Mukah: In the beginning....

LONG before the break of dawn when most of Borneo were still asleep, the people of TELLIAN, a small fishing village on the coast of Borneo, were already awake and hard at work.

The sound of young ladies giggling in a small outhouses called "sapan", followed by the flapping of woven mats called "idayhs" and water splashing broke the morning silence of this ancient village in Mukah.

They were processing the grated sago (metroxylon sagu) pith using the traditional method known as "menya". This scene, a common sight for many centuries is no longer existing. The foundation of the Melanau history and culture, however, are still very much linked to this past life.

The history of Mukah first began in small villages like that of Tellian. Its contact with the outside world (Chinese, Indian, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabs, English, Ducth and other people of Southeast Asia) were very much associated with its sago industry. But, how far back can we trace the Melanau history?

If there was ever an invention called the time machine then it would have been possible to trace the Melanau history and subsequently of Mukah to the very source of Borneo civilisation, the Niah Cave, to 40,000 years ago. As it is, the earlist document found that mentioned the place was a map published in Italy in 1595. On it a word Malano was written to identify the coast where rivers of Oya, Mukah and Balingian run.

When exactly the name Mukah came about, however, was not known. Many locals believed that it was named very much later, when the place had undergone its up and downs as part of the ancient Melanau empire. Some even believed that before Mukah there was always a place called Tellian. Even today some elders and older generations still refer to Melanau from Mukah as Tellian people.

Legend has it that Mukah is derived from the word "muka" - (face - in Malay). It was believed that the name was given by a group of Malay or Arab sailors who were seeking refuge at the old estuary of the river (the estuary of Mukah river had changed at least three times in the last 200 years). These sailors who were weak from thirst were helped by a pretty lady. She beckoned them to follow her. But could never get close enought to talk to her.

Once they reached a fresh water well, she disappeared. Since the only thing they could remember of her was her beautiful face, they named the place "Muka". As time passed the word Muka evolved to become "Mukah" to suit the local tongue.

The existence of artifacts and heirlooms kept by the Melanau also dispel the notion that Mukah history began with the arrival of James Brooke to Sarawak in 1839.

The history of this ancient town, in fact, can be divided into five eras; the pre-Brunei, the Brunei era, the Brooke era, the Crown Colony era and Malaysia.

The Melanau.

The Melanau: at a glance Mukah is no different from any other rural fishing village in Malaysia. However, if one bothers to look into its soul then one can understand its mysterious charm.

Amoung its source of attraction are its poeple, their rich cultural heritage and historic past. The Melanau who are the ancient settlers of the area, have deep rooted cultural practice influencing their daily living, architecture, costume, food, games, art of self denfence and oral literature.

The flattening of baby's forehead known as "neja", the stratified social practice, the practice of secondary burial known as "nulang" and the building of "Jerunei" - burial pole, the tall swing called "tibou" and the traditional healing practice known as "bebayoh" are some examples.

Mukah's reputation as an important entr-port had made it a confluence of various cultures, the Chinese traders, the Indians, Eurasians, Indonesians and people from the interior like the Ibans (who came to settle in the upper part of Mukah in the 19th century). They have their own peculiarities and traditions that helped to enrich and gave the place its diverse cultural favour.

Most of the people in Mukah accept the Melanau language as its lingua franca. In fact, many have adopted the Melanau way of life and eventually became assimilated as Melanau. Generally it is also difficult to differentiate between one Melanau from another, between Melanau and Malay (many Melanau Christians use "bin" or "binti" whether they are Muslim, Christian or Liko (animist or pagen)).

The fusion of the Melanau is so perfect that "multi-religion" families are very common and are envy of other Malaysians.

Kaul Festival

Kaul festival or "Kaul" as it is known by the local was and still is the most important event in the life of a Melanau. This ancient festival was carried out to mark the beginning of a Melanau calender and the ceremony to appease the spirits or "ipok" of the seas, the land and sky.

Kaul was celebrated in the most revered and spiritual manner with certain strict rules to observe. In the past kaul would be celebrated at the end of February but now kaul is celebrated by the Melanau in the third week of April, anually.

During the occasion all villagers would congregate on the beach at Mukah river mouth, bringing traditional food, snacks and mouthwatering savouries. Mukah town and the surrounding villages would be pratically deserted. All sorts of traditional games also would be played with the demonstration of martial arts like mengalai and "silat".

The festival would start with offerings of traditional food in a special offering basket or "seraheng" which would be placed on the beach at a chosen site near the river mouth. If there were leftovers it would also be left near the seraheng site.

The highlight of the festival would be swinging and chanting on the twenty-foot high giant swing called "tibou".

Present day , Melanau have converted to either Muslim or Christian and kaul is more of a social-cultural gathering than anything else. Now it is an occasion to revive the cultural awareness among the younger generations of Melanau as well as promoting KAUL FESTIVAL as one of Sarawak tourist attraction.

Mukah: An Introduction

Mukah Division is one of the eleven administrative divisions in Sarawak, East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. It was established on March 1, 2002 and it has a total area of 6,997.91 square kilometers.

Mukah Division contains four administrative districts: Mukah, Dalat, Mato and Daro. And it also has four sub-districts: Balingian, Oya, Igan and Belawai. The total population is 101,600. The population is culturally mixed, with overwhelmingly Melanau as the majority , Iban, Chinese, Malay and other races. It is located on the South China Sea, about 3.5 by road from Sibu Town.

Mukah town is an ancient trading and fishing port, situated at the mouth of the Mukah river adjacent to the South China Sea. Historically, the town was an outpost of Brunei during the sultanate era. For 500 years or so, the Melanau in Mukah were ruled by Brunei. to monitor the district and ensure that the people adhere to his command, the Sultan appointed a reprentative to govern the district.

They were known as Pengeran, most of them married the local Melanau. Today their descendants are assimilated into the Melanau community but still maintaining the title: Pengeran, Awangku and Dayangku.

Mukah became part of Sarawak in 1861. It is now the centre of Melanau culture, and the "Kaul" festival, celebrated by the local fishermen in April to appease the spirits of the sea, is one of the major events of the Melanau calender. Just beyong the center of town is the Lamin Dana Resort, which contains a Melanau Cultural Center.

Mukah hinterland was traditionally a major cultivation and sago producing area. Of late however, most of the predominantly peat swamp areas that dominate the hinterland have been developed into oil palm plantation.