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In Sarawak, Melanau Community Still Celebrates Ancient Feast for the Spirits

A young man stands at the front of his family’s decorated boat. This boat is one of over 50 boats making their way down the Tellian River for Kaul.

This article is originally published in the travel360 magazine, special thanks to Diana Rose of Lamin Dana Cultural Boutique Lodge and the Sarawak Tourism Board for their invaluable support in producing this story.

With the exception of a few stars that freckle the sky, Kampung Tellian (Tellian Village) in the division of Mukah is draped in sheer darkness.

With 150km between the village and Sibu city, it’s no wonder why the only other light in this area seems to be coming from the wooden dwellings resting along the banks of the Tellian River.

It is a still, stuffy night – so still that even the slightest breeze can’t stir whispers from the leaves of the towering coconut and mangrove trees that surround the village.

A lone villager sails past a house on stilts – a typical dwelling – in Kampung Tellian. Image: Chew Win Win

Yet, I wait patiently on the wide deck of my homestay – Lamin Dana Cultural Boutique Lodge – for an announcement. I am not alone; kids and adults alike are all out on the porch of their homes, riddled with anticipation.

Then, I see it – a sampan carrying two men with torchlights in hand slowly cuts through the waters of the meandering river.

One man is beating a small gong, and as he approaches, the clanging of the gong drowns out the chorus of chirping crickets around. The other, at the bow of the boat stands up, and with a booming bark utters a sentence in Melanau that echoes in the quiet of the night.

“That’s the tukang gual. He’s the person chosen by the village heads to inform both the villagers and beings of the spiritual world that the Kaul ceremony will take place day after tomorrow at 7.00am,” explains Diana Rose, Melanau heritage enthusiast and owner of Lamin Dana.

“This is the announcement we’ve been waiting for.”

People of the River

Sampans are the main mode of transportation for many of Kampung Tellian’s residents. Image: Albert Wong

The Melanau are one of Borneo’s earliest peoples, with a history spanning a thousand years. Boasting their own kingdom, dialects, customs and traditions, they established many settlements along the tributaries of the Rajang River and coastal areas of Central Sarawak.

Also known as a-likao (river people), the Melanau are highly skilled craftsmen, expert sago producers and fishermen who, even in ancient times, possessed diplomatic finesse – engaging with old-world empires and reducing conflicts with other early tribal settlers by means of trading.

Long before Islam was introduced in Sarawak and white men in white robes spread Christianity in the interiors, the Melanau practised paganism with spiritual beliefs deeply rooted to the land they inhabited and relied on.

New religious teachings may have buried certain Melanau pagan practices over the millennia, but Kaul isn’t one of them.

Celebrated in the first month of the traditional Melanau calendar or Pengejin (Month of Spirits), Kaul coincides with the end of the northeast monsoon season between March and April of the Gregorian calendar.

Meaning ‘Coming Together’ in Melanau, Kaul is an ancient thanksgiving ceremony to appease the ipok (spirits) of the sea, sky, land, rivers and forest.

Kaul also has different roots for the Melanau in other parts of Mukah, such as Dalat and Oya. But in Kampung Tellian, where Kaul celebrations are considered ‘The Mother of all Kauls’ , the sacrificial act stems from the belief that the offerings will shield the community from diseases and disasters, while blessing them with bountiful harvests.

Caught in the excitement of welcoming Kaul, a villager dons a mask made to represent the ‘ipok’ (spirits). The mask is carved from the bark of the Rumbia palm. Image: Chew Win Win

Weaving Tradition

Catherine Binti Augustine Anyus weaves the decorative items for the ‘seraheng’ out of nipa leaves. Image: Chew Win Win

Daybreak paints a different picture of Kampung Tellian – the cradle of Melanau civilisation. Clouds float across blue skies, rows of sago logs bob on the water and colourful wooden houses appear mirrored in the jet black waters of the Tellian River, which is criss-crossed by wooden bridges.

“Let’s go,” Diana says, interrupting my appreciation of the dreamlike scene while handing me a life jacket.

We’re heading to the home of Catherine Binti Augustine Anyus whose family is in charge of making the most important element of the Kaul ceremony – the seraheng, a ceremonial basket that carries the offerings for the spirits.

As Diana points out, weaving the seraheng takes skill and knowledge – something the older generations of Melanau have successfully passed on to the younger ones through the many cultural workshops held at Lamin Dana.

Made from young nipa and fan palm leaves, the seraheng has a rounded basket in the middle, and is mounted on a seven-foot bamboo pole.

For weeks, Catherine and her family have been weaving the essential ornaments that decorate the seraheng – seven coloured flags, seven long stalks of intricately braided nipa leaves and a host of birds, flowers and animal symbols woven into geometrical patterns.

These ornaments for the ‘seraheng’ are woven from nipa leaves and represent the animal kingdom. Image: Chew Win Win

“The Melanau believe that the universe comprises seven layers – three in the upper world and three in the underworld. We are in the layer between both worlds, the Middle World,” Diana reveals.

Journey to the Feast

A young man stands at the front of his family’s decorated boat. This boat is one of over 50 boats making their way down the Tellian River for Kaul. Image: Chew Win Win

By 6.00am, pink and gold streaks stretch across the horizon. It’s a little too early for a late bird like me, but the excitement in the air is infectious.

Diana is already up; along with neighbours dressed in their traditional finery of black satin and crimson and gold songket (traditional brocade fabric), Diana puts the finishing touches of nipa leaves and state flags on her boat.

Some families are busy loading their boats with goodies for the communal picnic at Tapak Tugek, Taman Kala Dana – a site at the river mouth built specially for Kaul celebrations.

“My first Kaul was when I was 10,” Diana recalls. “As kids, we looked forward to this mass picnic by the sea. But, of course, we were taught the dos and don’ts.”

One of the first taboos is that no one is allowed to cross in front of the main boat carrying the seraheng. “Even till my late grandfather’s time in the 1900s, it was a crime punishable by death!”

Within minutes, the main boat appears. The seraheng stands in the middle of the main vessel, guarded by an entourage of village heads, elders, Bapak Kaul (Master of Kaul ceremony) and two people sporting masks symbolising the ipok.

Our boatman waits for the main boat to pass us before revving the boat engine to start the hour-long ride.

I hardly realise how long the journey is with such beautiful sights and sounds all around – elderly women clinging to their terendak (traditional Melanau conical hat) as they zoom past us in smaller boats and young men playing traditional instruments in another, villagers in their home waving at us and the shrill cries of the swiftlets from the many bird’s nest farms along the river.

It’s almost overwhelming, especially when the boat reaches the river mouth and I see more than 50 decorated boats behind me, their flags billowing in the breeze.

Bountiful Blessings

Kaul concludes with a communal picnic, where each family brings traditional Melanau delicacies to be shared with revellers. Image: Chew Win Win

When the winds of the South China Sea howl their greeting, I know I’ve reached the ceremonial grounds. The Bapak Kaul, the seraheng in hand, is welcomed with the melodic chiming of gongs as he leads the crowd to a wide sandy space.

The other village heads cradle offerings – yellow glutinous rice, rice pops, betel nut, nipa leaf cigarettes, sago and a traditional cake made with palm sugar called penyaram – which are placed in the seraheng.

The crowd gathers around as the Bapak Kaul plants the seraheng. Some of the village heads then place candles on the ground around the seraheng, and the Bapak Kaul begins to chant mantras in both contemporary and archaic Melanau dialects, invoking the spirits to shower blessings upon the community while inviting the ipok to partake in the feast.

The Bapak Kaul (left) and village heads plant the ‘seraheng’ in the ground at Taman Kala Dana. Image: Chew Win Win

At the end of the half hour ceremony, the villagers quickly set out mats on the ground, laying out a smorgasbord of Melanau staples, from traditional cakes made from palm sugar such as penyaram and the conical-shapped kuih selorot, to sago pellets, tetebih (a cake made form sago flour) and umai (raw fish with lime, shallots and chilies).

“Now, we eat,” Diana says with a smile, waiting for the Bapak Kaul to take the first bite. “Just don’t take any unfinished food home,” Diana warns of another taboo.

“My late mum’s classmate once took home food from the seraheng basket – she started walking funny and was believed to be possessed. We believe that the food left behind is for the ipok.”

While Diana regales me with more tales of the Melanau’s beliefs, I glance at the crowd around us. It’s deeply comforting, watching so many people of different backgrounds sitting together and celebrating an ancient ritual in this modern era.

If the Melanau continue to keep these traditions alive, I don’t doubt those clanging gongs will be heard for another thousand years to come.

Swing with Spirits

During Kaul, the children in Kampung Tellian take on the challenge of swinging on the ‘tibow’. Image: Albert Wong

Tibow is a giant swing that is only erected during Kaul. Reaching heights of over 6m, the inverted ‘V’ frame structure is made out of bamboo and features a swinging rattan rope hanging from the middle.

To play on the tibow, daredevils first climb a wooden ladder, then, leap onto the suspended rope.

The aim of this fun sport is to get as many people on the rattan rope at one time without touching the ground. In the old days, mantras were chanted to invoke the protection of the ipok to keep the structure safe and sturdy.

Today, however, the game is more a symbol of unity among the Melanau.

Heritage Home

Built in the hope of reviving the rich culture of the Melanau people, Lamin Dana Cultural Boutique Lodge, a homestay cum cultural centre, is modeled after the traditional Melanau tall house and sits in the picturesque grounds of Kampung Tellian in Mukah.

Opened in 1999 by former journalist Diana Rose, the lodge has been the go-to place for travellers seeking an authentic slice of Melanau village life while indulging in the community’s cultural and culinary heritage.

Guests can stay in any of the six rooms overlooking the meandering Tellian River and feast at the lodge’s dining area on the deck, where Diana and her crew plate up home-cooked Melanau food.

Tours organised by the lodge also include trips around the village to view ancient burial sites and traditional sago production, and visits to the local market.

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Written by Kerry-Ann Augustin

Kerry-Ann is a journalist who has dabbled in all forms of writing across the board, from print and digital media to broadcasting. When she is not working (which is almost never) she can be found at home making prank calls or playing the air guitar. Because she can’t play a real one.

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