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The Melanau

Introducing the Melanau

The Melanau inhabit the Rejang River Basin, the coastal areas of Igan, Oya, Dalat, Mukah, Balingian and Bintulu, and some small settlements in and around Miri. They make up roughly 6% of Sarawak’s population and are considered to be among the earliest settlers of Sarawak. A map published in Florence in 1595 includes the name “Malano” in the northwest coastal region of Borneo inhabited by the Melanau today, indicating they were well established in the region at that time, and probably already engaged in trade with outsiders. 

The Melanau are traditionally fishermen and sago growers, but they are a very enterprising people and play a prominent role in business and government. They were originally river dwellers, living in longhouses, and their language and culture are closely related to a number of Orang Ulu groups. However, the expansion into the Rejang Basin of the far more numerous Iban led the peaceful Melanau to move to the coast, where they abandoned their longhouses in favour of their famous “tall houses” (a fine replica can be seen at the Sarawak Cultural Village).

Close trading links with Brunei led the majority of Melanau to convert to Islam, the remainder being mostly Christian (Roman Catholic), with a small minority still practising Likou, a traditional animistic belief system. Although the Melanau have been influenced by the Malays, not only in religion but in lifestyle, they are very proud of their distinct culture and their remarkably open approach to religion, with Muslim and Christian family members often living together in a single household. They are famous for their exquisite “sickness figures” (blum or dakan) carved from sago pith and used in traditional healing rituals, the imposing jerunei or secondary burial poles and the wild and exuberant Kaul festival, held annually at Mukah, the Melanau “capital.” Their excellent dish of raw marinated fish, umei, is Borneo’s answer to sashimi.

Melanau Links

Learn Melanau: This blog’s not just about the language. You can even learn how to make your own sago pearls here.

Melanau Picture Dictionary: Boost your word power with a Melanau – Malay – English – German pictorial dictionary.

Wild Asia Article: A fascinating description of the Melanau cultural revival.

Recommended Reading

Melanau Stories by Heidi Munan: A fascinating collection of Melanau tales andlegends.

The Oya Melanau by Harold Stephen Morris: A detailed but highly readable ethnography about a Melanau community in the 1980s. Available in good social science libraries.

Melanau Traditional Costumes