Belian coffins inside cave
Published on: Saturday, February 27, 2021
By: British North Borneo Herald
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1ST DEC. 1938 

IN October 1933, 1 was sent to retrace the boundary of Lokan Forest Reserve, which is on the Lokan river, a branch of one of the longest rivers, the Kinabatangan. 

While searching for the old surveyed boundary, I saw something of much interest, showing differences between conditions of the past and the present, in the primitive cemetery in the Lokan Forest Reserve. 

It is a burial cave where coffins may be seen placed one above the other and side by side, where skulls, bones and hair of the past hundred years can be seen. 

The Lokan river is located in the centre of North Borneo, and is a tributary of the Kinabatangan river. It is approximately south of Sandakan and roughly a three days journey to the mouth of the river. 

The burial caves are on the north western portion of Lokan Forest Reserve, six hours paddling in a small prau from its mouth to the landing place, and a fifteen minutes walk from the bank of the river to a small hill, locally called Miasias, having an elevation of 250 feet. 

I was amazed at the vegetation near a stone well. The wall especially the stones at the foot are almost completely hidden by the trees and shrubs surrounding it and its height is recognised by the climbing vines on the wall.

 I noticed that some of the deciduous trees were shredding their leaves and at the same time new leaves were coming out and why some trees were evergreen near the bank of the river. 

The stone wall had a height of one hundred feet and a length of almost 300 feet with a concave shape below. Kayu ara (Ficus sp.) climb the wall which can be used as a means of going up the hill. The stone wall is clean, and only a few cobwebs and roots of the kayu ara are to be seen. It is clean looking like a cement wall. 

The lower portion of the wall has a dark appearance for it is concave for about fifteen feet. Inside the cave, almost looking like timber, from six to eight feet in length, were opened coffins. 

We could see the change in its character as we moved around the cave. By the side of the cave, plants were scarcely found. I saw the big climbing kayu ara tree, and was interested to learn that the natives thought that evil spirits lived there. 

The stone wall is more or less the same size as it looked, but the cave is the graveyard used by the Tarribanuah Dusun, who used to live along the Lokan river logons in the past. As I looked inside the cave, (coffins) were seen scattered here and there with bones of the dead in them. 

In the most inner part of the cave, I saw pile after pile of coffins. 

It was impossible to walk from one place to another, without stepping over the coffins and sometimes inside the opened coffins where bones were. 

The bones seen inside the opened coffins were broken at the ballsocket joints of the elbows and knees were all separated.

The head or skull were not as beautiful as I expected, for they were much decayed. 

In the inside coffins whole skeletons were found. In some coffins long hairs or turning to dust have been found, in which they appear silvery grey. 

In one coffin an old spear point and a small jar were found which show that the natives usually buried the property of the dead. 

The coffins had formerly been of round timber about thirty-two inches or more in diameter, six or eight feet in length cut into two halves, which had been hollowed out. Some of them were nicely made but one coffin was especially so. 

There were engravings on the outside of it and on both ends, carved in the shape of a buffalo’s head with horns. The coffins were mostly made of belian merbau kapur. 

According to one of the natives, who was with me, he said that in the old times the Kinabatangan river was inhabited by a monster, who devoured the people living on the banks of river. 

Because of their fear, the native Dusuns built their houses on the other side of the hill, where the cemetery is now located. 

On the side of the hill facing the river is the cave where edible birds nests have been found which they have made into a cemetery. 

In that Kampong the headman gave orders to his rayat that their cemetery should be the cave on the other side of the hill where they lived.

It has been the tradition of the people that the dead’s property such as money, old coins, agongs, etc., must lie with the dead. 

The coffins of the dead had been arranged one over the other, side by side and end to end. When the coffins were high they were tied against the wall inside the cave, in order to keep them from falling. 

The cave was almost filled before they abandoned the village. From that time nobody stayed in the village and no one else was put in the cave. 

At present the coffins are not tied up, and hundreds of them are scattered about without any proper arrangement. 

Formally it was said that some valuable things were inside the coffins with the dead. Those natives who had the nerve to open the coffins went and took all they wanted. 

Good looking coffins showed that the dead were rich and were opened. But the people who went did not reach their homes for as they left the cave strong wind and rain poured down for seven days as a punishment and the things they took were thrown away. 

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