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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Damming our Future: The Borneo Project

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I am not anti-progress. I just hope for a more sustainable development. Sustainable development that does not destroy the heritage, livelihood and culture of the Bornean people.

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An area estimated at 1/5 of Sarawak would be underwater once the 12 mega dams are built. Above is the picture of the area that will be submerged, and major archaeological and cultural sites drowned underneath methane releasing waters.

The infamous Bakun Dam dispaced 9,000 people, while plans for undersea HVDC cables to Peninsular Malaysia has been scrapped due to high costs and geographical concerns. Which means the Bakun Dam is not running at full capacity.

The Murum Dam will be complete soon and begin operation by 2015, displacing 2,000 people.

The Baram Dam is in the midst of construction, and will displace 20,00 people in the Kenyah and Kayan heartland.

Meanwhile, another nine more will be built.

These are the facts. You make your own judgements.

Damming Our Future from The Borneo Project on Vimeo.

Iban Cosmology

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Like the widespread animistic beliefs of prehistoric Borneo, the Iban held similar belief systems based on omens, birds and rituals. An aggressive and ruthless tribe, they were famed for their ngayau (headhunting). Unlike the Kayan, one of their bitterest foes, they do not have a stratified society.

Here is a brief outline of the pantheon of gods/spirits that govern the Iban worldview back in the day.

Raja Jembu begat seven children who possessed divine qualities.

(Aki Lang) Sengalang Burong: Son, Supreme god of War appears as a Brahminy Kite Bird to man.

Selampandai (Selampetoh/Selampeta): Son, healer & creator of man, great blacksmith

Ini Inee (Ini Inda): Daughter, great healer

Menjaya Raja Manang: Son, who received the skills of healing from his sister and became the first “transformed”/transvestite shaman healer

Bhiku Bunsu Petara: Daughter, high priestess of the supreme creative deity called Bunsu Petara. Emissary.

Anda Mara (Ganggang Ganggong): Son, god of material wealth

Raja Simpulang Gana: Son, god of earth and agriculture

Sengalang Burong and Raja Simpulang Gana are considered the supreme gods in this pantheon, communicating via omens and signs to the people of the earth. They live in Tansang Kenyalang (Hornbill’s Nest), in the dome of the sky.

Communication between Sengalang Burong and man is done through eight principal omen birds, seven of them being his son-in laws.

Living on the right side of his longhouse in the heavens:

Ketupong (Rufous Piculet)

Beragai (Scarlet-Rumped Trogon)

Pangkas (Maroon Woodpecker)

Living on the left side of his longhouse in the heavens:

Bejampong (Crested Jay)

Embuas (Banded Kingfisher)

Kelabu Papau (Diard’s Trogon)

The 7th messenger is Burong Malam (Night Bird), although he is actually a cricket, who is married to Sengalang Burong’s youngest daughter Endu Chempaka Tempurong Alang. They don’t live in Tansang Kenyalang after being expelled for committing incest with his nephew, Sera Gunting.

The 8th omen bird is Nendak (White-Rumped Shama), not a son-in-law, but merely a client who lives in an attached room to Kelabu Papau.

Sourced: Gregory Nyanggau, a direct descendent of Sengalang Burong.

Evolution of the Kenyah cosmology

The Kenyahs are highly artistic people living in the interiors of Borneo. Unlike their Orang Ulu counterpart the Kayan, Kenyah is a collective term for groups of people sharing a similar culture and linguistic origin, yet distinct from the Kayan. Oral traditions has it that the Kenyahs arrived from across the sea (China?) and landed in Telang Usan (Baram) and multiplied alongside their Kayan neighbors. After many generations, they subdivided into many separate groups/dialects. Terms such as Badeng, Lepo Tau’, Lepo Kulit, Lepo Timai etc. started to appear after a number of the Telang Usan (present day Sarawak) Kenyah migrated to Kalimantan in the Upper Iwan River, in relation to specific characteristics of their settlements.The term Lepo Tau’ was derived from the tau tree which grew in the vicinity of this particular group’s settlement.

In the beginning, the Kenyah practiced a belief system called the Adat Puon. The Kenyahs are a highly stratified society, meaning they practice a caste system. Under the Adat Puon, society is divided into:

Paren: Detau Bio’ (High Nobility)

Paren: Detau Dumit (Low Nobility)

Panyen Tiga (intermarriage between the Paren and Panyen)

Panyen Kelayen (Commoners)

Ula’ (Slaves)

The Detau Bio’ and Detau Dumit is used only during certain ceremonies. After the rituals are over, the High and Low Nobility converge back into a single Paren category.

The Adat Puon is a highly complex and restrictive belief system. It is central to their social activities. If an omen is unfavourable, they will abandon it immediately even if the task is halfway done. Activities that are intrinsic to their survival in the wilds of Borneo like choosing a settlement, farming and hunting are governed by omens. Birds are used extensively, like many other animistic belief system widespread among the peoples of Borneo. The sound and direction of passage of said animal can be interpreted as good or ill, animals like the isit bird, pengulung (owl), kijang (deer), cobra and many more. Heavy ceremonial requirements are needed like animal sacrifices. For example, if a plague hit a settlement, protection against this evil is done through the tepo ceremony, using the blood of a murdered man.

A new religion emerged in 1947-1950, called Adat Bungan. A man named Juk Apui of Long Ampung (Lepo Jalan subbgroup) received a dream of a revamped belief system. Animal sacrifices were scrapped and strict taboos lifted because it placed a heavy burden on the people. The main requirement is the worship of Bungan Malan Paselong Luan (goddess of creation). Chicken eggs were used in lieu of animal sacrifices. It eliminated the need for the separation of Paren into Detau Bio’ and Detau Dumit, causing great opposition from the Paren. The Paren felt responsible for the safety of the people and didn’t want to incur the wrath of the gods with an incomplete ceremony. However the belief flourished and became accepted by many, partly due to the ease of practising this revised version of the Adat Puon.

In the mid 19th century, Christian missionaries started to venture among the Dayaks. In Kalimantan, they were brought in by the Dutch while in Sarawak, a limited number of missionaries were allowed due to the Brooke’s dynasty restriction on unbridled evangelism among the natives. Thus, the Dutch declared whoever still followed the old ways are considered ‘godless’ and accused of Communism, subject to punishment. Many groups were split on the idea of converting to this new Western religion. Some who were adamant in maintaining the Adat Bungan/Puon split and opened new settlements. However, the first researchers who realized the value of the unique heritage of the Kenyah began putting it in writing, allowing for preservation of these traditions.

The effects of Christianisation is the Paren merged into a single category, and the Panyen as well. The Ula’ were abolished, although the social stigma of being an Ula’ was still evident. No leaders are elected from the Panyen and Ula’ categories.

Iban oral literature (Rituals)


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I will attempt to describe some of the Ibans oral literature applied for various rituals and ceremonies. Some are still practised today, while most are forgotten or became redundant as head hunting became a thing of the past.

1. Timang:

is a form of ritual chant or invocation, a complex and elaborate Iban oral literature performed during major festivals or rituals. It usually involves 4 people, the Lemambang (bard) who leads, Orang Nimbal (his assistants) who replies and the Orang Nyagu (a two-man chorus). Types of Timang are the Timang Tuah, chanted during major festivals as a call to the Gods to bring wealth and prosperity to the organizers. The Timang Kenyalang is sung during Gawai Kenyalang where the Lemambang invocates the greatness of the Kenyalang (hornbill). Others include Timang Benih (Harvest Festivals), Timang Sera (to restore appetite of pregnant mothers and sick children), Timang Sukat (increase life span), Timang Bulu (invincible against evil) and Timang Jalong (bless rice wine into sacred wine for warriors).

2. Pengap

is a long ritual poem sung during ritual festivals to invoke the presence of Gods/Spirits. Consists of a Pun (leader), Limbal (2nd singer) and Nyagu/Ngelembong (the chorus). The Pengap Gawai Burong is sung during the Gawai Burong to invite sacred skulls and hornbill images brought from visiting longhouses. Pengap Gawai Batu is sung to invite Raja Simpulang Gana to bless whetstones so that implements stay sharp for farming and a better harvest. Pengap Bungai Taun is chanted during sacrificial feasts to bless fruits of the fields.

3. Renong

is sung for specific purposes. The Renong Kayau is sung to embolden men going to war, associated with Gawai Timang Jalong. Renong Main are sung by women for as a playful form of entertainment. Renong Ngayap is sung by a man or women for their lover. Finally is the Renong Sakit (for the sick) and Renong Sabong (cockfighting).

4. Bebiau

is the act of waving a fowl over a person or an object in tandem with a ritual invocation or chanting. The fowl is then killed whereby the spirit of the fowl will convey the message to the Gods/Spirits. Usually performed by the Tuai Rumah (longhouse/village headman) for blessing or well-being and during weddings or welcoming guests.

Oh-ha! Oh-ha! Oh-ha!

Aku ngangau, aku nesau,

Aku ngumbai, aku ngelambai,

Ngangau ke Petara Aki, Petara Ini,

Aku minta tuah, minta limpah,

Aku minta raja, minta anda,

Aku minta bidik, minta lansik,

Minta tulang, minta pandang.

Awak ka aku bulih ringgit, bulih duit,

Bulih tajau, bulih segiau,

Bulih setawak, bulih menganak.

Aku minta bulih padi, bulih puli,

Agi ga aku minta gerai, minta nyamai,

Minta gayu, minta guru.

Translation:

O-ha! O-ha! O-ha!
I call and I summon
The spirits of my grandparents,
I ask for good fortune,
in full measure,
I ask for wealth, for riches,
I ask for good luck, for clear-sightedness,
For strength, for guidance.
That we may have ringgit, have money,
Have jars,
Have gongs,
I ask for good harvest, in abundance,
And I ask for good health,
for comfort,
For long-life,
for wisdom.

4. Sampi

are invocatory prayers performed during rituals, to summon spirits followed by describing the favor or assistance in need, which the spirits are asked to grant. Usually accompanied by miring (offerings). Occasions when it is done are meri anak mit mandi (first bathing of a baby), nampok (seeking of dreams/signs), kelam ai’ (diving contest) and going to war.

5. Sabak

is a slow and sad song chanted by a professional wailer for the dead during a wake. Performed by the Lemambang Sabak the whole night before the burial, usually women. The chants describe the journey of the deceased’s soul to menoa sebayan (afterlife), and she loses herself in the telling to accompany the deceased, but precautions are made to ensure the Lemambang Sabak’s return to earth. Other variants are the Sabak Bebuah to invite the dead to join the living for a feast (Gawai Antu), Sabak Kenang (remembrance of the dead and their good deeds) and Sabak Ngerengka (after the burial).

6. Naku

is a ritual for heads taken in war (antu pala) and sung to incite more men to get more heads. It is sung by young ladies holding old skulls and “new trophies” through the longhouse.

Aih! Ngambi agi!

Ngambi ka aku sigi agi!

Aih! Nambah!

Udu pemalu aku naku antu

Pala lama rangkah,

Enda meda bedau bedarah!

Malu aku, wai sulu,

Naku antu pala lama,

Jentang indu aku inang,

Ada balut pukat empelawa,

Aih! Ngambi agi!

Ngambi ka aku sigi agi!

Aih! Nambah!

Malu aku, sulu, aku naku,

Antu pala rangkah!

Translation:

Aih! Get more!

Get for me one more!

Aih! Some more!

I feel very ashamed praising,

this old head trophy,

Not seeing it bloody!

I am ashamed, my love,

Praising this dried-up old head trophy,

I have been keeping these old warped threads,

Covered with cobwebs,

Aih! Get more!

Get for me one more!

I am ashamed, my love, praising

This dried up trophy head!