Last of the Padawan ‘Belles’

Cultural differences should not separate us from each other, but rather cultural diversity brings a collective strength that can benefit all of humanity.

– ROBERT ALAN, AMERICAN SCREENWRITER

Thirty years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a group of Bidayuh grandmothers who maintained a centuries-old tradition of wearing gold-coloured coils around their limbs.

As the Kuching correspondent of the NST, I had access to some of the remotest regions of Sarawak and hitched a helicopter ride to the 1,000m high mountain complex.

When I wrote about the last 30-or-so women who don ‘Riyang-Ruyung’ copper coils in the Sunday Times on July 15, 1990, they were a dying breed.

At the height of the ‘Riyang-Ruyung’ culture, their neighbours from the villages of Kampung Taba Sait, Kampung Pain Bojong and Kampung Rejoi were also enthusiasts.

Sadly, in this modern age, there are only four of the grannies left to sustain the ancient practice.

Only 40km from Kuching, it takes a good eight hours to hike up to the Semban village of 59 families and about 400 people or a 15-minute helicopter ride.

I had the honour of being enlightened by ‘Ketua Ada’ cultural chief Mayal Upet, 90, and his wife Kulih Bunut, 87, on this ancient practice.

A sporting great-grandma Kulih who was the matriarch of the group said that in the old days, all the women folk at Kampung Semban had to partake in this pagan tradition.

She was seven when her parents got her to wear the coil which she had to live for the rest of her life.

“In the old days, all the girls were fitted with the coils which were stored in the baruk (head house) for religious purposes.

“The old folk said wearing it was a sign of beauty because during religious ceremonies, the girls wear copper coils around their neck.

“We bathed and slept with them. When we had to attend a dance performance or a ceremony, we would polish the rings with lime (limau nipis) so that they will glitter like gold.”

The ‘highlight’ of the womenfolk, bedecked with the ornaments, is the ‘Berjang’ dance or ‘Belang’ dance of the eagle.

Mayal said that this practice was started by their ancestors when they bought the copperware from Indian traders during the 19th century.

The village shaman said: “The men moulded the material into rings which was kept in the headhouse. After it was fitted on the limbs of the women, it was for life.

“I was told it was a tradition passed down by our ancestors a long time ago,” he added.

After I wrote about this unique culture, a handful of townsfolk started visiting Semban and its neighbours.

When they started to build the Bengoh dam, they government decided to relocate the villagers to a resettlement scheme below the dam in 2008.

But their story unfolded only 20 years later when I was featured with the Golden Girls on RTM’s series ‘Jom Pi’, thanks to producer Rauyah Mazuki.

Sometime in 2013, I persuaded RTM to organise an interview with the three of the last grannies — Ranyu, Tewud and Singai — at Angkasapuri in Kuala Lumpur.

And thanks to Sarawak’s Hornbill Skyways CEO Datuk Aidan Wing, the three womenfolk were taken on a helicopter tour around the Padawan hills by its Burmese pilot Captain Albert Aung.

A former army pilot Aung told them that there were similarities between the ‘Rasung-Ruyung’ ladies and the Burmese ladies such as the Kayan and Padaung who wear copper or brass coils around their necks and limbs.

Later with Datuk James Dawos, the deputy minister of tourism, I chaperoned the trio who flew by helicopter down the mountain and by Malaysian Airlines to the federal capital.

It was the first time the Semban grannies had left the shores of Borneo.  

We were housed in a high-rise apartment and my job was to help them adjust to the modern setting such as ‘seated’ toilets which they were not familiar with.

The programme entitled ‘Hello on Two’ which as produced by Zahiran Zainuddin was well received by the Kuala Lumpur cultural group.

It enabled us to showcase one of the Sarawak’s many unique cultures.

It was featured on RTM on April 8, 2013 and where Dawos acted as translator for the old ladies who hardly understood Malay.

Looking back, this was probably the last of the golden girls as there are only seven individuals left to promote the culture.

I recall what Kulih said when I first visited Semban, announcing the end of an era.

“In our younger days, we wore a variety of ornaments to look beautiful. Even brass rings around the neck.

“But it caused some irritation so much so we decided to take it off and wear colourful beads instead.”

She lamented that since becoming Christians, the womenfolk have lost interest in the culture.

“It is impossible to persuade the younger girls to wear these ornaments of beauty,” she added.

Little did she know that about 500 women still practise wearing copper coils in parts of Burma and Thailand in this time and age.

At the last count, I was told there are now only four women practising this culture.

True to my prediction, we may see the end of a unique culture sooner than we think!

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune. 

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