Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo) is starting to creep up on the radar of tourists and travelers in the region. Some of the biggest attractions are the festivals here; from the ultra successful Rainforest World Music Festival, to the less known Borneo Jazz festival. But what Sarawak has, that many places don’t, is the treasure trove of cultural festivals. With over 40 ethnic groups, each with their own distinct language, culture, and tradition, this land is a gold mine for culture vultures.
The Kaul festival I went to couple of months back was an unforgettable experience. So when I heard about the Babulang festival (which fell on the 6th-8th June this year) of the Bisaya people, I was excited to go and have a look. My wish was fulfilled thanks to Sarawak Tourism Board.
The Bisaya people
The Bisaya are the indigenous people found mostly around the area where Sarawak, Sabah (Malaysian Borneo), and Brunei converge. It’s not known where they originated, but it is believed that they are distantly related to the Visayan people of The Philippines.
The Bisaya are skilled farmers; paddy, sago, tapioca, pepper, etc. are their main agricultural products. They are also good hunter and rear animals; they are especially good with rearing buffalo.
With the advent of modern religions, most Bisaya have forgotten their pagan beliefs and have embraced either Christianity or Islam. Coupled with the onslaught of modernization, they are on the verge of forgetting their age-old culture and traditions.
In order to promote their culture, especially among the young, and to drive tourism in the area, the Sarawak Bisaya Association has revived the Pesta Babulang. This year marked the 11th edition of this festival.
The Bisaya people observe many rituals, ceremonies, and festivals. The largest and grandest among them is the Babulang festival. However, until very recently not many people, including the younger generation Bisaya, have heard of this festival. That’s because the last traditional Babulang was held in 1969.
In the midst of noise and chaos as the people were getting the place ready for the opening ceremony for this year’s festival, I met 2 old men, who very enthusiastically told me the history of Babulang. These grandfatherly gentlemen took a break from their tasks and transported me back to the past; to a time when the Bisaya people still lived in individual wooden houses, where planting paddy was their only way of life.
In the past, Babulang was a feast-giving ceremony. In the traditional Bisaya community where there was no set hierarchical system, a person’s social status depended on his ability to provide a feast – Babulang. The scale of the fest would then determine the “ranking” of the person, or his family, in that society. The rationale was that, the hosting of the Babulang involved a substantial amount of expenses and required great organizational skill for the ceremony to run smoothly.
Traditionally, Babulang was also a challenge, a grand scale dare. According to the 2 grandfathers, who recalled the past with vivid excitement, a man would invite another to his house to stay for as long as he desire; he could bring as many people as he like, he could even bring his whole village. During his stay the host, with the help of all his household and fellow villagers, would slaughter buffalo, prepared sumptuous meals, until his guests were satisfied and begged to have no more. The aim of the host was to make sure his guests were never hungry and lack of nothing.
Then the favour had to be returned. The second man who had accepted and been a guest at the first man’s house had to prepare a Babulang for however many people the first man would bring. It didn’t matter how long it took to return the favour, but once a person accepted another’s Babulang, he was in debt until he repaid it. If he died before he could repay, his children would have to do it for him.
And one ingredient that this Babulang feast must-have was buffalo meat.
Buffalo was and still is the most important animal to the Bisaya people. In the past, buffalo was used to plough the land, to transport goods, for their meat, and as dowry payment. So the more buffalo you had, the richer you were. Nowadays, though planting paddy isn’t the mainstay, having buffalo is still seen as a status symbol. In today’s market, an average sized buffalo can fetch around RM5000.
One of the highlights of the Babulang festival, one that I wanted to see the most, was the buffalo race. It’s strange to imagine bulky buffalos racing each other in a field, as they neither have the grace nor the athleticism of a horse.
The morning of the race, the air at the site was filled with excitement. I saw some buffalos and their riders seeking refuge from the rising heat in the shades. One rider kept sponging muddy water onto the buffalo to keep it cool; they are called water buffalo for a reason.
When the referee called position, I saw five old men leading their buffalos from the cooling shades into the burning sun. The buffalos lumbered along slowly. For this veteran category, they were going to go round the 300m circuit 3 times. With the agility of young men, they hoisted themselves up. These were men who spent most of their life with buffalo.
When the referee blew the whistle, three buffalos charged forward, 1 went the other way, while another one didn’t move. I realised then that buffalo are stubborn animal; they can’t be tamed as easily as a horse. After some pulling and shouts of encouragement from their riders, the 2 buffalos finally got it right and charged after the 3 forerunners.
It’s really a sight to behold: these heavyset animals galloping through the field; well, actually more like lumbering very quickly. I was surprised by how fast they could run considering their body weight. The average weight of a matured water buffalo is around 1,000kg.
The race was over in less than 2 minutes. The winning buffalo led the pack by over 100m. And the one I supported, which had the oldest rider at 63 year-old, came last. But instead of stopping, he went round the track one more time, maybe trying to condition his buffalo the route of the race.
The next race was the open category. There were about 10 buffalos in this race, including an albino. For this category they would race round the track 5 times. It’s quite unbelievable to see 10 bulky animals with rider, lined up ready to race, not a sight one associate with animal racing.
When the referee blew the whistle, the 10 beasts charged down the race track without any problem. I thought it was going to be an uneventful race. But as the buffalos came to the turning into the second round, some of them ran straight and almost ploughed into some photographers. Then one buffalo decided it had enough and turned around to go back into the shade, much to the protest of its rider. It was really exciting and entertaining.
Or so I thought.
When the race ended I went through some of the photos I’d taken. I saw some buffalos foaming in the mouth in a few of my photos. Even for such a short race, it had exerted a lot of energy from these slow-moving buffalos.
After the race, I spoke to one of the riders, the 63 year-old rider (bottom right photo). He told me that they have been racing buffalo for a long time; it was a tradition that passed down from generation to generation. The villages around the region organize their own buffalo race from time to time; so it’s not exclusively for the Babulang festival. He reassured me that buffalo are tough animals, it’d take more than a few races to cause them harm.
In the end…
I’m grateful to be given a chance to peek into the tradition of the Bisaya people, and watching the buffalo race was definitely the highlight. However, as a cultural event, the festival fell a bit short on the cultural front. Events such as beauty contests, remote-control boat race, and the endless (political) speeches have nothing to do with the Bisaya culture, as far as I can see. I think it’ll be better if they focus their attention and resources in expanding the idea and essence of Babulang itself; i.e. the feast-giving, the fellowship, the cooperation and teamwork needed to organise one, etc.