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The Legends of Mount Kinabalu

"Once upon a time there was a giant living... at the foot of Mount Kinabalu."
- Ansow Gunsalam,1983


Until now, Kinabalu's name is still a mystery. The most popular view derives it from the Kadazan words, Aki Nabalu, meaning 'the revered place of the dead'. The local Kadazandusuns belief that their spirits dwell on the mountain top. Among the bare rocks of the summit grows a moss which early Kadazandusun guides said provided food for the spirits of their ancestor.

Many of the mountain's early explorers reported that their Kadazandusun guides performed religious ceremonies upon reaching the summit. Sir Hugh Low wrote that his guide carried an assortment of charms, pieces of wood, human teeth, and other paraphernalia weighing three kilograms (seven pounds) up to the summit. Whitehead recorded the slaughter of one white chicken.

Mount Kinabalu

These ceremonies were performed to appease the spirit of the mountain as well as the ancestral spirits who lived there. Nowadays, a ceremony is conducted annually by the Kinabalu Park's guides. Seven chicken and eggs, as well as cigars, betel nuts, sirih leaves, lime and rice are sacrificed, and later enjoyed by the guides.

Another theory about the mountain's name comes from the derivation of Kina meaning "China" and Balu, meaning "widow". A Kadazandusun legend tells the story of a Chinese prince ascending the mountain. He is seeking a huge pearl on the top which is guarded by a ferocious dragon. The prince succeeds in slaying the dragon and stealing the pearl. He then marries a Kadazan woman, but soon abandons her and returns to china. His wife, heartbroken, wanders to the mountain to mourn. There she was belief to turn into stone.


An ancient mythology lies at the heart of Kadazandusun culture. A Kadazandusun creation myth tells how the supreme deities Kinohiringan and his wife Umunsumundu made the earth while Kinohiringan created the sky and the clouds. But the clouds were smaller than the earth and Kinohiringan was ashamed. To save his pride, Umunsumundu reshaped the earth, making it smaller, and thus created Mount Kinabalu, the mountain that we know today.

A Kadazandusun story tells of a giant king named Gayo Nakan ('big eater') who lived at the base of the mountain. His people tired of his enormous appetite and were had pressed to feed him. Hearing their complaints, the king told them to bury him alive at the top of the mountain. Bringing all their tools they laboured in vain, until the king uttered magic words and sank into the rock up to his shoulders. He then told his people that, due to their lack of patience, drought and famine would afflict them - but promised to help them in times of war. Fearful and penitent, the people made their first sacrificial offerings at the wishing pool below the summit that was Gayo Nakan's grave.

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