Dusun communities revive spiritual connection with sacred mountain

Monday December 31, 2012


On 3 December 2010, 100 indigenous Dusuns from Bundu Tuhan and Kiau set off on an emotional and momentus journey up Mount Kinabalu. Known as Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran in the Dusun language, this inaugural pilgrimage, now celebrated annually, was the first time in almost 50 years that they were given free access to their sacred mountain.

The majestic and mythical Mount Kinabalu, a site which has been held sacred by the highland Dusuns in the area. (Photo by Herna Henry)

The majestic and mythical Mount Kinabalu, a site which has been held sacred by the highland Dusuns in the area. (Photo by Herna Henry)

Dusun ties to Mount Kinabalu

It is often said that the name Kinabalu originates from two Dusun words, Ki and Nabalu, announcing the presence of a mountain. However, the Dusuns from Bundu Tuhan call it Gayo Ngaran out of respect for the majestic mountain. Historically, the mountain and its surrounding forests provide a source of food and materials needed for their daily subsistence. Its importance lies much deeper than that.

Dusun communities in the region hold Mount Kinabalu as a sacred site, a resting place for the departed souls of their dead ancestors in their journey to Libabou, the eternal resting place. The deceased must be buried facing the mountain so that the awakened spirit will immediately sight the mountain, to begin the journey to the afterlife. In previous times, communities performed a ritual named monolob near to the summit, slaughtering chickens as an offering to appease the spirits of the mountain as well as the ancestral spirits who lived there. An assortment of charms, sacrificial offerings and other paraphernalia were used. Although many have since embraced formal religions, Mount Kinabalu is still a venerated sacred place, a source of their identity and spirituality.

Indigenous communities loss of access to their sacred ground

When Kinabalu Park was gazetted in 1964, turning it into a fully protected area managed by the State Government of Sabah, traditional rituals were discontinued due to access restrictions. In 2000, the Park was declared Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site. Kinabalu National Park gained incredible importance, but of a very different kind and to a different crowd: a prime tourism destination for tourists. Community access to the mountain was reduced to their work as porters and guides. Many elders felt the younger generations of Dusun youths no longer understood their cultural and spiritual relationship to the mountain.

Dusun elders voice their concerns over loss of traditions

In March 2010, indigenous Dusun elders discussed their sadness and sorrow with park authorities. This was after nearly 50 years with strict restrictions governing access and amidst growing numbers of tourists and rising access fees making it unaffordable for them to access the mountain unless they worked as porters or guides. They said:

… we do not want the mountain back. It is a heritage for the world, and for that, we are proud and happy to share this mountain with everyone.

Every year, each year, we want to have one day just for our communities to make a pilgrimage to the mountain. A day when no one else will be allowed to climb the mountain. A day just for our people.

Sabah Parks, the Parks authority, agreed to allocate one day a year for the indigenous Dusun people living around the mountain to conduct a pilgrimage and climb Mount Kinabalu. Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran was born, re-awakening their spiritual connection with the mountain and revitalising a deep cultural knowledge of what Mount Kinabalu, and all the forests that surround it, represents to the Dusun community.

The inaugural Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran

From 2 to 3 December 2010, the first Community Day and Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran was held in conjunction with the 10th Anniversary celebrations for the Kinabalu Park World Heritage status. According to Sabah Parks, around 7,000 people attended the celebrations, including State Ministers, the Sabah Parks Board of Trustees, heads of departments, government officers, members of the press, foreign tourists, and people from all over Sabah. Community Day and Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran stood out as a collaborative effort between park management and Dusun communities, inspiring many community members and Sabahans.

As co-hosts, the community worked to ensure the success of Community Day 2010, themed “Living with Natural Resources”, encouraging participation by a wider spectrum of the community to share and revitalize cultural knowledge. The Day was filled with cultural performances, live craft-making demonstrations, and markets selling forest vegetables and displaying objects of cultural significance. The community also held sessions describing customs and practices of the past.

Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran, which refers to the pilgrimage itself, was a more private affair attended by community members, park officials, selected members of the press and close associates.

Climbers from Bundu Tuhan pose for a photo before setting off on their pilgrimage in 2010. On the far right is Mr. Gunsalam Gunting, the son of Gunting Lagadan, the first official mountain guide and famed champion of the Bundu Tuhan people. (Photo by Helen Brunt)

Climbers from Bundu Tuhan pose for a photo before setting off on their pilgrimage in 2010. On the far right is Mr. Gunsalam Gunting, the son of Gunting Lagadan, the first official mountain guide and famed champion of the Bundu Tuhan people. (Photo by Helen Brunt)

Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran continues

Sabah Parks and representatives from the communities form an organising committee to plan each year’s celebration. The event continues to grow – in 2012, community members from 14 villages took part, an astounding show of unity and an evident growth compared to the two villages involved in its inaugural run two years prior to then. Remmy Alfie, a community researcher from Bundu Tuhan, shared his thoughts after the third annual celebration.

On a daily basis, Mount Kinabalu attracts climbers from all over the world. For almost 50 years, we have taken the backseat and learned to adapt to the restrictions imposed by park regulations, ignoring and losing (especially among those in my generation) the spiritual significance of the mountain. Together, the annual Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran and Community Day celebrations remind us of our heritage, and motivate us to be champions of our natural environment.