Looking back on the ‘adat sumuk’ of the Bisingai

By Patricia Hului
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The Catholic Memorial and Pilgrimage Centre (CMPC) at Mount Singai.

Mount Singai is a well-known landmark among the Catholic communities in Sarawak.

Besides being the site of the humble Catholic Memorial and Pilgrimage Centre (CMPC), it is famous as the birthplace of Christianity among the Bidayuh community in Bau, thanks to the efforts of a young Roman Catholic priest from Holland.

Father Felix Westerwoudt arrived in Kuching in 1885, replacing Brother Francis Dibona, a deacon who had been called to Singapore to be ordained as a priest.

From Kuching, he went on a day’s journey to Singai through swamp and jungle, building a house near the mountain.

Fr Westerwouldt learned the Bidayuh language and culture in order to convert the Bidayuh Singai or Bisingai people there to Christianity.

At first, his efforts were largely fruitless but after a number of years, a handful of the Bidayuh boys and girls were baptised into Catholicism.

More than a hundred years later, according to the 2013 census, the Bidayuh Singai population has grown to 12,691 people and 99 per cent of them are Roman Catholic.


One of the trees which can be found up Mount Singai.

Adat sumuk

Before Catholicism came to this community, Bidayuh Singai people practiced pagan rites, called ‘adat sumuk’, which means ‘grandmother’s traditions’.

According to Mount Singai native Dr Andrew Alek Tuan, ‘adat sumuk’ was a belief system where man’s environment was believed to be governed by the divine and spirits of the land, forests, plants, animals, and of the dead, especially those of their ancestors.

They believed that practicing the adat would ensure the peace, security, good health, and prosperity of family and community. As such, they also believed it was important that these spirits were respected and appeased.

“The appeasements of the spirits are done through ‘gawia’ and its various rituals and rites,” said Andrew, a professor in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s (Unimas) Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation.

Andrew and his family were converted to Christianity in 1973. Andrew, whose mother and elder sister were former priestesses, said that there were various forms of gawia.

In gawia related to paddy farming, for example, the rites and rituals were carried out to appease the evil spirits and ward off their malice.

“It was believed that these evil spirits could not only harm them and their families but also destroy what they had done or what they had planted,” explained Andrew.

They also appealed to the benevolent spirits for assistance and protection.

Andrew explained that their appeals would be made to God (‘ieng Topa’) and ancestors (‘ieng sumuk babai’) to come and help them in their activities as well as protect them, their families and crops from harm and danger.

“Some of the gawia – gawia pinonguh, for example – are big elaborate occasions. Others done at the farm like ‘sirangan’, for instance, are simpler like ‘sikotiep’ which is shorter in duration with a simpler altar.”


Dr Andrew Alek Tuan


The many types of gawia

There are all sorts of gawia conducted throughout the process of paddy planting and farming.

“In order to find out whether it is okay or not to clear a particular piece of land for farming, the community will carry out ‘bisipa ngaruam’,” said Andrew, explaining that this ritual would be held at the ‘baruk’ where they would listen for the sound of an augury bird before sunrise.

“If the sound comes from the right side then it is okay to clear the land, if it is from the left – then it is not okay.”

Then, the community would hold ‘gawia rakang’ which is done at the cleared farmland where they would ask for forgiveness from the spirits of the land and the animals killed during the land clearing.

“It was believed that the spirits would have been angry because their dwelling place had been destroyed.”

‘Gawia oran’ would be organised at a place called ‘bori oran’ , a shed roughly 12 X 8 feet, located along the path to the farm where an altar or ‘bawal’ would be erected in front of it.

This ritual would be carried out to appease the spirit of the land, of plant and animal whose dwellings would have been destroyed when people make the path to their farm land or when they cleared the land for farming.

Part of ‘gawia oran’ is ‘kapau’ where the head of the gawia would go out to the farm land and to the farm calling the spirits to come and feast at the ‘bori oran’ where the offering would have been prepared for them.

“Before they start to farm, the community would hold ‘gawia pinuruk’ which is the blessing of the seeds that will be sown,” he explained.

“The community also called upon the spirits of the ancestors to come and help with the farming so that the paddy plant would be strong and healthy and bear much fruit in ‘sirangan’ or ‘sikotiep’.”

Held at the farm, the ritual was also meant to chase away evil spirits, pest and disease.

The planted vegetables on the farm were later given to the priest and priestess though the ceremony ‘gawia man kudos’.

According to Andrew, the purpose was to show respect, appease, and return the favour to the spirit of the land and animal for giving them permission to farm there.

Once the paddy begins to flower, the farmers would hold ‘gawia bikarak’ which was done at the farm.

Andrew said, “The aim is to call the spirit of the paddy to fill the inflorescences from where rice grains grow.”

To celebrate with all other families upon the successful completion of the paddy farming cycle, the community would then hold ‘gawia pinonguh’, an elaborate thanksgiving celebration to appease the spirit of the land animals and call all the spirits of the paddy to come and congregate in their storage bins.

“There is also gawia bandi, a house-warming celebration for a new longhouse to call upon the spirit of ancestors to come to the feast and bless the occupants so that they have many healthy children, live prosperously and for their farming to have bountiful harvest.”

They also had ‘gawia pimisah’ which is done only if the community, village and land faced many difficulties such as disease epidemic and a successively poor harvest.

Meanwhile,  ‘gawia katang’ is held to appease the spirits of the skulls of their enemies usually carried out one year after they do ‘gawia pimisah’ to chase away evil spirits.

Adat sumuk today

Nowadays, adat sumuk is only being done as gimmicks for tourists, without the proper chanting.

For Andrew, these gawia should be conducted properly, saying “If the ritual is carried out half-heartedly, practitioners believe the spirits would curse them instead.”

Andrew stated that there were only a few photographs of the rituals in existence.

“It is definitely about time to sit down and document about adat sumuk.”

Andrew was speaking at a talk held on Aug 13 organised by the Sarawak Heritage Society, an NGO committed to raising awareness in the community on the preservation of Sarawak’s culture and heritage.


The route heading down from Mount Singai.


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