Their boat is their house and water is their land. For food, they dive into the depths of the ocean, with nothing but a wooden mask and a spear. For hundreds of years, they have lived a seaborne life. Owing to such long exposure to water, even their body has genetically evolved to adapt to marine life like no human on this planet. They don’t belong to any country, for sea is their abode. They call themselves Sama-Bajau, but the world hails them as “Sea Gypsies” or “Sea Nomads”.
The Bajau people—usually found near the coastline of Southern Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia—live on stilts or on boats that are typically five metres long and one-metre wide. From the birth of a child to death of an elderly, Bajau spend their lives in the transparent blue seas among fishes and swans. Only when they have to trade fish for staples like rice and water, they visit the land. Otherwise, their boats are like floating houses with all the amenities and resources—canned food, kettle, kerosene, plants. Many families even keep birds as pets.
A bamboo stilt house of a Bajau family
Their true origin is still shrouded in mystery, as the Bajau have only been mentioned in some books written by sea explorers a few centuries ago. But experts have now gathered enough evidence from other tribes and communities to trace back the mysterious origin of Sea Nomads to Malaysia.
The Bajau tribe belongs to a Malay ethnic group, which accounts for half of the Malaysian population. But, unlike others who settled on land centuries ago, Bajau chose the seas as their home. Earlier, there were other sea-nomad communities as well, but today, Bajau is one of the few surviving tribes that live above the coral reef, far away from the commotion of cities.
Bajau folklore and traditions are orally passed on from one generation to another. One story that parents tell their children is about a man named Bajau. A clan leader whom everyone followed, Bajau was a large man. Folklore has it that his body could displace enough water to help his people catch fish. His clan was happy and flourishing, but that made neighbouring tribes jealous. They plotted to kill Bajau, in vain. Eventually, they all joined him and that led to the rise of the ‘Bajau tribe’.