Gods and legends behind the Orang Ulu tree of life

By Patricia Hului


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Lah Jau Uyo

I[/dropcap}n the Western world, the tree of life has been a metaphor, famously used by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to depict the relationships between both living and extinct organisms and the context of his theory of evolution.

“The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree,” Darwin said in his 1859 book.

Here in Sarawak, the art depictions for the tree of life has long been associated with Orang Ulu culture.

But the stories behind the tree of life is not known to many.

Independent researcher and retired geologist, Lah Jau Uyo, has been collecting and researching his own information on Kayan culture since the 1980s.

In 1998, he was the founding president of the Sarawak Kayan Association and also assisted in forming Federation of Ethnic Orang Ulu Association of Malaysia (FORUM) in 2007.

Lah was recently invited to speak during Forum on the Tree of Life on Jan 30 held in conjunction of Pohon Budi – The Tree of Life Exhibition.

He started with the fact that there are 26 Orang Ulu groups in Sarawak: Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Lun Bawang, Bisaya, Penan, Saban, Lakiput and Berawan, who represent over 90 per cent of Orang Ulu people.

Despite their being under the same umbrella term, however, he explained that the there are clear differences on the Orang Ulu concept of the Tree of Life between all these ethnic groups.

“Some of us are even former enemies. Then we come into question on how different or similar we are in terms of our cultures, practices and traditions.”

Lah also stated there are some differences between Kayan subgroups especially between Baram Kayans and Belaga or Balui Kayans adding that there was a tussle over which is more original.

“What I say about Orang Ulu tree of life may not be true for all Orang Ulu groups or to all Kayan subgroups,” he said, clarifying that the Tree of Life concept applied only to Baram Kayans especially Kayan Uma Pu where Lah is originally from but it may be true to the other Kayan subgroups too.

His explanation of ‘tree of life’ is based on available literature and oral tradition collected in 1987 for the paper ‘Kayan of Sarawak’ published in the Sarawak Museum Journal.

In preparing for his talk, Lah asked his Kayan friends whether they knew of the tree of life in their culture, all of whom cited ‘kayo’ urip’, which literally translated, means tree of life.

It is a fast growing plant where the leaves are used for wrapping rice and fruit used as bait for catching mouse deer.

“The wood makes excellent firewood. But is this the tree of life mentioned in our oral tradition?”


Hose and McDougall’s version

He then cited Charles Hose and William McDougall’s collected version of The Tree of Life published in ‘The Pagans Life of Borneo’ (1912).

“In the beginning, there was a barren rock on which rain fell and moss grew and soils formed from the dung beetle.”

Then a parang handle dropped from the sun and became a kayo’ aya’ (big tree).

A creeper dropped from the moon and got caught in the branch of kayo’ aya’.

The wind pushed the creeper to and fro striking the kayo’ aya’ again and again, impregnating it.

From this union, came a male named Kaluban Gai and female Kalubi Angai.

These two gave birth to Pengok Ngai and Ketirah Murei.

Ketirah Murei then gave birth to Batang Utah Tatai who married Ajai Avai.

Their descendents were believed to be Sijau Laho, Oding Lahang, Pabalan, Pliban and Tokong.

According to this legend, the Kayan and Kenyah peoples were descended from Oding Lahang and the Sebop and Punans were descendents of Tokong.

It was also believed that the fallen leaves from kayo’aya’ became various birds and insects, fallen fruits became the wild animals and resins became chickens and pigs.


Jok Emang’s version

According to an oral tradition recorded from Jok Emang, a Kayan elder back in the 1980s, the Gods lived in the sky exactly as humans did in the beginning.

“One day, Doh Ketirah Merel was making a rope on a drying platform. Feeling lonesome, she asked her husband Batang Utah Titei to come to lie down beside her.”

Then came the interesting part; the hot sun forced him to shift his position and some of his feces dropped from his anus.

According to this oral tradition, Batang Utah Titei’s feces became the earth below from which the kayo’ ayo’ grew.

Doh Ketirah Murei threw away the rope and it got caught on the branch of kayo’ aya’ with one end dangling down.

It was believed the wind blew and moved the rope to and fro striking the kayo’ ayo’ impregnating it.

The tree gave birth to the first human named Lake Ajai Kuwai.

Among the descendents of Lake Ajai  Kuwai were Lake Damuh, Lake Damuh, Lake Emang Megen, Lake Juk To, Lake Ladah, Lake Wan Jau, Jau Wan, Anyi Jau, Ngau Anyi aka Lake’ Nyipa’ (died 1904), Jok Ngau aka Lake Baya (died 1938) and Ajang Jok aka Penghului’ Akam Ajang (died 1990).


Other Orang Ulu groups’ versions

Lah also gave other orang Ulu groups’ version of the story.

The Kenyah version of the legend stated there were two creepers striking one another.

“Instead of a creeper striking a kayo’ aya’ as believed in the Kayan oral tradition.”

As for the Sebop and Punan communities, their claims to have been descended from Tokong as mentioned by Hose and McDougall, implied they also had a kayo’ aya’ in their legends.

“But there was no information regarding this about Tree of Life from the Lun Bawang, Kelabit, Bisaya or Saban communities.”


Tree of Life means Kayo’ Aya’

Lah said, although the Tree of Life means kayo’ urip, it is actually referring to kayo’ aya’.

Kayo’ aya’ is where life on earth begins; the first human being, the first wild animals, the first insects and also the first pig and chicken.

“Kayo’ aya’ originated in the spiritual world and it is the origin of life in the physical world,” he concluded.

Personally, Lah shared he had never seen kayo’ aya’ depictions in a Kayan longhouse.

“I first saw one at Long San but it may have been influenced by Christian beliefs.”

Other famous tree of life paintings are found at the Sarawak Museum.

Lah now is working on a Kayan epic which he expects to publish sometime this year.


Artwork inspired by the late Tusau Padan’s painting of Tree of Life.


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