A Tahol Murut Wedding Ceremony

by Herman (1998)


If you are invited to a Murut Wedding, you should by no means decline. Especially not if it is not just a simple wedding ‘Malay Style’, but a ‘tina’uh', or ‘bului’.

Both, the tina’uh and the bului are highly traditional affairs, and they are best described as the last handing over of the outstanding dowry that was initially agreed on for the bride. The bului ceremony is even grander than the tina’uh, but this text will content itself to explanations pertaining to the tina’uh of the Tataluan Murut.

A tina’uh can be held two years after a young man has taken a Murut wife, in a ceremony called ‘limpoho’. This was once the official wedding ritual and procedure of the Sepulut and Pensiangan Murut. Often, the young husband won’t be able to pay his dept so quickly. The ‘pulut’ (dowry) for a Murut girl can amount to up to 40,000 Ringgit in heirloom goods and cash, and thus frequently the tina’uh is only held twenty years after the limpoho. Sometimes, the man has taken another one or two wives by then …

The tina’uh is in danger of disappearing, as are so many customs. It is becoming rarer, nowadays, that the parents in law of a young man require the limpoho, which will then automatically call for the tina’uh or bului later. One of the reasons for the disappearance of this custom is that it is very its labour intensive. Murut parties are beyond description, to say the least, and preparations for a fully-grown tina’uh can involve an entire village for more than a month. In our modern times, they are not very practical affairs any more. Our lives are ruled by schedules and duties, to many of which the Murut have now also yielded - in the name of progress. Yet, in remote, rural areas, where people are called poor because wealth and progress is still measured by money and technical advance, limpoho’s are still customary. There, life follows the little disturbed and spiritual age-old rhythm, with its intricate social pattern, that once dominated the entire of Borneo.

When a tina’uh is going to be held in a village is subject to long discussions amongst the village elders. Many aspects have to be considered, amongst others to make sure that everyone summoned will be able to attend. As a general rule, a season of good rice-harvests is likely to be followed by some tina’uh’s. This was the case in 1998. Though vast parts of the country suffered from an exceptionally long draught, in the heart of Sabah, the harvest was extraordinary.

The Date

It was decided that on July 11, 1998, Makinik should pay his final dowry to Korom, the headman of Labang and father of the ‘bride’: Makinik had been married just over 20 years to Sangkina, a daughter Korom had with his first wife. The date for the festivities was settled in a discussion between Korom and all the ‘tuan rumah’ (heads of the individual households) of his longhouse, since the party would involve everybody of the family.

During the discussion all the tuan rumah will determine whom they invite from their family branch for the festivity, and whom they invite as ‘sumaang’: helpers during the party. Then, it will be decided what the invitees are to bring to the tina’uh: being officially invited to a tina’uh is more of a summon than anything else, and involves considerable costs in the first place, and probably a long journey back to the kampung (village). But there are very good reasons for many Murut living and earning their lives in town to take part in the ceremony, even if it temporarily disrupts their programmes. Nowadays, the requests, which can rage from money over gold jewellery to buffaloes, next to the gongs and beads that are compulsory, are put down in written form. They will be sent together with an elaborate ‘buyuung’, an intricate rattan basket. The buyuung is reminiscent of even older traditions, when invitations were not sent in written form. The complex patterns woven into the basket, the quality of the weaving and the rattan chosen were of importance and significance lost in time. Yet, those who receive the basket will still judge the coming event by the designs of the buyuung, and the quality of the rattan used, as well as its weaving textures. The baskets are sent out through a special courier, the ‘angkaunan’, the post-man in Murut language. Next to the requirements in goods, an invitee also gets to know if he has to ‘buka tapai’, and what the price of it is. The custom requires that the first drinker of each tapai-jar pays a certain amount when he ‘opens the tapai’ (buka tapai) to defray the owner of the tapai. Furthermore, above the jars are suspended and for sale strings of beads, fruits, sweets, cigarettes and meat pickle – of course the purchase of it is not quite voluntary. Here again, the invitee is bound by customary regulations, and he has to suspend money (the ‘pamarahan’) for the goods he purchases.


Once everybody is invited and able to come, which in a big family clan is not always the case (a new date would have to be agreed on), the tuan rumah will start with the preparations for the party. One to two months before the event, tapai has to be prepared. Immeasurably old and valuable jars, some dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1644 and earlier), will be filled with cooked cassava root (ubi kayu). The yeast added to the cooked tuber will cause its fermentation, and when later water is poured over the mixture in the jar, we get the famous tapai. Some of the jars are so big that it requires up to three ‘karung’ (50kg rice-sacks) of cassava root, or about 45 kg of the potato. These jars will be in the main display, but numerous ‘pemahamis’ have to be prepared, jars with tapai that will replace the big ones once they are finished. Then, fish and wild-pig pickle (tamba no papait / assi) has to be prepared, and for this the men must go hunting; the women have to weave baskets, string beads, and heirloom has to be gathered. The whole is a rather frenetic activity in a usually quiet Murut settlement, requiring the help of everyone, young and old. Furthermore, since usually a multitude of guests is expected, houses might have to be enlarged. Should the house be big enough, the kitchens will have to be extended for sure! In the case of Makinik’s tina’uh, Korom’s seven-door longhouse could well accommodate the expected crowd of roughly 300 adults and as many children. Nevertheless, some relatives who arrived early built a temporary house, quaintly thatched with palm leaves in the absence of more modern building materials.

For a tina’uh, a ‘sangiang’ has to be erected in front of the longhouse, as well as in the gallery, where the tapai is to be served. The sangiang is a peculiar construction serving only one function, if not merely to indicate the intention of holding a tina’uh: to receive the dowry and display it. The wealth and importance of a Murut still depends and is judged on how many sampa (jars), especially old ones, and how many gongs, heirloom beads and belts he can provide to pay for his bride. Of course, in olden times heads taken in battle only would add to the importance of the man, and the ‘tengkorak’ were then also displayed on the sangiang. Now, one is more likely to find a brand new TV set on the sangiang than a fresh, blood-dripping skull. Hopefully…

Curiously, the decoration of the sangiang, which consists of poles of softwood trimmed with wooden shavings (ingkuhun), occur throughout the whole of Borneo, and not only with the Murut!

I was invited to Makinik’s a tina’uh in Labang. As a non-Murut, this did not incur further cost on me than the purchase of some two dozens of chicken. Others accompanying me moaned about the expenses they had, and how difficult their life was, and how bad it was to be a Murut anyway. Against all my efforts to instil some pride in their ancient culture, young men like to complain about the price of a Murut girl. Eventually, taking a wife is cheaper nowadays with the introduction of the Malay style wedding, but that seems to be of little comfort to the men. In the end, this new form of marriage also means less parties. There are always two sides to the medal. Yet, the manifold social pattern that ruled and continues to rule the life of many Murut left them with a barely hidden thrill in anticipation of the tina’uh. Ultimately, this is more than just an exceptionally big party, or entertainment. Decided to learn more about the custom I myself ended up with feverish excitement even before I was on my way to Labang.

It was not the first time I was in this far outpost of civilisation. Upon entering the village I saw immediately that the preparations for the tina’uh were in full swing. Some of the houses had been connected together with covered passages, and there was that unmistakable platform in front of the main longhouse, the sangiang, telling everybody that a tina’uh was going to be held. I was warmly welcomed, despite the hectic activities. Men were cutting and sawing, building and nailing. Others were painting and arranging wooden parangs that would later be for the children, now also busily engaged in the preparations, running errands and carrying barang. Though I have been to Murut weddings and other parties before, and I am somewhat accustomed to the sight of endless rows of jars, a surprise awaited me in the gallery of the longhouse: the seven tuan rumah had placed no less than 29 huge heirloom jars in a splendid arrangement (at that moment I had no idea that there were roughly another 200 pemahamis waiting…). They were, for both, security and traditional reasons, encased in a special construction under the sangiang, in the middle of the house. Korom himself provided five tajau, destined to be opened by as many of his invited relatives. Korom would receive the money for the ‘buka tapai’, and in return not only provide the tapai, but also jeruk (meat pickle), more buyuung for the ‘akilimpor’, the sales of the rattan baskets at the end of the party, and the famous ‘kampung rice’.

Seeing such frenetic activities, and being not exactly a help I kept myself quiet in some corner, occasionally taking some photos. As the invited relatives came in, the sangiang in front of the house started bending under the load of jars and gongs. With each landing of a boat, which was made audible over a long distance by the sounding gongs, more people came in. The boats were loaded to a dangerous level, which seemed to concern nobody except me. Dogs jumped lightly on shore, then the men climbed out and fastened the boat, babies were handed over, then followed jars and gongs, poultry and personal belongings. The grandmothers and grandfathers were the last to leave the longboats, climbing gingerly, but equally full of joy up the steep banks of Labang. Those who arrived by car – usually in tattered old landrovers that somehow still made it over the badly maintained mud-track to Labang – announced their arrival in like manner with gong-beatings.

The Party

The arrival of the guests took place over three days. Everybody took temporary residence in the dewan (community hall) of Labang, where the inhabitants of the different households and the sumaang in Korom’s longhouse served lunch. A minor drinking party in anticipation of the big feast started impromptu on the verandah of the dewan. When the sun set on the third day, the last of the invited arrived, and soon everybody changed into traditional outfit: the ladies donned their elaborately beaded black dresses, and wore ancient carnelian tiaras. The men put on equally colourful shirts but instead of the avu’, the loincloth, they wore less traditional but more decent (or so they were told) trousers, also studded with innumerable beads. We all waited in great excitement when Korom finally proceeded to the opening of the tina’uh. Standing at the bottom of the sangiang, he officially opened the ceremony with an ancient ‘haiang’, a head-hunter’s sword, with which he sliced a section of bamboo filled with blessed water. Then, in a speech addressing the long departed he told us of the importance of honouring traditions. The father of Sangkina did a similar speech, and also cut a bamboo section containing blessed water. It was only now that everybody was allowed up the sangiang, and under the clamour of countless gongs we could inspect the dowry closer. Makinik and Sangkina were sitting on a dais, receiving the wishes of everybody. It was now that we got a first taste of tapai. For this special occasion the Murut here make ‘linahas’, a sweetish and not too strong wine made from rice, instead of cassava tuber. Now, the gong-players went seven times around the berian on the sangiang. Then they proceeded to the house where by now everybody had taken quarter. Here again, the players went seven times around the sangiang, hidden behind many lengths of cloth. I found myself having suddenly a heavy gong hanging from my shoulders, and when I protested that I did not know how to play it I was simply instructed to beat it. I did my best to hammer more or less in the general rhythm of the frenetic crowd, to frighten away any evil intended spirit. I am sure it did have its desired effect! During the chaos, the ‘antalan’ ensued: the bringing of the berian into the house for assessment by the families. All of a sudden, the gongs and the clamour stopped. Expectation was high and tense in the air. In the dim light of the kerosene lamps shiny faces and gleaming eyes were fixed upon the sangiang. Finally, it was unveiled, and the moment was magic, the silence supreme. The overwhelming feelings that very moment were palpable, and I felt myself like a little boy back in Europe, on Christmas Eve, when we were at last allowed to see the mystically lit Christmas tree. But no sooner the jars were revealed, the silence was over and everybody talked at once. The display was appreciated and judged, and for the prestige of the house this is a crucial moment. There better be no fault-pas, or mistake in the display, or else the makers would have to pay hefty fines. But it was perfect, and somehow each man found the jar he was supposed to open. The buka tapai fee was paid, and soon men were happily slurping away tapai. The next few days would diffuse in a timeless merry making, in a happiness and carelessness that to experience is a privilege. In our hectic world I have the feeling that not even Christmas provides us with a term long enough to indulge in this perfect and innocent ‘laissez vivre’. We were drinking, and eating, sleeping, and drinking again. We were having fun in the water, we paddled up the river, we joked and teased, played and laughed, and time seemed to stop for the very sake of the feast. Even those who worked hardest during the celebration enjoyed themselves, rewarded for their enormous efforts by the tremendous success of the tina’uh. Buffaloes were slaughtered, and the ladies ensued in long discussions over the arrangement of beads in the ‘bobok’, which determined the number of buffaloes to kill. Chicken followed each other in rapid succession into the cooking pot, and the families of the tuan rumah, and their sumaang were busy to provide the drinkers, who followed each other in equal rapid succession, with hot soup and pickled meat and fish.

During eating hours, long rows of food would be displayed from one end to the other of the longhouse, and then be distributed to the respective families. During the short sleeping hours, the whole space would be taken up by bodies lying criss-cross over the floor, more or less grouped by families. At any time, walking through the longhouse gallery one had to be careful not to step on either food, or people…

The party lasted five days and four nights. When the participants went on their long journey home, their initial expenses had been rewarded manifold. Karung’s of the much coveted Murut hill rice went with them to Keningau, or even as far as Kota Kinabalu, together with loads of pickled meat of wild boar and fish, all items that the families would never be able to produce, not to talk of purchase in the cities. And besides being very much appreciated as foods, the pickle and rice maybe used in another ceremony. Thus, even in this time of transition, when only too little value is given to old ceremonies and knowledge, this age-old institution of the traditional wedding procedure of the Murut has found a place in our society. An old and not at all odd custom with new meanings, surviving in modern times because of its practical value.



Some Murut terms used in this article, and pertaining to wedding ceremonies:

In western society we have the engagement – a disappearing custom, however – and the wedding. By comparison with the Murut, we are very poor in our formalities:

Pinanamung ‘engagement’ ceremony where the bride-price is discussed. At this stage 10 or more lengths of ‘sarong’ cloth are exchanged, one or two kuali (wok) and RM 100, maybe also some beads and gold rings. The successful conclusion of the settlement of the dowry is celebrated with the drinking of tapai for not longer than five days

Ahuod ra ruandu the girl is taken to the house of the future husband

Amaruli ra baya one week after the ‘ahuod ra ruandu’ ‘kaunsapan’ and ‘haunsapan’, or payments, are being sent to the parents in law of the young man

Kaunsapan / Haunsapan payment for the girl consisting of pots and pans and 1 expensive jar usually one week after the ‘ahuod’. Often, the girl is now pregnant – otherwise she can still be ‘returned’ to her parents

Limpoho often compared to the ‘proper’ wedding ceremony, a few months after the pinanamung. Exchange of the dowry, which consists of binukul and tiluan, other jars, gongs, beads and cloth, and anything the parents in law desire – nowadays often cash, a generator, a TV set…. This ceremony may last a week, and the parents of the girl have to kill a buffalo. Should the couple decide to divorce after the limpoho, the man usually loses the bride price.

Tina’uh / Bului final handing over of the dowry, sometimes 20 years after the limpoho. This party lasts not less than 5 days, and involves everybody up to the third cousins of the two respective families, plus of course the entire village, neighbours, friends and acquaintances…

Other Murut terms used in the article:

Pulut dowry, bride price
Antalang take the dowry into the house
Akilimpor sell elaborate rattan baskets (day 3)
Pamarahan money paid for the goods suspended from the sangiang
Sumaang a relative who is to give a hand to a tuan rumah (he or she is later being paid with a small jar, cloth, etc)
Sampa ordinary jar
Tiluan ‘dragon jar’, old and valuable – must be amongst the dowry
Binukul large heirloom jar – must be amongst the dowry
Pemahamis ‘spare-jar’ containing fermented cassava pulp. These jars are brought forth when the big tajau are ‘tawar’ – without any taste any more
Tapai alcoholic drink made from fermented cassava root
Linahas alcoholic drink made from fermented glutinous rice
Tamba no assi pickled meat of wild boar
Tamba no papait pickled fish – both pickles must be served with tapai
Bobok long comb (ca 3 feet) with equally long strings of beads – one set consists of four combs. It is assembled by the diverse close families and relatives of the groom, and one full set determines one buffalo that has to be provided by the family of the bride. The buffalo will be slaughtered and eaten by the congregation
Susukur / Sisitan smaller bobok for limpoho, also used during the tina'uh during the buka tapai ceremony

Note by the author (2006): over the years I have been to many tina'uh, the reader will have guessed so... the above was my first experience, and I have neither edited nor corrected the article even though I have now a much better understanding of the procedures that mark the different stages of a tina'uh. Over the past five years there have also been quite a bit of changes - nothing that would really alter traditions, but the Murut have, ingeniously, streamlined the procedures!

A decade ago tina'uh's became less frequent because of their elaborate nature and costs involved, and also due to missionary influence. However, over the past five years I have observed the emergence of a certain culture awareness amongst most ethnic entities in Sabah, the Murut not excluded. And being at heart a "party people" there are now again more limpohos - traditional weddings - that will eventually culminate in a tina'uh even though the work is still massive and costs only go up. However, the Tahol Murut heartland is now much easier accessible by road; the younger generation is thinking more maturely and has brought in a couple of new ideas that make such parties a bit easier on everybody. Thus, the buka tapai ceremony is not a long haggling any more, but a pre-arranged price (normally RM 200-250) is paid for each jar. If you are invited to a tina'uh and you know you have to buka tapai you need not be afraid of what uncertainties await you. The price has been fixed. You can also take along susukur and sisitan made from easily available and not very expensive plastic beads, easily strung and not as difficult to work with as glass beads. The purist will not agree with these modern variations, but they do add colour (and that is what it is all about), make the life of invitees easier and arguably help that the intricate nature of the tina'uh is passed on. Having fixed prices does not mean the ceremony is less sophisticated. The procedures that have been in place and that have been rather rigid for many generations still apply, but with a little less financial worries. We have to accept such changes and if they ultimately contribute to the conservation of cultural aspects so much the better!

Tina'uh's also used to be hygienic nightmares, something that has completely changed!

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