Sabah Harvest Festival All You Need To Know

Sabah Harvest Festival: All You Need To Know

In the heart of the enchanting Malaysian state of Sabah, a cultural extravaganza unfolds every year, captivating all who are fortunate enough to witness it. 

Welcome to the Sabah Harvest Festival, a celebration that connects past and present, and an event that immerses you in the richness of indigenous culture.

It is indeed one of the best annual festivals in Malaysia and we’re here to tell you why. Join us here as we guide you through its rituals, cultural performances and more.

Sabah Harvest Festival: An Overview

The Sabah Harvest Festival is a vibrant and culturally significant celebration, also called pesta kaamatan in the local Kadazan-Dusun language. 

It is like a big party in the Malaysian state of Sabah that’s usually thrown in May when they’ve wrapped up the rice harvest. It’s all about showing love for their farming traditions and the cool cultures of the Kadazan-Dusun and Murut folks. 

There’s tons of fun stuff going on. There are your traditional dances, catchy music, sipping on rice wine, and even a beauty contest to crown the “Unduk Ngadau” or Harvest Festival Queen!

Basically, it’s a colorful bash that reminds everyone how diverse and farming-savvy Sabah is! 

Why is the Sabah Harvest Festival celebrated?

The Sabah Harvest Festival is celebrated primarily to mark the end of the rice harvesting season in the Malaysian state of Sabah. 

It holds significant cultural and agricultural importance. More specifically, tt pays tribute to the indigenous Kadazan-Dusun and Murut communities’ traditional farming practices and their deep connection to the land. 

This festival is a way to express gratitude for a successful harvest and to honor the spirits believed to be responsible for a bountiful yield. 

Additionally, it serves as an opportunity to showcase and preserve the rich cultural heritage of these indigenous groups through various festivities.

These include dances, music, rituals, and competitions that all foster a sense of unity and pride among the people of Sabah.

How is the Sabah Harvest Festival celebrated?

The Sabah Harvest Festival is celebrated with great enthusiasm and a series of cultural and festive activities. Here’s a glimpse of how it is typically celebrated:

Various harvest rituals are held

Various harvest rituals are held
(Source: Wikimedia)

The festival often kicks off with traditional rituals performed by indigenous priests or bobohizans. These rituals are meant to invoke blessings from the spirits for a bountiful harvest and ensure the well-being of the community.

The harvest rituals conducted during the Sabah Harvest Festival are deeply rooted in the spiritual beliefs and traditions. These include the indigenous Kadazan-Dusun and Murut communities of Sabah. 

Lastly, they’re also performed to give thanks to the spirits of the land and to ensure a successful and bountiful harvest for the upcoming year. Here’s some of the key harvest rituals held during the Sabah Harvest Festival:

Magavau Ritual

Magavau Ritual
(Credit: FreePik)

The Magavau is a crucial ritual that marks the beginning of the Harvest Festival. It’s meant to seek the blessings of the spirits for a prosperous harvest season.

It involves the planting of seven stalks of paddy (rice) in a specially prepared field called the tangkob or tavak.

During this ritual, a bobohizan (priestess) or a selected elder performs a series of ceremonial actions. These include chanting traditional incantations, sprinkling rice wine, and offering betel leaves and areca nuts to the spirits. 

Bamboo Cutting Ritual 

Bamboo Cutting Ritual
(Credit: FreePik)

Another significant ritual is the bamboo cutting ceremony. 

During this ritual, a bamboo stalk is cut, symbolizing the commencement of the harvest season. The first cut is made by the bobohizan, and the bamboo is usually filled with rice wine. 

This ritual marks the start of the actual harvest activities and is accompanied by prayers and offerings to the spirits.

Sacrificial Offerings

Sacrificial Offerings
(Credit: FreePik)

In some communities, sacrifices are made to appease the spirits and ensure their favor. Livestock such as chickens or pigs may be sacrificed during these rituals. 

The animals are carefully chosen, and their sacrifice is considered a solemn act of gratitude to the spirits.

Traditional Chants and Dances

Throughout the rituals, traditional songs and dances are performed to invoke the spirits and to create an atmosphere of cultural reverence. These performances often involve rhythmic drumming and gong music.

Decorations and Altars

Altars are also constructed at the ceremony site and in homes. They are then adorned with offerings such as fruits, vegetables, rice, and other symbolic items. 

These altars serve as focal points for prayers and offerings.

Decorations and Altars
(Credit: FreePik)

Community Participation 

The entire community often participates in these rituals, reinforcing a sense of unity and collective responsibility for the harvest. It’s a time when young and old, men and women, come together to honor their traditions.

Cleansing and Purification

Rituals may also involve cleansing and purification ceremonies to rid the community of negative influences. It’s also done to ensure a fresh start for the planting and harvesting seasons.

These harvest rituals emphasize the agricultural significance of the festival. It also highlights the spiritual and cultural aspects of the indigenous communities in Sabah.

They demonstrate a deep connection to the land, a profound respect for nature, and a belief in the spirits that govern their livelihoods. All of these make the Sabah Harvest Festival a unique and culturally rich celebration.

Young women compete at the Unduk Ngadau Pageant

Young women compete at the Unduk Ngadau Pageant
(Source: Wikimedia)

One of the highlights of the festival is the Unduk Ngadau beauty pageant, where young Kadazan-Dusun and Murut women from various ethnic backgrounds will participate. 

They’ll showcase their beauty, grace and knowledge of their culture in hopes of being crowned the Harvest Festival Queen for that year.

That said, the Unduk Ngadau Pageant also plays a significant role in preserving and promoting the cultural heritage of the Kadazan-Dusun and Murut communities. It also inspires younger generations to take pride in their traditions.

Contestants in the pageant require to have a deep understanding and appreciation of their cultural heritage. This is because they’ll also be assessed on how well they represent the essence of Kadazan-Dusun or Murut culture.

The winner will continue to play a significant role throughout the Sabah Harvest Festival. She will participate in various festival activities and events, including parades, cultural showcases, and charity work.

Cultural diversity is celebrated through performances

Cultural diversity is celebrated through performances
(Source: Wikimedia)

Throughout the festival, there are vibrant cultural performances, including traditional dances and music played on indigenous instruments. These performances celebrate the cultural diversity of Sabah’s indigenous communities.

Here’s a glimpse of the cultural performances you can expect to see during the festival:

Traditional Dances (Sumazau and Magunatip)

The Sumazau dance is one of the most iconic dances of the Kadazan-Dusun culture. It is characterized by graceful movements, with dancers balancing on their toes. 

The Magunatip dance, on the other hand, is known for its energetic and rhythmic footwork. These dances often involve both male and female performers and are accompanied by the melodious sounds of gongs and traditional instruments.

Bamboo Dance (Tarian Bulul)

The bamboo dance, also known as the Tarian Bulul, is a mesmerizing dance where performers step in and out of a rapidly moving grid of bamboo poles. It’s a test of agility and coordination, and is performed to the beat of gongs and drums.

Linggiu Dance

The Linggiu dance tells stories of hunting and gathering, reflecting the traditional way of life of the Murut people.

Unique to the Murut community, it involves intricate footwork, hand movements, and headgear. 

Magavau Ritual Dance

The Magavau ritual dance is part of the harvest rituals and involves performers reenacting the planting of paddy (rice) while wearing traditional attire. It’s a sacred and symbolic dance that connects the people to the land and their ancestors.

The community participates in traditional games

The community participates in traditional games
(Source: Grobogan Today)

If you want to add an element of fun and competition to your Sabah Harvest Festival experience, you’re in luck! You can either join in on the fun or watch on the sidelines, as various traditional games and sports commence!

Here are some traditional games commonly played during the festival:

Bamboo Pole Dance (Mongigol) 

In the mongigol game, participants leap and dance over bamboo poles that are rhythmically moved by two people. The bamboo poles are often raised in progressively higher positions, making it a test of agility and timing.

Blowpipe Competition (Sumpit)

The sumpit, or blowpipe, is a traditional weapon used by indigenous communities for hunting. In this competition, participants demonstrate their accuracy and skill by shooting darts at a target using the blowpipe.

Traditional Wrestling (Sumazau Papaki)

Sumazau Papaki is a form of traditional wrestling that involves two contestants trying to pin each other’s shoulders to the ground. It’s a physical and entertaining sport that showcases strength and technique.

Traditional Wrestling (Sumazau Papaki)
(Credit: FreePik)

Gasing (Top Spinning)

Gasing is a game where participants spin a large wooden top with a rope. The objective is to keep the top spinning for the longest time. It requires skill and precision to achieve a long spin.

Tug of War (Tarik Tali)

Tug of War is a classic game where two teams compete to pull a rope in opposite directions. The team that successfully pulls the rope over a designated line wins the game. It’s a test of strength and teamwork.

Marbles (Gelanggang)

Marbles is a popular game during the festival. Here, players take turns trying to knock marbles out of a circle using a larger marble as a shooter. 

It may not seem like it at first, but marbles is a game of strategy, as every move can affect other players’ turns.

Traditional Board Games

Various traditional board games are enjoyed during the festival, including dam dam (similar to checkers) and congkak (a mancala-style game).

Sack Race (Lompat Gunny Sack)

In the sack race, participants hop in sacks as they race to the finish line. It’s a fun and lighthearted competition where  spectators will erupt with cheer and laughter.

Coconut Bowling (Batu Seremban)

In this game, participants attempt to knock down stacked coconut shells by throwing a small ball at them. It’s a simple yet challenging game that requires precision and accuracy.

Arm Wrestling

Arm wrestling competitions are common at the festival, where participants test their strength and technique in one-on-one contests.

Egg and Spoon Race (Lompat Telur)

Picture this: folks at the festival, egg in hand, trying to make a mad dash to the finish line. 

The catch? They’ve got to keep that egg steady on a spoon the whole way! The name of the game? Get to the finish line without any egg-tastrophes! 

Traditional food and drinks are served

Traditional food and drinks are served
(Source: Wikimedia)

Traditional food and beverages are a significant part of the celebration as it showcases the rich culinary heritage of the Kadazan-Dusun and Murut communities.

Here are some of the local delicacies you should try:


The hinava is a popular traditional Kadazan-Dusun dish made from fresh raw fish, usually mackerel or tuna, and marinated in lime juice. It is then mixed with ingredients like shallots, ginger, and grated bambangan seeds. 

The result is a refreshing and tangy appetizer that will treat your mouth to an explosion of flavours!


Lihing is a traditional rice wine made from glutinous rice and yeast. It’s a staple beverage during the festival and offers a unique taste with hints of sweetness and tanginess. 

Make sure to try some if you enjoy local alcoholic beverages!


Although more commonly associated with the indigenous communities of Sarawak, Ambuyat is occasionally enjoyed in Sabah. 

It’s a starchy dish made from the sago palm tree and is typically eaten with various dipping sauces, such as fish or prawn-based sauces.


Bambangan is a type of wild mango native to Sabah that’s used in various dishes, either as a condiment or in its pickled form. 

It’s known for its strong and unique flavour with its tangy, sour, and slightly spicy notes. This is a taste of Sabah you won’t want to miss!


Tuhau is a type of wild ginger found in Sabah. It’s often pickled and served as a spicy and aromatic condiment used in salads or as a side dish.

Rice Dishes

Sabah is known for its delicious rice dishes. Some of its most famous offerings include nasi linopot (rice cooked in bamboo), nasi lemod (sticky rice), and nasi tampi (rice wrapped in banana leaves). 

These dishes are often served with various accompaniments such as hinava and sambal

Tapioca Dishes

Tapioca, also known as cassava, is a staple in Sabah. You can try dishes like Tapioca Cake or simply enjoy boiled tapioca with grated coconut and sugar.


Bosou is a traditional Kadazan-Dusun dish made from fermented fish or prawns mixed with rice. It has a strong, pungent flavor and is definitely an acquired taste for many!

Pisang Tanduk Goreng

Pisang Tanduk Goreng are deep-fried banana fritters, a common snack in Sabah. They’re crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, often served with a dusting of powdered sugar.

Sago Desserts

Sago is commonly used in desserts, like sago gula melaka (sago pearls in palm sugar syrup) or Sago Pudding. These are sweet treats that are both comforting and satisfying to eat!

Local Fruits

Don’t miss out on the opportunity to try fresh, locally grown fruits like rambutan, durian, mangosteen, and pineapple. They’re not only delicious but also a refreshing way to balance out the flavors of the different savory dishes you’ll find here.

Traditional Snacks 

Traditional snacks are also aplenty in Sabah,e specially during this festival. Look for snacks like amplang (fish crackers), kuih cincin (ring-shaped rice cakes), and kuih jala (rice flour fried into lace-like patterns).

The community bonds through construction traditional houses

The community bonds through construction traditional houses
(Source: Wikimedia)

The festival serves as a time for communities to come together, fostering a sense of unity and pride in their cultural heritage. It’s also a chance for families and friends to reunite.

Traditional houses, known as rumah kaamatan are constructed during the festival. These houses serve as gathering points where people can come together, socialize, and participate in various activities. They are symbolic of community unity.

Everyone wears the traditional attire

Everyone wears the traditional attire
(Source: Wikimedia)

Many festival-goers wear traditional clothing during the celebrations. These colorful and intricately designed outfits are an essential part of the cultural display.

Here’s an overview of the traditional attire worn during the festival:

For Men:

Baju Burung: This is a traditional Kadazan-Dusun shirt. It is usually black with colorful embroidery on the front, showcasing intricate geometric and nature-inspired patterns.

Sinait: The Sinait is a loincloth worn by men. It’s often made from woven materials with earthy tones and is wrapped around the waist, hanging down like a skirt.

Headgear: Men often wear distinctive headgear, such as a woven bamboo hat called a sigar. These hats are adorned with decorative feathers, beads, and other ornaments.

Accessories: Accessories like bead necklaces, bracelets, and anklets are common. These accessories often feature vibrant colors and traditional patterns.

Weapons: In some traditional contexts, men may carry traditional weapons like the parang (machete) or sumpit (blowpipe) as part of their attire.

For Women:

Baju Lotud: The Baju Lotud is a traditional Kadazan-Dusun blouse. 

It’s typically a colorful, long-sleeved blouse with intricate beadwork and embroidery. The design varies by region and community.

Kain Sirap: Women wear a wrap-around skirt called a kain sirap, which is made from woven materials and features vibrant patterns. It’s wrapped elegantly around the waist.

Headgear: A headscarf or headband, often adorned with beadwork and flowers, is worn to complete the look. These headpieces are known as salong or tagol.

Accessories: Women adorn themselves with a variety of accessories, including bead necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. 

The beadwork is highly detailed and is often passed down through generations.

Himpogot: The himpogot is a beaded sash that is worn across the chest or waist. 

It’s a distinctive accessory and is often given as a symbol of honor.

Tangkong: This is a traditional woven bag carried by women. 

It’s both functional and decorative, often used to hold personal items during the festival.

Tattoos: Some women may have traditional tattoos on their hands or forearms. 

These tattoos have cultural significance and are considered a form of art and identity.

Dangling Earrings: Long, dangling earrings made from beads or metal are a common accessory. They add a touch of elegance to the overall attire.