5 traditional uses for tajau among Malaysian Borneo communities

Expensive cars, designers bags and huge mansions might be the modern-day symbol of wealth but in the olden days – particularly among some Malaysian Borneo communities – a jar of clay called the ‘tajau’ was a sign of one’s financial status.

Every jar has its own distinctiveness when it comes to height, design, shape and even colour.

People in Borneo have been using this jar since the 9th century which they obtained through trading with traders from China.

Besides a status symbol, here are at least five traditional uses of tajau among the Malaysian Borneo communities:
Sabah Museum 28
Some of the tajau displayed at Sabah Museum.
1.As a form of currency to pay fine or wages

How do you pay for your crime in the olden days? In the Iban culture, anyone who was guilty of murder, adultery, theft needed to pay a fine in the form of a tajau.

If you could not afford one, then you would become a slave to the person you had wronged.

Additionally, the olden Iban communities also paid their manang (shamans) and lemambang (poets) in tajau during certain ritual ceremonies.

2.As storage

Our modern society is blessed – and cursed when it comes to plastic waste – with containers to store our food and drinks. For the olden communities in Borneo, they used tajau to store their dry food and water, although they called them by different names according to their purpose.

For example, there is one type of tajau which the Iranun people of Sabah call Mantaya Gadung. The Iranun people, particularly in Kota Belud, used this tajau to store sugarcane juice.

They also used the jar to store salt which they called Mantaya Binaning.

Another example is the Dusun community of Tamparuli which used tajau pugion as a container to store their rice.

Tajau 1
A 19th century tajau made in China displayed at Sabah Museum.
3.It also serves as dowry

Since the value of the jar is high, it also functioned as a dowry for some communities of Borneo.

In the Murut community, there are several types of tajau used as dowry. One of the most highly prized dowry items is the tajau tiluan.

They secured the jar with rattan to protect it from breakage during the journey to the bride’s family home.

4.To make rice wine

Both Malaysian regions of Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak share another common use for the tajau: making and storing rice wine.

Before any big celebration such as Gawai, the Iban people would ferment rice together with yeast in the jar to make tuak (rice wine).

Meanwhile, the Kadazandusun used the jar for the same purpose to make their kind of rice wine called ‘lihing’.

5.For burial

The Archaeology Division of Sabah Museum Department did three expeditions in 2000, 2007 and 2008 to Kampung Pogunon, Penampang.

There, they did research on ancient Kadazandusun graves where the jars were used to store the remains of their loved ones.

They believed the jar was the home and a necessity for the deceased in the next world.

The researchers also found that the Kadazandusun people there were practicing this kind of burial as early as the 15th century.

Also in Sabah, the Murut communities buried their loved ones in a huge tajau called bangkalan.

Two days afterwards, they would carry the jar in a procession to the cemetery.

Among the Iban people in Sarawak, the tajau was used as some sort of a tombstone or grave marker.

According to Iban ethnologist Benedict Sandin, a jar would be placed at the head of the deceased after burial. Then, they would build a small hut to cover the grave.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who 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 is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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