You feel a sense of gratitude when you attend the Kaul festival, a traditional and the most important ceremony for the Melanaus. Held annually at the end of the northeast monsoon, around March to early April, this celebration signifies the start of the new year for the Melanau community. 

The Kaul festival is the day they give thanks to the ipok (spirits) for a bountiful year and to pray for a good year ahead. This pagan thanksgiving for bountiful fishing is looked upon as a religious ceremony to appease the spirits of the sea, land, forest and farm. It is a ritual of purification and thanksgiving as well as one of propitiation for good fortune, according to Diana Rose, a Melanau and the affable owner of Lamin Dana cultural lodge.  

I had the privilege of experiencing the festival first hand when I took up the offer to stay at Lamin Dana cultural lodge in Kampung Tellian, a village in the middle of Mukah, Sarawak. Built on the banks of the Tellian River, Lamin Dana which means traditional house in archaic Melanau language, is a combination of a guesthouse, a living museum and a center for ongoing Melanau cultural revival.  

Preparations for the Kaul takes place several weeks earlier with the appointment of the Bapa Kaul or the head priest. Everyone within the community takes part in the preparation for this festival. Some collects material from the jungle to weave the decorations for the boats and the ceremonial basket–the seraheng. Some makes the cakes and snacks for the feast, organize dance and music performances while some erect Tibou swing. 

Young yellowing nipah leaves are gathered and trimmed for decorating the boats that will follow the head boat on the day of the Kaul. In the hands of weavers who had learned the trade from their elders, different decorations were produced resembling birds, flowers, flowering palm tree and even geometrical patterns.

Celebrations Begin

The morning of Kaul dawned with a bright blue sky and the beating of a gong, to wake the villagers up for the celebration.  

Dressed in traditional Melanau attire, the villagers were seen packing food and making adjustments to the decorations on the boats. The outfit worn by the men bears a strong resemblance to the traditional outfit worn by the Malay men, called Baju Melayu. A long-sleeved shirt with a raised collar, pants and a skirt-like adornment wrapped around the waist. A Javanese influenced headgear completes the outfit. The ladies were dressed in a tunic with a long wrap skirt called a sarong and terendak, a conical sunhat.

The announcement that the head boat, carrying the Bapa Kaul or Kaul priest, with the seraheng was near the lodge got everyone into a frenzy. There was a scramble to move food and cutleries into the boats, while the tourists board the various boats allocated to follow the head boat to the estuary.

This head boat with the Bapa Kaul and his entourage will lead the procession of boats to the Mukah river estuary where the seraheng, a flat round basket raised on a bamboo pole is placed to invoke and to place offerings in the basket for the ipok. 

Bapa Kaul The Mediator

The Bapa Kaul is an important figure as he is responsible for ensuring that the ceremony runs according to the rules and customs passed down through many generations.  He acts as the mediator who connects the people in the real world with the spirit world and is responsible for the persuading and appeasing of the ipok.   

Up to 60 motorised boats, ferrying villagers and guests followed behind the head boat to the estuary where the seraheng ceremony takes place.  We were informed that no boats are allowed to pass ahead of the Bapa Kaul’s boat lest they are prepared to face the consequence of offending him. 

Upon arrival at the beach, the Bapa Kaul and his entourage of selected members of the village carry various hantaran (offerings) proceeded to a designated area to perform the prayers. A group of youths greeted the entourage with the mengalai, a Melanau martial art as a welcome of the seraheng and ceremony. The movements are similar to the Malay silat martial arts but with more grace rather than vigorous movement.

At the designated area, the Bapa Kaul sang ancient mantras peppered with prayers asking for good livelihood, longevity and protection from threats and diseases. Offerings of the Melanau traditional food are placed into the seraheng. According to the beliefs of the Melanau community, if they make an offering to the ipok, wealth, harmony and a good livelihood will be bestowed on them.

Kaul International Festival

A simple yet meaningful ceremony of thanks is completed within an hour.  The Bapa Kaul then presides over a picnic feast of food brought from all the households to share.  Again, the Bapa Kaul is given the honour of the first bite before anyone is allowed to eat. I was invited to taste several of their traditional kuih such as kuih penyaram, selorot and kuih beras pulut.  These mouth-watering kuihs are made with rice flour and gula apong (palm sugar) that is processed from the sap of the nipah palm.  Fried, steamed or pressed, the mix of sweet gula apong in the batter gives a deep caramelised sweetness with a slight salty touch.

The merrymaking continues with dance and music performances while villagers share their food.  It is taboo to bring any food back and it is believed that any leftovers must be left near the seraheng basket to be eaten by the ipok who are still wandering the site of the Kaul.

One of the highlights of the festival is the death defying 20 foot high Tibou swing. Here, youths make a calculated risk to dive from a 10 feet high bamboo scaffolding to catch a swinging liana rope as it reaches the height of its arc. The largest number of people that I witness who were able to hold onto the swing was 5 with most dropping to the ground when it sweeps low.

The Sarawak tourism board is actively promoting the Kaul festival as an international festival to attract tourist and locals to learn more of the Melanau culture and tradition. This festival is also the biggest Melanau gathering and serves as a platform to enhance ties and many use this opportunity to gather and exchange news. 

Words and photos by Rebecca Lee

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