Gularri - a celebration of Yolŋu gapu (water) knowledge

Sylvia Nulpinditj, Yolŋu emerging leader, a presenter for Yolŋu Radio, and traditional artist shares a story of her mother’s people’s knowledge, heritage and history of gapu (water).

Gapu (water) is the most important and precious of the elements. It’s part of our culture.

During important occasions, water is used to wash away ancestral designs during ceremonies. It cleanses the body, mind and spirit, and heals broken relationships between Yolŋu families.

It is part of our culture, bringing people, nature and country together. Water creates harmony. Water is culturally part of Yolŋu knowledge and structure. It is a source of reform; it restores Yolŋu law and order. It creates a balance between Dhuwa and Yirritja people, keeping everything equal.

The story below is a celebration of knowledge, heritage and history that has been around for generations; for thousands of years. The essence of this knowledge is embedded in the roots of our ancestors. Our children will depend on this knowledge so they can live better, more friendly and meaningful lives, and continue the importance of this practice.

The movements of the waters flow along the land, filling up rivers, billabongs, ponds and riversides giving life to all.



The Wanguri water source starts at Dhalinybuy, and it flows out to the sea. The journey the water makes explains our system of knowledge and law. The older people are trying to discipline us through this system.

Imagine the water source, where water bubbles out of the ground. This is home, the source of our knowledge. It contains our learning and teaching methodology, the data that comes from our ancient research, dhuwal nhanŋu wäŋa’.

Everything flows with the gapu (water) from this source. Dhuwal ga gapu ŋalayŋalayyun. In the running stream, we hear the sound of the rushing water, ‘gapu dhä-rirrakaymirr.

This is the songline, travelling and connecting people, clans through sharing of information:  consulting, negotiating, agreeing, and empowering through connecting. ‘Dhuwandja mayali’ ŋunhi yolŋuy dhu marrtji raypirri’yun wäŋa rom larakam dhunpayam’.

This means that when Yolŋu have different opinion and argue, the land sets the law straight ‘Dhuwal dhukundja ŋayi marrtji gäma’.

The leaves and sticks, palm fronds and pieces of paperbark being carried down the river are the information, the data, the story and wisdom...

By the side of the river are mulmu Bulmirri. Grasses acting as a filter to catch impurities within the knowledge being carried along.

The knowledge or information being carried in the water then reaches the sandbar just before the ocean.

Near the mouth of the river is a ‘dhäwurr’ - this ‘wäŋa ŋunhi walal dhu nha malany rulaŋdhuna bala nirvana rom märr dhu walal ŋunhal gali’ manymack thirr’.

Here, everything comes together for agreement. Here the law (rom) is laid across the stream, so that everything on the other side, will be calm and good. The pure calm water where everything comes together.

The water on the other ‘agreement’ side is no longer rippling; it is calm Yirritja water called betj ‘betjnha dhu ŋorra’ - everyone comes to an agreement.

The water, the knowledge then travels out to sea, and travels on to other communities and seas.

I hope this knowledge will help communities in understanding their own waterways.

Traditional story: Dhalinbuy, East Arnhem Land. This version: © Sylvia Nulpinditj 2019. It may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of the writer and the language group concerned.


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