Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hidden Culture Within - Sabah's Harvest Festival - Tadau Ka'amatan

Join Singaporean Ivan Choong as he shares his first Harvest Festival experience in the Land Below the Wind.

The Malaysian state of Sabah in Borneo, the third largest island in the world, is commonly associated with the tallest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea, Mount Kinabalu – a World Heritage site. Adventure seekers travel down to the ‘Land Beneath the Winds’ to scale ‘Mt. K.’, white water raft, jungle trek, dive in some of the world’s best dive sites, but visitors seldom flock to Sabah to see the rich traditional cultural heritage.

Each year during the month of May, the grand finale of Harvest Festival or Ka'amatan Festival takes place in Kota Kinabalu at the Kadazandusun Cultural Association Sabah (KDCA) and is recommended to those seeking a glimpse of the more than 40 native tribes in the state.

The Ka'amatan Festival is a celebration of the rice harvesting that includes the Unduk Ngadau (Ka'amatan Beauty Queen contest). Legend has it that Kinoingan sacrificed his only begotten daughter, Huminodun, during the time when the fields of their staple food were barren and Kinoingan felt sorry for his people. Hoping to appease the gods, he sacrificed his only beautiful daughter. That year, the people had a more plentiful harvest than ever before and, to this day, the Kadazandusun people have included the beauty pageant as a grand part of their Ka'amatan Festival with a deep sense of respect and admiration for the legendary Huminodun.

With the information in hand, I made my way to the closing ceremony of the Ka'amatan Festival held at the KDCA grounds in Kota Kinabalu. Arriving around ten in the morning, groups of tribal parties had begun to line both sides of the pathway leading to the KDCA grand hall waiting for the arrival of the guest-of-honour to officiate the closing ceremony. With the perfect but hot weather, it was the best time and opportunity to capture the myriad number of tribal groups in their traditional costumes in one place. Mostly clad in black cotton fabrics, sometimes silk or velvet especially for ceremonial occasions, their traditional costumes can be as simple and dignified or elaborate with headdress and accessories.

The bobohizan (Kadazandusun high priestesses) – have ornate headdresses up to one and half feet in height, decorated with pheasant or turkey feathers. Taking portrait images of them was a challenge, to the point where I was nearly lying on the ground trying to capture their headdress within the frame! Other tribes use handwoven kain dastar for their headdress. It is folded and twisted in a number of distinctive ways to the shape of a python or potholder. What really amazed me was the similarity to the long-necked Kayan tribe near the Burma border of the local tribes which practise coiling brass or silver bracelets round their arms, but for ceremonial purposes only. Coiling these bracelets for any special occasion ceremony may take up to a whole day.

The arrival of Sabah's Head of State, Tuan Yang Terutama Yang Di-Pertua Negeri Sabah Tun Datuk Seri Panglima Haji Ahmadshah bin Abdullah was greeted with loud gongs and drums accompanied with singing from each tribal village and they were escorted by priestesses into the Unity Hall for the closing ceremony. Inside, the guest-of-honour performed the traditional magavau to nurse the spirit of the grain back to health in readiness for the next planting season.

Here he will pick seven stalks of rice and tie them to one end of a spliced bamboo stick and plant this stick at the centre of the rice field following the legend and instructions of Huminodun. Thereafter, the harvesting may begin. Once the harvest is complete, this stick with the seven rice stalks is placed in a storage container and brought back. This ceremony is accompanied by the beating of seven gongs and seven priestesses saying prayers to bless the spirits for the coming year's harvest.

Leaving the hall to venture out to the many stalls and the 11 traditional homes of the native tribes, I came to the Rungus longhouse, where a young woman dressed in her traditional costume was sitting by the side watching the many events that were taking place concurrently while others were displaying and selling their wares of beaded necklaces and bracelets inside the longhouse. In the past, these beads were made of glass and were much sort after but have since been replaced by plastic beads.

After having the opportunity to see the warriors dance in other tribal houses and being invited to sit down with the tribes to get a taste of some of their local food and rice wine, only too soon I had to depart from this rich cultural event. But before leaving, a must-try was their local dish, hinava. Made with raw Spanish mackerel, onions, ginger, lime and red chilli this dish has a nice citrusy taste and serves as a good appetiser.

The thought of re-visiting this event next year and perhaps stay at a homestay with one of the local native tribes to gain a better insight into their lifestyle was intriguing. Having had a glimpse of the cultural aspect of Sabah definitely gave me a good reason to return.

Source: Sabah Tourism Newsletter

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