Mystery of the ancient Rungus poems

The ancient Rungus poems give an insight into the people’s way of life and depth of wisdom


THE Rungus tribe in Sabah, a sub-group of the Kadazan-Dusun community, has an interesting heritage of oral literature or poems, but not much is known about it due to the lack of written records.

In the olden days, members of the tribe recited these poems, known as bahul in the native Rungus language, to appease evil spirits or as a tool to motivate and discipline others.

This art, however, is no longer practised by the community. According to Dr Raymond [email protected] Shafie Abdullah, 52, who has done research on the Rungus traditional oral literature, most of the Rungus poems were secular in nature and were generally not connected to specific events or functions.

“The poems were only expressed under certain circumstances and out of necessity,” said Raymond, who is himself a Rungus and is attached to the Kudat District Education Office as a school improvement specialist coach.

There are over 50,000 Rungus people in Sabah who live in Kota Marudu, Kudat and Pitas districts. Most of them now practise Christianity.


Raymond wrote a book entitled ‘Pantang Larang Suku Kaum Di Sabah’ and reveals that in ancient days, the Rungus tribe used the traditional oral literature to appease evil spirits during healing sessions

Raymond, who holds a PhD in Literature (Creative Arts) from Universiti Malaysia Sabah, told Bernama it took him seven years to complete his research on the Rungus poems. To dig up information, he had to visit several remote Rungus villages in Kota Marudu and Pitas districts in the northern tip of Sabah.

He said the research work was quite tough because, unlike olden Malay poems that were documented, the Rungus poems were mostly orally expressed and passed on orally from one generation to another.

But during his visits to their villages, he managed to get hold of some of the poems which the elders in the community still remembered.

“Translating the poems into Bahasa Melayu was not easy either because they were recited in the Rungus classic language. In most cases, the people from whom I got the poems were unable to explain their conceptual meaning,” he said.

He said the standard Rungus bahul or poem consisted of four, six, eight or 10 lines that formed the recurring metrical unit or verse.

His research revealed that in ancient days, the Rungus tribe used the traditional oral literature to, among other things, appease evil spirits or rogon during healing sessions.

“The ritual text of the bahul used in such events is basically a form of artistic expression to communicate with the rogon. It also involved making some kind of offerings to coax the spirits not to disturb human beings,” he said.

He said if the rogon did not accept the peace offering, the people would seek the help of Kinoringan or God to punish the evil spirits.

“But this ritual is rarely practised nowadays. Even if there are people reciting bahul today, it is only to show that the particular person has some knowledge of the old oral tradition,” he said.

Way of Life

The ancient Rungus poems also gave an insight into the people’s way of life and depth of wisdom, pointed out Raymond, adding that they were inclined towards using a complex way to interpret and explain their philosophical way of thinking.

Apart from its use in appeasing evil spirits, the poems were also used to “rehabilitate” people who behaved inappropriately, in which case the utterances would be in the form of an indirect and subtle reprimand.

He cited the following verse as a typical example of a bahul that underscored the importance of discipline and work ethics:

Uva dhilho bhambangan (A bambangan fruit); Popiturug-turugon (spin it); Ong amu umbanganan (if incorrectly played); Abhambang korugian (will incur great loss).”

In the course of his research, Raymond also found out about a few other Rungus traditions that were rarely known to the pub- lic, such as mi’irung or eating together, mitangganggazung or joint responsibility and oo’bhingrubatan or loyalty to traditional beliefs.

Mitangganggazung also means generosity, such as helping friends or fellow villagers who are in need of financial assistance.

Raymond, meanwhile, also observed a decline in the use of the Rungus language among the younger generation who prefer to use Bahasa Melayu as a medium of communication.

“Even though the style of speaking the Rungus language might be difficult to preserve due to the influence of Bahasa Melayu, I believe the language, as a mother tongue, will not totally disappear,” he said, hoping that more researchers would do in-depth studies on Rungus culture and oral traditions.