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Looking back to a Melanau berbayoh ceremony at Balingian in 1947

The berbayoh ceremony is a type of traditional healing ritual practiced by Melanau pagans.

Since many Melanau have embraced Christianity and Islam, such ritual is rarely in practice.

According to the former Mukah district officer W.G. Morison, the berbayoh ceremony is performed for minor ailments while the berayun is reserved for more serious cases.

The purpose behind these rituals is to cure the sickness by exorcising the spirit which is supposed to have entered the body of the patient.

Even those days, only few Europeans had witnessed a berbayoh ceremony, Morison was one of the few who managed to observe one.

Here is the account of the berbayoh ceremony in which the former district officer witnessed in Balingian:

A candle is one of the tools needed in a berbayoh ceremony on top of a gendang (drum) and parang. Credit: Pixabay.

A group of relatives of the patient were seated at one end of the room; one of these, a woman, was the drum (gendang) beater who beat her drum in quick time on and off throughout the performance.

At the other end of the room by herself, except for the bayoh and the bayoh’s assistant, lay the patient.

In this case both the bayoh and her assistant were women, as also was the patient.

First of all a candle was lighted and at the same time the bayoh and her assistant knelt down by the side of the patient and moved the lighted candle backwards and forwards over her body searching for the cause of the sickness.

The light was then put down on the floor and the bayoh and her assistant knelt down and sat back on their heels.

Up to the present the drummer had been silent but she now started playing her drum; quickly and softly at first, but getting louder as the movements of the bayoh became wilder.

As the drum commenced, both the bayoh and her assistant started to sway from side to side, at the same time emitting a “hissing” sound through their teeth; this was barely audible at first but increased in volume as the swaying grew more pronounced.

Finally the bayoh, withe her eyes closed, rose to her feet and began to dance round the room, slowly at first but rapidly increasing in vigour and speed.

At the height of the dance the bayoh burst into snatches of wild singing, then suddenly the drums stopped and the bayoh, equally suddenly brought her dance to an end.

Drawing the poisons out of the body

The bayoh opened her eyes and walked slowly over to her patient. Having reached her, both the bayoh and her assistant sank to their knees and began to chant, invoking the spirits to help her exorcise the evil spirit inhabiting the body of the patient. After awhile the chant was brought to an end and the massaging was taken over by the bayoh herself.

The bayoh had apparently now found the root of the sickness for, placing her lips over the supposedly affected part, she started to draw out the poison of the spirit inhabiting the body.

Every few movements she would cease this operation and crawl away to spit out the poison and then return for further efforts.

The whole process from the swaying and hissing, the dancing, chanting and massaging was repeated two or three times.

The use of parang in the berbayoh ceremony

Finally, after one period of dancing, a chopper or parang was produced, the bayoh first held it by both hands above her head (one hand held the blade and the other the handle), then in this manner, she approached her patient.

The parang was then held in the bayoh’s right hand and passes over the patient were made, from the head down to the feet, the handle of the parang being an inch above the patient’s body; at the same time that this was going on the bayoh’s assistant was massaging the patient.

Having done this once or twice the bayoh took up the candle and swathed her head in a skirt or sarong; then, holding the light close to her head, she pulled the sarong down over her face.

This was done twice and then she extinguished the light by putting the flame into her mouth. This ended the ceremony.

The berbayoh ceremony in Mukah

In Mukah the performer is also known as a bayoh. Here the patient may be at a distance from the other people in the house or may actually be surrounded by them.

In Mukah, apparently the bayoh is generally the sole performer- without an assistant and without a drum beater other than himself.

He, or she, starts off by beating the drum in the same quick time as mentioned above in the description of the ceremony witnessed at Balingian.

As the bayoh beats the drum he or she also begins to sing, invoking other spirits to help come and cure the patient.

The bayoh then stops the drum beating and a candle is lighted.

A search is then made of the body of the patient, first with the aid of a candle and then by massaging the body with the hands.

At the same time the spirit causing the sickness is asked which part of the body it is inhabiting.

Having located the source of the trouble the bayoh will then begin to remove the poison from the infected spot by drawing the flesh between his two hands.

As he does this he will make a loud ‘sucking noise’ with his mouth. This operation will continue for a few minutes, after which the bayoh may get to his feet and walk round his patient, sometimes singing but without the accompaniment of the drum.

In Mukah this part of the ceremony does not appear to be essential and is, I understand, frequently left out.

Its inclusion would appear to be entirely a matter for the bayoh to decide.

The next stage of the ceremony is always included and consists of another bout of massaging and smoothing the body over with leaves of tuba, tebwawa and flowering stem (mayang) of the pinang palm.

After this the bayoh may again start his drum to call up further if considered necessary. The whole process may be repeated several times before the ceremony is brought to a close.

Have you observed the berbayoh ceremony before? Share us your experience in the comment box.

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Patricia Hului
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 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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