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Sarawak's Joyous Kaul Revelry

New Straits Times, March 15-21, 2000

Written by Heidi Munan

"Come to Mukah for the Kaul, we're going with our Melanau friends!" So where's Mukah, who are the Melanau, and what's a Kaul?

Needless to say, all three are part of what makes Sarawak unique. Mukah is a district town on the shoreline with the South China Sea, the sort of place where nets hang out to dry along the waterfront and all roads lead to the sea.

A gentle tang of salt water permeates the air. One of Sarawak's contributions to the national cuisine, raw fish umai, is the Melanau fisherman's breakfast. The day's first catch is cut up, marinated and eaten with a handful of crisp sago pellets.

Mukah's hinterland reaches deep in the brackish sago swamps, criss-crossed by a myriad of creeks and inlets which can only be navigated by one who knows the area well.


The township looks back on a turbulent history - it used to be the personal fief of a Brunei prince and when the White Rajahs of Sarawak extended their realm eastwards there was a fierce fight over Mukah and its lucrative sago trade.

The Melanau are the people who produced the sago coveted by prince and rajah. They live in the wetlands between the tides, where the sago grows. Sago has been their staple food for centuries; the stately palm yields food and drink, thatch, boards and corduroy tracks.


Its uses are not purely material. Skilled fingers fashion lacy frills, charms and fetishes out of sago pith or leaf. During the Kaul festival, you may even see sago leaf necklaces!

Sago logs are floated along the river to a factory to be processed into starch. - Photo by Zulhazhar Sheblee/The Star

The Melanau used to live in extremely tall longhouses, built to this size for protection from enemies. Only one such longhouse still stands, in Sok Matu in the Rejang Delta. But an enterprising lady has rebuilt her ancestors' "Lamin Dana" longhouse in Kampung Tilian, Mukah, so now there are two.


In the 19th Century, practically all Melanau were sago farmers and fishermen, depending on the seasons, living by the sea, on the sea and from the sea. Even their months are named after fishing activities or the state of the weather.


The Kaul is held in the month of Pangejin, “when hands are slippery from handling so much fish”. It is the fisherman’s Harvest Festival, a rite of thanksgiving to appease the marine deities and ask for their continued protection and bounty.


Kaul has been celebrated in a variety of ways as long as anybody in Mukah can remember. Besides the solemn chanting and drumming, there’s always a lot of fun going on. A festival atmosphere seizes the normally decorous Melanau.


The beach picnic at the culmination of Kaul festivities used to give young people an occasion for a little decorous courting in the old days. As time passes, some of the more markedly pre-Islamic features of the celebration have been dropped but the fun, games, eating and drinking and masking and dancing have been retained. 


A gong beaten in a boat, up and down the river, serves one week’s notice of the Kaul. From this day on, preparations are underway. Fishing crews vie for the distinction of sailing the most beautifully-decorated boat in the procession.

A flotilla of boats preparing to head out to the river mouth as part of the Seraheng Kakan ritual. — Photo by Chimon Upon

Decorations are plaited out of palm leaf but there are lots of other variants - some boats carry “puppets” said to represent protective spirits, others sprout veritable rainforests to protect the precious saraheng structure.


Committees have worked deep into the night. Public facilities need beefing up, some kind of riparian traffic control has to be instituted, there will be fishing competition, boat races, a sago log regatta, all manner of mayhem and derring-do under the catch-name “telematches”.

A tibou swing. — Photo by

A huge tibou swing is constructed on the beach. This is a sturdy rattan rope suspended from a tall tripod frame and backed by a rough ladder. One young man launches himself into the air, singing as he flies.


On each return swing, more leap off the ladder to join the ride, as many as half a dozen lads at once may enjoy the sensation of almost-free flight before dropping off again into the soft sand.


Kaul Eve is given over to fun and games in Mukah and the villages. But at the crack of dawn, the revellers are up and in their boats, heading for the rivermouth.


The chief boat from each village carries the seraheng, a many-tiered basket full of offerings for the marine spirits. The festively bedecked flotilla moves upstreams through all the villages, carrying gong bands, masked mummers, and the community at large.


This trip resembles the annual "beating of the bounds" practiced in medieval Europe; it serves to demarcate village boundaries. More boats join as the procession turns and makes its way downstream again.


Joyful shouts greet its arrival on the beach. The tall, ornate seraheng structure is taken ashore and set up in the sand. The Kaul leader's sonorous chant invites the spirits to partake of the offerings.

The arrival of the seraheng signifies the start of the festivities. — Photo by Mohd Baharruddin Mohamad, Malaysia Aktif

The mortals thronging the beach don't need a special invitation to tuck in. A good old-fashioned picnic is under way. In Mukah, "old-fashioned" doesn't mean lobster salad and sausage rolls.


It means sago cakes, sago grits, sago pellets, sago biscuits, sago porridge, and if other forms of sago there be, it means those too! It means sago grubs, a specialty for the local connoisseur who doesn't take kindly to "Yuck! Yeech!" displays from ignorant outsiders.


"The sago grub spends its short life inside the very clean pith of a sago palm, fattening on that healthy food. That's a lot cleaner than shrimps scooped from the tidal mud below an urban sewage outlet..."


If this enticement isn't enough to make you try sago grub either plain or grilled, tuck into finely cut, deliciously marinated raw fish umai or any other fish cooked in any other way - they're all there!


For the young fellows, Kaul is an occasion to display their skills at silat and swordplay. A traditional costume parade substantiates the Melanau girls' reputation for comeliness, and spirit to go with it.


Clusters of lads show their skills at the tibou swing. Inter kampung rivalry finds a safe outlet in a tug-of-war. The drums and gongs never let up, and there's all the dancing you can do barefoot on the sand.


Everybody is cheerfully getting covered in sand, chased by the mummers, ankle clipped in the bamboo stick dance, splashed with water, and generally happy.


The Kaul is over when the boats thread their way up the creeks and inlets at nightfall - the villagers and their many friends have partied to a standstill. It's enough for now. Come back to the Kaul at the end of the rains next year.

Pesta Kaul is held annually at the beginning of the Melanau calendar, usually in April. Get in touch with us to arrange a trip to experience Pesta Kaul.
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