Exploring the heritage of the Punan community as Gawai Dayak approaches

Appeasing the "batu duong" or "living stones"—a ritual rooted in the ancient "Beyok" (augury) belief system, predating the Kayan's Apo Lagan.`

By Calvin Jemarang

AS the Gawai Dayak, Sarawak’s vibrant Harvest Festival, draws near, it presents a timely opportunity to delve into the rich history of the Punan community, a lesser-known minority group in the region. The Punan are predominantly found in Central Sarawak, specifically within the Bintulu and Kapit administrative divisions.

In Kapit Division, Punan longhouses are situated along the Upper Rejang River, between Belaga and Merit. These settlements are bordered upstream by the Tanjong, Kayan, and Sekapan communities, while downstream, below the Bikei Rapids, the Iban and Beketan communities reside. Four Punan longhouses are nestled between the Ba’o Rapids and Bikei Rapids, accessible only via former logging roads.


In Tatau District, Punan longhouses are located along the lower Kakus River, flanked by Iban longhouses both upstream and downstream. Meanwhile, in Sebauh District, a Punan longhouse can be found in Pandan, adjacent to the Vaie Segaan village. Further up the Kemena River, along the Jelalong River, stands Rumah Hassan and Rumah Nyaring Minggu, the sole Punan longhouses in the area near the Sebuang River. Beyond these, Penan communities mixed with Iban are found upstream, while Kayan longhouses are situated immediately downstream of Rumah Hassan.

This intricate tapestry of settlements highlights the Punan’s unique positioning within the diverse ethnic landscape of Sarawak, providing a compelling backdrop to the Gawai Dayak celebrations.

Pesavik to Apo Lagan

The Punan community’s traditional festivals, known as “savik” or “pesavik,” are deeply intertwined with their rice farming heritage. Following the rice harvest, termed “tupu getom”, each Punan family would express gratitude to “telangan” (God) for the fruitful yield. Their supreme deity, Bua, was revered as the creator and almighty god. The pesavik was an annual celebration, or “karen toun,” symbolising thankfulness for the harvest. This ancient belief system was referred to as “adet beyok,” a form of augury practiced by the community.

The arrival of the Kayan people around 1700 CE introduced a new belief system called “Apo Lagan.” This marked a gradual decline in the prominence of savik among the Punan, influenced partly by the political dominance of the Kayan. In the Rejang area, the Kayan exerted significant control over the Punan, promoting their belief system and festivities.

More importantly, the Kayan also promoted the use of their language. Early explorers like Robert Burns, the first European to set foot in Belaga around 1848, frequently mistook Punan for Kayan in his accounts of the Upper Rejang.

Apart from acculturation to Kayan culture, the Punan also experienced other forms of cultural integration, including intermarriage. Burns was offered a bride believed to be of Punan and Kayan descent. His daughter, identified by Mukah Resident Claude Augustus Champion de Crespigny in 1881 as Lire, married a Tubau Kayan.

Before the Kayan influence, Punan aristocrats had strong connections with the coastal Melanau groups. In the Rejang region, Bejeang, the chief of Punan Tepeleang (now Punan Sama), married Beneang, a Telian Melanau. Their descendants continue to lead the Punan Sama. In Tatau, Sega’s wife, Libi, was the daughter of Mawar, a Melanau aristocrat from Oya. Their son, Orang Kaya Sungan, married Merisim, a Melanau noble from Penat, a coastal village that still exists between Oya and Mukah. The descendants of Sega and Libi continue to lead the Punan in Kakus to this day, with nearly half of them integrating into the Malay, Melanau, and Vaie (or Segaan) communities.

“Bepela elou Bungan” — A communal gathering to receive blessings from a Bungan priest. The “bepela” ritual gathering has its origins in the traditional pesavik celebration.

Bungan Malan Peselung Luan

From 1700 to 1947, the Punan community adhered to the Kayan’s Apo Lagan belief system and participated in their associated festivities. However, a significant shift occurred in 1948 with the arrival of the Kenyah people, led by a man named Jok Apui. Disillusioned with the spread of Christianity, Jok Apui sought to revive the traditional Kenyah religion, reforming it into “Bungan Malan Peselung Luan.” By 1950, most Punan, including those in Kakus and Jelalong, had embraced this new belief system. Today, only a few individuals in Punan Ba, Biau, and Sama still adhere to the Bungan cult. With the rise of Bungan, the Punan began referring to their pesavik as “elou Bungan” (Bungan day).

In contemporary times, most Punan have converted to Christianity, with about a third adopting Islam. Consequently, the traditional savik is no longer celebrated. Instead, the Punan observe “Gawai Dayak,” a festival similar to that of the Iban. This celebration has evolved into a vibrant cultural event observed throughout Sarawak, reflecting the community’s rich heritage and the dynamic changes it has undergone.

The transformation of Punan religious practices and cultural celebrations underscores the resilience and adaptability of the community. The shift from the ancient savik to the modern Gawai Dayak illustrates a fascinating journey of cultural evolution, shaped by external influences and internal reformations. Today, the Punan continue to honor their heritage while embracing new identities, offering a compelling narrative of tradition and transformation in the heart of Borneo. — DayakDaily