The eerie totem poles of Mukah

Melanau artifacts displayed at the Sapan Puloh Museum in Kampung Tellian, Sarawak.

Shrouded in folklore, not many are aware that Mukah was one of the first civilised regions in Borneo.

It had even earned a place in Italian maps published in 1595.

Centuries ago Mukah, which was identified as Melano in Italian maps, gained fame as the centre of the world's sago industry when it was administered by the Brunei Sultanate.

It is also believed that the name Melano refers to the Melanau community, who make up the majority of the populace.

Sago and fish are still the staple diet of the community due to the town's proximity to the coast and sago swamps.

Mukah is still famous for its sago today, but its glory days were in the mid-20th century.

The remnants of a once thriving industry still stands in the town in the form of a 20m-tall brick chimney.

"Traditionally, Melanaus don't eat rice and we are not farmers," said local historian Tommy Black Mark Lang.

Being the first civilised people in the region, Melanaus were known to be traders and seafarers who were strictly bound by a caste system.

The three main castes are the aristocrats (A-Mentri), freemen (A-Bumi) and slaves (Dipen).

The latter two were also broken into a complicated class system.

Though no longer practised, traces of this once strictly observed system can still be seen, especially in Kampung Tellian, which is believed to be the earliest Melanau settlement, set up more than five centuries ago.

"This conclusion is drawn from the discovery of seven aristocrat totems in the village, of which only four now remain," said Tommy.

These time-worn totems, or Jerunai, which now stand eerily in the village, are carved out of huge logs of wood and mark the final rest-ing place of aristocrats.

There is also a spine-chilling ritual that revolves around these totem poles.

"Before any of these totems are raised, two virgin girls from the Dipen class will be sacrificed.

"One will be thrown at the base before she is crushed by the log, while the other will be tied to the top of the totem until she breathed her last."

"It is believed that these sacrifices were both voluntary and forced, depending on their masters," said Tommy.

He said no one in the village was allowed to help the maiden tied to the pole, as taking her away from the pole was a bad omen for the whole community.

"However, legend has it that one maiden survived when she was rescued by Pengeran Muda Hashim, who brought her back to Brunei."

Though no one is sure why the town is named Mukah, local legend has it that the word is derived from muka, the Malay word for face.

The story goes that a group of sailors, marooned at one of the estuaries, saw a beautiful maiden from afar.

She rescued them by leading them to a freshwater area before disappearing from sight.

None of the tired and thirsty sailors managed to get close to the maiden and all they could recall was her lovely face.