Ethnographic Reading of Silungan Baltapa: Ancestral Tradition and Sufic Islam Values of Sama Bajau




            Silungan Baltapa is a sung narrative or a kata-kata of the Sama Dilaut. It is chanted by a wali jin or a shaman medium, which tells about the epic story of a hero in quest for a wife who went through struggle against nature, against outside forces in defense of his people, including a struggle over himself. Its parallelisms with the story of the Mi’raj or the holy ascension of Prophet Muhammed into the Highest Heavens where he saw Allah and achieved the ‘Knowledge of the Absolute’, reflects Sama Dilaut’s adherence to Sufic or Mystic Islam. Moreover, in the epic, Sama’s reverence and loyalty to its Ancestral traditions is also underscored. By further analysis, Alain Martenot’s synthesis table of his ethnographic reading of the epic revealed three realms associated with the Sama Dilaut which could best discuss their concept of the world – Nature, Supernature and Society. This synthesis was extracted within the context of the Sitangkai Sama Dilaut in 1975 and its history during the 20th century. The proceeding discussion will tackle on an introduction to Sama and accounts on their origin, followed by the synopsis of the Silungan Baltapa, and lastly its ethnographic reading.

The Sama People and Accounts on Their Origin


            Sama is a Malay word means ‘kita’ or ‘we’ which is believed to have come from the group itself since it is used among members to refer to the group. Europeans and other outsiders call them Sama Bajau or sea gypsies. ‘Bajau’ may have originated from Brunei, a Malay word ‘berjauhan’ which means ‘the eternal state of being away’ (Saat, 2003). Sama-Bajau communities also qualify themselves with place names so as to signify their geographic origin. On the other hand, the Tausugs who assert their hegemony over the former call them lutau/luawan or meaning ‘to spit out’ to indicate Sama Bajau as ‘outcast’.

Sather described the Sama people as the most widely dispersed ethno-lingustic group in Peninsular Southeast Asia which spreads from south Luzon to Northern Australia (Sather 1997, 2). In the Philippines, their largest concentration is between the Zamboanga Peninsula and Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi. Others have moved farther north, to Manila because of poverty and south, to Palawan and the Semporna-Lahat Datu and Sandakan areas in Sabah which in any case were old Sama Dilaut settlements (Nimmo 2001, 31). Their relatives, Orang Bajau or Orang Laut are found in Eastern Sabah, Moluccas, Sulawesi, down to Roti Island, south of Timor Island, Indonesia.

The Sama are primarily fishermen and farmers with small copra plantations in the island interior and are divided into three groups: 1) Sama Dea, those who live on land, such as the Sibutu people and some of the Sanga-sanga people; 2) Sama Bihing, those who live on the shore line, such as the Simunul people and the eastern Tawi-tawi people; and 3) the Sama Dilaut, those who live on the sea in boats, such as the Tawi-Tawi Sama Dilaut, or over the sea in houses, such as the Sitangkai Sama Dilaut (Nimmo, 2001).

On the origin of the Sama Dilaut, legendary accounts suggest that their ancestors once lived at Johore. One day a strong typhoon approached them and they decided to stick poles into the sea floor to secure their boats. Little did they know that they have stuck their poles into a sleeping giant stingray. When it woke up, the stingray pulled the boats across the sea to Zamboanga oblivious to the Sama people for they were asleep. As they wake up, the Sama did not know their way back to Johore so they started wandering the Sulu Sea. They have first settled in Jolo and then sailed to Siasi. They continued travelling until they reached Tawi-Tawi where they decided to remain and live ever since. (Sama Dilaut legend)

Pallesen’s (1985, 246) sophisticated linguistic research tallies with the above origin myth on Johore as the reference point of the Sama Dilaut. It is mentioned that proto Sama language had an Indonesian origin and was spoken in the Southern Zamboanga-Basilan area about 1,200 years ago. Also, Sopher believed that the sea nomads were once Veddid hunters and gatherers on the coasts of Riau-Lingga archipelago who later mixed with the Malays who moved from north to Malaysia.

On another view, Beyer hypothesized that Sama people could have been the same people whose allegiance was to Srivijaya who were driven out to adopt a nomadic sea life after the fall and destruction of the great Indonesian empire. On an article on the fall of Srivijaya by Wolters (1970, pp. 8-18), it says that written and oral traditions in Mindanao mention of how a relative of a ruler of Johore, after the Portuguese captured Malacca in 1511, sailed with his dependants to Mindanao. His dependants included sea-nomads who were regarded with nautical skills. However their service ended right after they had brought their leader to a new land of opportunity.

According to Benjamin Han’s Mundaan Komkoman (Han, 1990), in the Chinese text Hai-Wai-Nan-Ching, as translated by Wang (1989;31), the country of Sam-Ma is located to the east of Chhi-Sui (red river in Mandarin). Emperor Yao (2357-2258 B.C.) killed the leader of Sam-Ma which triggered the latter to rise in rebellion. The Sam-Ma then fled to the South Sea where they established their community. Chhih Sui must be either the Mekong or Red river of Vietnam today, and the Sam-Ma country must be probably in the Philippines. The Sam-Ma is thus assumed to be the current known term and group of people Sama.

Silungan Baltapa


Silungan Baltapa is an oral epic and an example of a kata-kata­ or a sung narrative of the Sama Dilaut. Kata-kata means a fictitious mythical, mystical, or legendary story of a hero in quest of a wife, his struggle against nature, against outside forces in defense of his people, including a struggle over himself. Kata-kata are chanted by a wali jin, a shaman medium which performs various domestic rituals as well as therapeutic healing. The narratives manifest a syncretism (integration) between the presence of the Ancestors in the life of the Sama people (Revel, 2005). From here, proceeds a synopsis of the epic from Gerard Rixhon’s A Journey Into Sama Literature (2005, pp. 46-51) (*Macro-structure of the narrative as interpreted by Nicole Revel is attached)

The macro-structure is a synoptic view of the plot which stands as an analysis and synthesis at the same time. The arrows, numerals and shades in the graphs identify the movements of the protagonists in space and time.This is the mental scheme implicit in the singer’s thinking process as he performs the narrative. The space-time of the fictional narrative is a mimesis (imitation) of space-time as the sea nomads live it.

The epic took place in two spaces: the sea and the other islands, and then the Hereafter. The first part of the story is about a journey through life, between earth, sky and sea of Silungan Baltapa, a sinless man and a hero, in quest of a wife, who turns out to be Mussa’ Dalmata. The second part then tells of Silungan’s spiritual voyage to the Hereafter in search for his beloved wife who died after giving birth to their son Datu’ Mu’min. Another voyage reaching the Heaven was given grace by God to Silungan Baltapa as he passes on the ordeal of ‘the Judgement Scale’, wherein he achieved the ‘absolute knowledge’ and accomplished his mission to bring his wife back to life.

Silungan Baltapa, a noble and sinless man due to his mother’s (Ugbusan Sahaya/ ‘Source of Light’) upbringing, wanted to look for a wife, as an act of emancipation from his mother’s love wishing to have a life of his own. He then decided to sail to the Island of Mercy and Love. Before leaving, his mother gave him protection from the dangers and impurities of the world, turning him into an extraordinary being filled with shining light. On his way, he used his magical power to speed up his journey, eventually leading him to the abode of Mussa’ Dalmata ‘Unique Pearl’. Unexpectedly, as tattled by Silungan Baltapa’s friendly Nuli, Emerald birds, Mussa’ Dalmata is already engaged to a man also close to God named Datu’ Misil Balan. Silungan Baltapa fought with Misil Balan and loses by death. Thankfully, the brave elder sister and tutelary spirit of Silungan Baltapa, Muslim Magkapala revived his brother. This time, Misil Balan diminished his strength and was very much impressed with the manifestation of a woman with such courage. Silungan baltapa soon won the second fight and so as the hand of Mussa Dalmata. As they prepare for the wedding of the two, a question of dowry has to be settled. The Junub Istinja, a mystical tree known for its purifying power, found in the Garden of Paradise in Heaven, was asked to be the dowry. Muslim Magkapala, again intervened and volunteered to get it herself. She was allowed by God to take it and bring it down to Earth. After the holding of the huge wedding, the couple started leaving for the place of Silungan’s mother, which on their way faced challenges such as being ambushed on the high seas and being repulsed by the pirates. They ultimately arrived safely.

The couple after having settled, Silungan found it endearing to delouse Mussa’s hair which eventually led to a blessed event of Mussa becoming pregnant. The friendly Nuli birds brought the new mother some santol fruit which were highly appreciated by Mussa, thus she asked for more and asked her husband to get it for her. The santol tree is found in Pinjaman, in the Hereafter which is fiercely guarded by two Galura birds whose size darken half of the sky. With Silungan’s amazing strength and health, he fought and won over these birds, returning to Earth with the precious santol for his wife. After taking a rest, Mussa Dalmata finally gave birth to a baby boy named Datu’ Mu’min (the Believing Datu). The midwives counseled the new mother to not tire herself since she is still fragile. However, Mussa did not heed the advice, thus she got ill and passed away.  Her body was bathed and was placed facing the window as requested by mourning Silungan.

Silungan decided to roam to the Heavens to search for Mussa’s soul. He was allowed to enter for he is ‘who has the power to go anywhere, at the wink of an eye’. In Heaven, he saw several angels and prophets and asked whether they have seen Mussa. They acknowledged that Mussa passed by earlier. Silungan continued his search and even reached Hell where sinners are but failed to find Mussa. He decided to go back to Heaven but was first tested at the Scale of Judgment. He had no trouble passing the ladder to the Highest Heaven for he is a sinless man. From there, he was instructed by Awlia, a holy man who guides the chosen ones. He reached the Almighty God to whom he begged for finding Mussa and asked if her soul could rejoin her body. Suddenly, Silungan, while searching around, met eyes with a lovely lady riding a horse, who is Mussa Dalmata. He begged her that she should return to Earth with him. Mussa told him to ask the Most Powerful and whatever His decision is, will be respected and accepted. Silungan reassured her that he has a good reason and if he fails to get her back, he will be willing to offer his life. Not long after, God appeared and gave Silungan instructions on how to revive her through invocations and the ritualistic flapping of the kerchief. After then, Mussa Dalmata was allowed to go back to Earth with Silungan. She rode her horse while Silungan used his own magical power. On Earth, the coffin was taken out of its place and so as Mussa Dalmata’s body. Silungan did what he was told and not long after, Mussa Dalmata came back to life as if she just got awaken from sleep.

Ethnographic Reading of Silungan Baltapa


The following interpretative reading of the epic through observing practices of everyday life of the Sama, linked to their vision of the world as a result of intertwining shamanic concepts and recent Islamic notions will be explained within the context of the Sitangkai village in 1975 and its history during the 20th century, as studied by Alain Martenot. (Alain Martenot’s proposed table of synthesis Nature-Supernature-Society is attached.)

Image of the Past


            During the American regime, large and heavy boats still cluster in flotillas (pagmundaq) which are equipped with 2 big outriggers that partly serve as a platform or sometimes a real house. Burial places, shelter from Monsoon winds, strategic refuge areas for sea-dwelling Sama-Dayaks are all found around the islet of Sitangkai. All share the language and everyone aim to survive through the flotilla’s cohesiveness. This uxorilocality is reinforced by endogamy, marriage between first-degree cousins and preffered alliances.


Relation to Nature


To survive, Sama rely on an environment that must be intuited or captured (Martenot, 2005). They look at the depths of the sea to have an idea when to move about on the reef, when to fish, paddle or sail.Sellang would mean very deep sea and that one cannot make it to the bottom. Each portion of the reef has a name and sea sounds and currents that reverberate through the paddle would let one know define his exact location. They also refer to environment signs or seamarks (pandoga) sent by the Ancestors interpreted in a descriptive system called papata, which are also handed down by the Tradition of the Ancestors. Also, the highest form of knowledge sent by an Ancestor to a Wali jin through dreaming, called an uppi will help them know the things to do and anticipate.

Islamisation and Sedentarisation: Changes it brought to customs of Sama (Traditional Shamanism, residence of group and alliance through marriage)


            The kalibungan, a mixed sea dwelling and coastal Sama introduced an Islamized form of Shamanism to Sitangkai from Tawi-tawi. The ancient shamans duwata were quickly replaced by a wali jin (often midwives), those spoke the language of the tutelary spirit (ancestors). These refer from mimetic written language and drawings of the Koran called tumbuk. From duwata’s black garment, it turned to yellow and green for women and greean and white for men. Then, a controlled spirit-possession patekka replaced the cathartic trance or kaat of the duwata. Now, the jin’s power originates in the sacred places tampat or tapu. Its power can oppose the saytan’s (evil spirits bringing illnesses and haunt unusual spaces in the natural environment/supernatural dimension) evil crafts. The jin would have to protect the Sama community from the saytan so they are not thought to be fleeing with boats, thus a degree of sedentarization becomes effective.

Sedentarization was made possible by: 1) The Sultan of Sulu provided the Datu of Sibutu, the island and islets surrounding Sitangkai and was asked his people to clear the islet forests and plant coconut trees. 2) Chinese traders opened shops at the edge of Sitangkai and bartered with marine products. 3) During American pressure, houses on stilts, a school and a first small mosque in Sitangkai were built. Also a new type of boat called lepa wich has no outriggers were imported from Borneo. Houses now replaced the flotillas. The family structure is still uxorilocal although marriage alliances now take place within the kindred between 2nd and 3rd degree cousins.

Pregnancy and Birth Traditions


Procreation is the central theme of Sama Society (Martenot, 2005). Before copulation, the couple assumes certain respectful stances towards the Tradition of the Ancestors or pali-pali. Food craving will be the first sign of pregnancy. These cravings and other wishes of the wife should be fulfilled by her husband, however also by observing prohibitions. The midwives play an important role in the whole process of pregnancy and eventually in the life of the child that was given birth, thus they are often given gifts and offerings as a sign of respect and gratitude. In the process, the woman giving birth is considered being in an uncontrolled spirit-possession. The midwife with its assistant will draw out the baby from the mother, thus, a midwife is often a duwata, an old shaman who can draw forth.

Death and the Afterlife

In Sitangkai, one cannot imagine a living person watching over a cemetery because of the fear of being tormented by the soul which can cause vomiting and migraines. On the other hand, Sama ideology finds it beautiful that a couple should follow each other in death. Once merely deceased, the dead will become an Ancestor. To be forgotten, and be not remembered because of his left assets, the dead is to run the risk of misfortunes (lotok). When the powers that were borrowed from the jin that possessed him magnified, his memory becomes the object of entreaties (pleas). His grave will then be covered with offerings.

Tumbuk, Kata-kata, and the Representation of the World


A tumbuk is a rectangular white cloth that has cursive signs and drawings traced with a pencil or ink.

A wali jin keeps one or more of it. This tumbuk makes up a seal and a signature unique to the creator. This seal as reinstalled at the end of the cure, which reveals to the new medium/wali jin the name and the specific qualities of the tutelary spirit who chose him through the sickness. Each seal is a unique piece, but all share a symbolic system that evokes the world as sung by the kata-kata.

In one sample of a tumbuk, the bird symbolizes the Bird jin which is able to fly to the four corners of the universe. It then informs the jin of everything that takes place in the world     . It also sometime informs the tutelary spirit who in turn informs the medium in the spirits’ language called elling jin, which will be reiterated to the wali jin’s assistant.


            Tumbuk and kata-kata reveal a common vision of the supernatural where every shamanic quest is realized. Finally, tumbuk, through mere presentation and kata-kata, through sung recitation, will be the most powerful recourse for a cure.

Similarities Between a Kata-kata and the shamanic Voyage in the Epic


A prelude chanted at each pause of singing the kata-kata called a sambahakan to create a religious atmosphere refocusing on the moral and Muslim dimension of the narrative, is compared to the brief thanksgiving prayer in Arabic that is recited at the start of every ceremony. This also puts the ordinary environment of the wali jin to a symbolic environment represented on the seals, the tumbuk.

The hero in Silungan Baltapa, with magical powers goes on a quest for added knowledge, in the same way all wali jin undertake a continuous quest for self-perfection to increase its efficiency in protecting their community. For the Wali Jin to have the Knowledge of the Absolute, it has to know the four corners of the universe.

The use of scarf of Muslim Magkapala against the enemies to save the lives of the protagonists, is in the same way the master of ceremony uses it to expel unwanted spirits during the dances of possession. The Nuli birds and the small cockatoo in the epic appear as ‘spirit envoys’ of the spirits, for these only give out true information.

Three Shamanic Voyages, Three Progressive Approaches in Islam


The three shamanic voyages evident in the epic, tells about the ultimate goal of Muslim mysticism, which is the encounter with the divine.

The first voyage depicted the hero’s quest for a wife in a seafaring milieu which conforms to the Sama’s relation with the natural environment. It also showed the hero’s reliance on women when he was given protection by his mother and sister to accomplish his mission. This, where women and forces of nature play vital role is found at the lower end of the table (Martenot, 2005, p. 223)

The second voyage takes place during childbirth, referring to Sama’s relation to Tradition and to Ancestors, which is found at the middle of the table. To live up to Ancestral Traditions, as requested by wife, Silungan Baltapa borrowed the powers of the cockatoo bird to get fruit from the supernatural world. On another hand, disrespect to Tradition may lead to death as in the case of the hero’s wife. In here too, it is apparent that Sama have respect to certain animals, which is a phenomena of Island Southeast Asian trances.

The third voyage which is about the Mi’raj is not only seen on the upper level of the table but also beyond the conceptual framework. Pertaining to Islam, the Revealed Religion, its ultimate goal is the Knowledge of the Absolute through the encounter with God. This reference to Islam may have been added to secure Islam’s approval (Martenot, 2005, p. 219) The Islam sacralizes the Tradition, which is the central pole of the society.

Conformity to Islam showed a transfer from the middle level of the table to enable one to connect with the oldest level. A transition from a condition of being palau (vagabonds) to a status of human being, accepted and integrated to the community of Islam.



            As discussed from above, Silungan Baltapa is not a pre-Islamic epic. When the Tausug along with the coastal Sama introduced Islam to Sama Dilaut, the latter had to integrate and acknowledge the new religion for conformity and relevance sake to community. Not to mention, this has also been triggered and pursued by social and political oppression, trading and opportunity to have a better life. Changes were made – from belief and relation to nature to respect and reliance to Ancestor’s words and teachings, to ultimately subjecting oneself to adhere to core values of Islam. From being nomadic to becoming more sedentary changed its family structure from uxorilocal to virilocal. Consequently, its alliance through marriage shifted from endogamy as in marriage with a first cousin to, endogamy marrying second or third degree cousin, and lastly to a larger and more extensive alliance with the Sama and other Tausug groups. Thus, the Sama society perpetuates itself in – Nature, Ancestral Tradition and religion of Islam. Until now, they continue to struggle and survive the coercive forces of culture they now belong to. It may seem that they just keep running from their problems, but having a different perspective, one can say that they are one of the most adaptive group of people – they have the ability to renew themselves through a consummately worked out mimetic syncretism.  (Martenot, 2005, p. 220)


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