Sunday, November 04, 2007

:: Melanau

Another view of the Melanau Tall House

The Melanau Tall House at Sarawak Cultural Village

Another view of the Melanau Tall House

Ladder into the house

A collection of martaban jars in one corner

Earthenware jars in the Melanau kitchen

The kitchen area

Ceiling ornaments of three bark

The Melanau people consists of 5.8% of Sarawak's population. They live mostly in the central coastal region, between the Rajang and Baram rivers. Some of the Melanaus are Muslims, some Christians and the balance still animists. Melanaus are skilled fishermen and boat builders. They are renowned for their massive longhouses, many reaching forty feet high.

The Melanau's staple food is sago, which they prefer over rice. Sago palms originally grow wild, but the Melanaus have cultivated them. The sago is the starch obtained from the pith of the sago palm. To get the sago, the Melanau fell the pall at the right stage of maturity. The wedges of sago pith are rasped into a coarse, wet mash. It is then piled on strong mats and trodden in shallow troughs by the Melanau womenfolk in huts specially built for this purpose. The starch settles in the bottom. Then water is added to it, and the paste is further drained, kneaded, and dried as sago flour. Melanau sago products include dry pellets, grits, and several types of sago biscuits.

Melanau healers or dukun use sick images, figurines that literally represent the illnesses. The Melanau dukun has an elaborate system of ceremonies for curing all kinds of illnesses. The more serious the illness, the more complicated the ceremonies. If all effort fails, he will perform a berayun ceremony, which can last five to nine nights. In such ceremonies, the dukun uses sickness images. The sickness images actually represent the spirit causing the illnesses. The dukun extracts the illness from the patient into the image, which he then sets adrift in the river or hidden in the jungle.

Besides sickness images, the Melanau also carves fetishes for good luck in fishing, effigies of those lost at sea, figurines for ritual burial, and other magical paraphernalia. In the past, they also create massive burial posts, usually for aristocrats. These consists of the Kelirieng (burial pole) and the Salong (burial hut). A kelirieng is made of a huge hardwood tree trunk, elaborately carved from top to bottom. It is hollowed at the top to place the jar containing the chief's bones. A heavy stone slab is surmounted on the top of the pole, the size of which is more than six feet in diameter and can be up to 32 feet tall above the ground.