Sunday, May 18, 2008


The Melanau Calendar (Bulan Melanau)

The Melanau used a lunar-based calendar where Bulan Pengejin, the first month of the year starts in March. During this month, the Melanau celebrate the Kawul (Kaul) Festival, which constitutes both a thanksgiving for a bountiful year past and a prayer for a bountiful year ahead.

The Melanau calendar comprises 12 months, each month consisting of 30 days. The Melanau calendar is guided by the constellations and the way of nature, as is that of their guardian spirits (‘gods’?). Each month is named after the occurrences during the specific month or after events that is supposed to have occurred during that particular month according to legend.The rise and fall of the sun, the moon and the stars determines their time for planting and harvesting, fishing and building as well as other movements, such as travel, marriages and the like.
The 12 months are, namely:

Bulan Pengejin (The Month of the Spirits)

This month coincides with the Gregorian month of March. During this month, it is windy and the rain comes down in light showers in the beginning. The wind will gradually become stronger and the sun will move northerly and the moon will replace the original location of the sun. Fish will be plentiful in the forest and the jungle as they come out to search for food to be eaten and to be stored. After that, they will hide again in their holes. This marks the beginning of the year. This is a time when it is difficult for the Melanau to go out to work because of the strong wind, thus they will spend their time cleaning the tools and equipment of their trades. This is the time that they mark as the beginning of the year, the first month of Pengejin. At the end of this month, they will purify themselves and call the fish out from their lairs, from the beaches and the river mouths. This ceremony is called “KAWULL” by the Melanau. During this ceremony, they would construct the huge swing called “TIBOU” and sing the tibou mantra during its construction, seeking the blessings of their guardian ‘gods’ for plentiful flowers, bountiful harvests of fruits and that there be plentiful fish in the sea for them and that illness and afflictions be removed and all evil to be return to their own place. They will also send offerings called "SERAHENG" out to the sea to appease them and invite them to partake their feast with them. After the feast, all food and drink is left by the shore for the guardians and spirits to take with them. None is to be taken back for it it the feast for the spirits and guardians.

Bulan Pengelawah Ume’(The Month of the Lesser Clear Water)

This month coincides with the month of April. During this month, it is said all the fish will come down to the sea as the sea will turn a greenish hue which is a call from the sea to the fish that it is time for them to surface. This marks the second month. For the Melanau, this is the time for the fishermen to go to the sea to catch fish. This marks the first fishing season for them.(During olden times, the Melanau fishermen are known for their ‘barong panau’, a fishing sailboat which could go out to sea for weeks on end. These boats also double as traveling boats as well as for trading and fishing. Today, the ‘barong panau’ is extinct as there are none left skilled enough to build one. A picture of one can be found on one of the Brooke era postage stamp.)

Bulan Pengelawah Ayeng (The month of the Greater Clear Water)

This month coincides with the month of May. The emerald greenish hue reaches the shore. This marks the third month. This is a time for the Melanau fishermen to catch as much fish to send home as well as store their catch. This is the peak of fishing season. Towards the end of this month, the sea will turn to greenish clear hue and the sea floor will be quite visible from the surface. And as such it will be difficult to trap the fish in their nets or catch them with their hooks as the fish is said to be able to see through the fishermen intent during this time. This marks the end of the first fishing season for them and the beginning of the fourth month, when the winds and rain will hinder all the fishing activities of the people.

Bulan Paka Ume’ (The Month of the Rise of the Lesser Stars)

This month coincides with the month of June. The Seven Sisters appear in the skies. The West Wind blows strong to arrange the stars in the sky. This marks the fourth month. It is time for the Melanau to go to the jungle/forest and begin their work for the planting season. They will start to cut the big trees and vines as well as plant their crops. The farmers will continue their jungle clearing work until the beginning of the next month, Bulan Paka Ayeng (July).

Bulan Paka Ayeng (The Month of the Rise of the Greater Stars)

This month coincides with July. The Seven Sisters rise high in the sky and the Three Stars appear lower in the sky. The wind is of gale force. This marks the fifth month. All farming and fishing activities ceases totally for the whole of this month as it is not possible for them to go out to the jungle or to sea due to the strong winds. This will last until the month of Pelepa’ (August) or the sixth month.

Bulan Pelepa’ (Month of Plentiful)

This month coincides with the month of August. The Three Star takes over from the Seven Sisters and rise high in the sky. The wind drops and the sea is calm. The fish begin to come out and play. This marks the sixth month. It is time for the second fishing season where the catch will be bountiful and the fishermen will enjoy fishing and will have plenty of fish to prepare for the forthcoming monsoon season (suloh), which will be long and when no work can be done due to the wind and heavy rain. This plentiful fishing season will last until the beginning of Bulan Pegalan (September).

Bulan Pegalan (Month of the North Star)

This month coincides with the month of September. The sea will be very calm but there will be little fish to catch as it is the time for the fish to spawn. This month is called the month of Pegalan because this is the time when the Pegalan (North) Star is high in the sky at the hour of six at eventide. This marks the seventh month. Legend has it that this is the month when the Melanau finds it difficult to swallow their saliva i.e. difficult to look for food. During this month, the Melanau would avoid getting married at all cost as the marriage would be cursed in that they will find it difficult to make a living.

Bulan Suwah (The Month of the Waves)

This month coincides with the month of October. During this month, the ground will seem to grow and rise like waves. This marks the eighth month. According to Melanau belief, this is caused by the fish swimming back to the ocean and their fins appear to be like waves swimming out. This is the third and final fishing season for the year for the Melanau. This is also the time for the Melanau to start planting rice and sago palm as well as other crops. In Melanau tradition, they say that such as the earth grows well so will the crops that they plant.

Bulan Pidai (The Month of the Discoloured Skies)

This month coincides with the month of November. This is the beginning of the monsoon season (suloh). Strong winds begin to blow, shifting the location of the sun and the moon. The Melanau calls it the South East Moon (Bulan Tenggara). This marks the ninth month. It is the end of the fishing season for the Melanau. It is the last time that the fishermen can go out to sea for the year and only the brave would dare venture out stealthily to fish. In the morning, the sea will be calm, but by afternoon, waves will be at its biggest, thus any fishermen who dare venture out will have to return before afternoon.

Bulan Penangaih (The Month of Revival)

This month coincides with the month of December. It is a time when the rains come to allow the flowers to blossom and the fruits to bear in the jungle and the forest. This marks the tenth month.

Bulan Pemalei (The Month of Taboo)

This month coincides with the month of January. Legend has it that in ancient times, a great shaman was killed by his wife and his head was chopped off. However, the head disappeared from the house and it became the Taboo Star. This month is named the month of the killing of the great shaman of ancient times. This marks the eleventh month. All activities of the Melanau is tabooed during this month. Marriage is not allowed and so are the activities of livelihood, such as fishing, planting, house construction and everything else. This month is regarded as a month of ill fortune by the Melanau.

Bulan Pengesiseng (The Month of the Gills)

This month coincides with the month of February. The strong wind brings heavy rain and blows the flowers off from the trees as well as uproots the trees. The flood waters bring them to the sea. Logs floating in the sea are pushed ashore by huge waves to the beaches. The strong wind blows the branches and fronds of the coconut and sago palms as well as the leaves of the other trees making them open up to look just like the gills of the fish. As such, this month of strong winds and rain is so named. This marks the end of the year for the Melanau.

Monday, March 24, 2008

KAUL -A thanksgiving and a prayer

Kaul - celebrated in the Melanau month of Pengejin to thank the Ipo' (spirits/guardians) for a bountiful year past and a prayer for a good year ahead. The Melanaus belief is animistic and they believe that the world is protected and guarded by the various spirits, such as Ipo' Guun (the guardian of the jungle), Ipo Talun (forest), Ipo' Sungai (rivers), Ipo' Pangai (wind), Ipo' Daat (sea), etc. During this time, they would honour them for what they were given for the year and ask them for their good will for the coming year. They would sing their praises and thank them for the harvest given to them in the past and pray that they would grant them protection and give them a bountiful harvest in the year to come. The Father of the Kaul (Bapa Kaul) would sing them mantras to that effect to start the Kaul(KAWUL). Then they would celebrate them in a grand feast where all the people would bring with them food and drink to eat at a huge picnic by the river mouth and the beaches. They would build huge swings or 'tibou' for them to play with the spirits. They would also send offerings in the form of 'seraheng', an arrangement created with the leaves of the sago palm, the staple food of the Melanau. They would play all sorts of games on the beach during the for the whole day. They would leave whatever food that is left on the beaches and the river mouth for the spirits to feast upon at the end of the day when the festival is done for the day. It is taboo to bring the food back as it is for them who have guarded them and provided for them all their lives. otherwise, they would be cursed.

Bulan Pengejin or the month of the spirits, is the month where they honour the spirit and be close with them before they harvest the gifts of these guardians for them from the sea, the land and the air.

There are 12 month in the Melanau calendar which is based on the lunar system.

Introduction to the Melanau

A state once ruled by the now tiny Brunei Sultanate, once a mighty empire built on the sweat and blood of its people and destroyed by the greed and bickering of the aristocrats and their family. One by one they fall as they falter, Sultans replaced Sultans and brothers deposed brothers for the might of the empire that slowly crumbled under their feet until it finally became what it is today. Once the seat of their mighty empire, Sarawak is now but a state in Malaysia. Once mighty aristocrats in the vast empire, most of them now live as fisherman and farmers in the coastal regions of the state. Some now call themselves Malays by virtue of religion, others keep to the pride of their once proud race, a race of kings and king makers, the Melanau. Undefeated in the days of old, they reside mostly within the reaches of their little kingdom, Mukah, although some have migrated to the seaside towns and cities as well as the hinterlands, inter-marrying with the locals tribes and races and some finally losing their identity. Today, they seem to still retain the king-making skills of old. Taib, the leader of the Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) party which remains as the mainstay of the National Front in Malaysia. Today, the Melanaus still reign in their little kingdom now known as Sarawak.

However, sadly it seems that the people with a once rich culture, is now on the verge of losing their culture to the modern world. Sad indeed for a once proud culture who live by their wits and retain their power by their caste system now slowly loses its identity. Today, the people of my generation and the ones who come after us have slowly but gradually begin to lose our language, culture and identity and begin to adopt that of occupiers and religious rites of those who came to spread religion to us. l am not against religion but l am adamant against the slow disappearance of this once rich and proud culture of warriors. The language spoken now is mainly Malay with some Melanau intertwined in between. The language of the upper caste is all but lost.

I am here only to write of my people of our culture and of our history, the history of an ancient mercenary people who travel the world protecting their masters who pay for their services and were granted their protection. I am here to tell the story of a tribe of seafarers and wanderers who travel the world and settled in places and absorb their cultures. I am here to tell you of the wives' tales and the system of the once proud people, not unused to hardships and neither unused to fame and fortune but never have they really ruled for they were people who ruled by proxy. I was born an aristocrat in a disappearing culture which I am now trying to preserve and I pray I will succeed.