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Symbolism and traditions behind a Melanau ‘9 Pikul’ Wedding

Indigenous to Sarawak, the Melanau people are among the earliest settlers in the land of hornbills.

The Melanau social ranks can be differentiated as pangeran or 15 pikul (royalty), 9 pikul, 7 pikul betirih and dipen or ulun. Each rank has a unique customs on their own and might be slightly different from the other ranks. One pikul is equivalent to 60 kg or 133 lbs of brass.

During the Cultural Snippets session of the Rainforest World Music Festival 2018, Salliza Sideni the gallery manager of the Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita shared how a Melanau 9 pikul wedding was uniquely held.

The session was organised by local NGO, Friends or Sarawak Museum.

Salliza Sideni (centre) explaining the intricate steps in a Melanau 9 Pikul wedding recently during Rainforest World Music Festival 2018.

Before the Melanau 9 pikul wedding

”Before the wedding, there will be the surong brian ceremony. It is literally translated as giving of gifts or bringing wealth to the bride,” she said.

According to Salliza, the future groom first and foremost will present his future bride one gold ring to signify the engagement.

Then there are also be customary gifts or adet including a gold ring, one gantang ( a measurement equalling to 2.6kg) of paddy, nine pieces of clothes, one piece of songket, one long sword, one piece of sugarcane, one unripe banana and one coconut with its husk completely intact.

During the engagement ceremony, the future bride has to take the unripe banana and sugarcane.

The unripe banana and sugarcane symbolise the worst and sweet moments that the bride will experience in marriage.

“In the olden days, brass items like cannons were offered. Today, there are other engagement gifts which are agreed by both parties including handbags, perfumes, shoes and so on.”

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There is of course, a dowry of money as agreed by both parties.

She added, “Nowadays, the amount of dowry is based on the bride’s education level. A PhD holder has a dowry amounting up to RM21,000.”

A few days before the wedding, Bendera Tatunggul (colourful flags) will be placed within the vicinity of the wedding venues. This is to inform people about the upcoming wedding.

Salliza pointed out, “A minimum of seven different colours of flags would be needed for a 9 pikul wedding with a coconut husk hanging from each flag,

“A family’s rank or pikul can be told from the number of colours used for the flags.”

After the ceremony, the bride’s family will plant the coconut husk while preparing for the wedding.

Some elders believe that the growth of coconut tree signify the success of their marriage.

How the Bendera Tatunggul will look like.

On the day of the 9 pikul wedding

A Melanau 9 pikul wedding starts with the head of custom or ketua adat receiving a sword from one of the representatives from the bride family.

The sword will be presented to the groom family as a symbol of protection for the bride in the absence of her husband.

During the ceremony, the groom’s mother will present a piece of songket brunei to the bride.

This is then followed by feeding both the bride and groom with belen. Salliza explained that this “would actually be betel nut wrapped in betel leaf. Belen is believed to have the ability to calm both of them throughout the wedding ceremony.”

In the case of a Melanau-Muslim wedding, there will also be khatam (recitation) of the Quran and bersanji (prayers).

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There will also be an influence of Malay culture in a Melanau-Muslim wedding with ceremonies like ‘merenjis air mawar’ by the family elders.

Once the wedding is done, the newlyweds would go back to their homes to do another ceremony.

“Traditionally, the newlyweds would ascend and descend the house stairs three times. This is to symbolise that they are starting their new life together.”

How a traditional Melanau wedding chamber would look like.

Three days after the wedding ceremony

There is another ceremony held three days after the wedding called adat petudui.

“In the olden days, strict Melanau customs prohibit newlyweds from leaving the house for fear of still having ‘darah manis’ or sweet blood.

“The bathing ceremony is to cleanse and further bless the newlyweds.”

Adat petudui usually takes place before the Subuh (morning) prayer at around 4.30am. They will use water that has been kept in jars for three days.

Salliza continued, “Once done, both newlyweds will perform morning prayers together with the guests and then they usually open their wedding gifts after breakfast.”

Her sharing was based on the weddings organised in her own family who hail from Kampung Penakub Hilir Mukah.

A traditional Melanau tall house.
Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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