Batu Bungan Village Placards


There were 10 placards at the Batu Bungan village across the river from Mulu National Park.  I took pictures of them and transcribed them below.  From time to time my pictures were not great omitting the last columns of text or a glare in the picture kept me from finding the word.   These are not my ideas and thoughts, but that of some official agency somewhere in Sarawak placed there for tourists like me to read.  If anyone goes there submits better pictures to me I’ll update.  Or if someone finds these placards on line, that would be even better.

Placard 1: “The Orang Ulu’ or Upper Baram”

Ulu Baram which literally translates to mean the upper reach of Baram River and its major tributaries of Tinjar, Tutoh and Apoh Rivers is a remote area of Sarawak in Malaysia.  Most of Ulu Baram belong to the traditional area of the Orang Ulu (Upriver or interior People).  The various tribes of Ulu Baram include the Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Penan, Berawan, Kiput, Saban, and Sebob amongst other smaller tribes.

The Orang Ulu typically lives in longhouses elaborately decorated with murals and woodcarvings.  They are al well-known for their intricate bead-work and detailed tattoos.  The Orang Ulu tribes can also be identified by their unique music – distictive sounds from their sape – a plucked boat-shaped lute, traditionally with two strings, nowdays usually with four strings.  A vast majority of the Orang Ulu tribes are christian but old traditional religions are still practiced in some areas.

The Kayan form the largest group of the Orang Ulu. They can be found from the midway to the upper reach of Baram River, the tributaries of Tutoh, Apoh and lowers Tinjar rivers.  Long San, along the upper Baram River is the heartland of the Kenyah.  Their culture is very similar to that of the Kayan with whom they live in close association.

A vast majority of the Kelabit are inhabitants of Bario – a remote plateau in the Sarawak Highlands, slightly over 1200 meters above sea level.  Long Seridan and Long Lellang are the other major settlements of these people in the Baram hinterland.  The Saban have a close tie with the Kelabit people.  They share a lot of things in common especially in terms of cultures, traditions and customs.  Their homeland, Long Banga and Long Pauk likes at the source of the Baram River.

The Penans are traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers.  They make their home under the rainforest canopy, deep withing the vast expanse of Sarawak’s virgin jungle, roaming the forest with their blowpipes and hunting dogs in search of wild sago, their staple diet.  The Penan are skilled weavers and make high-quality rattan.

Placard 2

The Penan are among the last of the nomadic hunter-gatherers living in the world today and the only true nomadic people of the tropical rainforest of Sarawak.  The nomadic hunting-gathering lifestyle of the Penan represents the original human condition and was the way our own ancestors lived for millions of years.

Today the Penan number is more than 10,000 and less than 300 Penans still lead a completely nomadic life in the forest.  Traditional Penan society is nomadic and survives by hunting and gathering. They do not practice agriculture or raise domestic animals for food and have no permanent settlements.  Rich, pithy starch of the sago palm in the forest is their staple food, supplemented by protein-rich fish, wild game, and jungle fruits.  The forest is essential to the Penan, providing them with everything they need to survive.  Even the settled Penan continue to rely heavily on the forest for survival.  They continue to make long journeys into the forest to collect food, medicine plants and other jungle products.

The nomadic lifestyle of the Penan is reflected by their social structure of having a few families living together in makeshift huts know as ‘Sulap’  These huts are made from timber poles held together by rattan.  Giant palm leaves were once commonly used for the roof but canvasses are preferred these days apparently due to the scarcity of palm leaves.  The floors are typically elevated about four feet or high above the ground.  Each family usually has one hut for living and a smaller one for sleeping.

Nomadic Penans move through the dense forest, narrow valleys, swift flowing streams and rapids in groups comprising of one or more families.  Each group of these nomadic Penan may consist of only five, others having as many as twenty-five people.

Every few weeks or so, the Penan will leave their ‘Sulap’ when sago palm supplies, wild game, or jungle fruits become exhausted.

Placard 3 and 4: History of the Settlement at Batu Bungan

Batu Bungan is a Penan village located along the mid stream of Melianau River, a tributary of the Tutoh River.  This interior settlement can be reached in about fifteen to thirty minutes by boat from Mulu National Park depending on the condition of the river.  It can also be accessed by a road linked from the park.

Setting out with the mountains as a backdrop, a legend of this scenic village is unfolded.  ‘Batu’ is commonly referred to in this part of the world as rock.  Bungan is said to be the name of a beautiful fairy that died on this rock; thus Batu Bungan is referred to the rock mountain overlooking the village.

The residents of Batu Bungan were once nomadic hunter gathers, roaming along the watershed of the upper reach of the Melinau River and around Mulu National Park long before it was gazetted.  Before the process of settlement began, Penan subsistence was based on wild sago and games.  They also engaged in commercial trade from long before the colonial era.  But it was during the colonial time when the British government arranged trade meetings call ‘tamu’ close to the forest of the Penan several times a year that brought about the initiative for them to consider a settled life.  The colonial master was considered as the prime mover for settling down nomadic Penan.

The Penan brought their jungle products and bartered with other settled Orang Ulu tribes in the presence of representatives of the British government.  The purpose of these trade meeting was to protect the Penan from exploitation and to provide them medical services.  Regular trade meetings of such nature brought the Penan closer to a more settle lifestyle as contact with their sedentary trading partners increased.  Assimilation with these settled people was occurring at a rapid rate.  They began to trend towards agriculture and settlement and this trend had been further encouraged by the colonial government.

With the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1950s, the Penan were told to abandon their primitive way of nomadic life.  The missionaries began converting the nomadic and semi-settled Penan displacing their original animist religion and its elaborate system of taboos and bird omens.  Large numbers of Penan began to settle in the 1960s.  The Penan are gradually adapting to a sedentary life initially in a single house dwelling.  Longhouses were later erected to cater for the growing number of people.

After Sarawak gained independence through Malaysia in 1963, there was a determined interest in providing the Penan with incentives to settle down permanently and improve their farming methods.  The settlement of Batu Bungan was established to relocated the Penan.  Towards the 1970s, the Sarawak state governments supplied the Penan communities with goods intended to help them make the transition to a settled life.  A school and clinic was built at Batu Bungan together with other amenities.  The ‘Tamu’ trading place at this village continues to provide a platform for the Penan to trade their products to this day.  Soon after the establishment of the Gunung Mulu National Park in the mid 1970s a survey was carried out by the Royal Geographic Society and the Sarawak Government Expedition team.  These provided employment opportunities and introduced many Penan to the concept of day labour and a cash economy.  When the park was declared opened for public visit, many Penan were engaged in providing their services and knowledge of the forest.  Batu Bungan is probably the most visited Penan settlement in Sarawak.

Continued employment opportunities were created with government projects implementation coupled with the tourism industry at the Mulu National Park.  The Penan started to migrate to this settlement in search of a better living place as well as to gain more income generated from these economic activities.  With the availability of a public school and a health care center, the Penan were reassured of a better future for their children.

Employments in the various industries were not the only source of income for the Penan.  The Sarawak government continued to provide better facilities and more trading places for them to commercialize their products.  Further assistance in agriculture activities was also constantly offered to them.

The Penan who now live in longhouses cultivate large plots of terraced rice fields.  While they have taken up sedentary agriculture as their main livelihood, the change from their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle has not been immediate.  The Penan will occasionally travel to the jungle to collect rattan and other jungle plants for their domestic and commercial purposes.  With the tourism industry flourishing in Mulu, the jungle products of the Penan particularly their rattan baskets, backpacks, blowpipes and many others are always in constant demand.

Placard 5: The Multi-Cultural Population of Sarawak

Sarawak has an extraordinary mix of peoples: more than 40 sub-ethnic groups each with its own disticnt language, culture and lifestyle.  The largest ethnic group is Iban(30%), one reputed to bet the most formidable headhunters on the island of Borneo.  The Ibans of today are a generous, hospitable and placid people.

The Ibans are know for their Pua Kumbu (traditional weaving), wooden carvings, and beadwork.  Iban tattoos which were originally symbols of bravery for the Iban warriors have become amongst the most distinctive in the world.  Besides that, the Ibans are also famous for their tuak, a sweet rice wine which is served during festive occasions.  A great majority of Iban practice Christianity.  However, like most other ethnic groups in Sarawak, they still hold strong to their many traditional rituals and beliefs.  Colorful festivals such as the Gawai Dayak (harvest festival) and Gawai Antu (festival of the dead) are celebrated by the Ibans.

The Chinese first came to Sarawak as traders and explorers in the 6th century.  Today, they make up 26% of the population of Sarawak and consist of communities built from the economic migrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The Sarawak Chinese belong to a wide range of dialect speaking groups, the most significant being Hokkien, Hakka, Foochow, Teochew, Cantonese and Henghua.  The Chinese maintain their ethnic heritage and culture and celebrate all the major cultural festivals, most notably Chinese New Year and the Hungry Ghost Festival.  The Sarawak Chinese are predominantly Buddhists and Christians.

The Malays make up 22% of the population in Sarawak.  Traditionally fisherman, these seafaring people chose to form settlements on the banks of the many rivers of Sarawak. Today many Malays have migrated to the cities where they are heavily involved in the public and private sectors and taken up various professions.  Traditional Malay kampungs(village) – many of which are still located by rivers on the outskirts of major towns and cities, play home to traditional cottage industries.  The Malays are famed for the wood carvings, silver and brass crafting as well as traditional Malay textile weaving with silver and gold thread called kain songket.  Malays are Muslim by religion, having brought the faith to Asia some 600 years ago.

Placard 6: MultiCultural Population of Sarawak #2

Concentrated mainly on the West end of Borneo, the Bidayuhs make up 10% of the population in Sarawak.  The peace-loving, meek-natured Bidayuhs are mostly found further inland, hence earning them the name of “land Dayaks”.  Typical of the Sarawak indigenous groups, the Bidayuhs are will-known for their hospitality and are reputed to be the best makers of the ueak, or rice wine.  The Bidayuhs speak a number of different but related dialectics. Wile some of them still practice traditional religions, the majority of modern-day Bidayuhs embraced the Christian Faith.

Melanaus which make up about 5% of the people of Sarawak have been thought to be amongst the original settles of Sarawak. Originally from mukah, the Melanaus traditionally have lived in tall houses.  Nowdays, they have adopted a Malay lifestyle, living in Kampong-type settlements.  Traditionally, Melanaus were fisherman and today, they are reputed as being some of the finest boat-builders and craftsmen.

While the Melanaus are ethnically different from the Malays, their lifestyles and practices are quite similar especially in larger towns and cities where most Melanaus have embraced the Islamic faith.  Today most of them are Muslims but some are Christians, though they still celebrate traditional animist festivals such as the annual Kaul Festival.

Orang Ulu referes to the upriver or interior people and is a term used to collectively describe the numerous tribes that live upriver in Sarawak’s vast interior.  Such groups include the maor Kayan and Kenyah tribes, and the simaller neighboouring groups of the saebob, Kejaman, Punan, Ukit, Kiput, Berawan, Saban and Penan.  Now days, the definition also includes the down-river tribes of the Lun Bawang as well as the plateau-dwelling Kelabits.  The various Orang Ulu traditionally live in long houses.  They can also be identified by their unique music that is the distinctive sounds form their sape.

Although most Orang Ulu has become Christians, some are still pagans, unaffected by modern influences.

Placard 7 The story of ‘Bungan’

There are several versions as to the mythology of ‘Bungan’.  In some community of the Penan where animism is practiced, ‘Bungan’ is believed to be the supreme god.  The Penan of Mulu considers ‘Bungan’ as folklore.  Different stories of Bungan are told by different individuals.   In one version ‘Bungan’ was believed to be a half human-fairy.

In the beginning, there was this hunter-gatherer who lived alone in the wood.  He would go out hunting everyday.  Life went on as usual until one day when he came back from his outing; he found his home cleaned, garments done and meal prepared.  The following day, the same thing happened and thought the days that followed.  The young man became curious and tried to find out who was behind all these.  Instead of going to his usual hunting ground, he hid himself withing his compound hoping to catch a glimpse of what was truly happening.

To his amazement and thrill, he saw a beautiful young lady tending to the daily chores.  He immediately appeared and greeted the lady.  Caught unawares, the lady tried to run away.  She found herself trapped a a high cliff with the hunter in hot pursuit.  In order to avoid capture she flew to a high rock mountain which had a very steep cliff.  The hunter could not catch her so he shot her with his blowpipe.  The young lady was fatally wounded but the young hunter could not reach her body.   Soon after, young shoots begun to sprout out from where her body lay and this shoots came to be called ‘buluh perindu’ meaning irresistible love.  Some even interpret buluh perindu as a magical and sacred gra?? to be used in magical love spells, philters, and love rituals.  Thereafter, the Penans called this place Batu Bungan because the incident happened at a rock mountain.

Another version told is about a legend that surrounds a village called Batu Bungan.  ‘Batu’ refers to the rock mountain and Bungan is said to be the name of t a folklore princess who died waiting in hunger and exasperation for her lover to return.  She made a bamboo flute which she played as she waited in vain for her lover’s return.  The villagers heard the sad melody and following the tune, found her dead body amongst the rock of Batu Bungan.

Placard 8: Penan Language

The Penan language is classified under the Austronesian language family of the Malayo-Polynesigan branch.  It forms it own group within the Borneo branch of the Borneo-Phillippines languages.  The Penan language includes two dialects; Easter- Spoken by the Penan of upper Baram district and Western- the Tinjar towards Belaga region.  It is spoken by these two main groups respectively that are sometimes mutually intelligible.  It is somewhat related to the Kenyah Languages.  From the observation of phonological and lexical systems, especially in the field of ethnobiology, it demonstrates what kind of affiliations is shared between Penan and Kenyah language.

The Penan language is unique in that it has words for every forest plant and creature, but there is no word for forest.  The Penan probably took the forest so much for granted that they never had a word for it.  They only refer to the forest as ‘Tongtana’ which mean the world where people live and the life sustain.  The forest was the world and vice-versa.  Thank you or goodbye is also not found in the Penan language.  This is probably due to the nature of a nomadic egalitarian society and traditional culture of sharing where nothing belongs to an individual.

The Penan language is linguistically interesting since it may use seval words for varying degrees of commitment and consensus among different groups.  The Penan have six words for varying levels of “we” depnding on how extensive the described group in the society.  To the Penan, all discourse in other language has a serous subject-object problem, as who’s “we” is never quite clear — it requires cultural context to actually interpret who “we” might be.  There are at least ten words for sago palm, yet have no work to describe the status of a domestic animal and no words for thief.

Commercial trading between the Penan and other neighbouring settled tribes was a long history.  Interaction between these people over time had resulted in much linguistic borrowing from these settled tribes such as the Berawan, Iban, and also Malay or from English through Malay.  About a quarter of Penan terms are not actually Penan but adopted from other tribes.  Nowadays, many Penan are able to understand and converse in the languages of other tribes.  Beside vocal communication, secret forest sign language is frequently used by the Penan to convey messages or to communicate with others about the jungle.  Various signs in the form of sticks or branches arrangements, cuttings on the tree or folding of leaves may indicate different activities, encounters, notices or warning sin the jungle.

Placards 9 and 10: Culutural Beliefs and behavior.

The Penan are traditionally forest nomads and hunter-gatherers who dwell in the tropical rainforest of Borneo’s interior. Being a forest wanderer the Penan practice a system of animistic or traditionalism.  They believe that every think in the jungle such as the tree, animals, mountain rock or even ??? has its own spirit.  The jungle is where lives can sustain themselves, where locations, animals, and plants have names and are known and where the spirits roam.  Maintaining a harmonious relationship to the spirits is essential for jungle survival and prosperity.

The existence of a near endless array of mostly unnamed,  animist spirits that are loosely connected with the myriad of ??? is greatly recognized.  Although taboo desecration is believed to be associated with the ??? ???, there is no strict amount of belief in respect ot spirit placation.  Dream ??? offer advice on the causes of infirmity episodes, but their recommendations are neither necessarily accepted nor firmly enforced.  In Penan tradition, when someone is missing because of unnatural causes the people will know about it through their dreams or the weather. At least prior to premanent settlement the Penan appear to have suffered from a limited suite of illnesses and treated them with plant medicines.

The Penan traditionally believe in bird omens by oberving and interpreting flights.  Fundamentally birds are used as pathfinders.  The movements of one particular bird take a travelling Penan in one direction, while the song or another species may indicate a pause or a new direction. The basic principle is the same:  The actions of the Penan are to a certain extent, interlinked with that of certain birds.  Their melody and behavior is interpreted according to a significantly complex knowledge of sounds and movements and these are critical to the Penan.

Birds are also important for divinatory purposes.  Feathers are worn for religious decoration.  They are central in religious account and religious dances very often entail the use of either feathers or other parts taken from birds.  The religious representations of the Penan are the forest harvest the same way as the food people eat or the substance they use for the manufacture of various goods.

Death is taken serious in Penan society.  Both children and adults should not be noisy near burial ground because the Penan believe tha tthe soul of the dead should rest peacefully.  Once a dead person is buried, the will move out from taht location to another new location and they will no longer mention the dead person’s name. If a dead person’s name had to be mentioned: only the burial site of the dead person will be referred to.

Festivals are not part of traditional Penan culture.  However there was some wealth of rituals within the animist system in the tye interaction of the forest and the setting and the spiritual world seen to inhabit it.  Some rituals were performed to expel bad luck in hunting trips or to end a period fo unsuccessful hunts which involved shedding blood onto a sago leaf.  By folding and burying the blood stained sago leaf, some Penan hunters believe it could change their destiny.

In Penan society, correct behavior is learned by example rather than rigorous discipline.  The importance of sharing is instilled in their children from the earliest age.  Young boys mastering the art of hunting, for example, are encouraged to share the smallest of animal, allotting equal portions of the meat to other children.

Since the 1930’s, Chrisitian missionaries have been converting the Penan to Christiantity.  A great number of Penan embrace the religion, though some of their ancestor’s culturers and beliefs are still preservered. Since accpeting this new religion into their life, the Penan’s cultural believe and behaviour has changed dramatically.  many Penan who have left the forest and joined Christian churches believe they were very lucky because they had escaped the “lure of evil birds.” Most Penan, consequently have given up their nomadic lifestyle and the majority now life in small villages at the rim of their former home in the forest.  This kind of settlement brings the nomads in close relation with agriculture, settled peoples, and tribes and soon the forest-culture of the Penan will be lost.  However, not all Penan have accepted this new lifestyle and some try to balance things out.  Belief in myths and spirits are still evident in some areas.  The Penan numbering to about 300 or so still remain nomadic and maintain their traditional culture and behaviour.