Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Sunsuron Guritom

The Sunsuron Guritom
By Joseph Pirin

Figure.1 The Sunsuron Guritom as can be seen today.
Picture taken on 02.09.2011 –author copyright-

Guritom is a special name, the one and only. It is the term used to describe the box-like concrete structure that exists in the Sunsuron Village. A special name spoken for the house of skull, exclusively for the people of Sunsuron. Meanwhile, skull-house in Karanaan Village is called as Tugu Peringatan Tengkorak and skull-house in Tibabar Village is called as Rumah Bangkawang. As the time goes on, the world rapidly changing due to the growing modernization. This is also effect the Dusun community in Sunsuron thus, leaving the Guritom merely as a legacy of the Kadazandusun head-hunting past.

Figure.2 The aerial view of Sunsuron village.
RED CIRCLE in the picture shows the location of the Guritom

The story behind the Sunsuron Guritom is absolutely related to Head-hunting. The practice of Head-hunting is either because of religious motive, territorial defence and prestige (New Sabah Times, 2009). Well, in the case of my village, Sunsuron, the head-hunting might happen because of territorial defence. Based on the village elders oral-story, most of the head collected during the Mat Salleh’s last battle in Tambunan plain.

So, let’s us review the history for a moment...

The Tambunan plain, a most pleasant and beautiful place, was at the time outside the Company’s rule. The two main tribes, the Tegas and Tiawans, were enemies. Mat Salleh took the side of the Tegas against the Tiawans. He taxed the people to support himself and his band and he built a fort with forced labour. Beaufort, the Governor, did not like this and tried to get Mat Salleh out of Tambunan. He said the government might help him to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, but Mat Salleh refused this help. The Tiawans did not like the state of things either, and they asked Beaufort to set up a Government station at Tambunan. Senior government officers did not like it either. They shook their head and said that before long Mat Salleh would be on the warpath again. They were right. (Whelan, 1968)

At the heat of tension between Mat Salleh and the Company, Mat Salleh starts his first major attack against the Tiawans. Sunsuron is one of the Tiawans.

At the head of group of Tegas, Mat Salleh attack the Sunsurons and killed thirty people and drove off eighty heads of cattle. He went to Lawas in Sarawak to buy gunpowder. He had plans to raid Keningau. He attacked the Tiawans at Tambunan, swooped down as far as Putatan in a raid, and, at a meeting with Resident Little near Papar, demanded that the Company should take away its officers in Tambunan. The raids went on. (Whelan, 1968).

-time skipped-

On December 18th 1899, the Government forces under Captain Harrington, the police commandant, advanced towards Tambunan. They arrived on December 31st 1899 after a few brushes with Mat Salleh’s Troops. They numbered one hundred and forty in all and had a seven-pounder gun and a machine gun. With Harrington were Dansey, Fraser, Dunlop, Atkinson and Conyngham. Dansey was a police officer and Conyngham was a doctor. Harrington set up his headquarters at Timbou, two and a half miles from Tambunan. (Whelan, 1968).

The battle continues. During this war, the Tiawans also join the battle including the Sunsuron warriors. The North Borneo Armed Constabulary subsequently had captured Mat Salleh last fort in Toboh. Mat Salleh was shot dead on January 31st 1900, thus, ending the reign of Mat Salleh rebellion.

“During this war, the fighting men of Sunsuron collected heads of enemies killed in battle.”
(Phelan, 1994)

For the Sunsuron villagers, the Guritom was made to commemorate the Sunsuron Dusun warriors who had given their life in order to protect their village from external threat at the past century, besides its main purpose as a house of skulls. The memory of the Mat Salleh era in Tambunan survives in the oral tradition of the people.

As you can understand, any history books or historical records and documents are written by different individual with different perspective. So, different references might give different stories...This story of mine is based on what I know and studied. It’s up to you to judge the truth. No offence, no hard feeling...OK... peace ;p

A book entitled Head-Hunting and the Magang Ceremony in Sabah written by Peter R. Phelan that first published in 1994 tells some documented history behind the Guritom of Kg.Sunsuron. The Guritom is to be said had first erected in 1959.

The subject of making a concrete structure to place the skulls came after because of the previous wooden head-house is costly as it was replaced several times due to its material that did not last. So, the villagers start to think of a better solution.

The Guritom was erected near a burial ground and separated from the village by a ravine. According to inscriptions on the concrete that are still legible, the structure was erected in June, 1959. The name of the builder is given as Y.N. Gampin. (Phelan, 1994).

The inscription on the left side of the Sunsuron Guritom:

Yang jagahi
sabuah ini
Y.N. Gampin
Siap ini suti

As it is not very clear for me to decipher on what really written in the 2nd line and 3rd line of the inscription, the above word is best used for both line (based on what i can see on it).
And also, the entire inscription is written in a capital letter. This is what it says in English;

In charge to all of this is-
Y.N. Gampin
Finished in this holiday

Indeed, Sunsuron was the first village ever constructed a monument like this as early in June 6, 1959. Sunsuron was not the only village with such “House of skull”. There were also house of skull existed in village of Tibabar (erected in June 26, 1966), Kituntul (erected in November 1, 1971) and Karanaan (erected in April 4, 1972). While the Sunsuron Guritom is still exist and legible till day, the others is probably no longer exist. But of course, I’m not really sure about that.

At the present time, there is another inscription that seemingly not being discussed in the book by Phelan, 1994 but it is being written in a news article written by Roy, 2004. The inscription can be seen on top of the Guritom; just below the concrete image of skull on the apex and above the window that covering the hole of the Guritom.

The actual inscription;

Hasil Kejayaan Pahlawan Dusun.
merika ialah-
1. Sampuon
2. Gadog
3. Kadilin
4. Rumantai

This is what it says in English;

The Triumph of Dusun Warriors.
They are-
1. Sampuon
2. Gadog
3. Kadilin
4. Rumantai

As for this inscription, only the names are written in a capital letter. In my opinion, the inscription is written much later, maybe in the year 2000’s. It is because; this inscription is not mention in any of early documented study about the Sunsuron Guritom. I’m only seen it being mention in a news article of News Strait Times in late 2004. The name inscribed on the Guritom probably among the top and fearsome Dusun warriors of Sunsuron.
Continue reading on the next paragraph...

Figure.3 The inscription on top of the Guritom.
Picture taken on 02.09.2011 –author copyright-

Nowaday, the Sunsuron Guritom had survived the rapid development of village with an age of 52 years old even older than the Federation of Malaysia. It’s still there. But what most concern me is that, what really happen to the Sunsuron Guritom since it was erected in 1959??? Since I was born, I’m not staying for a long time in my village that’s why I’m really enthusiastic in knowing the long history of my village. But that not what I’m going to discuss with you guys in this article. A lot of question had surrounding my mind including;

Is the current Guritom that can be seen today is the original one as in 1959?

Is it possible that the Guritom has been move from its original place?

Where are the skulls that suppose to be there?

Do the Guritom is still that scary as it being told by the villagers?


To know the truth about it, I’m conducted a personal research on it.
The first question, Is the current Guritom that can be seen today is the original one as in 1959? I’m not very much sure but according to my research, it is still the same as the original one in 1959. Still thinking....hmm... If you had notice about this, there are many differences between the present one and the Guritom in 1959. Of course I’m might be wrong because I’m compare it with the old photos of Sunsuron Guritom possibly taken in the mid 1959. The differences include, 1st, the original one appear to be taller than the present one, 2nd, the early inscription on the left side of the Guritom wasn’t there anymore and the 3rd, the angle of window that covering the hole in front of the Guritom appear to be blunt compared to the structure in 1959. Hmmm....while i couldn’t find the truth about what happen to it, I’m in need of someone who know better about the Guritom. The village elders that I’m asking didn’t really pay much attention on it. They know only a little about it or forgot. Well, the conversion to Christianity from the old animistic belief has left the information about many tradition beliefs and custom fading in this age of modern culture. Well, the Guritom may had been undergo a restoration during the development of main road in 2000’s just at the left side of it. The work of restoration for the Guritom could possibly had being done several time without changing its original design and location, but, the way it look today seems to be differ than half a century ago.

Figure.4 The Sunsuron Guritom : 52 years ago.
Picture most probably taken in the mid 1959, during its early days. –unknown copyright-

Figure.5 The Sunsuron Guritom : Today.
Picture taken on 02.09.2011, see the left side!
It suppose to have the early inscription on it. –author copyright-

The second question, Is it possible that the Guritom has been move from its original place? My answer is, maybe a little or maybe not at all. Hmm... The original Guritom in 1959 located near a burial ground and separated from the village by a ravine. But the present one is located on just right side of the main road in Sunsuron Village and the left side of the present Guritom is the Church of Spiritu Tobitua (Sunsuron Church). Nevertheless, the Guritom still near the burial ground. The ravine is no longer exist today. The church existed since 2001. The upgrading of main road and land for home in Sunsuron definitely change the whole look of the Guritom scenery.

Figure.6 The scenery of Sunsuron Guritom in 1960’s.
Picture taken in 1960’s –unknown copyright-

Figure.7 The scenery of Sunsuron Guritom in 2010’s.
Picture taken on 02.09.2011 –author copyright-

The third question, Where are the skulls that suppose to be there? A study by Williams (1965), reported that there are some 35 skull trophies present in 1959-1960 in the Sunsuron Guritom varying by age, adolescents and females. At least half of it were female, the majority being either young or very old, while only about 10 percent of the remainder were adolescent boys. In 1959, there were fence built surrounding the Guritom and also a wire covering the hole to prevent the removal of any skulls in it. Time passed away, all of the prevention measure isalready disappeared. My village elders told me that most of the skull had been taken away by irresponsible people who sold it to the museum. Some source says that the remainders skull had been giving a final propitiate and pay respect ceremony before it was buried in appropriate place. Such ceremony occurs in December 2000 but it more likely only in a moderate scale. The skulls only remain inside it until 20-25 years ago. Even myself doesn’t have the opportunity to see the skulls when it still intact with the Guritom.

Figure.8 Skulls still remain in the Guritom in 1960’s.
Picture taken in 1960’s –unknown copyright-

The fourth and final question, Do the Guritom is still that scary as it being told by the villagers? The early stories say that the Guritom can be frightening at times. It is said that people who lived near the Guritom can hear all sorts of noises; singing, crying, screaming, and even the playing of the sompoton can be heard occasionally, especially at night time (Phelan, 1994). My aunt had told me about her actual experience that when she was still a young girl, there was a time when she passing through the road to go to her cousin house (note that, the road and the Guritom at that time is separated by a ravine), she’s saw a skull is watching her through the Guritom hollow window. But, of course, disputes maybe rise. It is maybe not even a supernatural phenomenon or something like that. Some people might thinks that it is only a coincidence... the skull was being put that way so that nobody dare to go near to it? Or maybe it was the act of some naughty kid who got nothing to do. All of the stories had successfully made the Guritom so frightening among the kids in the village. Today, it is so different. Kids are no longer frightened with the Guritom. They even play around it, climbing over the top or throw something into it. So, I don’t think people would still scary about it...

(Note: Correct me if u spotted anything wrong in this article, ok... peace^^ )

The writer of this article, Joseph Pirin, is researching material for a writing on the The Long History of Sunsuron and would appreciate any information or copies of photographs pertinent to this subject. Please contact by Email,

You guys can also empower your knowledge on this topic by reading the references that i had listed below. Some of it i had used in my weekend research and of course, its worth to read. Okie...

References/Further Readings:

New Sabah Times. 2009. Headhunting : Myths & Legends about Headhuntings in Sabah. March 19. pg. ii, vi.

Phelan, Peter R. 1994. Head-Hunting and the Magang Ceremony. Natural History Publication (Borneo). p.73-79 (chapter 4 – Head Houses in Tambunan District).

Pius Kating. 1989. The Skulls of Sunsuron. In: Marsh (ed.) Tales and Traditions from Sabah. The Sabah Society, Kota Kinabalu. p.51.

Roy Goh. 2004. An eerie reminder of headhunting past. News Strait Times. Friday, November 12, 2004. p.10.

Rutter, Owen. 1929. The Pagans of North Borneo. Hutchinson, London.

Whelan, W.G. 1968. Stories from Sabah History. Heinemann Educational Books (Asia) Ltd., Hong Kong. p.39-55 (chapter 4 – Mat Salleh’s Last Battle).

Williams, T.R. 1965. The Dusuns-A North Borneo Society. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York.

Interviews with the village elders.....and also some internet source article...

Internet Source. The Story Behind The Guritom and Mat Salleh.

Internet Source. Headhunting in Borneo.

Internet Source. Sunsuron aerial view.

Joe Lorenzo 2011©


  1. Hello Joe,

    I have accidentally stumbled into your website and I find your good effort quite interesting. With regards to the "Tugu" Guritom,it's original location was between the Dewan Serbaguna and the new church now. I am not sure of your source but the two tribes at odds with each other in Tambunan those headhunting days were the Tagahas/Tagaas and the Tuwawon/Tuwaon or whichever ways you want to spell them. Definitely not Tegas and Tiawans as you mentioned. The person incharged of looking after the heads way back in the 50's and 60's was Native Chief Ompin. His son Awol took over after he died. Before they put the skulls in that concrete box they were kept in a hut in Tinanda.The skulls were revered and a periodical appeasement prayers were conducted by the elders and Bobolians from Sunsuron with representatives from Kg Patau, Kg Karanaan and others who were considered foes of the Tagahas. They were a grand ceremony indeed. Kids were of course scared of the Guritom. My personal memory of the Guritom in 1964 was the haunting power of the spirit of the skulls when disturbed without a proper ceremony. A group of British 'orang puteh' one morning @ 8am, came in a land rover and without permission from Ompin the keeper, took the skulls out and get photographed with them. After they left someone informed Ompin about it. I recalled what he said, that it was disrespectful of them to have done what they did. The spirit he said would be angry and will punish them. Around 10 - 11 am that morning the group met with an accident at Mangkatai along the Tambunan/Keningau road. Can't remember now whether anybody died but certainly they were injured and surely a punishment from the spirit. I have more stories to tell but I guess it is enough for now.

  2. wow..i love to know more about the stories related to Guritom

    1. nice to know....hehe... check for my latest articles kio...

  3. Nice info, I am sure that many stories like these in all dusun village tribes. Can you make a story about Kuntagil? I want to know about her. Thanks

  4. Very good info, just want to know which area in Kg Timbou Tambunan did they make fotress or govt office. Iam from Kg Timbou didnt hear anything about it..would like to know further info..tq

  5. Very good info, just want to know which area in Kg Timbou Tambunan did they make fotress or govt office. Iam from Kg Timbou didnt hear anything about it..would like to know further info..tq


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