Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Melanau's Caste System ( Adet Basa)

11:18 PM

At birth a Melanau was placed in a rank category called "basa" or "Pakat", which was that of his father. Relationship between the ranks was formally laid down in the "Adet" ( Law) and a breach of rank rules was an act of disrespect "Tulah" and incurred civil and supernatural penalties.

SCV Dances-melanau2

The Caste System consists  three main categories arranged in Pikoul* ( A unit of Weight of Brassware):

1. Aristrocrats ( A-Mentri)
2. Freemen ( A-Bumi)
3. Slaves ( Dipen)

* 1 Pikoul is equivalent to 133 Pounds ( c.a. 60 kg) of Brass.

In reality the melanau's caste system is more complex. Among the aristocrats there are three grades: the top, the middle and the low, each of which was marked by the right to use a particular type of weapon to symbolize the status of their daughters at their weddings and for the parents to received a fixed weight of brassware ( Pikoul) as bride wealth. Only the Aristocrats were allowed to have slaves.
Above the aristocrats were the royal family of Brunei ( Tagan Raja Kelieng).

Photo: System of Rank.
The Grades of Aristocrats (A-Mentri) from top to bottom are:

15 Pikoul- "Pangiran" carries the title Datu. Pangiran was the vassal of brunei sultanate. Most of them married with the local melanau and their title was inherited to their children. The unmarried son of a Pangiran carries the title Awang or Awangku and the unmarried daughter carries the title Dayang or Dayangku.

12 Pikoul- "A-Nyat " also known as the "Perabangan" and carries the title Abang. There were families of wealthy brunei's or malay's merchants who married with the local melanau.

9 Pikoul- "A-Metahei" were the aristocrats of pure melanau blood. The were the founder of the village and keeper of the "Adet". Leadership among the A-Metahei are base on Primus inter Pares ( English: the first among equal). It means that the leadership was given to a particular A-Metahei that qualified to do the task but still technically equal among his peers.

Similary there are two grades of freemen:

7 Pikoul- "A-Bumi Ateng" or the true freemen could be commanded by nobody to perform services for aristocrats. They have the right to receive payment or salary for their work.

5 Pikoul (7 Betirih)- "A-Bumi Giga" or the "tied" freemen could be called upon by former owner to perform services. These "tied" freemen were freed slaves.

The rank Dipen ( Slave) also known as 2 1/2 Pikoul was also divided into a number of grades:

5 Betirih- "Dipen gak luer" or the field slave lived in a household of their own and were entitled to their own strip of land in the communal rice field. Like inside slaves they might even own sago gardens in their own right. But they were subject of course to all the demands made by the owner. Their granted land can also be taken by their owner without any permission.

2 1/2 Betirih- "Dipen gak lebok" or the house slave lived in the owner`s household and helped with domestic tasks and accompanied aristocrats as servants and companions wherever they went.

Tebuih Basa- Change of rank

Although the rank is hardly unalterable, any melanau are entitled to redeem rank at a weeding or at other times with the permission from the A-Metahei by paying the rest amount of Pikoul left to achieved the desired status.

The system of redeeming rank was organized in steps ( tirih). The full redemption of a slave from the lowest group to the status of a "tied" freemen ( A-Bumi Giga or 5 Pikoul) took 3 Pikoul or seven steps/ installments ( 7 Tirih). Hence the "tied" freemen are also known as 7 Betirih. The slave should and usually did take fewer than seven steps at a time and thus still remained a slave. Those who have paid their fifth installment are called 5 Betirih ( Dipen gak luer).

Only at a wedding a freemen (A-Bumi)  could redeem his rank and become the lower aristocrat (A-Metahei). For the true freemen ( A-Bumi Ateng) he has to pay additional 2 Pikoul and the "tied" Freemen ( A-Bumi Giga) 3 Pikoul to complete 9-Pikoul in 15 steps/ installments (15 tirih). Only the first born will inherit the redeemed rank while the other siblings will inherit the former ranks of their father.

The 9 Pikoul is the highest redeemable rank.

Written by

Learn Melanau by provides insider information about melanau unique cultures and language


  1. idak akou nda taou pasal adet pikoul..wak akou taou cuma adet 9, 7 jegum 5

  2. bukan kaau adep un. Paut ngak akou pinyeang adet basa tou ketemu kawak. Sama2 lah telou pedengah gak a melanau kek kak peseluk gak adet a debei. Neh semuneh aneak sou telou miak un nyadin a melanau enda taou gak adet a debei :)

  3. You are very familiar with the complete caste system of the Milano. Would I be presuming if I am to say that you are either a descendant of a keeper of the history or a well-taught student of the Milano culture. I believe that you may be able to find further references in the Brunei Royal Museum, the Spanish as well as the Dutch Museums. Pigafetta seem to have addressed the as the Milano in his ship's log. I do not know if there is much in the British though. The only reference I know have very much been focused on Tom Harrison's and Stephen Morris for later day history and Sylvia Brooke and Hugh Low from the Brooke Era.

  4. Im a keen self-taught student of melanau culture. Im base currently in germany and love studying about melanau since i myself a melanau mukah too. Its sad to see our current generation lost touch of their roots and generalize everything that is of malays as melanau. Even the language itself is tainted heavily with malays vocabs and word order. And again I will broaden my research with the information you just gave me. I may be able to find and access the libraries in europe to search for more infos. Currently i use Stephen Morris as main source in my blog. Thanks for sharing :)

  5. thanks 4 all the information

  6. Hi!I'm currently doing a PhD in Australia and my research is about the music and dance of the Melanaus. I was born half melanau half Malay and i grew up in Kuala Lumpur since i was 2 years old. I came across your blog and i find it very useful. Will be going to Mukah in 3 days time to do some field work. By reading your blog i can get some insights on the Melanaus tradition, thank you so much!

  7. im glad that this blog can help you do your work :) Have a nice trip and good luck with your thesis. Pls do share this blog to your college who studying or researching about melanau. By sharing we can expand our knowledge too :)

  8. Ok!I will surely cite you in my thesis ;)

  9. tahniah ngan blog itou, ko pejuah jumit pendapat,dagen a melanau lebih sesuai pigek rank sehingga "a matahei" (pure melanau rank) berbanding memasukkan tagan raja kelieng, pangeran, awangku/dayangku atau golongan perabangan, rank paling bau dagen melanau tulin adalah ulan pikul ngan status "megala" (dagen kedudukan sama gara/gahara, yen a kena pigek taraf a metahei, rank kedua a tujuk pikul, kena menuntut darjat sebagai "a nyat", rank ke-3 tujuk betirih (tapi dagen adet hanya kena menuntut berian lima pikul, dagen sesetengah keadaan senebut kawak sebagai adet "4 pikul ulan senaten", dagen aplikasi adet a lima pikul ngak nigek jadi a tujuk betirih, jadi rank lima pikul jadi kurang menyerlah, rank alak penyudah jarang senebut yen lah 2 1/2 pikul, jarang bei kawak a menuntut rank alak itou.
    pasel "tebuih bangsa" wak itou hanya berlaku dagen keadaan "sidan adet", mana2 a lai wak rank siyen gai tujuk betirih & baai kena menyabek bak tubuih bangsa a mahou bak sawa ngan bayar gak tina tama a mahou kidak 4 pikul, tetapi amun a lai yen rank siyen tujuk pikul, tubuih bangsa nda perlu sebab keturunan sien mudei agei dagen golongan a nyadek bau darjat, tubuih bangsa nda kena bak nigek dagen hal2 kek selain kuman lian kawin walaupun a yen kaya @ bei kuasa, amun jelawaih a melanau menugak rank siyen debei ngan sebab2 wak nda bei patut maka jadilah perbuatan yen "menibuok adet" atau "menamei",

  10. terima kasih eddy! idak maklumat best nejouah nou itu. akou amat menghargainya :)

  11. sayangnya sejak kuman mula a melanau nda bei rujukan bertulis pasel ji adat budaya, kebanyakan adalah berdasarkan warisan lisan wak kadang2 berubah susud jelawaih2 penutur. bei pun terbitan coastal liko adat 1941 tetapi debei menyeluruh, wak didokumentasi ajau hanya berdasarkan ingatan & amalan wak agei bei dagen ingatan a nyat ( a lakei) tetapi dagen pelbagai versi. terima kasih gak Learn Melanau wak bei usaha diak itou,telo kena berkongsi maklumat bak warisan aneak sou mudei lau.

  12. terima kasih eddy:) mun kou adep un payah bak slalu update. Tp mun kaau bei papa cerita sudi2lah email gak akou. neh akou postkan gak LM :)

  13. makasih idak2 sbb blok ih idak nulong ko menak tesis...
    kenah telabau kah...gan ko kenah kenaan lo buku wak bey asal usul adat melanau ih hoe?...gak kuching ih jumit angai..terhad..bey pun jumit angai...
    mohon kenah nulong juh information lah...
    ko menghargai sumah ih...

  14. Gui gak Sarawak Museum. Lou yen bei idak buku psl melanau dagen sarawak museum journal.

    Sarawak Museum Journal LII, No 73 Special Monograph
    No.9: The Oya Melanau: Traditional Ritual and Belief with a catalogue of belum carvings
    December 1997

    Kaau kena kawak membawen gak a pakar adet melanau:

  15. What I'm sad about Melanau kids nowadays, idak lou yen "Me-melayukan melanau" such as,

    teraweng = tingkep.
    melalaih = marah.

    and many more. mengeang neh "ditelan zaman" sebutan melanau wak debei proper yau. haha.

  16. hi am doing research about melanau traditional weapons if you can help me with information and photo please

  17. hola. i am pure melanau dalat and I proud to be one

  18. Keep up the good work. Patut idak agei perkongsian ito ji kuman a bijak pandai.

  19. Hi, i want to ask you for my research, i come from a 9 pikul family, and my question is do Melanau Dalat and Melanau mukah is sharing the same rank and adat? Because from what i heard from the elders, there is 10 pikul rank, but i kinda doubt this rank, because never heard of that rank before. Plus some story, told buy my granny in Medong dalat, that there is some rank that are higher than 15 pikul, 30 something if im not mistaken, but doesnt exist anymore, this highest pikul that bring something bad 'tulah'. Ever heard of that?



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