2015 has been named Year of Festivals in Malaysia. I’ve asked fellow Malaysian writers to share about their experiences participating in the various festivals. This installment we have Melissa Leong, a freelance writer and editor, who is from Sabah to share with us about Ka’amatan, which is celebrated on the 30th and 31st of May every year.
Come the month of May, the Kadazandusun, Murut and native ethnic communities of Sabah gear up for an annual celebration that rivals the carnivales of Rio Di Janeiro and Germany’s Oktoberfest – the Tadau Ka’amatan or Harvest Festival. After toiling the paddy fields, they finally reap the fruits of their labour and take time to pay tribute to the powers that be for another year of bountiful harvest.
Until the mid-1960s, a majority of natives in Sabah lived in the interiors and practiced their own pagan beliefs despite the growing influence of Christian missionaries and Muslim traders. They practiced a variety of rituals and a belief system that was strongly attached to their environment, homes, lifestyle and even harvest. Today, a majority of Kadazandusun and Murut people no longer adhere to pagan beliefs as most of them are Christians or Muslims. However, the values and traditions of their ancestors are not lost and much respect and tribute is still given to the rituals and rites, particularly during the Harvest month.
Huminodun the Legend: A Sacrifice to the Land
The legend goes that a terribly drought befell the land and the people suffered as they could not grow any crops. People began to starve. Seeing this, the Almighty Creator, known as Kinoingan, decided he had to take great measures to save his people. He made the ultimate sacrifice: He surrendered his only daughter, Huminodun, to the land. From her body parts grew various crops – her head gave rise to coconuts, her blood became red rice, her flesh rejuvenated the paddy fields, her teeth maize, her fingers ginger and her knees yam, among many other edible plants. To pay tribute to this great sacrifice, the Ka’amatan is celebrated each year after a bountiful harvest.
Unduk Ngadau – Hailing the Harvest Queen
Another significant aspect to this legend is Huminodun herself. To honour her gift of life to her people, each year the Unduk Ngadau pageant is held and the fairest one of all represents all that is beautiful and honourable in Huminodun. The pageant is undoubtedly the highlight of the Ka’amatan and the selection process is taken very seriously.
It starts early in May where each district holds their own Unduk Ngadau pageant. Contestants are decked in their respective traditional attire – each district can be distinguished by their costumes, with black velvet/cotton being the main fabric of choice for most ethnic groups (for example, the Kadazandusun women of Penampang don a sleeveless black blouse and ankle length skirt while the Kadazandusun of Papar wear knee-length skirts accompanied by long-sleeved shirts and hat).
As the month end approaches, each district crowns its winner who goes on to represent her locality in the State level pageant which takes place at the Kadazandusun Cultural Association Hall (KDCA) in Kota Kinabalu on the 30th and 31st of May each year. Crowds throng the hall where judging takes place. It’s an electric atmosphere where spectators roar and cheer for their favourites as they proudly parade their traditional attire and impress the best they can during the interview portion of the competition, even more so when they are able to converse in their native tongue. There are tears, hugs, kisses and more cheers as the Unduk Ngadau is crowned at the end of the day, giving her district more reasons to celebrate as the Harvest Festival draws to an end. Many Unduk Ngadau winners have gone on to pursue their studies and carved successful careers thanks to the exposure, publicity and wealth of experience they gain during their reign.
The Magavau ritual
Ka’amatan is the perfect opportunity witness seldom-seen rituals performed by native high priestesses, the Bobohizan. One of the most important rituals performed during the Harvest Festival is the Magavau (which means ‘to recover’). The Kadazandusun believe that while working in the fields, some farmers may unintentionally hurt the rice spirit (Bambazon), causing the spirit to wander and leave the crop unprotected. The ritual is performed to heal and call on Bambazon to return. Usually performed on the first full moon night after the harvest, the ritual can be held in a house or open area such as the paddy field itself. A group of bobohizans form a line with their hands placed on each other’s shoulders, chanting prayers. The leading bobohizan holds an unsheathed sword and now and then they call out to the rice spirit. A feast is usually laid out to appease the spirit – a generous spread of chicken meat, betel nut, eggs, and tapai (rice wine). Another set of offering will also be presented on a specially built bamboo platform for the spirits to bring back to their spirit world. This food is believed to prevent other creatures from feeding off the paddy.
The Magavau is just one of many native rituals held during the harvest month and still highly regarded by the Kadazandusun.
Plenty of makan (eating) and merry-making
The Ka’amatan festival ends on a high note on the 30th and 31st of May during which both days are declared a public holiday throughout the state of Sabah. It is an occasion to balik kampung or return to one’s village or hometown to be with relatives, whilst others ensure the merry-making continues regardless where you choose to be! If you want to ‘party’ with the locals, the KDCA is the best place to be where you can eat, drink and be merry to your heart’s content at the many mock traditional houses or food and drink stalls set up during the festival. The ‘party’ begins as early as two weeks before the grand finale and local folks (along with tourists of course) flock to KDCA for good food and a good time. Sample traditional ethnic food or grab a burger – either way, you’ll never go hungry here. The air is filled with sounds of brass gongs resonating, sometimes punctuated by a sudden ‘war cry’ (don’t worry, it’s usually part of the sumazau, the traditional dance of the Kadazandusun or enthusiastic party-goers!). From day till night, the atmosphere is truly celebratory and chances are wherever you turn, a friendly face will hand you a beverage and introduce you another staple ‘war cry’ of the locals: Aramaitii!