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!

What’s your ROOTS man???

The generation of today is living in a world where they are offered a vast array of choices, whether in music, pop culture or dance. With that, comes the decline of interest in traditional arts, culture and music. It’s inevitable, as things are everchanging.

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The custodians of traditional culture are gradually declining, as fewer and fewer young people take it up. The great teachers are slowly dying away, bringing their technique with them to the grave. The traditional is often perceived as boring, old and sometimes embarassing. We have begun to be ashamed of our culture, yet we condemn and ridicule others not of our kind who make an effort to learn it.

Unlike our counterparts in Kalimantan who excel and have carried Dayak culture far ahead and established it as a dynamic art form, over here, we are lagging behind, stuck to the old ways, doing the same thing, unappealling to the masses of younger generation.

From my personal experience, I’ve always found traditional dance to be somewhat outdated and reserved for the experts. So I never bothered to learn (and too embarassed to take lessons). My excuses were shame, two left feet and fear. But once I started, I got hooked. It was an incredibly liberating experince for me, even with all the mistakes I made. There’s a whole new world out there that we, as the modern generation, can carry on, make tweaks and still maintain it’s authenticity. What I mean is that on the one hand we have the traditional, slow ones, on the other, the faster, upbeat yet still derived from the orginal steps but improved (purists would not agree, however). Same goes for music.

There’s something about doing something that has been done for generations, slowly refined with the times. With the advent of Malayanizing everything (since it’s Malay-sia), the Dayak culture has slowly been eroded of it’s authenticity (Islamization). We can take a leaf from our incredibly pro-Dayak neigbours, who has stood by their identity with pride.

For example, in most dance competitions held in Sarawak, Malay elements has to be incorporated (to win) which is not only so homogenized, it clashes with the more spontaneous art of Dayak dance. Some competitions require that you do a Malay dance! While in the rampaian kreatif (Creative Dance Medley), the costumes are of the bright, shiny Malayic type, incorporated with many Malay moves. (Imagine someone wearing a chawat doing the joget, urgghh!) If you have the time and opportunity to watch a Kalimantan creative traditional dance, you’d be blown away by how Dayak (and beautiful) it looks.

I’m not just talking about boasting how powerful your ancestors are going mengayau (headhunting), or how good they are at drinking. That is a thing of the past. It’s no longer relevant today. Instead, think of how you can do your part by learning something about the history of your culture and it’s traditions. Part of the reason why our Dayak identity is eroding is because we have forgotten what makes us Dayak. Our language, dance, music, rotting by the wayside while we pursue the modern lifestyle (which is not wrong, not saying you have to hunt for food and wear a chawat). How can you be proud of your identity when you have nothing to show for it but the race stated in your birth cert?

It’s time we remember who we are and be proud of our own Dayak identity.

Slamat Andu Gawai!

Lambe’ ichuk yuh, sorry. 😄

Gawai is born when Sarawak Day was created on June 1st during the British era. They didn’t want to acknowledge Gawai Dayak, but after Dato’ Stephen Kalong Ningkan became the Chief Minister, in 1965 Sarawak Day became Gawai Dayak on June 1st every year.

Gawai is the time for prayers of thanksgiving to the spirits and gods of old after a bountiful harvest, to celebrate the end of the paddy season, time to enjoy and relax with friends and family, medicating with tonnes of pork and gallons of alcohol. Harvest time varies according to region, and some, like the Bidayuh, celebrate ‘ baru’ ba’uh’, or new rice before the formal date of June 1st. It’s a time when the community gathers to eat together the new rice that has been harvested.

So to make it easy, the official date for the festivities start on June 1st. If you live in Kuching, and want to have lots of friends to visit during Gawai, make more Bidayuh friends. The Bidayuh kampung’s are nearer and somewhat less rowdy than the Ibans (unless you happen to end up in Mantung or Rasau. Just kidding!)

A ceremony is held, with a high priest chanting and sacrificing chickens/pigs to the spirits. But with the advent of Christianity, it is dying out as the old people who knows how to conduct it are getting less and less every year. And most villages that have turn full Christian with no pagans (like mine) don’t even hold it anymore.

Before some Christian radical jumps down my throat for advocating spirit worship and idolatry, it’s about preserving culture. No one truly prays to the spirits. Why not dedicate it to the new God? Now this is a minefield.

Gawai, for me holds a new meaning for the modern generation. General fun and drinking aside, it’s about renewal. It’s the end of the cycle, where time is marked by when it is time to start farming and planting paddy (our main sustenance, life itself), ending with the harvest, the conclusion. It’s like the new year, to throw the old away and start with the new. I don’t think many realize that.

Gawai this year has been a somewhat subdued affair. Inflation, coupled with the significant loss of BN has made things less happening. But otherwise, no one can stop the ball rolling!

This year haven’t been out ‘ngabang’ (visiting) much. To Baru’, Jenan, Krian and Benuk only. The hot weather has been killing us.

I’m back in Kuching now, since I’ll be working tomorrow. T.T

I do miss the days when everyone came back for Gawai eve. Now everyone is living their own lives, busy with new families and jobs. We try to meet, but it’ll never be the same. I mean, watching a pig getting slaughtered for Gawai and having it all to ourselves is really something.

Anyway, to all Dayaks (actually, if you’re Bornean, regardless of race, Gawai is a part of our lives), Selamat Hari Gawai, drive safe, and most importantly, ENJOY!