Celebrating the Kaul festival

By Jude Toyat

IN THE PAST, the Melanau called themselves ‘a-likou’ meaning ‘people of the river’ before they gradually became known as Melanau.


The Melanau make up the 5th largest ethnic group in Sarawak (after the Ibans, Chinese, Malays, and Bidayuh). Their settlements are located in the coastal areas from Kuala Rejang up to Miri and now they still live in the outskirts of major rivers such as Rejang, Paloh, Belawai, Batang Lassa, Igan, Oya, Mukah, Balingian, Tatau, Bintulu and Miri, where most of them are Muslims, Christians as well as Pagan, better known as Melanau Likou (not embracing any religion).


To know more about Kaul, we need to understand traditional Melanau beliefs. Being animistic, especially among the Melanau Likou, they believe in the existence of supernatural powers and guardian spirits and believe that all creations of God have spirits, souls or guardians.


One of the things that gave rise to Kaul in the past was the rise of cholera, chickenpox and leprosy, which was very common in those days but had no cure. The only access to healthcare then was the Shaman, different from today where we turn to doctors and healthcare specialists. Apart from these epidemics, other calamities such as devastating floods, landslides, droughts and the occurrences of accidents and high mortality also gave rise to the need for Kaul.


As a matter of fact, Kaul was first celebrated as early as 400 years ago (Jeniri Amir & Awang Azman 2000) by the Melanau Likou in Mukah after outbreaks of chickenpox (Puhou Dabou) and cholera (Putak Manek) which were contagious and deadly until “a menului a tenului”, a term referring to those who sent the corpses of those who died from disease to be buried, eventually died from infection as well.


In the past, Kaul was celebrated by the Melanau Likou during the month of ‘Pengejin’ or Month of the Spirits (March according to the Gregorian calendar, 30 days) and in 1998, Kaul was inserted into the tourism calendar and is now celebrated as a festival held at the end of April each year.


Kaul was then seen as a “cleansing” ceremony, a pagan thanksgiving for bountiful fishing and looked upon as a religious ceremony to appease the spirits (Ipok) of the sea, land, forest and farm. It is a ritual of purification and thanksgiving as well as one of propitiation for good fortune (Diana Rose 1999).


Although a majority of the Melanau community are Muslims and Christians today, the tradition of Kaul still remains. The present day Kaul, however, has become more of a social-cultural festival rather than a religious ceremony, with focus more on celebrating prosperity and harmony among the Melanau, appreciating their unique culture and traditions, as well as a time where families meet up for their annual reunion.


Preparation before Kaul


Before the Kaul festival, the Kaul priest or better known as ‘Bapak Kaul’ will be appointed. This is usually done by the Mukah District Office.


Bapak Kaul is the head of ceremonies and considered very important in the Kaul festival since he is the one responsible for ensuring the ceremony runs according to the rules and customs passed down through many generations.


Bapak Kaul, as the name suggests, must be male, someone who is recognised and highly respected in the community, and knowledgeable about Melanau customs and traditions. He is an intermediary between the real world and the supernatural world of the Ipok.


Bapak Kaul is responsible for persuading, pleading with the spirits and Ipok, dispelling evil and calamities that may befall, as well as to ensure compliance with taboos and punish those who refuse to abide by the rules.


Bapak Kaul becomes the person the local community depends on, especially in the olden days since their prayers will determine their fate and livelihood.


Bapak Kaul performing the ritual at Teguk Kala Dana.

Bapak Kaul performing the ritual at Teguk Kala Dana.


After a Bapak Kaul has been appointed, a notice on the festival will be issued by performing the beating of small gongs near rivers to announce the date on which Kaul will be held. The first will be the early notice seven days before the festival, and the other one will be three days before the festival.


Seraheng (pronounced as Serahang), an offertory basket made of bamboo, tedieng, pine, young nipah leaves, iseng leaves and tegoh leaves mounted on a bamboo pole and traditionally crafted by the Melanau women will also be made before the festival.


Seraheng, an offertory basket mounted on a bamboo pole filled with local kueh meant to appease the spirits.

Seraheng, an offertory basket mounted on a bamboo pole filled with local kueh meant to appease the spirits.


The motifs on the Seraheng should be a reflection of the belief system of the Melanaus and must relate to Ipok. The motifs on the Seraheng symbolise the sea, land, and air Ipok, and the symbols indicate the number of layers there are in the world. According to the old belief system, the world is made up of seven layers on top and seven on the bottom.


The components of a Seraheng need to be complete to avoid angering the Ipok which can cause those who built it to have bad luck and only experienced people can lead the work on making the Seraheng.


Seraheng is supposed to remove bad luck and prevent disaster as well as disease. Its contents and the rituals surrounding it are said to be “commanded in a dream” to the Shaman. It is an important ritual because it is an offering to the spirits of old Melanau belief for prosperity, harmony as well as continued sustenance.


In the olden days, specific food for spirits and humans were prepared for the occasion by every household. On the day of Kaul, Bertih (a kind of popcorn made of paddy), yellow glutinous rice, Kuih Penyarem, Pais, Ketupat, cigarettes made of nipah leaves (better known as Rokok Apong), and betel nuts would be placed appropriately in the Seraheng as an offering to the spirits.


Apart from the Seraheng, decorated boats as well as traditional musical instruments including the ensembles of small gongs (gulingtangan) will also be prepared as to be played on the day of Kaul.


Activities during Kaul


Kaul is usually held in Mukah, the heartland of the Melanau community, and begins with a procession of decorated fishing boats to signify the safe return of the fishermen.


The procession of the Seraheng will usually start from Kampung Tellian all the way through Batang Mukah to “Tugek Kala Dana” (Kaul site) where the Seraheng will be embedded by Bapak Kaul with reciting of prayers and mantras.


The procession of decorated boats bringing the Seraheng upriver towards the river mouth where it will be embedded into the ground.

The procession of decorated boats bringing the Seraheng upriver towards the river mouth where it will be embedded into the ground.


After a session of chants and incantations, the Seraheng is brought in a boat procession upriver towards the river mouth. A gong orchestra accompanying the decorated boats will perform accordingly with the ritual leader’s chants. The Bapak Kaul would then invite the spirits to join the villagers in a meal. Later on, the Seraheng carried by the boat procession will be planted on the riverbank and offerings placed on the ground next to it. People will also gather close to the Seraheng hoping to ‘wash away’ their misfortunes.


There are supposed to be seven types of foods which are normally offered and placed inside ‘plates’ made from nipah leaves. The reason behind the amount is that they believe that there are seven guardian spirits. All the items offered are what the traditional Melanau usually consume in their daily lives, which includes the cigarettes which they believe the spirits also take.


Seraheng cannot just be placed anywhere. The Shaman has the role of determining the assigned areas the Seraheng needs to be placed, according to the message received in their dreams from the spirits. The Shaman plays a very important role even today.


A gathering of people at the festival enjoying a grand feast served with traditional Melanau food.

A gathering of people at the festival enjoying a grand feast served with traditional Melanau food.


Food brought from all the households for the ceremony will be served to everyone in a grand feast by the river mouth. Most Melanaus still prefer to have their meals  on a mat on the sand rather than sitting on chairs or food being placed on tables.


Leftovers  left at the Seraheng are forbidden to be taken back as it is for the spirits who have guarded them and provided for them all their lives. It is believed that those who remove the food will be cursed.


Tibou, a Kaul game


Tibou, a gigantic swing popular among the Melanau youths.

Tibou, a game with a gigantic swing popular among the Melanau youths.


In the distant past, the grand feast would have concluded everything. However, today, Kaul has developed into such a big celebration that the cheerfulness can’t just stop after the picnic. This is where the ‘tibou’ comes in.


Tibou, a game which requires a high degree of bravery and agility has now become the centre of attention in every Kaul festival. There are basically two types of Tibou, namely, Tibou Pokok (with the rattan loop at the end of the swing) and Tibou Bulieng (with a round piece of wood at the end of the swing).


Both types of Tibou utilises wai tibou (rattan tibou) as the main swing rigged between two poles of about 10 meters tall and secured by a cross-beam at the apex. The tibou structure resembles the letter “A” and is secured by straps in all its four corners. A ladder between 9 to 15 tukad (steps) is rigged in the direction of the main swing from which the players will leap.


Tibou is usually pitched at the tibou playing field (laman pisak tibou) along with the recital of incantation and a ritual when it is being set up. Taboos are strictly observed during this period to appease the spirit of the tibou (ipok tibou) to avoid any mishaps when the game is played.


While tibou is played popularly as a daunting test for single men, mainly to attract the attention of young ladies and part of the matchmaking feast, it is actually meant to seek for bounty harvest of particularly wild fruits such as Buwak Pelangaso, Buwak Ja’it, Buwak Bulas, Buwak Ta’an, Buwak Pilau, etc, and Lelamaih (caterpillar from a Nyatuh tree) from the guardian of the forest by the Melanau Likou.


Mukah Kaul Festival 2014


Mengalai, a unique one-of-a-kind form of martial art performed by the Melanau community.

Mengalai, a unique one-of-a-kind form of martial art performed by the Melanau community.


Apart from the death-defying tibou, many activities are usually organised during Kaul which includes beach games and, of course, lots of delicious Melanau food. The Kaul Festival also becomes a platform to show off aspects of Melanau culture including costumes, handicrafts, traditional dance, games as well as local exotic foods such as the Tebaloi, Si’et, Umai and Sago.


Another activity held during Kaul is the Mengalai, a Melanau martial art. The beauty of Mengalai lies in its movements which are very graceful, unlike other types of martial arts which can be very vigorous.


Mengalai is performed to welcome dignitaries, and it is also one of the activities that are carried out while having their feast.


Today, Kaul has been put on the Sarawak Tourism’s Calendar of Events celebrated by the people in Sarawak thus making it to be one of the attractions for the state.


Kaul Festival has evolved into a festival for all races. People from all over Sarawak come to take part, especially in the ‘Umai Town’ of Mukah and its surrounding areas.


This year, Mukah Kaul Festival, the mother of all Kauls in the Mukah Division will be held from Apr 25 to 30 from 9am to 11pm at Kaul Site, considered to be the best venue to showcase the richness of the Melanau’s ethnic cultural heritage.


Organised by the Federation of Sarawak Melanau Association (PPMS), the festival will showcase the rich culture, arts and heritage of the Melanau community.
In conjunction with 50 years of Sarawak’s independence in Malaysia, this year’s festival will focus on the vast transformation of Mukah over the past 50 years.




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