Cultures in Sarawak


Cultures in Sarawak

Since the times of the sultanate, Malaysia has been the meeting point of various cultures- some indigenous and some from outside the region. In Sarawak you find a cultural mix, prominent of them being the ancient Malay and the cultures of two of Malaysia’s prominent trading partners- China and India. These major civilizations are joined by numerous other indigenous tribes most of which live in the coastal areas and the jungles.

Each ethnic group has its own distinct culture, lifestyle and language. The most prominent of the local tribes include Dayak Iban, Bidayuhs, Melanau, Dayak Bidayuh, Dayak Orang Ulu, Dayak Kayan, Dayak Kelabit, Dayak Kenyah, Dayak Penan and Sebob/Chebob. The major civilizations dominate the urban areas while most of the other tribes live in the rural and semi urban areas.

Kelabit Tribe

Kelabit Tribe

The Dayak Iban tribes are the oldest people living in Sarawak and form the majority of the population. In the past the Iban people lived a primitive life of hunting and fishing. The people came from Kalimantan region of Indonesia and settled down on banks of rivers. Moreover they were ferocious headhunters which made them the most feared among all tribes. However, today the people have calmed down and are known for their hospitability and generosity. Tall and narrow houses were built by the people where they stayed along with other members of the community.

Some of the traditional handicraft items of the people include wood carvings, beadwork and silver crafting. Moreover tattoos were used by the Iban men when they went out to war and were symbols of courage and bravery. Rice wine called tuak is a popular drink of the people served during times of festivity. Though the people practiced various religious practices in the past, today most of the people follow Christianity.

Dayak Iban

Dayak Iban

With a population of more than a quarter, the Chinese form the next most important ethnic group of Sarawak. The rich natural resources of Sarawak brought in numerous Chinese traders who settled down in here and brought with them their tradition and culture.

The discovery of gold and plantations in the region brought in more Chinese labors. Through their shrewd business intelligence and ethical work culture the Chinese started dominating the commercial activities of the region. The people speak numerous Chinese dialects namely Mandarin, Foochow, Hakka and Hokkien. The main religion practiced is Buddhism but some people also follow Christianity. The most important festivals celebrated by the people include Hungry Ghost Festival and Chinese New Year.

As you move towards banks of major rivers you find the Malays tribes. They are famous for their traditional textile weaving, wood carvings and brass crafting activities. In the past the people used to live by fishing and settled down in the banks of rivers. With the recent development of trade and commerce, majority of the Malay people have migrated to the cities. However, in villages people still live in wooden houses and their major preoccupation is weaving. Though the Malay people have their own tradition and culture, most of the people follow Islamic thinking.

Along the coasts you find Melanau people, who are said to be amongst the early settlers of the region and famous for their boat-building abilities. In the past the people used to live in clusters but with the growth in industries people have migrated to the cities in search of a better living. They used to worship spirits, but today most of the people follow Islamic teachings.

Up the hills of Sarawak, you find the indigenous Dayak Bidayuhs who were pushed to these upper reaches when other tribes migrated to Sarawak. Traditionally the people used to live in roundhouses at a height of more than a meter above the ground. They used these kinds of houses for storing food grains and were also used as meeting rooms for community elders. The Bidayuhs used to speak Biatah dialect, but today most of the people speak English and Malay. Though some people still follow traditional practices like worshipping of ancestors and deity worship, most of the people have adopted Christianity today.

If you happen to visit the banks of Tubau, Rejang and Baram rivers don’t forget to visit the houses of Dayak Kayan tribes. Though they constitutes a small portion of the population with numbers of just about 15,000, their skills in boat making make their settlement a must visit place. In the past people used to live by hunting and fishing but today the primary occupation is agriculture.

Want to know more about traditional rice farming activities? Visit the rice farming community of Sarawak, the Dayak Kelabit tribes. They live in close clusters and have been into farming for generations together.

Several literary works discovered in the recent past have established the existence of Kenyah tribe living along the banks of River Bram. The settlements of these people are close to the Kayan tribe and so there has been a huge influence of the Kayan people on Kenyah people. People live in longhouses and their primary occupation is Jhum cultivation. Today due to the development of the timber industry, people have started working in such factories.

As you go deep into the jungles of Sarawak or visit huge plantations besides forests, you will find Penan tribes still living a nomadic life. Still they practice the age old tradition of hunting and gathering and primarily hunt for deer and wild boars. They are skilled at weaving and produce mats and rattan baskets of the highest quality. Today with the advent of industrialization and deforestation there has been a gradual decline in living place for the people. They have tried resisting destruction of the forest by putting up bamboo barricades but are of no match to the bulldozers used by factory and plantation owners.

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