Iban folktales: How the Iban learnt to plant rice Part 1

A long time ago, in the deep jungles of Borneo, lived a fierce tribe called the Ibans. They were hunter gatherers, living off the bountiful fruits of the jungle. Wild tapioca and yam, fruits as well as wild animals were part of their daily meals.

In a longhouse with three hundred families, there was a handsome young man named Siu, son of the tuai rumah. He had a coat of brightly-coloured patterns, hand woven by his mother. on a rattan headband that he wore on his head, were magnificent plumes of hornbill feathers. Around his waist was a sharp sword and magic charms that he believes will protect him from danger. His constant companion is a long spear in his right hand and a sturdy yet light shield on his left. His father died when he was still a child, yet the light of his father’s ferocity and nobility shone in his eyes.

Siu was an athletic and active young man. One day he gathered all the young men of his longhouse and said, “Let us hunt for birds today.”

They all went off into the jungle, carrying their deadly blowpipes, each going their separate ways. Silently and stealthily they prowled the forest searching for prey. Siu went towards a mountain not far from his longhouse. His hunting was not fruitful, as morning became evening and he has yet to catch sight of an animal to kill.

“How strange! The jungle is so quiet and peaceful today,” he thought.

Out of the blue, he heard the sounds of chirping birds not far away. Inching closer, he saw hundreds of birds gathering around a tall tree. He was surprised to see birds with many colors and shapes he has never seen before. He raised his blowpipe and shot a poisoned dart at one of the birds. Oddly, more than one bird fell to the ground. Soon he killed more than he could carry. He decided to craft a bamboo basket to carry the dead birds home. Tying the bamboo basket to his back, he headed home.

He tried to retrace his steps back the way he came. But he could not find the way.

“I must hurry or I’ll have to spend the night in the jungle,” he thought.

Soon he came upon a winding path hat led him to another longhouse. “I didn’t know there was a longhouse here,” he said to himself.

He could hear the people of the longhouse inside. So he hid his basket of birds and his blowpipe and tried to call out to them. “Hello! Is anyone there?” he said. But no one answered. He called out again and was greeted with a reply. “Yes. Come on up!”

The ruai of the longhouse was empty. So he sat there waiting for the host to come out.

“Make yourself at home, Siu. I’m cooking some food for you,” said a woman’s voice from inside one of the rooms.

“How does she know my name? Who is she?” Siu wondered to himself.

After awhile, a pretty young maiden emerged from the room and brought with her freshly cooked food. “Please, eat first,” she said. “We will talk later. You must be tired from hunting all day.”

After he had finished eating, she came and sat down beside him.

“Why are you living here all alone? Where is everyone?” Siu asked the young maiden.

“I will tell you later,” the girl replied. “First, tell me, how did you find this longhouse?”

“I was hunting birds and lost my way. I followed a small path and it led me here. I must return home tomorrow or my mother will be worried about me,” he answered. He continued his story about himself and his life.

“Why do you want to leave so quickly? Stay here for a few days at least,” she said. Her sweet demeanor and persistence led Siu to agree. That night, Siu slept soundly since he was so tired from the hunting trip.

The next morning he woke to the sounds of children playing. Yet, he still did not see any adults in the longhouse besides the lovely young lady.

After a week in the longhouse, he gradually grew enchanted with the young maiden. He decided to return home.

“I must return home now,” Siu said to the young lady. “But I have something to ask you. I hope you will not be offended.”

“What is it?” asked the young lady.

“Will you be my wife and come home with me?” he said.

The lady did not say anything for awhile. Then she replied, “I shall be happy to marry you. But you must promise never to tell your people about this house or anything you have seen. And you must promise never to kill a bird again or even catch one. If you should break this promise, I shall leave you.”

“All right,” said Siu. He was excited that she agreed.

“First you must know something. I am Bunso Burung, youngest daughter of Sengalang Burong. I am sure you have heard of him. My people are fighting a war with another tribe. Many have died and now all the men have left and are still at war. I hope they will win this time. My people can change shape into birds. That is why I want you to make that promise.”

Siu was amazed. He was especially glad he did not bring in the basket of birds he hunted. He promised her.

When Bunsu Burong left the longhouse with Siu,  he saw that she seemed to know the way. After walking for several days, they reached a stream not far from where Siu lived. They stopped to take a bath. Some children from Siu’s longhouse saw them. They ran home shouting, “Siu has returned! He has brought a beautiful girl with him as his wife.”

All of Siu’s people came out to welcome him and Bunsu Burong. His mother kissed both of them. “My son,” she cried, “I thought you were dead and I would never see you again. Now you have returned home with your lovely wife, we must have a big feast.”

So they had a big feast and drank a lot of wine and everyone was laughing and happy. Siu’s mother prepared a special room for her son and his wife. They were greatly liked and respected by all the families living in the longhouse.


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