Mt. Kinabalu is located on the island of Borneo, in the East Malaysian state of Sabah. According to the BBC, it is a sacred site for the Kadazan Duzun tribe:
“It is our temple,” said Dr. Benedict Topin, executive secretary of the Kadazan Dusun Cultural Association.
“When we die, our souls will journey upwards towards our creator in the sky, Kinohiringan. But we are not perfect, so our souls rest on the peak of Kinabalu and await for emancipation. It is like our purgatory.”
Priests and priestesses, called Bobolians, help these spirits go to the sky by performing purification rituals.
Kinabalu’s name is derived from the tribe’s phrase “Aki Nabalu”, which means resting place of the souls of the departed.
Locals believe it is also named after a god, Aki Nabalu, who together with another god Odu Nabalu, take care of the mountain.
The mountain has a direct link to the tribe’s central belief that the sky deity Kinohiringan and his wife, the earth deity Umunsumundu, together created the universe.
Kinohiringan was embarrassed when his clouds were too small compared with the earth. To soothe his hurt pride, Umunsumundu re-made the world and in the process created Kinabalu, which she designated as the world’s centre.
Locals believe that the spirits of the mountains should be respected and honored properly:
Locals believe that every visit is an intrusion into the world of the spirits and thus they must be placated.
Guides used to perform a ritual called the Monolob at the foot of the mountain before every climb, as a way to appease the mountain gods and spirits and ensure a safe journey.
One of the first documented instances of this ritual was by British administrator Sir Hugh Low, who climbed the mountain in 1851 and saw a guide slaughtering chickens and offering prayers.
With Kinabalu becoming a popular climbing destination, locals now conduct the Monolob just once a year during the tribe’s Community Day in December, The New Straits Times reported.
A Bobolian makes an offering of seven white chickens accompanied by seven chicken eggs, betel nuts, tobacco, limestone powder, and betel plant leaves.
The Bobolian then leads a chant and the chickens are then slaughtered, cooked, and given to the ceremony participants to eat.
On May 30, ten Western tourists climbed the mountain and then stripped naked, despite the pleas of their guide not to do so. Some of the tourists urinated on the mountain, and they posed naked for photographs. On June 5, an earthquake struck the mountain, causing landslides which killed 18 people, including “young students from Singapore who were on a school excursion.”
According to The Straits Times, some people have linked the two events, while others have criticized the tourists without implying direct causation:
In the wake of the disaster, Malaysian social media users and some Sabah officials have focused on the nudists, suggesting that their actions angered the spirits and led to the earthquake.
But [Sabah provincial tourism minister] Masidi said the idea that the tourists’ actions had caused the earthquake was “misconstrued.”
“I never said that they actually caused the earthquake but their actions were against the people of the largest tribe in Sabah. The mountain is a revered and sacred site,” he said.
A traditional inter-faith cleansing ritual is expected to take place at the mountain site soon involving Muslims, Christians as well as tribal leaders, according to Masidi.
Tindarama Aman Sirom Simbuna, a Bobolian, stated in an interview that “the tourists who angered the guardian of the mountain should pay for their mistakes by giving sogit. This fine, called sogit in the native tongue, should be in the form of 10 male or female buffaloes.”
Four of the Westerners–Briton Eleanor Hawkins, Canadians Lindsey and Danielle Peterson, and Dutchman Dylan Snel–were arrested, plead guilty to “committing an obscene act in public,” and were sentenced to time served and a fine of 5,000 Malaysian ringgit (£860/$1,330) each.
Another Canadian, Emil Kaminiski, exacerbated the situation by insulting the local culture:
The travel blogger posted a video in which he criticised officials for linking the stunt and the earthquake. “To say something that fucking stupid you really need to have lobotomised yourself on a piece of heavy machinery,” Kaminski said.
“Jesus Christ people, it’s just a fucking mountain,” he said, before reading out some of the insults he had received in response to an earlier post about the affair.
It is unclear whether Kaminski was actually involved in the stunt, or is seeking to profit from its notoriety.
The International Business Times reports that Kaminiski, who was “pretending he was one of the naked hikers,” has “admitted his story was a hoax and that he left Malaysia before the controversy began.”