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Gajah Olen, Rekindling a Romantic Ritual

One of the Gajah Olen variations more than 50 years ago.

If a Malaccan Malay bride is famous for her Sanggul Lintang, a Kazakhstan’s bride for her Saukele, a Mongolian bride for her Fillets, and a Palembang bride for her Aesan Gede – no less it is with the bride from the Sarawak Malay community with her exquisite Gajah Olen. Sadly, not many in the new generation are aware about the existence of this traditional Sarawak Malay bridal wear which has been a splendour and pride for the much older generation of Sarawak Malay women, as identified by Harriette McDougall in her book, Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak (1882) published during the Brooke administration around the nineteenth century.

Puan Hajah Kazuliah Mohamad Taufek (right), a Gajah Olen owner is one of the most famous and sought- after mak andam (tukang hias or bridal make-up artist) in Kuching.  She is nearly 80 years old now but is still active and shows no sign of retiring any time soon.

Ku lihat ayu langkahnya si Puteri Darul Hana

Diiringi geronchong kaki rancak bergemericing jak bunginya

Wajah berseri mempersona ber-Gajah Olen bak puteri diraja

Bakal dijembak di pelaminan tanda sudah berpunya

(This pantun describes the beautiful Princess Darul Hana walking gracefully to the wedding dais to meet her betrothed. In her complete regal Gajah Olen emsemble, her face glows with happiness as she announces her arrival with the tinkling sound of her anklets.)

Gajah Olen is traditional wear from the Sarawak Malay community, used during the wedding ceremony when the bride and groom are presented on a bridal dais (bersanding) or during ‘berlulut’ (a ceremony where the bride is presented in a series of dress up sessions; for some it is the henna- staining or the berinai” ceremony).

In the past, this special bridal wear was widely used especially in Kuching, Samarahan, Sri Aman and in some other parts of Sarawak.

Gajah Olen is also known as Jah Olen, Rajah Olen and Raja Olen. The term, Gajah Olen is most likely to be taken from Javanese word Gajahan, which means crown or a head jewellery. Olen or Oleng is likely to be derived from the word ‘teroleng-oleng’ which means something that is swaying, moving or vibrating.

Berbaju beludu, berkain berunei, bertudung keringkam serta bermaskuta

Diserikan lagik kepih dahi, sisir, kepih sanggul dan gemerlapan pedakak

Makin lah kacak si sang Puteri kita

Disempurnakan pesona lolek, bunga tajuk dan si gelang aluk

(This pantun further highlights the exquisite beauty of Princess Darul Hana in all her Gajah Olen bridal finery.)

In this sense, Gajah Olen could probably best refer to the combination of glittering golden head accessories on the bride’s head that look as if they are swaying or moving, akin to the flapping of the elephants’ ears. There is no doubt that there is an element of Javanese influence in this traditional wear, especially in its patterns and styles — and potentially Chinese too, especially when referring to the Phoenix-shaped coronets believed to have started being worn by female aristocrats during the Han dynasty (circa 206 BC–220 AD).

Not many people also know that Gajah Olen has different designs depending on what the owners and what the tukang hias (bridal make-up artists) would have in their personal collections. However, the must-have ornaments include the kepih dahi1, the mahkota or maskuta (crown) and the kepih sanggul2 , all usually made from gold-plated silver. For the more affluent owners or tukang hias, they would have these accessories made from pure gold.

The Gajah Olen bridal wear consists of five main components that are all must – haves for a bride to perfectly shine on her big day which are:

(1) the perhiasan kepala or head accessories which include the elaborate coronets-like decorations for the head also known as the mahkota or maskuta (a three-layer crown), kepih dahi (an accessory or diadem for the forehead), sisir (comb), kepih sanggul and bunga tajuk3;

(2) the baju or blouse is usually made from red or black velvet, lace or brocade materials and decorated with elaborate metal pieces with a variety of distinctive flora and fauna motifs. This three-quarter sleeve blouse with a round-neck design will also have a five- tier gold pedakak (bib-like necklace) sewn onto it (Hajah Maimunah, 1998);

(3) the tapeh or the golden songket (sarong) used by the bride is one of these three distinctive Kain Songket Melayu Sarawak known as Kain Berunei (spotted or scattered pattern), Kain Belatak (full pattern) or Kain Berturus (striped pattern);

(4) the tudung keringkam, an exquisite traditional headscarf worn by Malay ladies (woven with intricate designs using gold or silver threads) adds more sparkle to the whole ensemble when placed on the bride’s shoulders;

(5) other jewellery or additional ornaments such as:(a) lolek – a pair of diamond earrings (b) gelang aluk or gold-plated bangles to be worn on both sides of the bride’s hands (a minimum of 3 to 11 pairs on each side; these gelang aluk also come in different sizes where one usually starts wearing the smallest one at the wrists and bigger ones worn at the elbows) (c) tali pinggang or the gold or silver belt used to tie the tapeh songket around the bride’s waist with its large buckle known as the pending.(d) a pair of geronchong kaki or anklets (usually silver or gold-plated) for the bride’s feet.In addition, Gajah Olen also involves another key element that is the use of Sanggul Lipat Pandan, where this specially-made hair grip made from pandan leaves is used to make an upright bun that acts like a frame for all the head accessories to sit on. The use of pandan leaves will also make the bride’s hair smells fragrant.

Bear in mind, the entire collection of accessories can easily weigh up to 3kg! However heavy, challenging and time- consuming it is to put them on, these stunning accessories would definitely add that special touch of elegance to the bride. As Leviani (2017) wrote: “the symbolic meaning embedded in each headpiece also makes it much more than just an accessory. In fact, the wedding crown is as important as the bride’s attire itself!”

Rambut lebat hitam sang pengantin disanggul rapi

Sanggul Lipat Pandan nama diberi

Rasa gemuruhnya hati si Puteri

Berdebar menjadi Raja Permaisuri sehari

(Here, the pantun tries to capture the stunning image of the bride’s bun, which is uniquely strengthened by the fragrant pandan leaves. Even in all her exquisiteness and ornate hair do, nervousness and anxiety refuses to part with her on her big day.)

Bride in picture – Puan Siteh Binti Haji Mandak (1970) at Kampung Segedup, Batu Kawa, Kuching


Another full ensemble of Gajah Olen back in 1960s.

Another stunning bride in Gajah Olen around 1960s.

Indah nian penyatuan berkat

Ber-Gajah Olen mengekal lestari

Semoga kekal berzaman kesinambungannya adat

Buat tatapan dan kebanggaan semua generasi

(The final pantun expresses the sense of relief over a lovely and blessed union. And it is hoped that the traditions of Gajah Olen will be kept alive as part of our proud customs and heritage, especially for the future generation.)

The existence of Gajah Olen in the Sarawak Malay society can be proven via a published record as early as the mid nineteenth century, during James Brooke’s administration. It was highlighted by Harriette McDougall in her book, Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak (1882) when she attended the wedding ceremony of Datu Temenggong’s grandson, Matussin with Nakhoda Sadum’s daughter where she wrote:

“I looked about for the bride, and saw a crowd of women in one corner, and a boy holding a gilt umbrella over the young lady, who was being shaved. A woman with a razor was shearing her eyebrows into a delicate line, and all round her forehead, trimming disorderly hairs. Four women, seated on their heels in front of her, were fidgeting over her face; she, impassive as a log in their hands. A vast deal of singing and drumming went on all the time, a row of musicians keeping it up all round the room. The girl was washed; then her hair, magnificent black hair down to her heels, knotted in two great bows on either side of her head. Over these, gold ornaments like wings were fixed, and a little tower of gold bells above them. Then the women painted a black band round her forehead, and added a silver edge to it, also painted.

Thanks to Harriette McDougall’s anecdotal observation and delicate attention to details of the ceremony, not only that we are able to learn a lot from one of the earliest recorded instances of Gajah Olen in a traditional Sarawak Malay wedding dated nearly 140 years ago, but also to further appreciate our own priceless traditions.

Although now not many brides today would choose to don Gajah Olen on their big day (potentially due to lack of knowledge of its existence and its meaning as well as what it represents), there are still some brave brides who prefer to go the old-school way and revive this age-old tradition and its timeless charm.

Tracing the owners and tukang hias who still keep the full set of the Gajah Olen costume proves to be a daunting task as not many would have them. One of the Gajah Olen owners who is often used as reference is Puan Hajah Kazuliah Mohamad Taufek. Fondly known as Mak Haji Kajuk, she is one of the most famous and sought-after mak andam (tukang hias or bridal make-up artist) in Kuching. She is nearly 80 years old now but is still active and shows no sign of retiring any time soon. Inherited from her well known and respected tukang hias mother, her family’s original collection of Gajah Olen is one of the oldest known that still exists today.

Past meets Present

With the 100-year old fully-embroidered black keringkam in gold threads on her shoulders, our Gajah Olen’s bride of the day, Anne Laura Aisyah may have hers met its match with Ranee Margaret’s keringkam blouse (about 1900), an exquisite masterpiece with intricate designs woven around its edges in gold. Anne is seen here admiring the stunning work of art which is undoubtedly a striking example of the way in which the Ranee immersed herself in Sarawak life. This astonishing keringkam is now available for viewing at The Ranee Museum at the Old Court House, Kuching. (www.brooketrust.org)

Besides Mak Haji Kajuk’s collection, there are also other variations of the Gajah Olen collections owned by the family of YBhg Dato Sri Hafsah Harun, the families of the late Puan Bahjah and the late Puan Hajah Yah — these heirloom pieces are estimated to be over 100 years old. The original Gajah Olen collection is usually inherited from one generation to another, especially from a long line of tukang hias.

Though the use of Gajah Olen is said to have declined around the 1950s and 1960s, this waning symbol of beauty has now been slowly (and steadily) revived with more awareness emphasised on the value of this special bridal wear, especially from the historical and cultural aspects of Sarawak.

With more awareness on the importance of restoring the splendour of Gajah Olen to the Sarawak Malay community and for the new generation in particular, more intensive efforts are needed to further highlight Gajah Olen in cultural and tourism events as well as weddings.

A bride donning Gajah Olen around 1980s.

Not only these efforts are expected to revitalise Gajah Olen, it is also to ensure that it will not extinct. Modernisation and the new generation’s take on simplicity may have potentially made it impractical or ‘too bothersome’ to wear, but for what it is worth in the Sarawak heritage, the value of Gajah Olen is worth sustaining and preserving especially for the future generations.

After all, which bride would say no to something old (to have said symbolises continuity), something new (represents an optimistic future), something borrowed (the idea of borrowed happiness), something winged and gold (gold equals prosperity indeed!) and to doses of age-old elegance on her wedding day for that extra good luck and charm?

1 The first diadem which is placed on the bride’s hairline which consists of five panels, semi circular in shape with tiny hinges (Hajah Maimunah Haji Daud, Sarawak Gazette, CXXV(1537): 93-98; June 1998).

2 Another diadem meant on the bride’s head that is placed higher than the other ornament known as the sisir, a jewelled encrusted coronet in the shape of a comb (Hajah Maimunah Haji Daud, Sarawak Gazette, CXXV(1537): 93-98; June 1998).

3 Two large hair-pins topped with flowers made of cylindrical gold-plated wires (quite similar to Bunga Goyang or jiggling flowers). They are inserted on the left and right side of the kepih sanggul. Attached to the Bunga Tajuk are chains of gold leaves and buds known as the Bunga Budi which would come trailing down the maiden’s shoulder. So when she turns her head, the delicate Bunga Tajuk and Bunga Budi would vibrate and glit- ter in unison. (Hajah Maimunah Haji Daud, Sarawak Gazette, CXXV(1537): 93-98; June 1998).

In 2016, Liza met Amirul & Danny (budding embroiders with profound love of Keringkam Sarawak, Songket Sarawak and Gajah Olen) at a Keringkam & Songket event, and immediately formed a strong bond based on their mutual love and appreciation of the culture, heritage and history of Sarawak. They also co-founded the Persatuan Warisan dan Kesenian Keringkam Sarawak, a registered society meant for taking care of the well-being, continuity and sustain- ability of Tudung Keringkam Sarawak. – Liza Sideni

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