Saturday, August 15

Forgotten heritage of Sarawak

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I HAVE great respect for Sarawak’s big, well-known historical landmarks, especially the ones that go a long way back, like our old friend the Niah Man (who may have been a lady), the Painted Cave at Niah, or the Batu Gambar in the swampy Sarawak River delta, at Sungai Jaong.

But there are lots of others that nobody ever investigated and wrote about. The locals know all about unusual rock formations, old graves in secret locations, all sorts of keramat as they call it. It’s part of their cultural heritage, maybe of religious significance. I’m not referring to Islam or Christianity or other great religions as we know them today, but the old beliefs in animism.

These objects/sites are deliberately left out of official record for some reason. The elder members of the community know where they are to be found but are keeping them secret. Just for the record, I bet the local population of Niah did know about the Painted Cave, but never said anything to anyone!

When I grew up, in a village near Lundu, there were quite a few of these ‘special places’. Everybody knew about them, some people believed in and visited them.

Batu Mandi 

Sited at the entrance to Lundu River are submerged rocks. Ship skippers know where these are and know how to avoid hitting them. Motor launches do not sail in the night near these rocks for that reason. During low tide, they can be seen easily gleaming in the sun. They are invisible during the high tide.

Along the Batang Kayan, there used to be a number of longhouses of the Sebuyau Dayaks, who had settled there before the arrival of the Brookes. Except for those villagers at Stunggang who had converted to Christianity as early as 1856, those in the other villages continued with their traditional beliefs. While believing in the Almighty in a way different from the Muslims and the Christians, these people believe in the existence of the Supreme Being and call him by various names.

These early non-Christian Dayaks went to Batu Mandi to malas niat, a ritual of giving personal thanks to Petaha (Supreme Being) through the medium of Batu Mandi for recovery from serious illness or of praying for good health and good fortune in life.

I have a personal memory in this connection, a true story about a rich man in my village, Uncle Ngadan. Just before the Japanese Occupation (1941-1945), accompanied by members of his family and relatives crammed into a couple of boats, he used to travel downriver for 15 miles. They paddled downriver towards the sea and the Batu Mandi where he would perform the rituals of malas niat. They carried with them an offering on a brass tray full of rice cakes (penganan jala), chicken eggs, hetih (rice bubble), tuak (rice wine), tobacco, and some money.

Every time Uncle Ngadan came back from malas niat, he would scatter literally hundreds of one cent coins (Brooke coins) before going back into his house – a great time for the village boys!

Uncle Ngadan had a big house (Malay style Rumah Limas), several fathoms away from ours, and a great contrast in terms of size and quality of material used. His house was built of belian (the Borneo hardwood), from the roof to the walls down to the floors and steps, except the tanju at the back (made of ordinary wood). There in his spacious lounge (lawang) was a table and we boys used to huddle under that table, ready to see who could pick up the most coins. I never got more than three.

We could tell when his entourage was coming back by the stage of the tide in the river. When it was high tide (pasang menuh), his entourage would be about to arrive. We could hear their panjung (shouts of joy) and the sounds of the drums. The journey by boat (not outboard engine available yet) took about two hours.

Years later, I was told how Uncle Ngadan became rich. The money came from the sale of rubber. He had lots of rubber trees to tap at Munggu Raman. He was not a Christian. Many of his descendants became Christians later. He believed in the powers of prayers at Batu Mandi during the malas niat ritual.

And there’s another sacred site, also on the Batang Kayan. It was a burial site supposed to have powers to grant favours to who asked for them. I have been there with a group of boys looking for some wild fruit (lensat kampong). Before the Japanese Occupation, this was thickly overgrown; somewhere, there was a relic of a boat. I was told about it but did not see anything resembling a boat, just pieces of old timber.

Once while I was at home with Mum, we could hear a long boat carrying drummers going up the river, passing by our village. They were on their way to Nanga Mengehat to maniat (malas niat). There is a keramat, a grave believed to be the burial site of a man whose name nobody remembers.

Some of the Sebuyau Dayaks went there to malas niat like Uncle Ngadan was doing at Batu Mandi. It was understood that the person buried there was a Muslim, yet the local Malays, did not malas niat there. They considered it syirik (believing in more than one God). A puzzle that I have not been able to solve.

If you come from Kuching, after the big Batang Kayan Bridge on the way to Lundu, there is a T-junction. Turn left to Sematan, or right to the town of Lundu. Not seen from the road, there is a massive formation of rocks (granite, I am told). It was a place where people left offerings – bananas, cakes, cooked rice, candles, cigarettes, rokok apong (tobacco rolled in apong leaves) – meant for the gods who would grant the believers good luck. The gods may have been happy about this, but the real beneficiaries were a troop of macaques that feasted on the offerings after the people had left; giving the site the name Batu Brok or monkey rocks.

This site could have been a spot where the Sebuyau Dayaks from Kadaong or Sungai Lundu villages or even Sebemban would have gone for malas niat. About 10 years ago, it was the local punters of lottery numbers who frequented the place. I am told that area around the rocks has been bulldozed for valuable yellow earth for the purpose of filling up construction sites.

When I was living in the police barracks with my brother’s family in 1949 to 1950, I went to the place with some boys to collect the coins left by the believers. We found only burnt coins obviously salvaged from the burnt bazaar; these coins were useless for our purpose: a game of skill hitting coins with coins.

By now, Batu Brok is forgotten, maybe of interest to people who collect information on landmarks and objects in Sarawak before they disappear, abandoned by the lottery punters and the monkeys. To me, and to those of my old schoolfellows who still remember, it was an exciting part of childhood, long, long ago!

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