Sarawak is home to 28 ethnic groups, each with their own distinct language, culture and lifestyle. The Ibans form the major ethnic group on this land with about 30.1% of the total population per the year 2000 census. The Chinese, who generally live in the cities, are the second largest group at 26.7%, followed by the Bidayuh, Melanau and other native tribes of Sarawak who are collectively known as Orang Ulu. The Malays constitute a large portion (23.0%) of the population as well, mainly concentrated along the coast.
Sarawakians practice a variety of religions, including Islam, Christianity, Chinese folk religion (a fusion of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and ancestor worship) and animism. Many converts to Christianity among the Dayak peoples also continue to practice traditional ceremonies, particularly with dual marriage rites and during the important harvest and ancestral festivals such as Gawai Dayak and Gawai Antu.
The Malays make up 21% of the population in Sarawak. Traditionally fishermen, these seafaring people chose to form settlements on the banks of the many rivers of Sarawak. Today, many Malays have migrated to the cities where they are heavily involved in the public and private sectors and taken up various professions. Malay villages (kampungs) - a cluster of wooden houses on stilts, many of which are still located by rivers on the outskirts of major towns and cities, play home to traditional cottage industries. The Malays are famed for their wood carvings, silver and brass craftings as well as traditional Malays textile weaving with silver and gold thread (kain songket). Malays are Muslim by religion, having brought the faith to Asia some 1000 years ago. Their religion is reflected in their culture and art and Islamic symbolism is evident in local architecture - from homes to government buildings.
The Melanaus have been thought to be amongst the original settlers of Sarawak. Originally from Mukah, the Melanaus traditionally lived in tall houses. Nowadays, they have adopted a Malay lifestyle, living in kampong-type settlements. Traditionally, Melanaus were fishermen and till today, they are reputed as some of the finest boat-builders and craftsmen. While the Melanaus are ethnically different from the Malays, their lifestyles and practices are quite similar especially in the larger towns and cities where most Melanau have adopted the Islamic faith. The Melanaus were believed to originally worship spirits in a practice brinking on paganism. Today many of them are Christian and Muslim, though they still celebrate traditional animist festivals such as the annual Kaul Festival.
The Chinese first came to Sarawak as traders and explorers in the 6th Century. Today, they make up 29% of the population of Sarawak and comprise of communities built from the economic migrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first Chinese migrants worked as labourers in the gold mines at Bau or on plantations. Through their clan associations, business acumen and work ethic, the Chinese organised themselves economically and rapidly dominated commerce. Today, the Chinese are amongst Sarawak's most prosperous ethnic groups. The Sarawak Chinese belong to a wide range of dialect groups, the most significant being Hokkien, Foochow, Hakka, Teochew, Cantonese and Henghua. Hokkien and Mandarin are the most widely spoken dialects. The Chinese maintain their ethnic heritage and culture and celebrate all the major cultural festivals, most notably Chinese New Year and the Hungry Ghost Festival. The Sarawak Chinese are predominantly Buddhists and Christians.
The Ibans form the largest percentage of Sarawak's population, making up some 30%. Reputed to be the most formidable headhunters on the island of Borneo, the Ibans of today are a generous, hospitable and placid people. Because of their history as pirates and fishermen, they were conventionally referred to as the "Sea Dayaks". The early Iban settlers who migrated from Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo south of Sarawak) set up home in the river valleys of Batang Ai, the Skrang River, Saribas, and the Rajang River. The Ibans dwell in longhouses, a stilted structure comprising many rooms housing a whole community of families. The Ibans are renowned for their Pua Kumbu (traditional Iban weavings), silver craftings, wooden carvings and beadwork. Iban tattoos which were orignally symbols of bravery for the Iban warriors have become amongst the most distinctive in the world. The Ibans are also famous for their tuak, a sweet rice wine which is served during big celebrations and festive occasions. Today, the majority of Ibans are practice Christianity. However, like most other ethnic groups in Sarawak, they still hold strong to their many traditional rituals and beliefs. Sarawak is unique to colourful festivals such as the Gawai Dayak (harvest festival), Gawai Kenyalang (hornbill festival) and Gawai Antu (festival of the dead).
Originally from West Kalimantan, the Bidayuhs are now most numerous in the hill country of Bau and Serian, within an hour's drive from Kuching. Historically, as other tribes were migrating into Sarawak and forming settlements, the meek-natured Bidayuhs retreated further inland, hence earning them the name of "Land Dayaks". The traditional Bidayuh abode is the "baruk", a roundhouse that rises about 1.5 metres off the ground. Typical of the Sarawak indigenous groups, the Bidayuhs are well-known for their hospitality, and are reputed to be the best makers of tuak, or rice wine. The Bidayuhs speak a number of different but related dialects. While some of them still practice traditional religions, most modern-day Bidayuhs have adopted the Christian faith.
The phrase Orang Ulu means upriver people and is a term used to collectively describe the numerous tribes that live upriver in Sarawak's vast interior. Such groups include the major Kayan and Kenyah tribes, and the smaller neighbouring groups of the Kajang, Kejaman, Punan, Ukit, and Penan. Nowadays, the definition also includes the down-river tribes of the Lun Bawang, Lun Dayeh, Murut and Berawan as well as the plateau-dwelling Kelabits. The various Orang Ulu groups together make up roughly 5.5% of Sarawak's population. The Orang Ulu are artistic people with longhouses elaborately decorated with murals and woodcarvings. They are also well-known for their intricate beadwork detailed tattoos. The Orang Ulu tribe can also be identified by their unique music - distinctive sounds from their sape, a stringed instrument not unlike the mandolin. A vast majority of the Orang Ulu tribe are Christians but old traditional religions are still practiced in some areas.
Some of the major tribes making up the Orang Ulu group include :
There are approximately 15,000 Kayans in Sarawak. The Kayan tribe built their longhouses in the northern interiors of Sarawak midway on the Baram River, the upper Reiang River and the lower Tubau River, and were traditionally headhunters. They are well known for their boat making skills, which they carve from a single block of belian, the strongest of the tropical hardwoods. Although many Kayan have become Christians, some are still practise paganistic beliefs.
With a population of approximately 3000, the Kelabit are inhabitants of Bario - a remote plateau in the Sarawak Highlands, slightly over 1,200 meters above sea-level. The Kelabits form a tight-knit community and practise a generations-old form of agriculture. Famous for their rice-farming, they also cultivate a variety of other crops which are suited to the cooler climate of the Highlands of Bario. The Kelabit are predominantly Christian, the Bario Highlands having been visited by Christian missionaries many years ago.
There are few findings on the exact origin of the Kenyah tribe. Their heartland however, is Long San, along the Baram River. Their culture is very similar to that of the Kayan tribe with whom they live in close association. The typical Kenyah village consists of only one longhouse and the people are mainly farmers, planting rice in burnt jungle clearings.
The Penan are the only true nomadic people in Sarawak and amongst the last of the world's hunter-gatherers. The Penan make their home under the rainforest canopy, deep within the vast expanse of Sarawak's virgin jungle. Even today, the Penan continue to roam the rainforest hunting wild boar and deer with blowpipes. The Penan are skilled weavers and make high-quality rattan baskets and mats. The traditional Penan religion worships a supreme god called Bungan. However, the increasing number who have abandoned the nomadic lifestyle for settlement in longhouses have converted to Christians.
One of the most attractive features of the state of Sarawak and one which sets it aside from many of the other Malaysian states is its cultural diversity. With the 27 distinct indigenous ethnic groups that speak 45 different languages and dialects, Sarawak can be proud to boast racial harmony amongst a population of 2.1 million who adhere to a variety of traditions, practices and religions.
With such a melting pot of customs and cultures, Sarawakians enjoy a variety of colourful festivals throughout the calendar year. The cultural diversity also allows Sarawak to be one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region.