Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Unduk Ngadau - Not just a beauty contest

The Unduk Ngadau pageant is a heritage that honours the harvest and Huminodun

WHEN April rolls around, Kadazan Dusun and Murut girls in Sabah wait with bated breath for the announcement that may change their lives: The annual Unduk Ngadau beauty pageant.

Mothers, sisters, cousins and aunts are rounded up and in an instant, an Unduk Ngadau is in the making.

Unduk Ngadau is the annual Harvest Beauty Queen pageant, held in conjunction with Ka’amatan (Harvest Festival) held throughout May. From April, the competition begins at village-level in Sabah. Winners then compete at district-level before competing for the crown at the highly-coveted State level on May 31. The pageant has grown so significantly over the years that even Klang Valley has a representative.

But the Unduk Ngadau pageant isn’t another “fairest of them all” contest. Beyond the detailed costumes, flawless make-up, pristine hairdos and fussing mum-nagers, the pageant is deeply rooted in culture and tradition.


The pageant origins are rooted in a local legend about a girl’s sacrifice to feed her famine-stricken people. Kinoingan and his wife, Sumundu, had an only daughter named Ponompuan (better known as Huminodun which means ‘transferred sacrifice’). She was kind hearted, thoughtful and wise beyond her years. Her beauty was so transcendent that it took a mere glance to fall in love with Huminodun.

Then came a time that the land became so infertile, it could not produce a single grain to feed the people. Kinoingan learnt that the only way to overcome this famine was to sacrifice his daughter to the land. She willingly accepted.

With a heavy heart, he cleared the land in preparation for her sacrifice. Sumundu wept and her suitors begged her to change her mind. But Huminodun was determined to save her people and said that her life was a small price to pay. She told her father: “My body will give rise to all sorts of edible plants to feed the people. My flesh will give rise to rice, my head, the coconut, my bones, tapioca, my toes, ginger, my teeth, maize and my knees, yams. Our people will never go hungry again.”

Legend also states that Huminodun ordered that the first year’s rice harvest must not be distributed as the grains will go bad. This belief stays rooted in the Kadazan Dusun community until today and the first year’s harvest of a paddy field is never given away.

True to her word, the people enjoyed the most bountiful harvest they had seen in their lives that year. On the seventh day, a beautiful maiden emerged from a large jar called the kakanan. It was believed to be the spirit of Huminodun.

While the legend of Huminodun has seen many variations over the years, the essence remains. Her humility, beauty and servitude are represented in the title, Unduk Ngadau, itself (unduk means the shoot of a plant signifying youth and progressiveness while ngadau refers to the sun, which powers all life forms).


The pageant can be traced back to the 1940s although it was only officially recorded in the 1960s. Molly Rose Luping, 80, from Penampang recalls the excitement back in the day.

“Before the war, we already had such pageants. All young girls would participate; it didn’t matter if you were pretty or not! It was just something to do when you reached a certain age,” she recalls. “But then the war happened and all such cultural and social activities came to a sudden halt. After the war, you could see some things had changed - our girls traded their traditional sarongs for gowns introduced by the British, for example.”

According to Molly, it wasn’t until the 1950s or 1960s - through political persuasion at times - that cultural and traditional events began to surface again.

“In the earlier days, there wasn’t much emphasis on the cultural aspect to be honest but today, more than ever, there is a need to inculcate a sense of appreciation and understanding of one’s cultural roots,” says Joanna Datuk Kitingan, organising chairperson of the pageant. “That’s why in the recent years, the competition has evolved to ensure these cultures and traditions are the main showcase.”

Until recently, contestants were allowed to speak and introduce themselves in English or Malay. But it has now become a criteria for contestants to speak their native tongue.

Traditional costumes in particular have become a hot topic of debate among pageant enthusiasts, some lambasting that it has lost its authenticity with too many modern elements and influence. “The first thing I looked into as chairperson, was going back to basics. Over the years, the pageant became too glamorous and commercialised. We listened to the feedback and it was clear that we needed to go back to our roots, dig into our mothers’ and grandmothers’ closets and understand the history and stories behind our traditional costumes,” says Joanna.

Continue reading (Incl. Pic) at: Unduk Ngadau - Not just a beauty contest