The Kaamatan Festival

Malaysian-Harvest-FestivalThe Kaamatan (Harvest) Festival in Sabah is closely identified with the Kadazandusun people, who form the largest indigenous ethnic group in Sabah.  This festival for some years now, is one of the grandest festivals celebrated here, and culminates in the state-level Havest Festival celebrations on May 30-31 each year.

In the spiritual life of the Kadazandusun, the Harvest Festival or Tadau Kaamatan is important because it is the occasion to honour the rice spirit called Bambaazon and to thank Kinoingan (God) for the bountiful rice harvest ensuring the survival of the Kadazandusun.  It is also an occasion to maintain goodwill, friendship and brotherhood among the people.

In the olden days, the Kadazandusun believed that the spiritual world was inhabited mainly by five different spirits, namely:

(i) Kinoingan = God the Creator
(ii) Koduuduvo or Sunduvan = the soul of the living person
(iii) Tombiivo or Hozop = the spirit of the dead person
(iv) Rusod = spirits of all living things apart from humans
(v) Logon = evil spirits

According to the traditional beliefs of the Kadazandusun, Kinoingan is the overall Creator.  He had a wife called Suminundu (the holy and miraculous) and a daughter called Huminodun (the transfigured sacrifice).  To feed the people Kinoingan created, he had to sacrifice his only daughter and planted the various parts of her body on the land as if they were seeds.  Out of her flesh came plant life, including the life-giving rice plant.  As with her body, part of her spirit became the rice spirit called Bambaazon.  This spirit is believed to be responsible for the growth and well-being of the rice plant, protecting it from natural hazards such as pests and floods.  As the Kadazandusun people depended upon bountiful rice harvests for survival, the rice spirit played a central role in their spiritual life.  Bambaazon must be kept happy, well-fed and in good mood.  To keep Bambaazon happy, various rituals, ceremonies and celebrations must be performed.  Some of these celebrations were called monogit, magavau and moginakan. The celebrations in monogit and magavau last a few days but in moginakan this celebration normally lasts for about forty days. Due to the huge costs involved in moginakan, this celebration was rarely performed. The present Harvest Festival originated from these celebrations which were normally done after harvesting the rice.  The rituals and ceremonies performed in the Harvest Festival celebrations are related to the magavau celebrations.

To appreciate the importance of the rice spirit in the life of the Kadazandusun, a bad harvest meant going hungry for months.  For these subsistence farmers, they grew just enough rice until the next harvest.  This also meant that they would have to forgo the beloved tapai drink as it was made from fermented rice.

The Harvest Festival nowadays is usually celebrated in May by Kadazandusuns wherever they are found to have settled.  The Harvest Festival celebrations can be divided into two main parts, namely:

(i) Homecoming of the Bambaazon to the tangkob (padi storehouse) and
(ii) the Magavau Ceremony.

Homecoming of the Bambaazon
The Kadazandusun believe that apart from being capable of nourishing life in food form, the Bambaazon, which is embedded in the grains of the ripe padi, is also capable of germinating into new plants to yield more grains when planted. A homecoming ceremony is therefore neccesary in order to allow the Bambaazon to dwell in the harvested padi grains. While this belief remains the same, the rituals performed during this ceremony differ slightly from one Kadazandusun district to another. In the interior, particularly in the Tambunan district, the homecoming ceremony begins with the village priestess or bobihizan selecting between twenty to thirty of the best ears of padi, carefully harvesting and building them up so as to leave no grains wasted during the process. As the priestess carefully places the selected padi ears in a basket and taking them to the house of the owner, she recites prayers inviting the Bamabaanzon to dwell in the selected grains. These are to be used for the next planting season.

In the Penampang district, a slight difference in the homecoming ceremony can be seen.  The village priestess selects the stalks of padi with the best grains and ties them together to be left in the field, not to be cut until after the harvesting is completed.  As soon as the harvesting is over, the priestess then cuts the selected padi stalks and bring them to the house of the  padi field owber.  The Bambaazon is now said to be at home.

When all the threshing and winnowing of the newly harvested padi is completed, all the household padi is stored in the tangkob or padi store-house.  It is in the tangkob that Bambaazon takes its rest until the  next planting season comes around.

The Magavau Ceremony

The Kadazan word “magavau” or “maga’au”, means to recover what one has lost, by whatever means. The Magavau ritual refers to the task of the Kadazandusun priestess to search and bring home the lost or straying “Bambaazon” during the year.  The rice spirits could have lost their way since the bambaazons are embodied in the rice grains which could have been washed away by floods or taken away by birds.  Man may also carelessly drop rice grains during the process of harvesting, transporting, winnowing and milling the grains or children may drop or throw the rice grains away.  The priestesses are therefore summoned to perform the Magavau ceremony.  This ceremony may be performed in individual houses or at the village level.  At the village level, the village elders comprising the village headman, the chief priestess and council of elders will plan and decide on when and how the ceremony will be performed and conducted.  In the olden days the magavau was performed to coincide with the first appearance of the moon after the winnowed padi is safely stored in the tangkob.  This was necessary in order to allow the chief Bobohizan and the others to actually walk through the harvested padi fields to search and gather all the Bambaazons that have strayed, hence enabling them to join the mystical body of the Bambaazon.

Today, the Magavau ‘dance’ as it is performed in the Harvest Festival celebrations depicts that part of the Magavau ceremony, where the chief Bobohizans (both men and women) and their followers actually leave their communal longhouse and begin their  journey to the padi fields during the full moonlit night.

The chief male Bobohizans normally lead the procession, brandising a sword in the process of searching for the lost Bambaazon while  the priestesses  chant their prayers.  The bobohizans and their followers stick closely together with their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them so that they will not stumble in the night and thereby lessening the chance of making the unseen spirits angry.  Should a magavau participant leave the circle, the participant immediately behind must fill the gap and rejoin the line to prevent it from breaking up.  When the magavau ceremony is performed in the house, the agile and more athletic members of the audience normally take part by jumping in and out of the circle over the heads and shoulders of the participants.- Richard F Tunggolou, 10th Diocesan Harvest Festival Magazine, 2004, 22-23.

The Harvest Festival in Judeo-Christian Tradition

Harvest Festival is a celebration of the food grown on the land.

Thanksgiving ceremonies and celebrations for a successful harvest are both worldwide and very ancient. In Sabah, we have given thanks for successful harvests since ancient times. We celebrate this day by singing, praying and decorating our churches with baskets of fruit and food in a festival known as ‘Harvest Festival,’ usually during the month of May.

The harvest festival of the Jewish religion is called Sukkot or ‘Feast of Ingathering’ or ‘the ‘Feast of Tabernacles.’ It is celebrated at the end of the year, after Rosh Hoshanah, the third of the great Annual Festivals.

Harvest Festival reminds Christians of all the good things God gives them. This makes them want to share with others who are not so fortunate.  It is celebrated to thank God for the abundant blessings bestowed upon the people for the year and to pray for continued rich and plentiful harvest for the coming year.  This is also an occasion to renew goodwill and friendships not only among the Kadazandusun peoples but also among the other races of Sabah.

Evolution of the Kaamatan Festival

OKK Sodomon, the Keningau Native Chief, first mooted to hold the festival at district and state level 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 Kaamatan 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 Kaamatan 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, 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 29 June 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 Kaamatan Festival as heartily as the Kadazandusun.

The first statewide Ka’matan Festival celebration was proclaimed and held from 30 June to 1 July 1960 at the old St Michael’s School in Penampang. The two-day state holiday for the Kaamatan 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 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  celebration began on the morning of  30 June 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 the “Unduk Ngadau,” Orang Tua (Elders) and Native Chiefs’ traditional attire contests, other local traditional sports, and football matches.

The first state-wide Kaamatan 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 KDCA, 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 with each other.

The statewide Kaamatan Festival has since then been observed and celebrated annually under the active organisation of the Kadazandusun Cultural Association. In order to align the celebration with cultural tourism promotion the Kadazandusun Cultural Association resolved in 1986 that the date be fixed on May 30-31. The Kaamatan Festival month is to be launched on May 1 each year, to mark the beginning of district and kampung level Kaamatan celebrations, culminating  in the state level Kaamatan Festival on May 30-31.

Today the Sabah State Level Kaamatan Festival has become a yearly event 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 Kaamatan 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. – Herman,

Archdiocesan Level Celebrations

As state-level celebrations become more secularised, the local Church decided to have its own celebrations.  Parishes take turns to host the event.  It was a yearly event from 1995 to 2005.  After 2005 the archdiocese decided to celebrate it once every two years. However, there was no celebration in 2009 as the Diocese of Sandakan was erected in 2007, followed by the erection of the Ecclesiastical Province of Kota Kinabalu in 2008 with KK as the metropolitan archdiocese and the Keningau and Sandakan dioceses as suffragan sees.

1995 – St Aloysius Limbanak
1996 – Holy Rosary Limbahau
1997 – Sacred Heart Inobong
1998 – St Joseph Kiulu
1999 – St Pius X Bundu Tuhan
2000 – St Catherine Inanam
2001 – St Theresa Kota Marudu
2002 – St Martin Telupid
2003 – St Mary Sandakan
2004 – Sacred Heart Cathedral Kota Kinabalu
2005 – St Joseph Papar
2007 – St Dominic Lahad Datu
2010 – Stella Maris Tanjung Aru
2012 – St Peter Kudat
2014 – Holy Rosary Limbahau
2016 – Holy Family Telipok

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