Thursday, 10 May 2012

SARAWAK REGATTA - to suppress headhunting in the past

By Sanib Said
Director Sarawak Museum

Other than known as the Land of Perfection (Darul Hana) during the Brunei Sultanate Period and now the Land of Hornbills, Sarawak is also known as the Land of Many Rivers. Certainly there are countless rivers, small and big ones, criss-crossing the largest state in Malaysia and playing important roles in the history and culture of its 24 ethnic groups. There are too many toponymns which derive their name from rivers including the name of the state, Sarawak.

The capital city, Kuching, gets its name from a small river that no longer visible which once rose from the hill called Mata Kuching where trees known as mata kuching (not mata pusa) were found and its fruits said to resemble mata kuching (cat’s eyes). This simply shows how intricate the relationship between man and his rivers is in Sarawak.

In many ways, the link between men and the rivers are served by the boats. Until very recently rivers and boats are the major means of transportation and communication among big towns, small towns, villages and longhouses.

If it could be called so, the climax of the intricate relationship of rivers and men with their boats was the annual regattas organized practically by all districts in Sarawak in the not so distant past when roads and cars were still rare and few. The annual regattas of the past were more than just boat racing but they were grand social events including peace celebrations, cultural performances and development exhibitions rolled into one big festivals.

The famous regatta in Sarawak was known as the Baram Regatta first held in 1899 in Marudi. 

But it was not the first. As the available historical records are concerned, the first regatta was held in January 1871 in Kuching known as the Sarawak Regatta. Practically every other district towns throughout the state followed and turned the regattas into great annual social event until the advent of more cars, planes and fast boats in 1970s.

The first Baram Regatta in 1899 in Marudi perhaps epitomized to the timeless value of regattas in Sarawak. The chief architects of the Baram Regatta was no other than the Resident, Charles Hose whose reminiscene could be found in his book, the Natural Man.

“Some thirty years ago it was my privilege to be present at a meeting at Marudi (Claudetown) in the Baram district, and in the presence of an overwhelming force of the tribes loyal to the Government of Sarawak, of all those tribes whose allegiance was still doubtful, and all those who were still at a variance with each other. The object was to abolish old bloodfeuds and persuade the tribes to aid the Government in keeping the peace. In calling this conference, I felt that in order to suppress fighting and headhunting, the normal young Bornean’s natural outlet, it would be well to replace them by some other equally violent, but less disastrous, activity; and I therefore suggested to the tribes a sort of loca Henley, the chief feature of which would be annual race between the war-canoes of all the villages. The proposal was taken up eagerly by the people, and months before the appointed day, they were felling the giants of the forest and carving out from them the great war-canoes that were to be put to this novel use, and reports were passing from village to village of the stupendous dimensions of this or that canoe, and the fineness of timber and workmanship of another.

Between the people living on the banks of the two rivers, the Baram and the Tinjar, hostility which just at this time had been accentuated by the occurrence of a blood-feud between the Kenyahs, a leading tribe of the Baram, and the Lirongs, a powerful tribe of the Tinjar. In addition to these two groups was a large party of Madangs, a famous tribe of fighting men of the central highlands whose hand had hitherto been against every other tribe; and also a large number of Ibans, who more than all the rest are always spoiling for a fight.

The winners were a crew of peaceful down-river folks, who had learnt the art of boat-making from the Malays of the coast; and they owed their victory to the superior build of their ship rather than to superior strength. When they passed the post it was an anxious moment. How would the losers take their beating? Would the winners play the fool, openly exulting and swaggering? If so, they would probably get their heads broken, or perhaps lose them. But they behaved with modesty and discretion.

The excitement of the crowds on the bank was great, but it was entirely good-humoured; in the interest of the racing they seemed to have forgotten their feuds. This opportunity was naturally seized to summon everyone to the conference hall. This time they settled down with great decorum, the chiefs all in one group at one side of a central space, and the common people in serried ranks all round about it. In the centre was a huge, gaily-painted effigy of the sacred hornbill, on which were hung thousands of cigarettes of home-grown tobacco wrapped in dried banana leaf.

Many retired and senior civil servants still vividly recalled those so-called ‘good old days”. This is because most if not all available civil servants at the district events would be involved directly in organizing the event. One recalled the caretaker/maker of the boat who would spit all sorts of charms on the boat and forbid anyone from touching it; hence guarded jealously throughout the night. Most importantly, according to the ancient belief, no one should ever touch the front tip of the boat decorated with beautifully carved motifs and images.

In those days, just like racing horses today, boats were given names. Some were simple names but other were outrageously bombastic and long as those which had been found in some old programmes books and the old faithful Sarawak Gazette, viz.

~ Burong Raja Wali Senang Hati (Happy Kingfisher) owned by Bujang Kontoi,
~ Seri Bulan Pelandok Dara (Moon Virgin Mousedeer) owned by T>K> Senusi,
~ Bendera Baru Note Sarawak (Flag New Note Sarawak) owned by Ason anak Lawat,
~ Singa Terbang Kendawang Gronggong (Flying Lion?) owned by S.P.G. Rimbas.
~ Merdeka owned by Hassan Bros in 1951
~  Tidak Disangka owned by Madenah Melayu in 1955.
~ Many reflected the situation of the times such as Usaha Berjaya (Successful Effort);
~ and Muhibbah (Harmony) that raced in the 1970 regatta.

Paddling through the past one could contemplate that it was the harmonious (Muhibbah) relationship between men, settlements and river that the people of Sarawak found in regattas. Such a relationship will guide us as Sarawakians paddle into the future.



The Chinese Dragon Boat features the head and tail of a dragon, a mythological creature regarded by the Chinese as having dominion over the waters and exercising control over rainfall. The head and tail are kept ashore during the year and are only affixed for the races. After they have been attached, it is necessary to bring the boat to life and a ceremony presided over by a Taoist priest amidst burning incense and exploding firecrackers. The eyes of the dragon head is dotted with paint and sacrificial paper money is put into the dragon’s mouth and then thrown into the water.

The Dragon Boat Race traces its history to commemorate the life and death of a famous Chinese Scholar-stateman, Chu Yuan. Some three centuries BC, Chu Yuan served the King of Chu during the warring states period. As a loyal Minister, Chu Yuan at first enjoyed full confidence and respect of his sovereign. Eventually through the intrigues of his rivals, he was discredited and was never able to regain the emperor’s favour. On the fifth moon in the year 295 BC Chu Yuan plunged himself into the Milo River in the Hunan province.

The people who lived in the area jumped in their boats and rushed out in a vain search for him. This unsuccessful rescue attempt traces the history of what the Dragon Boat Race is and is being commemorate every year.


In the olden days, the building of the Perahu Balok was largely undertaken by the Malays of Kampung Ladung, Batang Air Simunjan, an area famous for its timber (kayu balak).

Originally the perahu balok was created from a whole tree trunk using simple implements such as the “parang” and “beliong”. The boat can accommodate between 4 to 5 persons.

Over time the building method was modified involving building such parts as the “lunas’ and ‘linggi” separately and using water-tight woods such as ‘kayu penyauk’ or ‘empedu’ for the “timbo”. Accommodating between 5 to 10 people, it is also called ‘perahu sampat”. Because of its popularity, perahu sampat was distributed for sale not only at the Ceko Market, Kuching but also other part of the state, especially Samarahan.

Perahu Balok (or Sampat) is still popular especially among the riverine and coastal communities and serves a number of purposes, such as fishing, gathering of attap leaves and transportation.


The Melanau Community has a few types of traditional boats. In the Melanau dialect (Mukah) they are known as Bahong, Badong, Bakong, Buagan and Bidar. Each one has its own uniqueness, designed and constructed in different sizes and capacity to suit different purposes.
The boats are all made from wood, ranging from Kapur (Lelawak), Papa, Daeet, Gerangan and Meranti. The choice of wood influences the boat’s durability, speed and lightness for racing.

The Bahong and Badong boats are used for deep sea and shallow water fishing. Bakong boats is normally used for transporting goods along the wide and deeper rivers while Buagan, being smaller in size and capacity is mainly used in small rivers in the villages. Bidar boat on the other hand is used by the Melanaus for boat competitions and regattas held in Mukah, Dalat and other districts and divisions in Sarawak.

The boats are decorated with paraphernalia consisting of the ritualistic “Serahang”, a multi-tiered traditional basket specially used at the Melanau’s traditional Kaul festival and “Jengayak” as well as other accessories of a typical Melanau origin. The Melanau flags are held high by the men’s paddlers with headbands while women paddlers put on their “terindak” hats that served as a protection against the hot sun.

Whenever and wherever a regatta is held in Sarawak, Bidar is always present and had been on the racing scene of the Sarawak Regatta for over a century, thus contributing to the colours of this premier event which is of great historical and cultural significance.


“HARUK ADANG USUNG TINGANG” literally translated means “flying boat with the hornbill bow”.

So-callled “flying boat” because the Orang Ulu legend has it that during the tribal warring days of Borneo, the fire to avenge the death of their tribesman would burn so strong in their warrior’s chests that it would literally fuel the “HARUK ADANG USUNG TINGANG” to “fly”.

Usually dug out from the “arau”, “merang kayuk” or sometimes known as “enkabang” tree. Its bow is usually curved with the hornbill motif, given that the hornbill is highly revered in the Orang Ulu culture as it was seen as a vessel for the spirits to communicate to the people. This legendary “HARUK ADANG USUNG TINGANG” did not remain as mere legend, but also made the long and ardous journey from upper Bakun to Kuching to pay tax during the reign of Rajah Brooke by sheer ‘paddle power’, and back!

Nevertheless, the mention of the legendary “HARUK ADANG USUNG TINGANG” never fails to inspire the modern-day Orang Ulus even though it belonged to a bygone era.


This type of ‘arud’ or boat is most popular to the Dayak Bidayuh Community along Sungei Kiri in the Penrissen area. They call it ‘Arud Diak’ (Arud Tikura) because of its peculiar shape, adaptability and suitability to rough swift river in the rural areas.

“Diak” in Bidayuh is a species of tortoise, which can survice on land, sea and rivers. It has a hard, thick and slightly brownish coloured shell covering the body with a pale yellow colour under the stomach. Around its body there are sharp edges which can cut.

Long before the Brooke’s arrival in Sarawak, the Bidayuh along Sungei Sarawak Kiri up to Kpg. Annah Rais in Padawan used this kind of ‘Arud’ as means of transportation. They paddled through swift flowing rivers bringing down with them fruits and rice for sale or trade with other villagers in kampungs like Buntal, Bako and Santubong.

The ‘Arud’ is usually made of a species of wood from the ‘Bitouh’, ‘Engkabang’, ‘Pota’ or ‘Miranti’ trees. These materials need to be thoroughly dried before the construction begins. The ‘arud’ normally has 10, 15, 20 paddlers and it would take them three to four months to complete.


The ‘Perahu Bidar’ also known as ‘Perahu Pengayau’ was known to be made more than a century ago in the Saribas and Skrang districts (Simanggang Divisioin, now known as Sri Aman). The construction of this boat then spread to Sebuyau and Lundu.

The ‘Perahu Bidar’ is usually made from hard wood such as ‘Meraka’, ‘Keruing’, ‘Penyauk’ and other hard wood species. The wood used is selected based on its durability and water resistance. Tools use to make the ‘perahu bidar’ include ‘beliong’, ‘rimbas’ and ‘parang’.

The hull or ‘lunas’ (langkan) is made from the trunk of a huge hard wood tree and is then ‘timbo’ (attached) with planks to make the ‘Perahu Bidar’. The boat is usually 36 feet long and 6 feet wide and can accommodate up to 20 to 25 paddlers.

With passage of time, the ‘Perahu Bidar’ has changed in size and use and some to 72 feet long and 3 feet wide that can accommodate from 10 to 30 paddlers. The ‘Perahu Bidar’ or ‘Perahu Pengayau’ is now being used for competitive river sports especially in the Regatta Sarawak which is held every year.

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