dawn and we made our way to Kampung Tellian Tengah for the seraheng procession from the village to the river mouth. This was the most important part of the festival; bringing offering in a procession of boats to the river mouth to appease the ipok (spirits). The lead boat carrying 2 men dressed as the ipok went ahead accompanied by musicians playing traditional music, the other boats filled with excited villages followed; I was thrilled to be able to get on one. As we cruised down river, I saw happy villagers stood at their doors, windows and wooden bridges to witness the flotilla of boats; many have smiles on their faces, while the children waved at us excitedly.
When the boats docked at the estuary, the Bapa Kaul (the ritual leader) led the procession to a tree and planted the seraheng, a special offering basket. He then began to chant and place small baskets of food in the middle of the seraheng; as offerings for the ipok.
(pic left: the land ipok and the sea ipok talking with each other. pic right: Bapa Kaul officiating the start of Pesta Kaul)
When the ritual was done, everyone was invited to a communal picnic. Everyone sat on a long mat with mountains of food lay out to be shared. Race, religion and caste were put aside to enjoy a simple meal with each other; and outsiders, like me, were warmly embraced into their fold. I sat next to an old man who shared his flask of hot milky coffee with me, and an old lady who kept feeding me her homemade kueh (local snacks/desserts). We were urged to eat as much as we could because leftovers couldn’t be brought home; they have to be left at the seraheng for the ipok. It was a wonderful time of fellowship and a perfect ending for a ritual as old as the Melanau people.
Before I knew about Kaul, I had seen pictures of the Tibow; a swinging game the Melanau youths play. From a 20-foot wooden scaffolding, a young man would swing away with the bamboo swing, as it swings back, another person would jump on, followed by another on its subsequent swing, and so on, until the swing loses its momentum (or everyone falls). In recent years, the tibow has come to be synonym to the Kaul festival. The festival will not be completed without the adrenaline rush of young people swinging in the gigantic swing or the squeal of delight of young kids in a smaller version.
I had been wanting to try the tibow ever since I first saw it many years ago, so without any coaxing I climbed to the top of the scaffolding. When they handed me the bamboo swing and asked me to put one leg over the ring, that’s when I realised that it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Vertigo started to kick in; my heart was pounding and my left hand was holding on to the scaffolding for dear life. I could hear voices around me asking me to let go. So I took a deep breath and released my grip. The next thing I know I was screaming like a kid on a roller-coaster ride. The rush of adrenaline was intoxicating. I was expecting people to jump on me, but because I was a newbie, they let me swing by myself and enjoy the whole experience.
Traditionally, the tibow is a game played by young men in the villages. As they took the plunge, they would scream their declaration of love for the girls in the village. Some people will find it really romantic. But I think it’s a game where boys will be boys. It brought out the child in me and I totally enjoyed those few seconds of hanging on for dear life as the swing tossed me up and down.
In the end…
I left Mukah feeling inspired. The Kaul festival was great; I got to learn a lot about the Melanau people and their culture; I got to witness an ancient ritual; and I got to have fun with the tibow. But more so it inspired me to travel more in my own land. I used to think that foreign lands were more exotic and beautiful. But after seeing the world and returning home, I realised that my own ‘backyard’ is teeming with adventures and has many exotic cultures that I know very little about. And the experience at the Kaul festival has infected me with a stronger desire to explore and understand more of my own land.