Pesta Ka'amatan
Sabah's Very Own Harvest Festival

by Herman - compiled from various sources;
also refer to our features Huminodun, and Nunuk Ragang

The Pesta Ka’amatan is Sabah’s very own, joyous and exuberant rice harvest festival. Not so long ago most of Sabah’s indigenous peoples were mainly agrarian folks and subsistence rice farmers. This, they had been for times immemorial, and they have emerged as proud and valiant people with their very own social orders and religious belief systems in which the Bobohizans, the female shamans of Sabah, played a paramount role. The Pesta Ka’amatan, the rice harvest and thanksgiving festival remembers those times in an era where customs and traditions are changing much too fast. If you want a glimpse of Sabah’s many ethnic entities, and capture the true spirit of the mystical “Land Below the Wind”, this is the time to visit us!

The Importance of the Harvest Festival in Sabah

For Borneo’s rural agrarian-based population the rice harvest festival, or Pesta Ka’amatan in Sabah, is intricately connected with rice cultivation, and with the cycle of life. Rice is Sabah’s golden crop, the grain of life, and the Pesta Ka’amatan marks the end of the planting cycle. It is closely associated with religion, culture and social order. People gather in villages to thank God and the spirits for a good harvest and pray for blessings for an even better harvest the following year, very much like other harvest and thanksgiving festivals throughout the world. The life of the peoples of Borneo, not so long ago essentially that of hunters, gatherers and subsistence rice-farmers was a hard one. Preparing rice-fields, be they flooded such as the Kadazan danau, or on steep hills in the interior was an arduous task that was the responsibility of the men. The womenfolk’s’ work was not less backbreaking: clearing fields and collect firewood, weeding, looking after the seedlings, planting and finally harvesting the ripe crop. Aside from the period between harvesting and the new planting season, the work was continuous. But it wasn’t just the labour-intensive nature of rice-cultivation that caused such veneration for the cereal. Not enough rice meant famine. Over thousands of years of rice farming superstitions and taboos sprung up, and no one thanks God for rice more gratefully than the humble farmer who does not know fertilisers and herbicides.

Historical Background of the Pesta Ka’amatan in Sabah

Since times immemorial it has been the traditional practice of the natives of Sabah (the Kadazandusuns and Muruts in particular) to hold a yearly harvest celebration. Historically and traditionally, the Ka’amatan Festival was usually held at the first sighting of the full moon immediately after the harvesting season. The appearance of the full moon was commonly referred to as the period of tawang (literally: full moon). During the tawang the natives made strict observances and would refrain from hard labour. Instead, they would rest to hold a village celebration that could last for two to three days.

In the district of Tambunan, as in many other areas, the preparations for the Pesta Ka’amatan involved everyone, young and old. The men used to organise group hunting expeditions to provide enough meat for the celebrations, while the women organised themselves to produce enough rice for making rice wine (tapai) and for cooking on the day of the Ka’amatan celebration.

At village (or kampung) level, the eve of the Ka’amatan Festival was lead mainly by the Bobohizans, the ritual specialists paying homage and offering thanksgivings to Bambaazon, the rice spirit, for the good harvest. Then, on the first day traditional sports took place, and on the second day communal reunion through feasting, drinking, music and dancing.

The Ka’amatan Festival is particularly significant as it marks not only the occasion to honour Bambaazon and to thank God for the bountiful harvest and his generosity in prolonging life on earth. It is also an occasion where the promise of friendship and brotherhood is renewed through mutual forgiveness.

The Kadazan Ka’amatan Festival is perhaps the most indigenous and grandest Festival in Sabah. Merry celebrations are held at all levels, commencing with the kampung (village) level, then district level and climaxing with the state level celebrations on 30th and 31st May.

The Magavau Ceremony

A very important stage of the Pesta Ka’amatan is the Magavau ceremony. The Kadazan word "magavau" or "maga'au", means-to recover what one has lost, by whatever means. In the yearly Ka’amatan Festivals, the Magavau Ceremony refers to the arduous task of the Bobohizans to search and salvage as well as to bring home the lost, stolen or strayed Bambaazon. It is in the traditional belief of the Kadazandusun that Bambaazon is embodied in every part and form of rice, and padi pests and predators such as insects, birds and animals, or calamities such as floods and droughts can harm, hurt and lead away parts of Bambaazon. Furthermore, man may carelessly drop rice grains during the process of harvesting, transporting, winnowing, pounding or milling, thus leaving some of them at the mercy of environmental hazards. Innocently, children may waste some of their rice or the irresponsible drunkard may pour his tapai (rice-wine) all in disregard of Bambaazon's well being.

When the Bobohizan cuts the first ear of ripe padi grains to mark the beginning of the harvesting time, a long, beckoning prayer is recited to invite Bambaazon to return home to the household rice barns to rest until the time comes for selecting the grains to be sown anew.

However, even when the harvesting is over and all the padi grains have been winnowed and stored in the barns, it is believed that many parts of Bambaazon's mystical body are still scattered. The Bobohizans are therefore summoned to perform the Magavau Ceremony, and the rites may be performed at individual households, or on a village-communal level. The village level Magavau is organised and planned by the village elders comprising the village headman, the village Chief Bobohizan (or Bohungkitas) and the informal Council of Elders. In normal cases, the date chosen must not be too far from the winnowing and storage period. In the days of old, the Magavau was performed to coincide with the first appearance of the full moon after the padi was safely stored in the barns. This was necessarily so in order to allow for the Chief Bobohizan and her entourage to actually travel through the harvested rice fields to search, salvage and gather all the strayed parts of Bambaazon and join them with the main mystical body.

Today, the Magavau ‘dance’ as it is performed in the Ka'amatan Festival depicts that part of the Magavau, where the Chief Bobohizans (both men and women) and their followers actually leave their communal longhouse and begin their arduous journey to the open padi fields during the night of the first full moon after the harvest.

The male Bobohizans normally take to the front, waving a warriors sword as if a fight was needed in the process of recovering the lost parts of the Bambaazon. The female Bobohizans mainly perform the praying part and chant to beckon the strayed Bambaazon to come home with them.

The intermittent pangkis (triumphant war-cry) uttered by the male Bobohizans are expressions of joy each time some part of Bambaazon is found and recovered, and welcomed to join the others on their journey home.

Throughout the Magavau ceremony, the Bobohizans and their followers have to stick closely together with their hands on the shoulders of their foreman. This is to maintain an orderly manner of procession and to reduce the risk of stumbling in the night and thus to anger many other unseen spirits in the soil, water, wind and vegetation.

Should a Magavau participant miss a step or should he have to adjourn for reasons of answering nature's call, he or she has to get the immediate follower behind to occupy his or her position so as to prevent the line from breaking up. He or she would then join the last participant in the manner described earlier.

And so, the Magavau goes on. By all means, welcome and join the line! For in the words of the Bobohizans:

"Each and everyone of us is responsible for the happiness and the well-being of Bambaazon that gives us food to eat......."
"If you must refuse to join us, please be prepared to fast for a day that you may know the ways of Bambaazon....."

Feeding of Bambaazon

While the Magavau is in session, other parties are busy preparing food offerings for Bambaazon. The components of the offerings vary from place to place, however popular inclusions are specially fermented rice or tondut wrapped in leaves, seven bamboo cups (suki) of first class tapai, fermented pickled serawi fish (nonsom), eggs, salt, the feathers of the chicken slaughtered especially for the spirits, and the flower of a banana, amongst others.

In Tambunan, the ritual specialist leads the procession – often the Magavau congregation – from the main house to the padi-store hut where she leaves the offerings to Bambaazon on a woven bamboo mat covering the padi. After prayers the procession then heads back to the house.

After the feeding of Bambarayon, an open-to-all merry making feast takes place. It used to be celebrated in the main gathering place, and nowadays in the Balai Raya (community centre) of the village, or in the house of an affluent person. Whoever has the chance to be present at the Pesta Ka’amatan in a village is heartily invited to take part in all aspects, regardless of his or her provenance or creed. Traditional foods are served, especially chicken porridge with eggs, and certain meats. It is believed that green vegetables connote disrespect to the guests of Bambaazon. Only the best tapai is served to maintain the qualitative spirit and well being of Bambaazon.

During present day State Level Ka’amatan Festivals it has become increasingly expensive to provide food and drinks to the enormous crowds. Only cultural participants representing the various ethnic populations of Sabah and special guests are catered for. The rest will have to buy from the many side-stalls offering traditional and contemporary dishes.

Nonetheless, where the spirit of sharing, forgiving and fellowship is practised, there Bambaazon thrives. For Bambaazon does not seek to consume its own creation, but gets nourishment from being one with its main mystical divine body effected through the harmonious mingling and interactions of the Ka’amatan celebrants who come from all walks of life, from various colour, creed and cultural traditions.

The feast used to last for days on ends as the Kadazandusun beat the gongs and danced to the joyous rhythm of life that only they have learned to live.

Unduk Ngadau

An integral part of the Pesta Ka’amatan is the Unduk Ngadau Beauty Pageant. There are many legends and myths about Huminodun, the daughter of Kinoringan (the one and only God). Huminodun, sometimes even referred to as Bambaazon, is personified in this popular as well as culture-enhancing event.

The term "Unduk" or "Tunduk" literally means the shoot of a plant, which, in its most tangible description, signifies youth and progressiveness. Likewise, in its literal meaning, "Ngadadau" or "Tadau" means the noon sun, which connotes the total beauty of the heart, mind and body of an ideal Kadazandusun woman. In essence therefore, the "Unduk Ngadau" is an event of selecting from among the Kadazandusun beauties one who would best resemble the ascribed personality of Huminodun.

There are a number of stories trying to explain why there should be an Unduk Ngadau Beauty Contest during the Harvest Festival, and one goes as follows:

It happened once, so the lore, during one of the Ka’amatan Festivals that questions from the younger minds arose as to how Bambaazon or Huminodun looked like. So the Kadazandusun Bobohizans and elders sat together and made a selection from among the most beautiful, modest and humblest of the young ladies around to provide a resemblance of Bambaazon and described her as the "Unduk Ngadau".

This was how the "Unduk Ngadau" or Ka’amatan Festival Beauty Queen Selection came into being as one of the highlights of the Ka’amatan Festival today.

In every Ka’amatan Festival the "Unduk Ngadau Contest" normally assumes the highlight of the day's occasion. More than being a highlight, to the Kadazandusun the Unduk Ngadau is the culmination of all the activities undertaken, and a symbolic response to Kinoingan's ever-abounding love for his people.

Unduk Ngadau owes its origin to that part of the Kadazan Genesis that pertains to the sacrifice of Huminodun, Kinoingan's only daughter. One of the many variant legends relates the following (for a different legend click here):

One day, Kinoingan started a farm, but after ploughing he realised that he had no seeds to plant. So he set off in search of some seeds with his valuable brass gong which he carried everywhere on his shoulder. On his way, he met birds and animals, and asked them if they had any seeds, to which they replied that they did not have any yet, having just been created by him. Even though Kinoingan knew that they had none, he nevertheless purposely asked this question to make them all realise that they would have to work hard for their livelihood.

Because there were no seeds in the world then, Kinoingan in the end resourced to sacrificing his only, beautiful and obedient daughter so that all his people would have seeds to grow food they needed. Her head gave rise to coconuts, her flesh became rice padi, her blood (the most precious part) red rice, her fingers ginger, her teeth maize, her knees yams and other parts of her body many more edible plants.

When the padi began to ripen, Kinoingan's wife, Suminundu was requested to first pick a little of it, thresh it, fry it, mix it with coconut flesh and its water and share it with her people and pets. Later, when the harvest came and Suminundu cut the stems of the padi with her sickle the voice of her daughter was suddenly heard requesting her to be careful. 

When the time came for Kinoingan and his wife Suminundu to ascend to the heavens Kinoingan informed his wife that they had yet to perform some ceremonies, including a great feast for all the people he had created. For it was the request of Huminodun that it be done to "bestow their love and respect to her for the inheritance of the people of this world". But first he wrote down the customs of each country to guide the people. For those who could not read, he taught priestesses prayers for festive days and for curing sicknesses.

But when the time for the feast came, Kinoingan was not happy. He felt a deep paternal longing for Huminodun and thought that she would surely be leading the feast if she were to be alive. Sadly, he played a tune with his bamboo flute and called his daughter's name.

Miraculously, Huminodun came out of a big jar that was used to hold the remains of the threshed padi. Her return to life added untold joy to the festivities. When the feast was over, Kinoingan, his wife and his daughter disappeared in the heavens, bidding farewell to their guests.

To this day the elderly Kadazandusun believe that when harvesting, such customary practices should be observed, otherwise padi stubble might cut them during the harvest, and they would get sores when consuming rice. Underlying this practice is a universal morality of not taking for granted the abundance of food, and not to waste anything edible.

The Unduk Ngadau ‘contest’, or Beauty Pageant is thus an integral part of every Kadazan Ka'amatan Festival. It is a further manifest function of the deep sense of respect and admiration that the Kadazans have for Kinoingan, and his legendary daughter Huminodun. Besides the commercially interesting aspect of the Unduk Ngadau Pageant nowadays, the title actually bears sacredness as Huminodun also signifies absolute trust in her father Kinoingan, so much as to become a willing sacrifice for the sake of her father's creation.

Evolution of the Ka’amatan Celebrations

To hold District and State Level Ka’amatan Festival Celebrations was first mooted by the late OKK Sodomon (the Keningau Native Chief) in 1956. At the 6th Annual Native Chiefs Conference in November 1956 OKK Sodomon tabled his proposal that the local government recognise officially the native Ka’amatan Festival, and that the festivity be given a three-day holiday. The proposal was debated and finally agreed upon. April 24, 25 and 26 of each year, irrespective of the full moon, were declared public holidays for the Ka’amatan celebrants, mainly the Kadazandusuns and Muruts. How to organise their Ka’amatan Celebrations was then was left to the different districts.

Meanwhile, at an executive committee meeting of the Society of Kadazans Penampang, the late Tun Fuad Stephens proposed that the Ka’amatan Festival holidays should not be restricted to the Kadazans, Dusuns and Muruts only but should be extended to the entire native population of Sabah (then North Borneo).

On Jun 29, 1960, Tun Fuad made a plea that all the natives of Sabah, "who use the good earth of Sabah for growing their food" should celebrate the Ka’amatan Festival as heartily as the Kadazandusun. Hence the first Sabah State-wide Ka’amatan Festival celebration was proclaimed and held from June 30th to July 1st, 1960 at the old St. Michael's School in Penampang. The two-day state holiday for the Ka’amatan Festival was officially approved by the government in response to the request made by the Society of Kadazans. Letters from various Kadazandusun ethnic groups throughout the State of Sabah to the Society of Kadazan expressed that their members were happy to celebrate the Festival simultaneously with their fellow Kadazans and natives throughout the State.

The first State Level Ka’amatan Festival Celebration began on the morning of June 30th, 1960 with a sung mass followed by a procession of the Holy Eucharist. Fourteen kampungs in the district participated in the presentation of various local dances and sounds of music. For the first time State leaders and community leaders from various districts of Sabah attended the Festival.

Three buffaloes were slaughtered to feed the crowd and over a hundred jars of tapai flowed to quench the people's thirst. Non-stop beating of gongs provided the music and mood for non-stop Sumazau dance. Other highlights included were the "Unduk Ngadau", Orang Tua and Native Chiefs’ traditional dress contests, other local traditional sports, and football matches.

The first State-wide Ka’amatan Festival was a significant step towards the reunion of the various native-ethnic populations of Sabah and this paved the way for the changing of the “Society of the Kadazan Penampang” to “Kadazan Cultural Association (KCA), Sabah” (now KSCA, or Kadazandusun Cultural Association). In the early 60's KCA opened its membership to all Dusuns, Muruts, Rungus, Paitans and other native ethnic groups whose culture and language have close affinity to each other.

The State-wide Ka’amatan Festival has since then been observed and celebrated annually under the active organisation of the Kadazan Cultural Association Sabah. In order to align the celebration with cultural tourism promotion the Kadazan Cultural Association resolved in 1986 that the date be fixed to May 30th and 31st of every year. The Ka’amatan Festival month is to be launched on May 1st each year, to mark the beginning of district and kampung level Ka’amatan celebrations, culminating and climaxing in the State Level Ka’amatan Festival on May 30th and 31st.

The Significance of the Present Day Ka’amatan Festival

Today the Sabah State Level Ka’amatan Festival has become a yearly expectation and epitome of all local cultural communities celebrations and heritage expressions through songs, dances, music, traditional attires, traditional sports, cultural shows, arts and crafts sales, agricultural product exhibitions, local architectural and building competitions.

People of all races, colour, creed and cultural traditions join in to participate and add to the variety, colour and gaiety of the celebration. Indeed, the Ka’amatan Festival has become a vital platform and venue for fostering, preserving and propagating harmony and unity through diversity for the multi-ethnic, multi-racial population of Sabah.

Ka’amatan Highlights

The highlights for kampung and district level Ka’amatan Festivals vary from kampung to kampung and district to district according to the socio-cultural contextual relevance.

Among the common program of activities included are:

  1. Traditional sports such as buffalo race (melumba kalabau), arm wrestling (mipulos), knuckle and finger wrestling (mipansa), wrestling (migogo), blow pipe shooting (monopuk), stilts race (manampanau), tug of war (mitalik dugugk), running (menangkus), bamboo rafting (mamangkar), single-bamboo pole rafting (manampatau) etc
  2. Best tapai (Rice wine) competition
  3. Gong beating competition
  4. Traditional dance competition
  5. Singing contest
  6. "Magahau or Magavau" ceremony
  7. "Unduk Ngadau" or Ka’amatan Queen Selection

The State Level Ka’amatan Festival involves state-wide participation and has an even more elaborate and richer programme. The highlights include:

  1. State level finals for traditional sports
  2. Modern Sports such as football finals, sepak takraw finals
  3. Arts and crafts quality competition, sales and exhibition
  4. Best rice wine competition
  5. Traditional music and gong beating presentations
  6. Traditional dance presentations
  7. Multi-ethnic cultural shows
  8. Singing contest
  9. Magavau Ceremony
  10. Agricultural products exhibition
  11. Traditional architectural huts building competition
  12. Unduk Ngadau or Ka’amatan Queen selection for the year
  13. Open to all participatory traditional dances
  14. Feasting, drinking and dancing

Winners and champions of the various state level contested events are to reign for the year till the next Ka’amatan Festival comes with new challengers.

All features are original scholarship works and copyrighted. Please contact us for the use of the material. 

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