Monday, December 12, 2016

Why Melanau People Cannot Eat Patin Fish?

The Melanau people or A Likou (lit. River People) is an ethnic group of people indigenous to Sarawak, Malaysia. They are among the earliest settlers of Sarawak and preferred to build settlements at the mouth of the river or near the sea. This is because they were traditionally adept fishermen and boat builders.

Just like the Chinese, the Melanau people is divided by their dialects; Mukah, Balingian, Rejang (me), Oya, Dalat, Kanowit, Bintulu, and more. Each has their own different vocabularies just like how how different a Foochow and Cantonese would sound like.

Apart from that, there are also taboos for the Melanau people. Some cannot eat some species of crabs, some species of plants etc. But one universal taboo stood prevalent; eating Patin fish.

There are many version of folktales regarding the origin of the taboo. However, there is one popular version which is generally accepted: the Patin fish saved the Melanau people from their enemies.

Once upon a time, a group of pirates came from the seas and attacked an unnamed Melanau settlement located at an unnamed mouth of the river.

As the villagers were busy with their daily activities, they were caught of guard and could not mount a defense in time.

In the midst of the chaos, the survivors could only boarded their boats without food and paddled upstream to escape. However, the pirates, being pirates, continued to pursue them upstream as well.

After the survivors felt they were far away from their pursuers, they paddled into a small stream before looking for a place to hide. The stream was shallow enough for them to wade.

The surviving villagers abandoned their boats and hid in the tall river grass nearby. They could only peek through the grass anxiously as the pirates arrived and found their boats. The pirates got off their boats and waded in the waist-high waters towards the villagers' hiding place. 

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a school of Patin fish swarmed and stung the pirates' legs. Unable to cope with the stings, the pirates fled to their boats and quickly left the area.

After making sure that the pirates were gone, the villagers came out of their hiding place and witnessed the large school of Patin fish swimming on the surface of the stream. Oddly, the swarming fish did not attack or sting the villagers. The grateful villagers thanked the fish profusely and swore not to allow their descendants to eat Patin fish forever.

And so the taboo was created and many Melanaus do not eat Patin today. There were incidents in the last few years where individuals who consumed Patin became insane and had profuse nose-bleeding.
These are the consequences if an individual breaks the taboo or the 'peace treaty' that has been around for countless generations.

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