Sarawakian Bisaya traditional costume.
|Regions with significant populations|
Sarawak: 7,000 (1984)
|Sabah Bisaya language, Malaysian, Bisaya, English|
|Majority Islam and significant minorities of Animism|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Murut, Lun Bawang/Lundayeh , Kadazan-Dusun, Dayaks|
The Bisaya are an indigenous people of the north-west and the coast line of Borneo, Malaysia. They mostly live near the Beaufort district, the Padas River also Kuala Penyu in the Sabah region. There are also some Bisaya living in Kampung Manunggang, Sabah, which follow no religion and along the Limbang River in the northern state Sarawak. Nowadays the Bisaya living in Sabah are Muslim, while the Bisaya living in Sarawak are mostly Animism, with a smaller Muslim community. In Brunei, they are referred as Dusun, Jati Dusun and Bisaya (Though they are not to be confused with the Dusun people of Sabah). The Bisaya people are also regarded as a relatives of the Dayak people whereas Bisaya was not brought into Borneo instead they are aboriginal of the land.
Origin and etymology
Several theories have been put forward by various researchers regarding the origins of the name of the Bisaya people. Beyer H.O. in 1926, Hester E.D. in 1954 and Harrison in 1956 suggested that the name may have come from the empire of Sri Vijaya (Sonza, 1972). However, in 1960, Eugene Vestraelen (Professor of Linguistics at the University of San Carlos, Cebu City) cautioned that the linguistic derivation of Vijaya would not be Bisaya but Bidaya, or Biraya.
In 1960, John Carol suggested that the name originated from a cultural hero named Sri Visaya.
Another theory is that the word Visaya (or Bisaya, as it is pronounced in the Philippines) comes from the word for the Hindu merchant, trader, herder, artisan, landowner (etc.) caste: the "Vaishyas", which can be traced back to Sanskrit, and assume that the label was given by the Sri Vijayans and others pirates and traders coming from India.
Bisaya's indigenous people settled in Borneo thousands of years ago. The Bisaya were a people who were loved, feared and respected by others on the island. They are skilled in agriculture, particularly in the areas such as paddy planting, ginger, sago, local ginger, tapioca, banana, yam, pepper, coconut. They also hunt animals and breed others, such as chicken, duck, goose, goat, buffalo, cows and many more.
Bisaya people are skilled in catching fish either from the river or at sea, and they can hold their breath under water without drowning. One of the tragic stories of the Bisaya happened a few hundred years ago when Awang Kuyoh, son of Awang Alak Betatar was drowned by the Sulu people, who took his wife back to Sulu Island. Legend has it that the Bisaya sailor called Awang Semaun and his crew sailed around this island starting from Klias River, and he tied a handkerchief in front of the boat. When he arrived at the starting point, the handkerchief was torn and that's how this island came to be called Handkerchief Island or Pulau Sapu Tangan or Pulau Peraca in local language. The Imperial Colony called it Borneo. From Spanish records, this island was known as Borneo during the first visit of the Portuguese sailor Magellan, in service of the Spanish Crown.
Brunei Historical Centre version
The popular legend of the Bisaya origin as described Bewsher(1958),Sandin(1971) and Hussain & Newman(1987) goes as follows:-
In 1370, Ma-ho-mo-sha [Maha Mokhsa] was a King of Barunai [P'o-ni]. A Chinese mission commanded by Chang Ching Tze dispatched to P'o-ni in 1370 (9th month, 3rd year of Hung-wa), found the king in a burned out capital with just 1,000 inhabitants. He sent a tribute mission to the Emperor of China in August 1371.
Some versions of the Syair Awang Semaun trace the foundation of Brunei to fourteen saudara (brothers and first cousins). Other versions say they were all sons of Dewa Amas of Kayangan, a supernatural being who fell to earth in an egg at Ulu Limbang, and fathered them by fourteen different aboriginal wives:
- Patih Barbai [Marbai] [Peti Barambai], Paduka Sri Pangiran Bendahara Sri Maharaja Permaisuara. The official version states that he became the second Muslim ruler as Sultan Ahmed - see below.
- Awang Si Mawn [Semaun], Pangiran Temenggong.
- Patih Mambang.
- Patih Tuba.
- Patih Sangkuna [Peti Runak].
- Patih Manggarun.
- Patih Malakay.
- Patih Pahit. m. Si Lampang, a captured Banteng.
- Damang Sari.
- Patih Sindayung.
- Damang Libar Dawn, Juru Shahbandar. Emigrated to Java, where he lived for nine years. m. a Javanese lady, by whom he said to have had issue, one son and one daughter (?): a) Nakhoda Ragam (or Sultan Bolkiah - see below). a) Palingkam Kahaya.
- Hapu Awang.
- Patih Layla Langkung.
- Awang Alak Betatar [Umuk Batata]. The official version states that he became the first Muslim ruler as Sultan Muhammad Shah.
Paduka Sri Sultan Muhammad Shah[1363–1402], Sultan of Brunei, a younger son of Dewa Amas of Kayangan, by an aboriginal lady. He was chosen by the saudara to become the first ruler. Constructed his palace at Pirasung. Legends have Brunei founded some 29 reigns ago by 14 brothers of heroic stature and semi-divine descent, according to a Monograph of the Brunei Museum Journal. The exploits of the 14 founding heroes of Brunei are recounted in a very lengthy poem called the "Sha'er Awang Semaun.". Awang Alak Betatar was not the eldest, but was chosen to be their leader because of his intelligence and good looks. He was installed Sultan of Brunei and he remarried with the daughter of the Sultan of Johor.
The name of Borneo was the first known as Bonian among the Bisaya people. When the native bisaya converted into Islam together with their leader Awang Alak Betatar, the word was change from Bonian into Bornian due to the mother tongue of the preacher which is came from Taif, Arab Saudi. At the same time the native people had to pronounce Borneo until the Malaysia Day in 1963. Today it was known as Sabah.
In 1959, Tun Datu Haji Mustapha Datu Harun met Sultan Tunku Laxamana Awang Ishak Ismail Jalil in a place called Kampung Takuli, Beaufort, Sabah. He was to convey a message of freeing the Borneo from British Colonial. Tun Mustapha asked Sultan Tunku Laxamana Awang Ishak his view regarding the new name of Borneo . The Sultan Tunku Laxamana Awang Ishak told Tun Mustapha to use Sabah as the name of the state. That is his ancestor Awang Alak Betatar mentioned the word Mongoi da sasabah every times he wants to go to the sea. The meaning is let's go fishing to the sea whereas the island was surrounded by the sea and had a lot fish.
Tun Mustapha had offered Sultan Tunku Laxamana Awang Ishak to form Sabah Rulers but he rejected it because he is too old. According to the record his age is almost bicentennials. He prays someday his grandchildren will embrace all the people with the information when the times come and may them guidance by Allah the Almighty. The census of Bisaya is at least 1,000,000 people throughout Borneo (Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan) and West Malaysia. Most of them lived in Sabah.
Tales from Limbang
The legend tells of an immigrant family living in the North of the Borneo Island. In this family were seven children, six boys (Peti Barambai or Pati Barabai, si Garamba, Peti Garamba, Peti Runa or Pati Begunak, Smaun or Si Maun and Alak Batata or Urak Betatar or Lok Batata or Awang Alah Bertabar) and a girl (Siti Duyah or Duri or Bunga Sunting). A boat race was used to determine who was to become the Rajah of Brunei.
This race was won by Alak Betatar the youngest brother. He became the first Rajah of Brunei and later converted to Islam and became Sultan Mohammed, the first Sultan of Brunei. Peti Barambai, the eldest brother, became the Raja of Java. Si Garamba settled in the Limbang area and became the ancestor of the Bisaya's. Peti Garamba settled in the Tutong(Brunei),Peti Runa in the Kinabatangan River (Sabah) and Smaun in the Birau River(south of Tutong). Siti Duyah married a Chinese named Awang Sunting (or Ong Sum Ping) and settled near Mount Kinabalu (Sabah).
The first king of Borneo
In the year 977, we are told, Hianzta, king of Puni, sent envoys to China, who presented tribute with the following words: "May the emperor live thousands and tens of thousands of years, and may he not disapprove of the poor civilities of my little country." The envoys presented a letter from the king. This was written on' what looked like the very thin bark of a tree; it was glossy, slightly green, several feet long, and somewhat broader than one inch; the characters in which it was written were small, and had to be read horizontally. In all these particulars the letter resembled the books of magic which are still written by the Battas of inland Sumatra. The message ran: "The king of Puni, called Hianzta, prostrates himself before the most august emperor, and hopes that the emperor may live ten thousands of years. I have now sent envoys to carry tribute; I knew before that there was an emperor, but I had no means of communication. Recently there was a merchant called Pu Lu, whose ship arrived at the mouth of my river; I sent a man to invite him to my place, and he told me that he came from China. The people of my country were much delighted at this, and preparing a ship, asked this stranger to guide them to the court. The envoys I have sent only wish to see Your Majesty in peace, and I intend to send people with tribute every year. But when I do so I fear that my ships may occasionally be blown to Champa, and I therefore hope Your Majesty will send an edict to that country with orders that, if a ship of Hianzta arrives there, it must not be detained. My country has no other articles, and I pray Your Majesty not to be angry with me." The envoys were entertained and sent home with presents.
How early the Arab doctrines were taught in Barunai is impossible to state with any precision. Local tradition ascribes their introduction to the renowned Awang Alak Betatar, afterwards known as Sultan Mohammad Shah. Like most of his subjects this warrior was a Bisaya, and in early life he was not a Muslim, not indeed a civilised potentate at all, to judge by conventional standards; for the chief mark of his royal dignity was an immense chawat, or loin-cloth, escorted by eighty men, forty in front and forty behind. He is the earliest monarch of whom the present Barunais have any knowledge, a fact to be accounted for partly by the brilliance of his exploits, partly by the introduction about that time of Arabic writing. After much fighting he subdued the people of Igan, Kalaka, Seribas, Sadong,Semarahan, and Sarawak [Most of the ethnics extinct due to illness and disease] and compelled them to pay tribute. He stopped the annual payment to Majapahit of one jar of pinang juice,a useless commodity though troublesome to collect. During his reign the Muruts or Lun Bawang were brought under Barunai rule by peaceful measures,and the Chinese colony was kept in good humour by the marriage of the Barunai king's brother and successor to the daughter of one of the principal Chinamen.
This is an interesting account in many ways, and tallies very closely with what other evidence would lead one to suspect. For there is reason to think that Barunai, before it became Muslim, was a Bisaya kingdom under Buddhist sovereigns and Hindu influence; and nearly all the particulars given with regard to the people of Borneo are true of one or other of the races allied to Bisayas and living near Barunai to-day.
The Lost Treasure
It was believed that Awang Alak Betatar had made two weapons as the symbol of his throne. The weapons were handmade and created from the rock of star and the shape is similar to each other which is black and long sword. Sultan Awang Koyoh was the successor of his father's throne after he left Kota Klias and Awang Koyoh have keep that sword of star. Awang Alak Betatar became barunah or barunai ruler and called as Sultan Mohammad Shah. A Keris also part of a weapon which became as a symbol of Kota Klias throne. It was believed to be lost during the assassination of Awang Koyoh nearby Labuan water. Some fishermen had caught a big fish with this Keris some 60 years ago.
The Keris and the Andiban were both made from gold. It was told by the eldest, when Awang Alak Betatar killed the wild buffalo or tambadau, the golden horns was discovered by Awang Alak and that inspired him to create another small and secret weapons.
Sabah Bisaya language has 90% intelligibility of Tatana, a Dusun dialect. Bisaya in Sabah also has 58% lexical similarity with dialects of Sarawak Bisaya and 57%–59% with Brunei dialect.
Music, arts and crafts
The traditional musical instrument consists of Kulintangan, gong, and many of small gongs (cf. Asmahs claim that the Bisaya are supposed to be the best gong musicians). It is as if somebody just beats the gong and everyone-men, women, young and old just starts to dance. All these instruments are used in the wedding ceremony, celebrating very important people etc. Besides the musical items, the Bisayas are able to make good weapons for various purposes. There are andiban, sumpit, parang, keris and knife.
Culture and tradition
Belief and customs
The majority of the Muslims Bisaya lives in Sabah and some of them live in Sarawak as a Christian. Though they treasure their cultural tradition of medicine, marriages, death etc., they don't actually practice it now, possibly due to the influence of the religion. Even though they would call the traditional medicine men or women known as Bobolian to perform rites in times of illness, many now would go to the clinics available around their places for treatment.
- Liliput dance
- Alai Anding
- Jipin (Zapin) dance
- Sayau Bagarus dance (grinding some sago trunk to produce sago flakes)
- Mengalawat dance (performances as they stepping on the sago flakes to produce sago juices)
- Mencayau dance (to celebrate victories after defeating the pirates)
- Ugang Bamboo
- Bubu mengalai or bubu dance using some spells such as below:
|“||Ya Bamban Ya Lukah, Ya Bamban Eh Basari,
Main Kita Si Ipar Muda, SiLukah Pandai Menari
- Kulintangan Bisaya consist of 27 traditional songs and three berasik songs (spells for curing illness).
- Badaup during paddy harvesting.
- Tarik tali, tug of war
- Gasing, spining top
- Kikit, kite playing
- Lastik / Melastik, slingshot
- Andiban or spear
- Berambit / Bahambit, arm wrestling
- Martial arts or silat Bisaya with bamboo music
- Scaling an infant on the month of Safar from Islam calendar.
White shirt, Songket, Tarbus, smoking pipe, Keris, bracelet etc.
- Kuih Cincin
- Tapai Manis
- Kuih Sapit
- Kuih Jala
- Kuih Penyaram
- Kuih Lamban
- Kuih Gelang
The leaves (roun rombia)
The Rumbia's leaves can be woven into a roof, the women are trained by their elders (women ) to inherit the rumbia-weaving skill. The Rumbia'leaves known as roun rombia in Bisaya dialect. Meanwhile, the process of weaving the Rumbia's leaves known as manyarut. The woven Rumbia's leaves need to be dried under the sun. These leaves would last for two to three years, environment-friendly.
In the past, the branch of Rumbia tree used as wall for a house or hut ( in the farm ). The branch can be used to build chicken home, fence to guard the plants ( vegetables etc. ) and the dried branch used as a torch ( to spread the fire; to clear the land for agriculture purpose ). Meanwhile, skin of the branch can be woven into basket, mat, and others. Among the well-known woven stuff from this Rumbia parts are saging (a kind of basket carried at the back of a person), lalibu (a flat woven-basket useful during paddy harvesting), and topau (a mat used to dry the paddy seed).
We start from the upper part, here we can get a punoh, this part is a delicious 'vegetable'. Can be eaten raw, sweet and soft. The punoh served as main menu (vegetable) during wedding reception among Bisaya community. Then, sago (staple food of Bisaya, young generation didn't agree with this) is extracted from the Rumbia's trunk. The skin (palunoh) of Rumbia tree can be used a firewood, floor for hut, and wall too. The trunk can be used as a bridge, it is a strong trunk and last longer. During flood, my brothers and I used to build a boat from the Rumbia tree. I missed those days, we are adult now. In case of emergency, you can get water from the roots of Rumbia tree. It tastes water, of course.
One of their main festivals called Babulang or Mibulang such as buffalo racing is celebrated annually in Batu Danau, Sarawak near the Brunei border. More photos of the festival in June 2006 showing their black traditional costumes and their buffalo racing tradition are available on flickr at
- Lajim Ukin- The former Malaysian Minister
- "Tutong, Bisayan in Brunei". Joshua Project. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
- Raymond G. Gordon Jr., ed. (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. SIL International. ISBN 1-55671-159-X.
- "Bisaya, Sabah Bisaya in Malaysia". Joshua Project. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
- "Bisaya, Sabah Bisaya in United States". Joshua Project. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
- Ooi 2004, p. 272
- John Alexander Hammerton; Dr. Charles Hose (1922). Peoples of All Nations. Concept Publishing Company. ISBN 81-7268-156-9.
- Ethnologue (ed.), Bisaya, Sabah, retrieved 2 July 2012
- Bewsher(1958),Sandin(1971) and Hussain & Newman(1987).
- Beccari, Dr. O., NELLE FORESTE DI BORNEO (1902).
- Bock, Carl, THE HEAD-HUNTERS OF BORNEO (1882).
- Furness, W. H., THE HOME LIFE OF BORNEO HEAD-HUNTERS (1902).
- Haddon, E. B., "The Dog-motive in Bornean Art" (JOURN. ANTH. INST., 1905).
- Hamer, C. den, IETS OVER HET TATOUEEREN OF TOETANG BIJ DE BIADJOE-STAMMEN.
- Hein, A. R., DIE BILDENDEN KUNSTE BEI DEN DAYAKS AUF BORNEO (1890).
- Ling Roth, H., THE NATIVES OF SARAWAK AND BRITISH NORTH BORNEO 1896), vol. ii.
- Nieuwenhuis, Dr. A. W., IN CENTRAL BORNEO (1900). vol. i.
- Nieuwenhuis, Dr. A. W., QUER DURCH BORNEO (1904), vol. i.
- Schwaner, Dr. C. A. L. M., BORNEO (1853—54); cf. Ling Roth, vol. ii. pp. cxci to cxcv.
- Whitehead, J., EXPLORATION OF MOUNT KINA BALU, NORTH BORNEO (1893).
- Selamat Jati; Sejarah Sosio Ekonomi Bisaya (thesis 1990).
- Dr. Shafiq Sarawak Museum Journal (1989); "Bisaya Ethnography: A Brief Bisaya Report."
- Antarano Peranio; The Structure of Bisaya Society.
- Bewsher; Kumpulan tulisan Bewsher (Tuan Busa kajun Bisaya)
- Prof. Vernon L. Poritt; "Bapa Guru Bisaya".
- Harrisson; Kaitan Bisaya Sarawak, Brunei dan Sabah; "Some origins and attitudes of Brunei Tutong-Belait-Dusun, North Boreneo "Dusun', and Sarawak Bisayan (1958).
- Asmah Hj, Omar (1983), Araneta and Bernard (1960), Hussain Jamil & Newman(187); Bisaya language
- R.E. Stubbs (1968); Kegemilangan Bisaya.
- St. John (1862) Volume 2; Tulisan yang awal tentang kampung-kampung Bisaya.