Sabah’s ethnic communities celebrate harvest’s end with rituals and merrymaking
Come the month of May, the Kadazandusun, Murut and native ethnic communities of Sabah gear up for an annual celebration that rivals the carnivales of Rio de Janeiro – the Tadau Ka’amatan or Harvest Festival. After toiling the paddy fields, they finally reap the fruits of their labour and take time to pay tribute for another year of bountiful harvest.
Until the mid-1960s, a majority of natives in Sabah lived in the interiors, practising their own variety of rituals with a belief system that was strongly attached to their environment, homes, lifestyle and even harvest.
Today, a majority of Kadazandusun and Murut people no longer adhere to paganism as most have embraced Christianity or Islam. However, the values and traditions of their ancestors are not lost, and respect is still given to rituals and rites, particularly during the Harvest month.
Huminodun the Legend: A Sacrifice to the Land
The legend goes that a terrible drought befell the land, and the people suffered and began to starve as they could not grow any crops. Seeing this, the Almighty Creator, known as Kinoingan, decided to take great measures to save his people. He made the ultimate sacrifice: He surrendered his only daughter, Huminodun, to the land.
From her body parts grew various crops – her head gave rise to coconuts, her blood became red rice, her flesh rejuvenated the paddy fields, her teeth maize, her fingers ginger and her knees yam, among many other edible plants. To pay tribute to this sacrifice, the Ka’amatan is celebrated each year after a bountiful harvest.
Unduk Ngadau – Hailing the Harvest Queen
Another significant aspect to this legend is Huminodun herself. To honour her gift of life to her people, each year the Unduk Ngadau pageant is held and the fairest one of all represents all that is beautiful and honourable in Huminodun. The pageant is the highlight of the Ka’amatan, which is celebrated on 30-31 May each year, and the selection process is taken very seriously.
It starts early in May when each district holds their own Unduk Ngadau pageant. Contestants are decked in traditional attire – each district can be distinguished by their costumes, with black velvet/cotton being the main fabric of choice. For example, the Kadazandusun women of Penampang don a sleeveless black blouse and ankle-length skirt, while the Kadazandusun of Papar wear knee-length skirts accompanied by long-sleeved shirts and a hat. Each district crowns its winner who goes on to represent her locality in the state-level pageant at the Kadazandusun Cultural Association Hall.
It’s an electric atmosphere where crowds of spectators cheer for their favourite contestants as they parade their traditional attires and try to impress judges in the interview portion of the competition. There are tears, hugs, kisses and more cheers as the Unduk Ngadau is crowned, giving her district more reasons to celebrate as the Harvest Festival draws to an end. Many winners have gone on to pursue their studies and carve successful careers thanks to the publicity and experience.
The Magavau ritual
Ka’amatan is the perfect opportunity to witness seldom-seen rituals performed by native high priestesses, the bobohizan. One of the most important is the Magavau (which means ‘to recover’). The Kadazandusun believe that while working in the fields, some farmers may unintentionally hurt the rice spirit (bambazon), causing the spirit to wander and leave the crop unprotected. The ritual is performed to heal and call on bambazon to return.
Usually performed on the first full moon night after the harvest, the ritual can be held in a house or an open area such as the paddy field itself. A group of bobohizans form a line with their hands placed on each other’s shoulders, chanting prayers. The leading bobohizan holds an unsheathed sword and will call out to the rice spirit.
A generous feast of chicken meat, betel nuts, eggs, and tapai (rice wine) is usually laid out to appease the spirit. Another set of offerings will be presented on a specially built bamboo platform for the spirits to bring back to the spirit world. This food is believed to prevent other creatures from feeding off the paddy. The magavau, highly regarded by the Kadazandusun, is one of many rituals held during the harvest month.
Plenty of makan and merry-making
The two-day Ka’amatan festival is a public holiday throughout the state of Sabah. It is an occasion to balik kampung or return to one’s village or hometown to be with relatives. For visitors, the Kadazandusun Cultural Association is the best place to be, where many mock traditional houses or food and drink stalls will be set up during the festival.
Sample local fare or grab a burger – either way, you’ll never go hungry. The air is filled with sounds of brass gongs resonating, sometimes punctuated by a sudden ‘war cry’ (don’t worry, it’s usually part of the sumazau, the traditional dance of the Kadazandusun). The atmosphere is truly celebratory; wherever you turn, a friendly face will hand you a beverage and introduce you to another staple ‘war cry’ of the locals: Aramaitii!