The Seping of Belaga and Tinjar

The Seping are among the few tiny ethnic minorities that have survived assimilation by bigger groups and exist today as a distinct community, keeping their cultural identity and language intact. They claim to be the first group to occupy the Belaga River region and have left their mark on the landscape as proof of that. In 1956 they lived in one longhouse comprising 16 households at Long Koyan along the middle reaches of the Belaga River. in the early 1960s a major portion of the population migrated to the Tinjar River in the Baram District; four households, however, remained at Long Koyan. After almost twenty years on the Tinjar, the group that migrated there returned to their ancestral homeland on the Belaga River. Today, the Seping comprise three longhouse settlements: Long Bala with 28 households and a population of 205, Long Koyan with 8 households and a population of 56 people, and Mile 6, Belaga-Long Urun Logging Road, 4 households and a population of 23 people. The four households at Mile 6 comprise the group that did not migrate to the Tinjar.

The 4 households at Mile 6 insist that they are Bemali (Bah Mali of the Kajang group), a group culturally and linguistically related to the Seping, but in reality they are offspring of mixed marriages between Bemali and Seping, or Bemali-Seping-Kejaman. The Bemali used to live as a separate community, but due to a rapid decrease in population they merged with the Seping in 1956, at the single longhouse settlement at Long Koyan. Given their small number, and that they are offspring of mixed marriages involving Seping partners, they will be considered in this paper as Seping.

Oral History

According to an oral narrative by a Seping elder, Beng Lian, the Seping people are the original settlers of the Belaga River. Originally they comprised seven longhouses: two at Long Segiam, and one each at Long Seduk, Long Tegelem, Long Semakat, Long Belaan (in the Koyan, tributary of Belaga) and Long lga. A long time ago, a supernatural event took place: they killed a dragon and cooked it. Because of this, the seven longhouses either turned to stone or were swept downriver by a gigantic flood. All the people, except two, died. The two people were a brother and a sister. They fled up the Penyuan, a true left-bank tributary of the Belaga River. After years of roaming the jungle, they became adults, lived as husband and wife, begat many offspring, and revived a new community of Seping. They lived for many years along the Seping River, a tributary of the Belepeh which in turn is a tributary of the Murum that flows into the Balui. After living on the Seping River, the community moved back to their original homeland on the Belaga River, led by their leader Lakui. They reoccupied the Belaga River as one longhouse community.

The Lahanan of the Balui

A Lahanan man (Taken from

We Lahanan are amongst the oldest inhabitants of the Batang Balui. Our ancestors, as with all those people originating from the Apau Kayan, the high plateau in the centre of Borneo, trace our source  to a forest giant. One by one as each person emerged from this giant tree they were assigned to a particular community with its own language. Except for we Lahanan, who did not have a language, as we were the last to emerge from the tree. Our founding ancestor Lake Galo consulted those who had emerged before him. “What are we Lahanan going to do about a language? We want one of our own.” After much discussion we Lahanan were permitted to borrow language  terms from the various other communities to make up our own language. That is the reason why Lahanan is so mixed up–we have borrowed words from many different peoples.

The Lahanan, who belong to the so-called Kajang group, are one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak. Their total population of around 1,000 people are allied with two longhouse communities of Belaga District in the Kapit Residency. The larger group, the focus of this paper, are the Lahanan Long Pangai. When Sarawak joined the Federation of Malaysia on September 16, 1963 this community lived on the upper Balui River, but by the end of the century had moved to the Bakun Resettlement Scheme (BRS) at Sungai Asap. (2) A splinter group, the Lahanan Belepeh, live in the lower Balui at Long Semuang and number around 200 individuals. Although the two groups share a common ancestry, over the 150 years since they split over a leadership dispute, the Lahanan Long Pangai have become steadily Kayanized because of their close proximity to, and intermarriage with, nearby Kayan communities. The Lahanan Belepeh, however, living close to other longhouse villages loosely labelled Kajang, have, in some respects, retained a stronger sense of being different from the Kayan.

The Lahanan of the Balui River regard themselves as among the original inhabitants of the area. Often loosely defined as Kajang, along with other similar small groups, the Lahanan have no difficulty in enumerating the cultural differences which distinguish them from major ethnic groups, such as the Kayan and Kenyah, living in Central Borneo. The most important of these included secondary burial of the dead, the cult of the sacred stones, and the erection of kelerieng, massive funerary poles for the elite. While these customs have long since been abandoned, and many of the features which once distinguished the Lahanan from other local groups have been submerged in common cultural practices, the Lahanan are still keen to promote their differences.

In 1999 the Lahanan community had just moved under the Bakun Resettlement Scheme (BRS) to a new area, some five hours travel by boat and timber roads north from Long Pangai. The Lahanan’s mass evacuation from the Balui took place in mid-June after several days of ceremony (bulak) incorporating both Bungan and Christian rituals in their former longhouse village. Lahanan views of the mass departure from their old longhouse to the new were rosy, if tinged with sorrow. They had planned and executed a great ritual performance at the old longhouse and invited numerous people to participate. One of their elite had recorded the events on video and these were on frequent show during the early days in the new settlement and during the funeral of Lake Nyipa Pasu, their former headman and pemanca, held within weeks of their arrival. The excitement associated with their mass emigration was short-lived. Feelings of dislocation, disorientation, malaise and even dismay took over once they had settled into their new quarters. They had felt intense grief on the imminent departure from their ancestral lands and this was once again revived when they had finally completed the move.

~ Borneo Research Bulletin, Jennifer Alexander

The Bidayuh Sadong: Sumpas subgroup

The Sumpas subgroup is among the biggest group currently residing in Serian. Folklore passed down through generations says that their ancestors were devils/spirits who eventually became human with the assistance of Datu Merpati (who appears in many legends as the forefather – together with Padat a Sungkung Dayak – of the Bidayuhs in Serian, a man some claim to have supernatural powers, of Java origin). In Mentong Mawang, it was said their ancestors came out of a hole in the ground, while those of Bugu Mawang claim ancestry from a tree trunk.

The migration began from Bugau/Tembawang Tampun, making its was to Tembawang Sumpas in the 1500s via Tembawang Rutoi. From there it spread into 4 main villages, Mentong Mawang, Bugu Mawang, Bedup Mawang and Koran Mawang.

In the 1820s, there happened a dispute between Koran Mawang and Riih Mawang. The warriors of Riih went and cut off the head of Buk Lungor of Koran Mawang while he was working in the paddy fields. This angered the people of Koran who went and counter attacked. Again, Riih warriors decided to fight back and chose Mayom to be their leader. Mayom was said to have a sword as big as a banana tree. During the fight, he swung his sword so hard it got stuck in the root of the Bandir tree and was thus killed by the Korans. His head was then taken and the dispute ended.


Mentong Mawang: River name, abandoned in 1970.

Mentong Mubok: Kubuk vegetable

Bugu Mawang: It’s people claim to be the original inhabitants of Serian.

Diang Ipuh: They settled in Bugu Diyang in 1962 but moved to Diang Ipuh because of frequent floods.

Bugu Resak: Resak trees

Lunggo: Lunggo trees

Sg. Brok Bedup: In honour of Rajah Brooke

Empaneg: A type of bamboo

Koran: From mpuran, or dropping gold. Legend has it that Padat’s descendents dropped a gold necklace into the river.

Buluh Bedup: A Muslim village

Bedup Mawang: Abandoned in 1950s.