Spooky Mukah: Hanging coffins, burial totems and human sacrifices (Travelogue Day 4)

What's left of the carving on Jerunai Sri Tellian.

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By D’Drift Team

BINTULU, Oct 14: Though the Melanau burial custom sounds spooky, eerie and even cruel at the mention of coffins, burial poles and human sacrifices, those were part of ancient burial rites for Melanau aristocrats (‘bangsawan’) that are no longer practised by the ethnic community.

Melanaus, in the early days when they had a hierarchy to reflect a man’s position in the society, did not bury dead aristocrats. Instead, the bodies were kept in coffins resembling boats made of Bornean ironwood (‘belian’) and placed on platforms suspended about two metres from the ground.


These so-called hanging coffins (‘kubur gantung’), at least the ones that are still intact till this day, are over 100 years old now, according to the present day residents of Kampung Tellian, Mukah.

Hanging coffins behind a lodge at Kampung Sri Tellian.

The choice to use Borneo ironwood for the coffins was mainly due to the wood’s high resistance to hot weather and rain over decades. According to ethnography research in 2011, a 78-year-old chieftain of Kampung Tellian said local folks believe the hanging coffins were built because of natural disasters such as floods in the area.

The idea behind suspending these coffins (no ropes are involved) high up in the air was to avoid bodies from floating away in flood water while preparations were being made for burial ceremonies.

The hanging coffin was therefore only temporary, before remains of the deceased were moved and permanently kept in a burial pole as tall as 15 metres which the Melanau people called ‘kelideng’ or ‘jerunai’.

Both cylindrical in shape, hollow inside, and made also of Bornean ironwood, the ones with carvings are called ‘kelideng’ while the plain ones are ‘jerunai’. Usually, the outside of the pillars would be decorated with carved motifs such as dragons, tigers, snakes, mice and so on, subject to the rank of the aristocrat.

It was also believed that carvings based on flora and fruits marked burial poles housing female aristocrats.

A ‘kelideng’ or a ‘jerunai’, in simpler words, is a grave for a Melanau aristocrat back in the day.

Remnants of the Jerunai Sri Tellian right in the middle of a housing area.

Cruelty or honour?

This is not the end of the ‘jerunai’ story. Here comes the skin-crawling part.

On a burial pole, three hollows would be made where the bottom and middle ones are reserved to house the corpse or skeletons of the deceased and valuable items as supplies for the afterlife.

Meanwhile, the cavity at the top is for servants or those specially chosen by the deceased while he was alive, for the purpose of a human sacrifice (yikes!).

Yes, the Melanau custom demanded, when erecting the burial pole, that one or two slaves be tied to the top of the pole and left to die of hunger or thirst to accompany the aristocrat into the next life.

Of course, this was a cultural practice from a long, long time ago. In 1842, British adventurer Sir James Brooke banned the practice when he became the Rajah of Sarawak.

With the passage of time and arrival of Western religion thereafter, the burial pole custom had long been abandoned by the Melanau community of Sarawak which now is comprised mostly of Muslims and Christians.

As of this day, there are only four standing burial poles in the vicinity of Kampung Tellian while three others have already rotted and collapsed.

You’d probably think that ghostly tales like these would scare away tourists especially foreigners, particularly when some of the hanging coffins and burial poles are still around. But Lamin Dana Cultural Boutique Lounge resident manager Andrea James said otherwise.

“No, the foreigners are never frightened of these stories. Actually they find them interesting. Besides, there’s nothing to be afraid of, nothing is left in the coffins or poles anymore, not even the skeletons,” she explained when met by the D’Drift Team at the lounge yesterday (Oct 13).

D’Drift Team arriving at Lamin Dana Cultural Boutique Lounge.

As for the Melanau community at Kampung Tellian today, the burial poles have somehow become of medicinal value to them whereby wooden bits of the ‘jerunai’ act as a local remedy for stomachaches.

Cecelia Jailah Jana, who is owner of the house right beside Jerunai Sri Tellian, said small amounts of sawdust would be taken from the pole, and later mixed with drinking water or made into medicine.

The remedy is especially effective for stomachaches, she emphasised.

It is said this remedy only has an effect on those who got sick from disturbing or disrespecting the poles.

Cecelia narrating about the Jerunai Sri Tellian.

Mukah’s must-try — the umai-sago combo

There was no reason for D’Drift Team not to eat Melanau delicacies when we were right in the heart of Mukah. A trip to Mukah will not be complete without eating ‘umai’ — a type of raw fish salad served with sago pellets, which is another staple food for the Melanau people.

A quick search on the Internet found a highly recommended seafood restaurant named Riverside Seafood within walking distance from the inn we were staying at but we drove there (we told ourselves we needed to conserve our energy).

Other than the ‘umai ccampur’ which was the highlight of our meal, we ordered a bowl of sea cucumber soup and a small plate of mixed vegetables, just enough for three persons.

We weren’t up for a big meal as it was already rather late at night yesterday when we sat down to eat, despite the huge array of food (especially seafood) on the menu.

‘Umai campur’ served with sago pellets and chilli paste.

The food was as delicious as described in the online reviews, so we had a scrumptious dinner despite its seeming simplicity. The atmosphere at Riverside Seafood was pretty casual, with high beam ceilings, warm lighting and a view of the river.

It is definitely a place-to-eat-at in Mukah recommended by D’Drift Team.

Cozy ambience at Riverside Seafood restaurant.

5-min toilet break turns into 3-hour Balingian tour

At 9am today, the D’Drift Team set about continuing our journey up north to Bintulu, passing through Balingian and Kuala Tatau.

We were only supposed to stop for a toilet break when we arrived at Balingian new township at about 9.45am. Many shops were still closed and it was relatively quiet at the settlement, so we thought there was nothing much to be explored.

We would have missed a whole town of fun sightings, if it weren’t for a coincidental meeting with Che Ghazali, special officer to Balingian assemblyman Abdul Yakub Arbi, at one of the coffee shops!

Ghazali warmly offered to introduce us to a few of Balingian’s popular spots which he viewed as potential tourist attractions. Hopping on and riding off in his pickup truck, the team was led to visit the Balingian Waterfront, several of the nearby jetties, the old Balingian bazaar and finally Kuala Balingian.

Ghazali (right) chilling with D’Drift Team on one of Balingian jetties.
Balingian old bazaar with mostly ‘kopitiams’ and grocery stores.

It was really an unexpectedly fruitful expedition in this laidback and tight-knit community where everyone practically knows everyone.

Balingian, would be a memorable stop for those looking for a quiet, slow-paced day-trip along the coast. If you’re a fishing enthusiast, bring along your rods and we’re as sure as eggs is eggs, you’ll meet a coterie of fishing buddies. — Dayakdaily

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