Sarawak Culture PELAH HAWA Traditional Kayan Wedding

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The Traditional Kayan Wedding Process

The traditional wedding process and associated rituals vary in accordance with the respective social class of the man and of the woman to be married, and of their respective families and longhouses within the Kayan community.

The present day class structures and hierarchies are the outcome of centuries of events and occurrences amongst the Kayans (warfare, enslavement, voluntary social associations, arranged marital unions, and so forth) spanning over many generations. And this aspect of Kayan culture has turned out to be crucial in terms of determining the nature as well as the ritual form of marital unions, that is who can/cannot marry who, what wedding procedure should be followed, who is allowed to perform what ritual and so forth.

The three class structures are the Maren or the high aristocrats, the Hipui / Maren Uk are the noble folk and Panyin are the commoners4. The Maren had close ties to the spirit world. A Maren individual had a tutelary deity which protected him and by extension, his tribe. Disobeying a Maren was tantamount to disobeying the spirits; therefore it was no surprise that the Maren class could get away with ordering the lower classes around and gaining their absolute obedience. Because of this traditionally rigid class structure, it is only in recent times that marriages are permitted between the different strata. When such a marriage occurs, the children from the marriage shall inherit the status of the parent from the higher stratum5. It should be noted that the class strata tends to be in disfavour with the increasingly secondary/tertiary-educated and urbanised younger generations of Kayans. However, the age old practice of respecting the traditional hierarchy is still observed in the longhouses. A modern day Kayan person belonging to the Panyin would not, for example, dare to wear or display designs that are meant for the Maren when visiting his/her respective longhouses. The adoption of Christianity by the majority of Kayans has also modified some of the thinking in relation to how the old traditions and customs should be observed.

If a marriage between the different strata happens, the person of the lower class has to undergo a class conversion process before the wedding can proceed.

The class conversion is done after the atep hawa6. The class conversion process is under the jurisdiction of the Maren Uma7. Witnessed by elders and guests, the Penghulu or the Maren Uma will conduct the class conversion ceremony where he will ask the respective family members if they agree to the conversion. The groom's family will then give a tawak to the bride's parents to formalize the conversion. Only after the conversion will the Panyin bride or groom be allowed to sit on the tawak (which is reserved only for the Maren) with his/her bride/groom. This class conversion process was observed during the traditional wedding at Long Bemang.


  • 4 In the olden days, Kayan society was strictly divided into four distinct social classes-Maren, Hipui, Panyin and Dipen. The Dipen were the slave class. See Sellato, Bernard. Innermost Borneo: Studies In Dayak Cultures, Singapore, NUS Press, 2002, p.74. Because of rigid class structures, marriages between the different strata were unknown in the past, but as time went by and the population shifted more to the urban centres looking for employment and educational opportunities, the class consciousness amongst the Kayan people in the urban settings have diluted to a certain extent.
  • 5 Adet Kayan-Kenyah 1994, Majlis Adat Istiadat Sarawak, 1994, Chapter IV, item 97, p.166.
  • 6 Engagement token given by the man to the woman to denote their engagement in accordance to the adet and based on the different strata.
  • 7 Adet Kayan-Kenyah 1994, Op..Cit, p.166.