The Kaul is the most important festival of the Melanau year and symbolises the end and beginning of a calendrical cycle marked by the major monsoons affecting their lives and livelihoods as farmers and fishermen. Today, the Kaul has lost its ritual significance and has become a secular marker of Melanau identity.
The Melanau have their own lunar calendar structured around the annual economic cycle, particularly fishing and the seasons. Their calendar is divided into 2 (in some communities, 13, with an intercalary month) months, which can be approximately matched to the western calendar.
Melanau Month Western Month
Pengalawah Ayeng April
Pengalawah Umit May
Paka Nyat July
Paka Umit August
The names of the months describe the state of the sea, the fish caught or the technology used. In the above calendar, the year begins with the tail-end of the northeast monsoon which lasts from November to February, disrupting any major fishing activity.
Some sources say the months of the Melanau year cannot be correlated with those of the western year and that Pengejin, the first month, begins with the first new moon sighted when the northeast monsoon ends.
Pengejin is derived from the name of a freshwater eel called jekan jin. The word conveys the sense of a fisherman’s hands becoming slippery from all the fish landed and cleaned.
The Kaul is a thanksgiving for the return of calm seas and a plea for continued good fortune during the rest of the year. It was originally directed towards the spirits of misfortune and sickness, and to get protection from the good spirits health, harmony and fortune.
This is still observed by the Melanau Likou, but not by Muslim Melanau. The Christian Melanau, until recently, assimilated this into a belief, all Melanau continue to uphold this festival. It simply represents an affirmation of a shared history, heritage and communal bond.
In accordance with tradition, the Kaul ceremony is held at the river estuary on its right bank. Within the Melanau heartland in Mukah, a building has been constructed for this festival. On the big day, offerings for the spirits are placed in a decorated flat round basket called seraheng and raised on a bamboo pole.
The seraheng is brought in a procession by boat down river accompanied by villagers. For this purpose, three canoes are lashed together with a gong orchestra in the first three boats.
The ritual leaders chant inviting the spirits to join in a meal and then depart home. Smaller canoes in the flotilla are manned by young men in masks and fancy dresses representing the spirits.
Food brought from the homes of all those present at the ceremony is shared. The remaining victuals are left in the seraheng. With this communal feast, the ceremony ends and the games and other fun activities begin. The Kaul has largely lost its ritual significance. Its observance is an occasion for people of other ethnic groups to join the Melanau in celebration. In that sense, it is appropriately named Pesta Kaul or Kaul Festival.
The 30-foot high tibou associated with Melanau culture is derived from the hammock swing of the baby. Young people usually sing as they wing to and fro on it. Each swinger holds onto the rattan and jumps into the air. The number of swings depends on the momentum created when making the jump. Whoever has the most number of swings is the champion of the occasion and earns the admiration of the coastal village folk.
The cultural significance of the tibou swing is to celebrate the bountiful harvest from the forest and the sea. The joy of swinging back and forth is not only enjoyed by the swinger but the audience. The singing of the swinger adds to the merriment.
Semah or cleansing ritual was an important rite performed by the Sekalo Bidayuh at Pulau Talang-Talang. Held once every year, it was performed to appease the spirits of the sea and ‘cool’ the environment so that nature would provide abundant food resources.
The effectiveness of the ritual in getting the white turtle to land, which is believed to bring luck and richness to sea and land resources, is of great significance. The last traditional semah was performed at Pulau Talang-Talang by the late T.K Nimbun anak Rade in 1973.
Vanishing Bidayuh Festival
Gawia Mukah (cleansing festival) used to be an important Bidayuh festival held once every three years whenever there were many deaths or crop failure.
The festival was meant to appease the spirits and sanctify the environment. During the festival, head trophies were cleaned and fed, with the hope that this would ‘cool’ the environment and ensure a bountiful harvest and good health. The last Gawia Mukah was held in 1986 at Kampung Opar.
(To be continued)