Sarawak ‘GIANTS’ and their stone culture

The marble not yet carved can hold the form of every thought the greatest artist has.

– Michelangelo, Italian sculptor

I was browsing through my old newspaper clippings when I came across a gem of a story — Megalithic culture of the Kelabit Highlands.

In Kelabit folklore, their ancestors were giants called “Seluyah” — a prehistoric people who roamed the world creating caves for human beings.

Described as 13-feet tall, the Seluyah used their gigantic fingers to etch out designs of men and animals on the numerous rocks found in the Central Highlands.

When I was invited by the Sarawak Museum for their study of the megalithic culture of the Kelabits, it was an opportunity I could not refuse.

In June 1994, I joined the team, led by museum director Dr Peter Kedit, as they visited this remote Kelabit Highlands.

Travelling by helicopter, we visited many locations within our border and were enthralled by what greeted us — from prehistoric to modern megaliths and monoliths. Work on the stone artefacts started as far back as the 1950s when World War II veteran Major Tom Harrisson became curator of the museum.

 It was here that Harrisson befriended the Kelabits and met cultural expert Lian Labang, and learnt about their unique practices and traditions.

 A former museum conservator, Lian Labang, gave a detailed explanation on the seven types of stone engravings, funerary stones and jars, stones for sharpening swords he found.

 One of the stone graves belonged to a Kelabit King named Tukad Rini and another Batu Ritong, an aristocrat at Pa Lungan.

 According to old timer Maran Pu’un, the mausoleum was built by natives using supernatural powers, but museum experts said it was the work of innovative Kelabits with engineering skills. He said that “Paran” Ritong’s son Buyun — Paran is the Kelabit word for aristocrat — could have organised the construction of the stone mausoleum 500 or so years ago.

 However, another source said, “The massive stone slab sitting on top of the dolmen could have been brought from the Batu Ukar mountains or Arur Sinuped tributary which is several kilometers away.

 “It would have taken the Kelabits weeks or months to drag the large stone by rolling it over logs using a pulley system.”

 In an interview with the late Lian, he said that there were “hundreds” of stone Lungun (coffin) and Belawai in the region.

 One of them was at Long Banga where a large engraved stone slab called Batu Kalong was found by the Saban community at Long Banga.

 We also visited some of the 20 stone artefacts around the Long Banga vicinity, including stone engravings at Batu Narit at Ramudu.

 The icing on the historic collection was the Benato Batu Kitong — the 20-foot high stone mausoleum where the bones of the aristocrats were placed on the top of the rock and the commoners in a hole at the bottom.

 Lian, who spent two months tracing the stone artefacts during the 1950s, said he was furious when one of his Christian relatives destroyed the last three Batu Nawe funerary stones at Ramudu.

 Not far from Ramudu is another stone masterpiece or Batu Balang which has the carvings of two mythical tigers (Balang), a male and female.

 As the legend goes, a man-eating Balang that was terrorising the Kelabits was tracked down to its lair and speared to death and to commemorate the event, they erected the Batu Balang.
About five minutes from Batu Balang is another famous Batu Narit dedicated to the famous Southern Kelabit chief Penghulu Tingang.

It has the 1952 engraving of a Kelabit chief carrying a British flag (Sarawak was then a British colony) with a buffalo and gong on the carving to show that Tingang was a loyal subject and wealthy man.

Tingang’s son Penghulu Miri later inherited the title but didn’t live long to enjoy his position because it was believed that enemies of the family had put a curse on the British flag.

Said Dr Kedit, “It’s history, a way of life which the Kelabits practised and something which all of us should remember.”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.