Bidayuh Cultural Heritage: Preservation, Challenges, and Prospect of Bidayuh Traditional Arts

Bidayuh Cultural Heritage: Preservation, Challenges, and Prospect of Bidayuh Traditional Arts

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Clarence Anak Jerry, PhD

Dayak Bidayuh National Association (DBNA)


Sarawak is a state in Malaysia which is endowed with a lot of cultural heritages sourced from its multicultural communities. The Bidayuh as one of the indigenous communities in Sarawak is a multidialectal community, implying that it is rich in traditional arts as part of its cultural heritage, such as traditional music/musical instruments, dance/performance, and ritual/oral tradition among others. Efforts at preserving these heritages are obstructed with daunting challenges, particularly human activities, such as modernisation, urban migration, social change, ‘dying’ generation of elders, and contemporary entertainment industry, among others. Hence, the clarion call for its preservation due to avalanche of prospects derived from an adequately preserved cultural heritage.


According to the Sarawak State Planning Unit (2012), the Bidayuh is an indigenous community in Sarawak with a population of around 200,000 people. Despite being a minority ethnic group, it comprises of 29 sub-groups which are distinctive of their spoken dialects (Chang, 2002). As a multidialectal community, the Bidayuh is endowed with a rich cultural heritage, that needs to be conserved, preserved and promoted for the benefits of the future generation. This paper focuses on discussing the issues of preservation, challenges and prospect of Bidayuh cultural heritage, in particularly its traditional arts.

Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations ( Cultural heritage evolves from man’s ingenious activities, preserved and transmitted through oral traditions or in written concrete forms across generations of human societies. Cultural heritage is, however limited to man-made artefacts and ideologies (Eluyemi, 2002). Thus, cultural heritage can be defined as the people’s cherished traditional arts, which includes customs, festivals, norms, values, ideologies, music, dance, attire/dress, handicraft, monuments and architectures, and other artefacts which are cherished and conserved for their historical, political, educational, recreational and religious significance among others.

Bidayuh Traditional Arts: The need for their Preservation

Even though Bidayuh is a ‘minor’ ethnic group, it comprises of 29 sub-groups which are distinctive of their spoken dialects. The four main sub-group based on spoken dialects recognised, corresponding with the district boundaries are the Bukar-Sadung in the Serian Division, Biatah in the Penrissen-Padawan areas, Bau-Jagoi in the Bau district and Salako-Rara in the Lundu district as described by Bongarra, Kayad and Campbell (2017, pg. 209). Thus, one can imagine the richness of the traditional arts that needs to preserved and documented. Preservation is very vital because of its capacity to promote the past ways of life that are useful to contemporary Bidayuh community.

There are a host of traditional arts among the Bidayuh dialectal communities that are under threat of extinction, such as traditional music/musical instrument, dances and oral/ritual traditional. Therefore, there is a need for a conscious preservation of these authentic traditional arts. Conscious and consensus effort to actively initiate the preservation and documentation of these traditional arts is yet to be fully realised and well-coordinated by the relevant bodies or government agencies. This situation which is further impeded by substantial financial constraints.

The Challenges

Worth noting, the past is essentially the key to the present and platform into the future. In the olden days, these knowledge and skills to continue the tradition arts were preserved through oral tradition and training of this crafts men and women; and then the skills were handed over from generation to generations. This generational pattern of preserving the Bidayuh cultural heritage, in particularly its traditional arts, was completely or partially truncated in most parts of Bidayuh areas due to unsolicited incursion of modernisation, urban migration, social change, such as assimilation of other indigenous culture due to intermarriages, among others.

Influence of Modernisation

The new generation of Bidayuh has to strive and survive in the very competitive environment in the 21st century brought in by modernisation and globalisation. There is a need to to accommodate the 21st Century set of challenges and the changes that it brings. For instance, the present era demands meritocracy, the future and destiny of the Bidayuh depends so much on their level of education, as only those with the right skills and knowledge will be able to play a meaningful role in development of the state. Thus, with more emphasis on education to secure the future of the community, the new generation of the Bidayuh may eventually be less exposed and knowledgeable of their rich and diverse culture and tradition, especially these related to traditional arts.

Urban Migration

The urbanization of the Bidayuh – migrating to the cities and urban centres, where the job opportunities are available and where they will and are exposed to new values and new culture. This will further press for the need to create cultural identity in the ever-changing world of socio-economic environment brought about as a result of modernisation and globalisation around the world today. This is indeed an urgent call to preserve and transmit the culture of our ancestors, not only for the Bidayuh but also the other ethnic groups in Sarawak.

Social Change

Social change implies an alteration, modification or shift in behavior, attitude, social institutions and social structure. Most social institutions and structures such a family, marriage and kinship systems are threatened by the wave of modernisation, technological developments and globalization. For instance, the value system has gradually been eroded as issues like respect for elders, chastity, integrity and morality are considered archaic, while wrong values like disrespect, disobedience, fraud, corruption are trenched in the society. This has been traced to the failure of the family system. Parents in their quest for wealth and materialism abandoned their primary responsibility of inculcating right moral values into their children through proper parental training. This affects the society in the long run negatively by leading to chaos and conflict. The Bidayuh is also equally effected by this phenomenon of present social change, though there is no thorough ethnographic study done on it known to the writer. Along with this trend, traditional arts are slowly being ignored, especially with the assimilation of other cultures through intermarriages and expanding social contact.

Slowly Dying’ Generation of Elders to pass down the Oral Tradition

Deeply rooted in the Bidayuh culture, oral tradition is a medium used by the elders that helps to pass down knowledge and skills to the younger generation. It is a body of information concerning history, culture and environment of a people at any given time and space. This information is often obtained through the words of mouth. It is also a set of verbally transmitted pieces of information about the experiences and worldviews of a people. These experiences and worldviews are preserved in the memories of the group of people and are transmitted from one generation to another ( These elders (men or women), including the priests/priestess of the community, serve as repositories and custodians of their oral tradition​_s. These include traditional folk songs like the bibajo, birayun and pangkau (refer to Appendix 1- Table 1), recitals of rhymes like the barih-sumpon, sirundaang, and chants like the barih, naabur, massi, pulis, ngawah and nibaak (refer to Appendix 2 – Table 2) (from a primary source as listed by Penghulu Denis Gamin (2018), from the Bibukar-Sadung, Serian), and other facets of the individual Bidayuh sub-groups’ cultural heritages. Nowadays, this generation of elders have slowly demised as the younger generations are not keen to learn the tradition arts due to the present contemporary life styles and assimilation of other cultures.

The Contemporary Entertainment Industry

In the entertainment industry, the traditional poets, traditional dances and dancers, songs, music, and local costumes, musical instruments such as drums have been replaced with western music, modern dance styles, modern dress, western musical instrument such as bands, microphones, guitars, pianos, etc. All these subtle replacements continue without the Bidayuhs knowing its implications to their traditional arts in just a few years to come. It is not a surprise that a majority of the new generation of Bidayuhs from the Bukar-Sadung for instance, will not be able to name all their traditional dances or langgi, such as langgi jamu raja, langgi julang, langgi pengadap, sijinjek, langgi nentaang purom, langgi nguri, langgi timpilis, sirindu, langgi riama, and langgi pengiringgang, among others (from the primary source as narrated by Penghulu Robert Jawas), what more to differentiate one langgi dance’s steps to another. Now, what about the different types of langgi from other three main bidayuhs areas – the Biatah in the Penrissen-Padawan areas, Bau-Jagoi in the Bau district and Salako-Rara in the Lundu district? Definitely there is indeed a rich variety of langgi dances from all the Bidayuh sub-dialectal groups that needs to be preserved, documented and promoted. Similarly, from the Bukar-Sadung Bidayuh, there are also musical instruments that are rarely being played during the modern day functions, apart from the usual ‘agung’ namely the pirunchong, bincuyo, nineng/tonton, jinggon and kirumboi (from the primary source as narrated by Penghulu Robert Lawas). All these call for action of the various relevant parties, in particularly the Dayak Bidayuh National Association, the Bidayuh Council of Elders and the Majlis Adat Istiadat Sarawak (the Sarawak Council of Ceremonial Practice).

Prospects: Economic, Tourism & Development Potentials of Bidayuh Traditional Arts

Sarawak stands to benefit a lot if the Bidayuh cultural heritage in the form of traditional arts, along with other ethnic group cultural heritages are adequately preserved. It has great potentials of boosting the state’s economy through tourism. When cultural heritages are properly preserved and advertised through the print and electronic media, they stand a chance of attracting tourists from the nooks and crannies of the world. This would be a plus to national revenue and GDP, which will in turn provide more funds for the development of the country.

The Bidayuh cultural heritage in the form of traditional arts also are capable of promoting mutual understanding and respect among the Bidayuh dialectal groups. For instance, when Bidayuh sub-groups sent their contingents to attend the annual Pesta Birumuh or the Harvest Festival during Gawai, they will learn to appreciate the various traditional arts exhibited by divest Bidayuh community sub-groups and this will engender unity in diversity.

The Bidayuh leaders in the Dayak Bidayuh National Association (DBNA) sensed the need to preserve Bidayuh cultural heritage during one of the Council Executive Committee (CEC) meetings in 2016. During the meeting, a concern was raised on the need to preserve Bidayuh cultural heritage, and the CEC members unanimously agreed that a museum or a cultural gallery should be created at the main Baruk at the DBNA Headquarters. This museum or cultural gallery is to collects, studies, exhibits, and conserves artefacts or objects for cultural and educational purposes.

The Bidayuh Museum or Cultural Gallery could contribute to Bidayuh’s appreciation of aesthetics, relaxation, and leisure. Some non-material cultural heritages such as values of respect, integrity, and dignity of labour, will re-orientate the mass, in particularly the Bidayuh from materialism to appreciating appropriate morally right pursuits and endeavours. All these will culminate into a better Bidayuh community.


There is an urgent need to speed up the initiative by DBNA or any interested authority that anchored on the following;

(a) Preservation and documentation of Bidayuh traditional arts

(b) Promotion of traditional arts

(c) Presentation of traditional arts

(d) Establishment of administrative structure and provision of funds for its implementation.

Andrew Kiyu (2003), suggested that the Bidayuh, in confronting the challenges with regards to their culture:

“…to teach our children our culture, so that they can live as Bidayuh; transmit and reinforce it, otherwise our culture will die; document it, so that we know all of those things…; and finally, proactively adapt and change it, because no culture is static, and because culture must adapt in order to survive…” (pg.40)

This paper has therefore focused on the first part of this initiative by conceptualizing the Bidayuh traditional arts, narrating the efforts by the DBNA towards preservation, challenges and prospects, if the Bidayuh traditional arts, as part of its cultural heritage is preserved. Further d​_iscussion would need to address the later parts of recommended initiative as in (b), (c) and (D) above.


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Online Reference:

Cultural Heritage. Retrieved February 6, 2018 from

Oral Tradition. Retrieved February 6, 2018 from


Presented as a paper at the ‘Kongres Seni Sarawak 2018’ organised by Sarawak State Government in collaboration with ‘Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Cawangan Sarawak’ and ‘Majlis Seni Sarawak’ on 21-22 February 2018 at Pullman Hotel, Kuching, Sarawak.


Bidayuh Folk Songs

Name and Type Origin Functions
Bibajo A love song between a male and female enticing their love for each other using symbolism/metaphors in the lyric. Sang during gawai, marriage or social gathering
Birayun A love song between a group of males and females enticing their love for each other Sang by a group of female sitting on a swing to a group male to entice for reply to accept or otherwise.
Pangkau A song between male and female to provoke each other to give respective response. Sang during gawai, marriage or social gathering

Table 1 List of Folk Songs from the Bibukar-Sadung, Serian (Primary source – Penghulu Denis Garmin, 2018)


Bidayuh Ryhmes and Chants

Name and Type Origin Function
Barih-sumpon Rhymes to entice a bee queen Sang during the collecting of bee honey by climbers to entice the bee queens before they can safely collect the honey
Sirundaang Rhymes by a female or a group of females Sang when feeling lonely for their husband to return home safely or when enticing her baby to fall asleep
Barih A chant perform by a priestess Perform to bless the beginning of the gawai
Naabur A chant perform by a priest perform to bless the beginning of the gawai
Massi A chant perform by a priest Perform to find out the cause of a sickness
Pulis A chant perform by a priestess Perform to cure the sickness
Ngawah A chant by an elder Perform before clearing the farm site (Nahu)
Nibaak A chant by an elder Perform before harvesting the padi (Nuhut)

Table 2 List of Bidayuh Rhymes and Chants from the Bibukar-Sadung, Serian (Primary source – Penghulu Denis Garmin, 2018)