TENOM: If you’ve seen a Murut man in his traditional ceremonial costume, you can’t fail to marvel at the splendid design and the rich colours.
You won’t be surprised to learn that it can take up to three days to tailor just the vest, which is one of the two most prominent features of the garb. The other is the feathered headdress.
You can be shown how the vest, or babaru puputul, is made if you’re a guest at the homestay village of Kampung Marais in Tenom, a town in the southwest interior of Sabah, where most members of the Murut indigenous group live.
It’s a four-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu to the village, which has hosted not only local tourists but also visitors from as far away as the United States, Germany, France and Belgium.
FMT Lifestyle was in Kampung Marais recently and learned the craft of vest making from villager Natanel Atum.
Tailoring a vest is hard work and can take up to three days but it remains a matter of pride for many Murut men.
The material used is the bark of the puputul tree, which grows deep in the jungles of Borneo. Retrieving a puputul log is thus a major responsibility, often undertaken by the men of the village.
You can make a babaru vest from a single log about the length of an arm.
According to Natanel, it takes a lot of effort and time to complete the work, “but it can last 10 years if you take care of it well enough.”
Explaining the cultural significance of the vest, village elder Ansapi Pawan, 80, said it used to be worn as ceremonial clothing by Murut warriors returning home to celebrate a victory in battle.
The Murut have a reputation for fearsomeness and many a modern-day Murut is happy to regale you with tales about his headhunting ancestors.
The days when war parties went out on raids are long gone, but the Murut continue to take pride in their old traditions.
Natanel began his demonstration by hammering a puputul block hard with a mallet, apparently to strengthen the wood. And then the dark and rough outer layer of the bark was removed and the lighter inner layer peeled off.
The lighter layer is what is used to make the vest.
It is a hard and thick material to work with. it has to be beaten down until it has stretched out like a sheet of paper. As it is sticky with sap, it has to be washed thoroughly afterwards.
Once it is sufficiently dry, the layer is cut into the shape of a vest, and this is the stage when patterns are painted onto it using natural dyes.
The patterns are often stylised depictions of animals common in Sabahan life, like buffaloes, which are associated with strength, and birds, signifying wisdom.
Once the dye has completely dried, you have one new babaru puputul fit to be worn on important cultural occasions.
It is quite amazing to see an old tradition living on in the modern age, but it can only survive if the next generation is willing to learn it and pass it down.
This is what concerns village head James Ranggi the most. “Our young men and women often head to KK, KL and Singapore in search of work,” he said.
“It worries me that there will be no one to continue this community’s culture. If nothing changes, this will all disappear.”
Still, he is hopeful that tourism will play its part in providing the Murut people opportunities as well as a means to preserve their culture.
If you’re interested in visiting and staying at Kampung Marais, contact James Ranggi at 016-8349781.