The Melanaus have been thought to be amongst the original settlers of Sarawak. Originally from Mukah, the Melanaus traditionally lived in tall houses. Nowadays, they have adopted a Malay lifestyle, living in kampong-type settlements. Traditionally, Melanaus were fishermen and still today, they are reputed as some of the finest boat-builders and craftsmen.
While the Melanaus are ethnically different from the Malays, their lifestyles and practices are quite similar especially in the larger towns and cities where most Melanau have adopted the Islamic faith.
The Melanaus were believed to originally worship spirits in a practice verging on paganism. Today most of them are Muslim and some are Christians, though they still celebrate traditional animist festivals such as the annual Kaul Festival.
Kaul Festival @ Pesta Kaul
The best-known festival celebrated by the Melanaus is the Kaul Festival (Pesta Kaul). Originating from the animistic beliefs traditionally held by the Melanaus, the Pesta Kaul is held annually, usually in March or early April, as a purification and thanks giving to appease the spirits of the sea, land, forests and farm.
This festival is celebrated by the Melanau people living in the coastal settlements in Mukah,Sarawak.(Borneo Island) Through the festival, the Melanaus people offer their thanks to the spirits for keeping them safe through the monsoon season, and ask for a good bounty on their fishing trips.
Today, however, the Pesta Kaul is celebrated more as a cultural festival, rather than a religious one. One of the highlights of this festival is the Tibow ,a traditional giant swing sometimes 20-feet high, from which youths would dive down to catch a swinging rope.
The Tibow, the death defying 20-foot high swing,here youths dive from a high bamboo scaffolding and catch a swinging l rope as it reaches the height of its arc. First one, then two and eventually eight young men hanging in a clump from the giant swing as it soars above the beach. Pesta Kaul is about more than giant swings ,it’s a colorful festival with a flotilla of highly decorated boats,beach games and lots of delicious Melanau food.Traditionally ,during the monsoon ,the river mouths were closed.
Villages would be palei or taboo for days before Kaul. No one was allowed to leave or enter, and people underwent purification ceremonies during Kaul.The highly decorated fishing boats move down river carrying the seraheng, a flat round basket raised on a bamboo pole. It is placed on a riverbank while the Bapa Kaul or leader of the ceremony invokes the spirits and pours water over the offerings. In the past the sick and elderly would gather by the ‘seraheng’ so that the water poured on the offerings would fall on them and wash away all evil. Today the ceremony is of social rather than religious significance.
After the ceremony there are games on the beach, displays of Melanau martial arts, dancing and eating. The festivities do not stop with sunset, they just move to the Melanau houses built on rivers and streams where there are cultural performances and non stop feasting. The attractive native dwellings give the fishing villages near Mukah, the air of a bamboo Venice and their hospitality is legendary.
After the ceremony there are games on the beach, displays of Melanau martial arts, dancing and eating. The festivities do not stop with sunset, they just move to the Melanau houses built on rivers and streams where there are cultural performances and non stop feasting. The attractive native dwellings give the fishing villages near Mukah, the air of a bamboo Venice and their hospitality is legendary.Visitors to Kaul soon find why Melanau cuisine is famed throughout Sarawak. The versatile sago has become their staple food. Guests palates are surprised at the many delicious ways sago can be prepared and with the addition of seafood, visitors enjoy the appetizing variety of tasty treats.
The festival would not be complete without its boat racing. These boat races range from dugout boats to 40-horsepower motorised boats. For the men who participate, money isn’t everything. They prize recognition and esteem far more than banknotes.
Kaul is also the right time to sample some of the Melanau delicacies. With their ancestors being fishermen, it comes as no surprise that most of their food involves fish. Umai, spicy raw fish salad marinated in lime is the Melanau signature dish. Visitors can also experience ikan salai, smoked fish which smoulders your taste buds with its tangy, smoked, yet succulent, silky flavours.
Today most of them are Catholics or Muslims and often of the two religions in thesame family live in the same house,but they still celebrate Pesta Kaul with gusto.The old animist religion may not be practiced these days but the legend live on.