Sarawak Culture PELAH HAWA Traditional Kayan Wedding

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The Orang Ulu / Kayan

The Orang Ulu ethnic groups can be located in the state of Sarawak in such areas like Belaga, Bintulu, Miri, Baram, Bario, Lawas, Trusan and Limbang. It was believed that in Kuching alone, the Orang Ulu population numbered up to about one thousand - the community's urban migration being mostly due to better employment, education and business opportunities available in Sarawak's capital cities1. The term Orang Ulu literally translates as "people of the upper river". Based predominantly on oral history sources, the term "Orang Ulu" - as used by Bruneian and Chinese traders for instance - was at one time referring only to the Kayan and the Kenyah people. The term became more popular during the era of Datuk Temenggong Oyong Lawai Jau (1950-1974) the paramount chief who was the leader of the Kayan-Kenyah community. The first official documentation which formally introduced the term "Orang Ulu" is the Orang Ulu Customary Code of Fines (1957) written by the Majlis Adat Istiadat Sarawak. But as mentioned above, the term referred only to the Kayan and Kenyah peoples.

The term was later revised and used in the Orang Ulu National Association's (OUNA) Constitution, established on 28 October 1966, to refer to the following peoples: Bukitan, Bisaya, Kayan, Kajang (inclusive of Sekapan, Kejaman, Lahanan, Punan, Tanjong and Kanowit), Kelabit, Kenyah (inclusive of Sebob, Seping, Kiput, Badang, Berawan, Morek), Lugat, Lisum, Murut (inclusive of Lun Bawang), Penan, Sian, Tabun, Ukit and Saban2.

In general, the Orang Ulus are farmers, planting mostly hill paddy although they also do a lot of river fishing. Some Orang Ulu communities, such as the Penans, still practise a nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place, hunting in the forest and gathering wild vegetation for food and crafts. Orang Ulus are considered to be highly skilled crafts people, especially with regards to long boat making and also to wood carving, mat weaving and painting. Like other Dayak tribes in Borneo, the Kayans live in longhouses. Longhouses differ slightly from tribe to tribe but share the same basic characteristic. Orang Ulu tribes are hierarchical, with a class of traditional aristocrats known as Maren. The headman and his family generally live in a very large apartment at the centre of the longhouse, surrounded on either side by their aristocratic neighbours whilst the commoners live further away from the centre. Social status was traditionally determined by a person's distance from the headman's apartment, although nowadays this distinction is becoming less important.

The Kayan originated from the upper Kayan river area (or Apo Kayan). They migrated to the Baluy, the upper Rejang and the Baram in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The Kayans who reside in the Baram region belong to the Uma Bawang3. In the old days, the Kayan practised the adat Dipuy (the old religion) which preceded the adat Bungan (the reformed adat Dipuy). Following the conversion to Christianity, many of the old traditions are no longer observed.


  • 1 Jalong, Jeffrey. Kalong: Seni Motif Tradisi Orang Ulu, Malaysia, Kementerian Kebudayaan Kesenian dan Pelancongan Malaysia, 2001, p.4. James Ritchie affirms that the Orang Ulu communities number about 80,000 people or more. See also Ritchie, James. Temenggong Oyong Lawai Jau: A Paramount Chief In Borneo: A Legacy, Kuching, 2006, p.xii.
  • 2 Jalong, op.cit, p.4.
  • 3 The Uma Bawang came to settle in the Baram area after losing a battle for supremacy. According to Jerome Rousseau, the Kayans have changed very drastically in the last twenty years. See Rousseau, Jerome. Kayan Religion: Ritual life and religious reform in Central Borneo, Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1998, p.18.