Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Mad el bai of the Bai Melekeong in Melekeok State © Carolyn Crockett and Bob Brookss

Deliaches: Motifs and Symbolism in Palauan Abai

Of all the things that represent Palauan culture, the Chief ’s or Community Meeting Hall, known as the bai, is the most iconic symbol. The bai is covered inside and out with many symbols, motifs, and stories, called deliaches, which are pictures and carved patterns that either tell a story or represent Palauan-ness. For hundreds of years, these deliaches have served didactic purposes to teach and maintain traditional values. People seated in the bai need to know all this symbolism by heart.

Most often, deliaches appear as painted decorations in which elements are etched into wood with chisels. Generally, the most significant motifs on the bai are found on the mad el bai, the east-facing front, and this article explains these motifs starting from the top of the facade.

The cable end of mad el bai is generally divided into six equal horizontal spaces, with the following symbols painted or depicted on them, normally in the following order.

Chelebesoi is one of the most beautifully colored fish in the ocean and is depicted on the bai to symbolize beauty, good taste, and good life. It represents the idea that everything good must come from the bai and be extended to the community.

Bechei is a worm-shaped figure with a human head, human hands, and a straight body with its internal organs visible and showing all symbols of Palauan money. Bechei symbolizes prosperity and frugality and the wealth that is collected for the community. There is only one body, one head, and two hands; so all the wealth needs to be distributed equally.

Dilukai is a female figure, seated with legs extended and open to display the genital area. There are many legends about Dilukai. Some say that Bechei was the brother of Dilukai, but she has come to represent fertility, continuity, growth, birth, sustenance, and life. The display of the female genitals represents the customary death settlement of cheldechduch, the money that is paid to the male members of the wife’s side of the family, whether she is deceased or a widow. This payment, called techel otungel, is owed by the husband’s relatives as compensation for the conjugal services performed during marriage.

Mesekuuk (surgeon fish) is a reef fish that, in the face of danger, congregates under a leader to form the shape of one big fish that cannot be eaten, chasing predators away. Mesekuuk symbolizes doing things in unison, to have one voice, to support decisions made, and to get along.

Terroi el beluu is a circular figurine with two human heads, two legs and two arms. One figure is encircled by belsebasech, a continuous triangular pattern. This symbolizes continuity, each triangle representing a different season, for planting, harvesting etc., showing how community members cooperate and work together.

Chedeng, the shark is next. Bai sharks are normally depicted facing each other with mouths open and body curved, ready to strike. In the Palauan community, these sharks symbolize the will to get along and work together, but like sharks are ready at all times to attack if necessary.

Along the bottom are two storyboards. One depicts a cleansing ceremony to drive out evil spirits from a newly built house, and the other is a precautionary tale teaching about patience and obedience.

Inside and out, the bai is full of many symbols, but these on the front façade represent most of the important Palauan values and have kept ancient traditions and beliefs alive through many generations.

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