Tuesday Tales #10: Senguyon Nugan

Reading Time: 3 minutes
(This is Tuesday Tales, where we highlight folklores and personal stories from indigenous peoples from all across Borneo. These are stories shared with us. We strive to edit it to the best of our capabilities for your enjoyment. We welcome your feedback at hello@thetuyang.com)

Senguyon Nugan (Communal hill paddy planting)
Origin: Kenyah communities
As told by: John Wan Usang
Edited by: Adrian Jo Milang, Juvita Tatan Wan
Sketch by: Loretta Livan Milang

Hill Paddy Farming of Shifting Cultivation

Most of Sarawak’s indigenous people such as the Kenyah, Kayan, Iban, Bidayuh and more, practised hill paddy shifting cultivation, especially in the olden days. This involves clearing (often referred to as – cut, slash and burn) of fresh fertile land for paddy cultivation during each planting season. This alleviates the need for expensive agrochemicals such as harmful fertilisers. The potassium from the burnt ashes provides added nutrients to the plants. The lack of mechanisation, makes slash and burn farming the most viable option for the people. 

(Our parents and forefathers were indeed planters for organic rice all along!)

However, shifting hill paddy cultivation has its drawbacks, such as limited new fertile land and environmental concerns with regards to slash and burn farming. Hence, there is now a diminishing practice of hill paddy farming as well as the related socio-cultural practices that go along with it.

Hill paddy farming is closely intertwined with culture and the socio economy of indigenous people. For the Kenyah for instance, there are many associated cultural practices or celebrations namely senguyon, pana’ asing, petavo, makoi (during planting season); majau ubek, majau timun, pusau or Gawai (during or post harvest). 

Concept of Senguyon

Senguyon is a communal-based working system commonly practised during rice paddy planting season, especially during nugan (actual planting) and majau (harvesting). During senguyon, the longhouse folks will gather together to work on each other’s farm on a collective basis. The working schedule rotates between the lamin (family “apartment” units within the longhouse). For example, if a man/lady from a lamin  goes to work on your farm for two days, or perhaps sends two men from his lamin for a day’s work on your farm, then you are expected to work on his farm for two man-days as a return favour. Usually, it’s man for a man, and lady for a lady.

Nugan & Ma’ah (Act of planting or sowing the paddy seeds)

Nugan is led by a group of men holding the tugan, pointed poles about two inches in diameter and four to five feet long. The men would line up side by side, poking holes deep enough for the bene’ (paddy seeds). The womenfolk following closely behind, would accurately dispense the paddy seeds through between their fingers into the holes in the ground. The womenfolk carry the paddy seeds in a woven basket (around 4” x 10” in size) called beli-ang, tied to their waist. Normally there would be two ladies sowing to a man nugan.  One person would go around carrying the seeds in an ingen (back basket) to replenish the planter’s beli’ang

Food, Fun & Drinks

At lunch time, the host of the day will provide food and drinks for the ‘guest’ workers. On most occasions, the host would slaughter a pig or chickens for the meal, as it is considered a good omen to start the planting season with a generous ‘offering’. To quench their thirst on the hot day at the farm, the guests are treated with pape’u burak (fermented rice drink).

In the midst of it, the cheeky young ones would sometimes start the petavo “war”, the battle of black soot rubbing on each other’s faces. A little fun and games help break the tiresome and monotonic atmosphere and to keep everyone’s spirit high. 

When the day’s work is done, on the journey going home, especially if everyone had traveled by boats, they would race each other by rowing and pushing their boats with a long sturdy pole, neken as hard as they could to see who would reach the pengkalan (landing or jetty)  first.

Evening reception

On the longhouse yard, the youths form teams for a game of Pana’ Asing, to fight out with their asing, which is a wooden spinning top, as they are cheered by the longhouse folks, keen on finding out who would be the champion. This tradition was believed to scare off birds from eating the seeds and seedlings planted in the farm, or in other words, a symbolic gesture of killing pests like birds.

In the late evening after dinner, the work party is  invited to the host’s lamin for some light refreshment of coffee and urom (fried sticky rice dumpling) and some burak (rice wine).

Occasionally you may hear rumbling at the verandah as the longhouse youths partake in a duel of penat ayan (tug-of-war). The practice was believed to encourage the newly planted seeds to germinate into full seedlings (probably through the ‘pulling action’ of the rattan rope).


Among the evening activities during the nugan season, perhaps not the last, the men of the longhouse would gather and form a long line at the longhouse verandah. They would sing, dance and chant to a specific song and rhythm up and down the longhouse verandah.This makoi ritual was said to appease the paddy spirit, and to ask for a successful planting season.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *