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Mukah Kaul Festival: A Journey to Melanau Heartland

Curious about the non-conforming customs (and the food) of Sarawak’s Kaul Festival, our resident Bornean took on the task to dig deeper into the Melanau’s unique festival.

Words & Photos: Ari Fajar

“You don’t look like Indonesian, you look Bornean,” said the Sarawak Tourism officer when he picked me up at Sibu Airport. “I am an Indonesian, and I am also a proud Bornean,” I answered with a grin on my face. Like the Melanaus, I am also a native to the only island in the world shared by three sovereign countries (Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei). Although we have Melanaus back home, our part of the island is simply too huge that their culture is still somewhat foreign to me. What I do know is that unlike any other native groups of Borneo, the Melanaus do not celebrate any harvest festival. In its place is Kaul, a festival to appease the spirits and a celebration of everything Melanau. It is for this festival that I have come to Sarawak.

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Top: Mee Kampuar, bottom: Daily life at a village by the river

     I braced myself for the long boat ride to the town of Mukah, but not before having a taste of Mee Kampuar, a specialty of Sibu. Satisfied and happy after the delicious lunch, our small group headed to the wharf terminal to take a boat to Dalat. To get to Dalat, you can opt for either boat or land transportations. The journey to Dalat by land will take you 2.5 hours, while going by boat will take 2 hours. Always one who loves ‘the view’, I opted for the boat because of its interesting scenery along the river.

Melanau 101

We made one stop at Retus River to see the remnants left by Tugau’s legacy. Tugau was a legendary hero of the Melanaus who instructed them to build tall houses in order to protect themselves from their headhunting neighbours, the Ibans. It was a short visit, but it set the tone of the trip as an introduction to the Melanau lifestyle and culture.

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Clockwise from left: Jerunai of a princess, Lamin Dana in Kampung Tellian Tengah, inside Sapan Puloh Museum

     Arriving in Kampung Tellian Tengah, our Iban guide gave a creepy yet fascinating explanation about jerunai. These burial poles were built for deceased Melanau aristocrats only. The body of an aristocrat would be placed on a suspended coffin about 2 metres from the ground and left hanging for a year before placing the remains inside a jerunai.  Every jerunai needs two human sacrifices: a male slave to be thrown into the hole where the pole would be erected upon and a female slave to be tied on top of the pole where she would be left starving to death. Still, not all jerunai have a morbid ending. One of the four jerunai that we saw in the village told a story of a female slave who escaped with the help of a Bruneian prince. Rumour has it she married him and even came back to the village to tell her tale. Don’t you just love happy endings? Hashtag – #manlytears.

     The village also has Lamin Dana, a replica of an olden day Melanau tall longhouse which functions as a guesthouse. We ended our village tour with a visit to Sapan Puloh Museum. Small as it was, it is still very informative as the customs of Melanau people from birth until death are interestingly displayed. One of the most interesting stories was about how they would put a weight on a baby girl’s forehead to flatten it, because a flat forehead is seen as a sign of beauty.

     We also had the chance to learn about the importance of sago to the Melanaus. Before the coming of rice, the Melanaus relied on sago as their staple food. In Kampung Medong, I felt honoured to be invited by Puan Masinah Binti Paris to witness first hand on how the Melanau ladies process their sago the traditional way. I was very impressed by the traditional oven they used, and to my surprise, Puan Masinah told me that she built it herself! At the end of our tour, she invited us to enjoy some sago and tea. We also visited Tebaloi and Kuih Sepit (both are yummy snacks made from sago) processing centres, but Puan Masinah’s homely place was the one that gave me a lasting impression.

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The traditional way of processing raw sago into sago pellets, a staple food of the Melanaus which can be enjoyed with various side dishes

Mukah Kaul Festival

Tired from the first day, I still managed to wake up early in the morning because we wanted to follow the boat procession from the very start in Kampung Tellian Tengah. This is the most important thing in the festival, to bring the offering to appease the spirits of the sea and the land. A few people were already preparing the serahang (offering basket) for ipok (spirits). Not long after, the convoy begun. The boat with serahang went ahead accompanied by traditional music, followed by other boats filled with the villagers, all happy and excited to be part of the celebration. 

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Ushering the serahang to the mouth of the river

     When the boats docked at the estuary, the serahang was placed in its designated place, chants and prayers were invoked. Even though the Melanaus consisted of Christian Melanaus, Muslim Melanaus and Pagan Melanaus (Likou), all of them were equally excited to be part of the festival. Such harmony inspires me. My faith in humanity was renewed when I was invited to join in Keman Baw Bateng, a sort of communal picnic where various kinds of traditional food spread across a long tarpaulin mat for everybody’s enjoyment. No matter how much food I’ve got on my plate, the locals kept on telling me to have more. Apparently, it’s their tradition to not bring home any leftover, so they needed help to finish everything on site. To this I happily obliged.

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Clockwise from left: Keman Baw Bateng, various stalls on the festival ground, Melanau-style beauty contest

     In the past, Keman Baw Bateng picnic would’ve concluded everything. However, Kaul has become such a big festivity that the merriment can’t just stop after the picnic. After all, you have to burn those extra calories from the picnic, right? This is where tibou comes in.

     Originally a game played all year round; today the giant swing is synonymous with Kaul. As the swinging rope reaches the top of the arc, a person jumps on it. Then another one joined him, followed by others. It goes on like that till the swing lost its momentum (or until everybody lands face first on dirt). While tibou is usually played by guys, girls are welcomed as well. Girls shouldn’t worry about guys jumping on them because when a girl plays tibou, it will be an all-girls’ affair.

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Fun with tibou

     At the festival ground, I explored the many food stalls, drinks and crafts, a stage for music performances, many kinds of dances and even a beauty pageant! We stayed long enough to do some shopping and watching some cultural performances. After hours of learning new customs and cultures, we decided to call it a day. 

     On our way out of the town, we saw more cars heading in to join in the fun. I was happy to see that people were excited and being supportive of the festival. That night before I closed my weary eyes, I said two little prayers: one for the Melanaus to have a bountiful year, another one for the wonderful tradition of Kaul to be preserved for generations ahead.

Have you been to any interesting festival lately? Tell us about it in Comment box below!

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