Sarawak as we know it today is a newly formed State with a defined political and geographical boundary. Within this boundary there are traces of pre-historical evidence. The Niah Cave, the largest cave in Southeast Asia, in the north, contained a skull that was studied to be about 40,000 years old. The skull is believed to have belonged to the so-called modern Southeast Asian humankind.
In the Southwest, the original area called Sarawak, in the area surrounding the root of the legendary Mount Santubong, is the location of the largest archaeological site in Malaysia. Here archaeologists have discovered some Hindu artefacts, thousands of ceramic sherds and tons of iron tailings where the village of Santubong is found. These findings show great activities and tradings of the area from as early as the 7th century. Trade must have thrived between India and China until the 12th century. There could have been iron smelting and steel-making industries.
Later the development of the Santubong Port gave rise to the formation of ‘Negeri’s or kingdoms. A record mentions the presence of the State of Sarawak, Samarahan, Sadong, Kalaka, Saribas and Malanau and was under the rule of the Johor kingdom. In about the year 1378, the five ‘Negeri’s were rendered to the Brunei Sultanate during the reign of Sultan Muhamad Shah and to be so for many centuries.
No record exists when Kuching became a settlement, but it was probably during the 1820’s because some Jawi inscriptions on belian grave-posts found behind the present Astana provide eveidence of Brunei Malay nobles living in Kuching before 1830. Before the arrival of James Brooke in 1839, Brunei rule under Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin was well established in Sarawak.
Kuching was known as Sarawak first and then Sarawak Proper, to distinguish it from the larger Sarawak, which stretched from Tanjung Datu to the Samarahan River in 1841. In 1872 it was renamed Kuching.
Belaga, the most remote trading town along the Rajang River, is situated at the mouth of the Belaga and Balui Rivers of the Seventh Division. It became a full district on 2 April 1973 and the District Office is the main administrative body.
Belaga covers an area of 19,403.27 sq.km. and has a population of 25,000 people. The Kenyah and Kayan form the majority of the population. The other ethnic groups found in the district are the Kajang comprising the Sekapan, Kejaman, Lahanan, the settled Punan, Tanjong and Sihan, as well as Malays, Chinese, Penan and Ukit.
The largest native group in Sarawak, the Iban, are found throughout all divisions, especially in the lowlands, living in longhouses along main rivers and tributaries. In the 1999 estimates of population, Ibans totalled 576,000. Many are now Christians, but they still maintain their strong cultural identity and heritage. A few are Muslims. Most keep to traditional beliefs of reverence to mythical and legendary heroes and deities.
Ibans have many festivals called gawai which are preceded by customary rituals before drinking locally brewed tuak (rice wine) amid much merriment, dancing and display of traditional costumes. Their material culture is rich in textile weaving, wood-carving and intricate mats and baskets.
Last Nomadic Group
The Penan are among the last nomadic hunter-gatherers living in tropical rainforests. In the island of Borneo, this tribe is found in the Malaysian state of Sarawak and Indonesian Kalimantan. There are fewer than 10,000 Penan in Sarawak and they are mainly found in the remote jungles of the Miri and Limbang Divisions, and to a lesser extent in the Kapit and Bintulu Divisions.
Penans are the only true jungle dwellers among the peoples of Borneo. They have no permanent houses as they are always on the move. With their blowpipes and hunting dogs, they roam the forest in search of wild sago (their staple diet), hunt animals, fish and gather wild fruit for their daily existence. Their skills in making blowpipes, mats and baskets are unsurpassed. Similarly, their knowledge of plant life, animal behaviour and jungle survival is unrivalled.
They live in groups of five or six persons to as many as 160, but the average group is about 30. Their dwellings are small and simple, constructed merely for shelter from the rain. The hut or sulap is constructed with wooden sticks as supports, palm leaves for roofing and split bamboo pieces or small sticks for flooring held together with strips of rattan. Their huts are meant to last only three or four weeks by which time they would be ready to move on.
Unlike other tribes, tattooing is not a Penan custom. Among those following the traditional nomadic life, no tattoo is seen in either sex at any age. Only those Penans who have settled in longhouses have adopted the custom of tattooing from the Dayaks.
The Smallest Tribe
The Tabun reside in the upper source of the Limbang river in the Fifth Division of Sarawak. They live in a longhouse situated near the mouth of the Tabun stream, a tributary on the left bank of the Limbang in the neighbouring Batu Lawi mountain. They are called the Tabun people after their place of residence. In 1980 there were about 25 Tabuns, but only five are pure Tabun. The rest are either a mixture of Tabun and Iban, Murut or Kelabit.
High Altitude Living
Kelabits live at the highest inhabited area in the world’s third largest island, Borneo. This upland, a great bowl encircled by mountains rising to 8,000 feet, lies in northeast Sarawak and northwest Indonesian Borneo dominated by Mount Murud. Until 1943, the Kelabits were animists with a complex system of omen birds and propitiations. Most have converted to Christianity and as the impact of Christian culture continues, the younger generation may discard not only animism but more.
THE above passages are taken from the book “Sarawak Book of Amazing Facts and Records” which was published in 2001 by SANYAN Group of Companies.
(To be continued)