The Borneo totem poles

Totem poles of various indigenous tribes around the world usually have interesting stories to tell. The old Kadazan Dusun practice of erecting Sininggazanak in the padi fields in Sabah is no exception.

Carved usually from hardwood, the Sininggazanak is erected as the commemoration of a childless person. This custom used to be practised usually by the Kadazans of the Penampang-Kinarut-Papar localities.

The monument was erected on the deceased person’s paddy field by relative who had had the strongest claim to inherit the property.

As no direct heir existed, the property must go back to a blood relative. Relatives by marriage do not qualify.

The carved wooden object usually takes the figure of a woman or a man or a decorated pole, there is no hard or fast rule on this. What comes into play is the availability of skilled woodcarvers and what he is comfortable with in carving.

A certain amount of ritual usually accompanied the ceremony of erecting the Sininggazanak. The Bobohizan (native medicine woman) would usually lead the chanting of prayers calling upon spirits to enter the monument. By doing so, the good spirits will be the guardians of the property.

As a result a lot of respect will be accorded to the monument, failing which the disrespectful will either fall sick or even die if a thoughtless act is shown towards it.

As the Kadazans in these districts are now mainly Roman Catholics, this old cultural practice has slowly died out.

According to Peter Phelan in his book on the subject, Kadazans are not the only people who practised this in the Malay world, quoting Ogden we are informed that the Bataks in Sumatra too practised the same thing.

To make sure the spirit of a person who had died heirless rest in peace, a life-size image of the dead was made, and this is called Si Galegale in the Batak language.

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