The Bisaya’ of Borneo

The Bisaya’ are one of the minor ethnic groups in Borneo, currently located within the vicinity of Limbang District (Northern Sarawak), Beaufort (Sabah) and Brunei.


They are also known as Bekiau, Bisaya Bukit, Bisayah, Lorang Bukit and Visayak. They are similiar to the Tutong and Belait ethnic groups of Borneo.

The Bisaya’ community used to be quite large in the olden days but now there are approximately 10,000 of them. A big factor was the rising conversion to Islam among the Bisaya’, who changed their identities to Malays and Kedayans so as to assimilate easier. Many Bisaya’ in Sarawak are Christians, whilst their Bruneian and Sabahan counterparts are mostly Muslims.

Some of the older generation of the Bisaya’ believed they came from and are related to the Visayans of the Phillipines. However, there are also theories based on the Maragtas (English: History of Panay from the first inhabitants and the Bornean immigrants, from which they descended, to the arrival of the Spaniards), a book written based on oral and written sources about the Aeta of Panay, by a Spaniard, that the Bisaya’ actually fled Borneo during a war with their A-Liko (Melanau) neighbours.


The Bisaya’ were a powerful people, with a king who ruled what is now Brunei (also called P’oni, Puni, Barunai), Awang Alak Betatar or Sultan Mohamad Shah. They were constantly at war with the A-Liko Kingdom (the Melanau). The A-Liko chieftain, Tugau/Datu Makatunaw, attacked the Bisaya’ who resided in Bintulu. The Bisaya’ community, led by Datu Puti, Datu Sumakwel and Datu Paiburong decided to move to a more peaceful location and ended up in the Visayan Islands where the Aetas were originally the indigenous people there. They purchased the island of Panay from Chief Marikudo of the Aeta. They lived and traded for a living, their people intermarrying among each other. The migrants to the Phillipines were not only the Bisaya’ but also the other ethnic groups who fled to find more peaceful settlements and begin trading.

10 years later, Datu Puti returned to Borneo and killed Tugau, sacking and looting their city, taking the rest of the A-Liko as slaves to Panay island. Thus the Kingdom of Brunei grew after the threat of the A-Liko was eliminated. They began forcing the people of Igan, Kalaka, Samarahan and Sarawak to pay tribute.

Later on some of the Visayans moved back to their homeland in Borneo.


When the Spaniards arrived in the Islands 1521(before named it as the Philippines), they called the Tattooed Natives there Pintados who spoke a distinct Bornean language, During the war between Brunei and the Spanish, the Spaniards recorded that the Brunei Sultan Lijar was hiding in “THE RIVER OF BISAYAN, THE COUNTRY OF MELANO, NEAR SARAGUA”.

Mayhaps they were mentioning the Kemena River, where the Bintulu Melanau and Vaie resided. And the term “Saragua” could be referring to “Sarawak”.

Another version suggested that the origin of the Bisaya’ were from a supernatural being, Dewa Amas who fell down to earth in Ulu Limbang in an egg, and fathered 14 children from 14 native wives. The youngest, Awang Alak Betatar, became the first Muslim Sultan of Brunei, as told in “Sha’er Awang Semaun”.


The Bisaya’ of Sabah’s language has 90% intelligibility with the Dusun Tatana dialect. The Bisaya’ in Sabah also has 58% lexical similarity with dialects of Sarawak Bisaya and 60% with the Brunei Bisaya’ dialect.

The Bisaya’ of Sarawak celebrate teh Babulang Festival in Limbang every year with beauty pageants and water buffalo races.


Borneo Hornbill Festival 2012 by Warisan Sarawak

Keling 2012 Ricky Jores wearing the ethnic Bidayuh warrior’s costume (finally a Bidayuh won!)

Congratulations to the winners of the Kumang, Keligit and Keling of Borneo Hornbill Festival 2012 and the dancing teams this year. May the event run for years to come and be successful!

Kumang Bidayuh: Theodosia Elicia Wilrode (Winner), Jessica Go (2nd place), Magdalen Patrick Bejig (3rd place)

Kumang Iban: Gloria Jimbai (Winner), Suzzy Ramli (2nd place), Darwina Entaudu Maringgal (3rd place)

Keligit (Orang Ulu): Karen Laleng David (Winner), Esther Paya Avit (2nd place), Penelope Ering Laing (3rd place)

Photos courtesy of Persatuan Warisan Sarawak.

The Kaul Festival of Dalat

The annual Kaul Festival of Dalat (specifically Kpg. Medong) is held on January 1st every year (villages within the area celebrate around closer dates), as opposed to the Kaul of Mukah, which is celebrated on the 3rd week of April. This festival is a large and pagan festival celebrated by the Melanaus of Sarawak. The Kaul in Dalat does not have the “Tibau”, the large swing that men jump on as part of the festivities.

Taken from Learn Melanau.

The festival’s ritual ceremony starts when the Serarang, made from sago, bamboo and meduk leaves, are placed on the boats or tongkang.Offerings are placed in a container containing, chicken eggs, yellow glutinous rice, tobacco leaves and betel leaves. The Serarang is part of the Melanau Liko belief system in the Sea Deity, Ipouh. The festival is to appease Ipouh and provide offerings.

The ceremony is led by the Bapa Kaul (Kaul Father), who undergoes the ritual cleansing or purification before beginning the ceremony.

During the 3 days of the festival, no animal are allowed to be slaughtered within the borders of the village, already marked with red flags. Sago palms (staples of the Melanau) are also not to be felled. Gunshots and fireworks aren’t allowed because peace and quiet must avail in the surrounding area where the ritual is being held.While the Serarang is carried around the village, no one should paddle their festival boats against the approved direction.

The tongkang, which carries the Serarang leads 60-100 small boats, that travels behind or beside it only. They act as guards of the main tongkang.