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Leisure - People

The Melanau of Sarawak

By Catharine Goh


Processing sago pearls at the communal bake house.

The conical 'terendak' sunhat is still very popular.

A Melanau man donning the 'Baban' attire during special occasions. - Photos: Catharine Goh

Melanau youths performing the 'Alu Alu' traditional dance.

KUCHING - Long distinguished from other Borneo tribes because of their staple diet of sago, the Melanau in Sarawak now make up almost six percent of the state's two million population.

Besides being sago eaters, they are also synonymous with "umai" their marinated raw fish dish, which is somewhat similar to the Japanese sushi.

Many present-day Melanau are either Christians or Muslims, having abandoned the original religion called Liko which meant "people of the river".

Considered by anthropologists to be among the original settlers of Sarawak, their culture can traced to the Hindu influence of the Majapahit empire in the Malay archipelago.

According to a Melanau community leader, Ali Suhaili, their culture has survived the passage of time.

This is reflected in our traditional attire known as "baban" and the conical sunhat called "terendak", which is still very popular, he revealed.

He said the traditional "Alu Alu" dance is another way to preserve their culture for posterity while traditional festivals like the Kaul is still being celebrated.

Incorporated into the Sarawak Tourism Calendar, the colourful Kaul is a traditional purification and thanks-giving ceremony celebrated in the second weekend of April every year.

The 'tibou', a traditional giant swing and ethnic games like Melanau martial arts are usually played during such occasions.

In fact legend has it that the name "Melanau" was given to the inhabitants of the coastal swamp flats and river banks of Central Sarawak by one of the former Sultans of Brunei.

Apart from being well-known as sago farmers, they are regarded as fine boat-builders and fishermen.

Their economy is supplemented by padi, rubber and sago palm cultivation.

In their heartland of Mukah, better known as the 'Cradle of Melanau civilisation', the Melanau have abandoned living in their traditional tall houses and now favour coastal kampung-style villages, having adopted a Malay life-style.

The Melanau differ ethnically from the Sarawak Malays, but their dialects, which are distinct from Malay, do not differ sufficiently to constitute a barrier to communication.

Before their conservation to Christianity and Islam, the Liko regarded life and the environment as one.

Followers worship the spiritual world, including the superior tou spirits and the lesser belum spirits that cause sickness.

The pagan Melanau use effigies of sickness spirits when practising healing.

The healing are called berbayoh and berayun.

Source: Borneo Bulletin Weekend

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