Photographs and Information about Taiwan's Culture, Nature and People by Rich Matheson

Mala-ta-ngia: Bunun Coming of Age Festival 布農打耳祭

Here is an article about the Bunun Tribe’s coming of age ceremony that was originally published here.

01__RJM3225A Bunun man from Taipei

This year I didn’t publish an article on the festival so all the pictures are new.

02__RJM3232A Hsiaolin Pingpu Tribeswoman

by Rich Matheson

Taiwan has twelve remaining aboriginal groups of which the Bunun tribe ranks number four. Mala-ta-ngia or “shoot the ear festival” is the Bunun tribe’s largest and most important ceremony of the year. Similar to Chou tribes well known Mayasafi, it is a coming of age ceremony that focuses on hunting.

19__RJM3869A Bunun Man

Hunting was the Bunun’s primary source of food but it was not seen solely as a source of food, to the Bunun, hunting also instilled life values and skills. Every Bunun tribe celebrates mala-ta-ngia and observes the festival at the same general time and way. It was traditionally held when the moon begins to wane around April or May, a time of rest when the fieldwork is done.

10__RJM3279A Bunun Man

Moreover, this is the time when deer antlers begin to grow and are highly prized for their healing qualities. Now the Bunun Ear Festival is a festival for Bunun to celebrate and display their culture to the outside world.

03_laluwa 2A member of Taiwan’s Laluwan Tribe who are still not officially recognized as separate from the Chou

During the time of the Second World War, in order to accommodate outside influences (such as policies and regulations restricting hunting and protecting some animals), mala-ta-ngia rituals were not observed for a time. Then in 1984 in Kaohsiung’s Taoyuan Township, for the first time since the war, a festival commemorating age old traditions was held for Bunun and Taiwanese alike to enjoy.

04_kanakanavuA member of Taiwan’s Kanakanavu Tribe who are still not officially recognized as separate from the Chou

The festival has been held yearly since then both at the village level and the country level. This year (that was 2006 ) the festival for all of the Bunun of Taiwan was held in San Ming Township, Kaohsiung. The festival has dancing, sporting events and performances which explain the significance of mala-ta-ngia and other Bunun festivals.


In more traditional times, all the adult males of the village would go into the mountains to hunt when the moon began to wane. In order to cleanse their spirits and observe the hunting taboos, rituals were held the night before the hunt. In preparation for the ceremony all the necessary gear, such as bones and young deer antlers, were readied for the rituals.

08__RJM3217Bunun Tribe

The village shaman presided over these ceremonies which began with bones and young deer antlers being hung above the doorway and everything needed for the hunt (rifles, sacks for carrying game, knives etc.) being laid on the ground in front of the congregated males as well as hunting dogs being rounded up and brought over. The kadavus ceremonies began with the shaman chanting while sprinkling millet wine dregs to bless the hunt.

22__RJM3987-2Millet husking competition

The women who were left at home began to make rice wine and entreat the men’s safe return through their nightly dreams.

09_laluwaA member of Taiwan’s Laluwan Tribe who are still not officially recognized as separate from the Chou

When the actual mala-ta-ngia rites began all the deer and boar jaw bones from the hunt were hung up and the highest ranking village priest was invited to begin the ceremony to bless the hunt and give thanks.

18__RJM3847-2Snare building competition

During the rites, tribesmen wore black clothing and the warriors wore their traditional black skirts, black apron and a red decorated belt. The rituals were necessarily solemn affairs and the warriors sang sincerely (pasibutbut) in order to procure their gods blessings for a successful future hunts.

11__RJM3404Bunun Tribe

When the proceedings had finished, the whole village congregated at the field where archery and shooting skills were displayed and practiced. With the targets (the ears of muntjac, hornless river deer, mountain goat and boar) already in place one and a half meters away, the tribesmen began to shoot.

20__RJM3928-2Spear toss competition

Beginning with the youngest boys and moving up in age, all the boys of the village took turns shooting, with special attention bestowed on the youngsters as the targets must be hit or it would bode poorly on the length of their lives.

07__RJM3257Ming Chuan (now Maya) Elementary school students

The deer’s ear must be hit first, followed by the boar’s ear. The beliefs were that if the boar’s ear was mistakenly hit first, the child would be afraid of boars when hunting, if the mountain goat’s ear was mistakenly hit, the kid was destined to walk the precarious paths of the goat for his–likely–short hunting years.

23__RJM4028-2Ada catches a chicken in the chicken catch contest

When the children had finished the adults lined up and took turns shooting at the ears with groups of one, two, four or five hunters shooting at the same time. For the adults the order of targets was unimportant, they chose which beast’s ear to hit first. The earliest hunters used bows and arrows, which over time slowly gave way to rifles.

12__RJM3668-2Shiaolin Pingpu tribe dancers

The mala-ta-ngia ceremony was restricted to males only, females did not participate. After the ceremony finished, the deer’s ear was brought inside and the women, chickens and other household animals were put outside.

24__RJM4077Mingshen (now Takanua) team carrying boar in the boar catch competition

Once everybody was inside the shaman would bless the ear by singing and waving a torch over it before sticking it in the ceiling. All the hunters would then give their spoils of the last two months to the shaman who would divide the meat out evenly to all the villagers. If any of the meat was dropped on the floor it was not to be eaten but was offered to the ancestors instead.

13__RJM3421Bunun Dancers

Nowadays, the proceedings are of course very different from the rituals practiced hundreds of years ago, and most of the superstitions are useful only for scaring children. Sadly, one prevailing taboo is that women will bring bad luck to a hunt.

17__RJM3781Schoolchildren load carrying competition

Although the women are now allowed to watch the shooting of the ear, and participate in all the other sporting events, they are still not permitted to participate in the actual shooting of the ear or go hunting.

16__RJM3364-2Bunun woman carries boar onto festival field

The Bunun are spread out over a large area of Taiwan and every area has their own special way to celebrate their mala-ta-ngia. Next April or May head into the hills to look for a mala-ta-ngia festival and let the friendly tribesmen teach you about their culture.

21__RJM3974-2Bunun man uses traditional husking method in  millet husking competition



2 responses

  1. wow! love these photos you took!

    September 19, 2009 at 4:06 am

  2. Pingback: Sacrificial Pigs, God Pigs and Festivals 神豬 « Liefintaiwan’s Weblog

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