Celebrating Thanksgiving Day – The Malaysian Borneo Way

Words by Janice Ng
Photos by Yeong Hui Min and Hamza Delbar

Pesta Keaamatan. A term that perhaps rings a (school) bell to most if not all who had endured attended the Malaysian education system, having emblazoned on several school textbooks. This festivity is generally told and portrayed as an annual celebration among the Kadazandusuns in the state of Sabah that lasts for the entire month of May, culminating with a state public holiday on the 30th and 31st May. But what then makes this fascinating observance truly one of its kind beyond a few extra days off the calendar? With that the ISO Sabah team, unexpectedly along with much excitement, set forth to one such Keaamatan festival held in Kampung Kiau Nuluh (the celebration was held later than the conventional date as the organiser of this festival, the Kadazandusun Cultural Association (KDCA) Gompito, decided on the date as then) in search of discovering its underlying significance while experiencing its unique entirety first-hand.


DSC_0287_proc.jpgA day of festivity and high spirits in Kampung Kiau Nuluh

The Borneo state was once constituted of a rural agrarian-based population. The Keaamatan festival is regarded as one of the several harvest festivals held in Sabah, particularly the Rice Harvest Festival. Rice is notable to be Sabah’s golden crop, the grain of life. Thus, the Keaamatan festival is deemed to be the most renowned harvest festival of the state; that it is also widely acknowledged just as the Harvest Festival. The festival is intricately connected with rice cultivation, symbolising the end of the planting cycle. The Kadazandusun views that the land is a gift from the Creator that connects them to the past, present and future. The festival’s association with this cycle of life comes under the ambit of what is known as Momolianism, the belief system and life philosophy of the Kadazandusun.

The origin of this festival of grandeur has been much said to lie on a mystique antecedent to a local indigenous folklore. Legend has it that the Creator, Kinorohingan and his wife Suminundu had a human maiden daughter named Huminodun. In the days of yore, the Kadazandusuns suffered a devastating famine. Out of compassion, Kinorohingan sacrificed his beloved daughter to save the people from starvation. Huminodun’s remains were then dispersed and sown over the land and from these sprang the first rice plants. The Kadazandusun community believes that the transfigured sacrifice of Huminodun is embodied as the spirit of rice known as Bambazon/Bambarayon. From henceforth, the Kadazandusuns commemorate this great sacrifice as the Tadau Kaamatan or Tadau Kokotuan in thanksgiving for the bountiful harvest and to honour Bambazon/Bambarayon (also locally referred to as semangat padi). The festival is also an occasion where the promise of friendship and brotherhood is renewed through mutual forgiveness.

The Keaamatan festival traditionally is observed in six ritual stages:

  1. The Kumogos Ceremony

Just before a harvest, a Bobohizan/Bobolian (high priestess) will select and tie seven stalks of the best rice from a plot of paddy field. These stalks will only be reaped after the particular field plot has been completely harvested. The seven stakes of rice will then be scattered all over the rice field. This gesture is to inform the other spirits who may be present among the paddy field not to cause any disturbance when the harvesting work is to be commenced and that remuneration will be bestowed to each of them after the harvest.


  1. The Kumotob Ceremony

The Bobohizan/Bobolian will then select another seven stalks of the best rice from another area of the paddy field yet to be reaped. The chosen stalks are then tied together and placed in a tadang (a type of basket for storing rice). The remaining rice in the field are then harvested and made into seeds for the future planting season.


  1. The Posisip Ceremony

The high priestess at that particular moment proceeds to a rice hut together with the seven tied-up stalks of rice that were placed in the tadang. While reciting chants, she takes out the bundle of rice stalks and inserts them in a bamboo pole, also for rice storage called tangkob. The recital of the chants is to call the spirit of the rice to stay in the hut until the next planting season, that is when the rice spirits are called to the paddy field again.


  1. The Poiib Ceremony

In the rice hut, the high priestess carefully pours the rice into the tangkob. This process is repeated several times until the tangkob is filled with all the rice. The Bobohizan/Bobolian then recite chants appealing to the rice spirits to keep watch over the rice stored in the tangkob.


  1. The Magavau Ceremony

This is the most significant ceremony in the sequence of events of the Harvest Festival. Magavau focuses in the restoration of Bambazon/Bambarayon. In the olden days, this ritual is performed in the paddy field on the night of the first full moon after the harvest. Nowadays, it is carried out in the house of the owner of the field. Magavau in general is a momentous celebration ceremony in commemoration of Bambazon/Bambarayon, namely to respect with semangat padi.


  1. The Humabot Ceremony

This final stage of the Keaamatan festival observation is in the form of abundant merry-making and entertainment. Humabot is celebrated at village, district and state levels. A myriad variety of entertainment and activities are held throughout the celebration.


Culminating the festivities is the selection of the Unduk Ngadau. This native term connoting Harvest Festival Queen came from the phrase runduk tadau which means ‘the girl crowned in rays of sunlight’. According to the legend, after the great sacrifice, seven days later Unduk Ngadau appeared, believed to be the reincarnation of the spirit Huminodun. The term Unduk Ngadau since then exemplifies Huminodun’s beauty and goodness. The chosen maiden-of-honour should bear semblance to and will represent all that is virtuous in the revered Huminodun. Other prerequisites include to be single and of 18 years of age and above, plus of Kadazandusun descent fluent in the mother tongue. Early selections are held in every district with the winner representing the locale for the finals at the annual host district, Penampang. The Unduk Ngadau is responsible as an ambassador representing the state on a global platform by promoting the culture and traditions of Kadazandusun.

As they always say, what’s the festivity without the dancing? The Sumazau dance can be regarded as an artform that is uniquely Sabahan. This traditional folk dance was inspired from an eagle’s flight patterns witnessed by farmers resting in the fields during the harvest season. The arm gestures are likened to that of a bird, floating gracefully at approximately shoulder level with slight bending of the elbow and wrist or alternatively is swung gently like a pendulum, parallel at the sides of the body. Every dancer is only able to travel a few centimetres apart from the other dancers without coming contact into each other. This artform of sheer grace is also usually supported by an accompaniment of gongs in various sizes. Dancers of the Sumazau comprise of both males and females, doned in their traditional costumes [link to Hui Min’s traditional costumes article]. While the Sumazau is often performed during festive occasions and gatherings, mainly the Keaamatan festival, the dance primarily expresses the celebration the arrival of Bambazon/Bambarayon.


DSC_0227_proc.jpgDancers performing with much warmth and grace, welcoming the audience as the event commences

Another one-of-a-kind highlight during the Harvest Festival is the partaking of tapai. Tapai or lihing is the traditional rice wine; a favourite among the locals in the state. The fermented rice is typically brewed with sasad (yeast) to speed up the fermentation process. The mixture is left aside in a large crock or tajau for a week or two. To extract the final product, a small stick called sumbiling is used to suck up water from the large jars. This stick, which is made from fermented cassava, is utilised for drinking the rice wine itself as well. In addition, a special glass made of bamboo, singgarung, is used to serve the tapai/lihing. Tapai/lihing plays such a prominent role in the Keaamatan festival that a rice wine making competition is normally held as part of the festivity. The winner is selected based on the potentness in achieving the ideal bittersweet taste of rice wine.


DSC_0721_proc.jpgThe ‘contenders’-in-the-running with the sumbiling and singgarung subtly settling in the background

DSC_0729_proc.jpgSuspense in the air as intense judging is underway for the rice wine making competition – who will eventually emerge as a victor?

Other activities involved in the camaraderie include Sugandoi (singing contest), gong competition, traditional sports tournament and handicrafts display.

As with any other cultural observances, the Keaamatan festival has its own set of taboos to be strictly adhered. A few intriguing examples include live paddy plants, especially those with fruit grain ears, are not to be used as part of the decorative or ornamental plants for the festival. However, they can be utilised for ceremonial aspects or rituals like the Magavau, but these paddies must be guarded against being wasted and disrespectfully trodden. A rather unusual taboo of the Keaamatan festival is that mock-up wedding displays are not to be part of the festival programmes.

Indeed, beyond an extra holiday, beyond just another cultural observance, the Keaamatan festival delves even deeper. It lays the roots of their identity; the heart and soul of the Kadazandusun – truly uniquely immemorial of its kind.

Meanwhile, do check out (here!) [link to Chrish’s festival article] our encounters with the locals of Kampung Kiau Nuluh as we discovered and embraced their food, festivity and hospitality of their Keaamatan festival.

Kotobian Tadau Tagazo Do Keaamatan Kampung Kiau!

This dancer/cheerleader has conquered half of Southeast Asia to date; next up Asia? The current item being prioritised in her bucket list at the moment is to witness the Japan 2020 Olympics.


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