The Female Iban Attire (Ngepan Indu Iban)

baju iban 3The Iban ngepan (or traditional attire) is generally worn for special occasions (Gawai), ceremonies, rituals and dances. The Iban comprises about 30% of Sarawak’s population, with varying differences in terms of dialect, tradition and ngepan. Most famous of the use and promotion of the ngepan in current times is for the Kumang Gawai. Kumang is the Mother Goddess of the Iban back in the animistic days. Considered a supreme beauty and great weaver, she is now embodied in the annual Pekit Kumang, a beauty pageant that showcases the traditional attire of the female Iban as well as other qualities commonly associated with the great Kumang. The winner of the competition is crowned Kumang, which is held in many parts of Sarawak at various levels.

Due to the huge distances and location between different groups of Iban, each has developed its own different and and yet somewhat signature ngepan indu (female costume/attire). However, now a modern standard has been set that only allows a potential Kumang to wear a specific set of ngepan with its accompanying accessories, roughly based on the Iban of Saribas’ ngepan to be worn for Pekit Kumang.

1. Sugu Tinggi (Silver Headgear)

  sugu tinggi (         Picture sourced from :

2. Marek Empang/ Tangu (Worn around the shoulder)

marek empang ( sourced from :

3. Kain Karap/Kebat (traditional woven skirt or Pua Kumbu)

Kain kebat ( sourced from :

4. Lampit (Silver Belt)

lampit ( sourced from :

5. Rawai (Silver Corset)

rawai ( sourced from :

6. Tumpa Pirak/Bentuk (Silver Bangles)

tumpa pirak ( sourced from :

7. Gelang Kaki/Gerunchung (Anklets)

gelang kaki ( sourced from :

8. Buah Pauh (Silver Purse) buah pauhPicture sourced from :

9. Selampai (Sash)

selampai ( sourced from :

10. Tali Ujan/Mulung (Fine Silver Chain)

tali ujan ( sourced from :

11. Sementing Buchai/Sengkiling (Coin Corset with Dangling Coins)

sementing buchai (mgepanibanonline)Picture sourced from :

The diversity of the Iban ngepan is evident with the rise of increasing awareness among younger Ibans and Sarawakians. Here are some samples of other types of ngepan indu Iban. Bear in mind that there are many more types not listed here.251412_10150251515707606_1086414_n

baju ibanNgepan Skrang

kuasNgepan Kuas Sri Aman (Source:

baju iban 2Ngepan Saribas (Source:

I cannot be sure as to why a standard form was set, but it was most probably due to a need to allow a cohesive look to band together the Iban identity during the rise of nationalism and preventing tampering that might occur due to over-creativity. There are both opponents and supporters of various forms of ngepan, but the main thing is to understand that we should celebrate the great diversity of ngepan we now have and know about, as well as preserving it for future generations.


Iban oral literature (Rituals)


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.


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!


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!

Mural Painted by Long Nawang Kenyahs, 1960


Photos taken from The B-Side Dec 2014

Excerpts taken from “The Malaysian roadless trip” by Adeline Ooi & Dave Lumenta (Dec 2013, The B-Side)

On a feature wall in the Sarawak Museum is a huge Tree of Life painting done by the Long Nawang Kenyahs in 1960.

According to Tom Harrison, then curator of the Sarawak Museum and editor of Sarawak Museum Journal:

The Leppo Tau Kenyahs of Long Nawang, upper (Apo) Batang Kayan, Kalimantan, are regarded by all other Kenyahs as the top “class”, the repository of the ‘purest’ form of their culture and the centre of their oldest and most important cultural aristocracy. The symbol of this situation when I visited Long Nawang in 1945 was the great ‘Tree of Life’ painted on the wall of the magnificent house used for cimmunal meetings and rites. That house has since decayed and never been rebuilt, but I succeeded in getting the original artists to come to Kuching later and reproduced the same superb design inside the Sarawak Museum – though there is not room here to do it at a full scale.

The artists mentioned in the plaque are Bit Ncuk, Anyin, Saging, Limpan Bilung, Baya Laing and Gun Dian. They were working in Belaga constructing the airstrip there around 1958 to 1959 when they received Harrison’s invititation to come to Kuching and paint the mural.

It took two years.

The tattooed man is the perfect and sacred man


Tattooing is a major cultural aspect among the Dayak. Till today, many sport traditional designs beside contemporary ones, both men and women. It was not so back in the old days.

The Dayak believe that everything has a spiritual aspect, interconnected with each other. Man, bird, trees, all are different yet connected to one another in a universal balance. Spirits inhabit this Dayak realm, teaching and guiding the people on all matters pertaining to daily life. Farming, weaving and even tattooing was taught by these spirits. They provide guidance through signs like a particular bird call, or through dreams and intermediaries or ‘manang’.

The Ibans believe that the head holds a soul. So when a head is taken during headhunting, you also take their status and power. After the necessary rituals are perfomed, the soul/spirit becomes a part of the community, granting its power for its benefit and glory.

Like a rite of passage, headhunters were marked with tattoos to acknowledge their victory. The Kayan ‘tegulun’ were tattooed on their hands to represent the number of heads taken. Common motifs among the male Ibans were the ‘bunga terung’, Garing tree (believed to be immortal) and the hornbill, a sacred bird that acted as the messenger of the Iban god of war, Lang Singalang Burong. The betel nut palm motif running down the arms and shoulders were considered a protection against evil and mischievous spirits.

Among the women, tattooing was proof of their accomplishments in weaving, dancing, a rite of passage to womanhood. Also as a protective charm, women who were not tattooed were considered incomplete. Among Iban women, weavers were marked with tattoos before embarking on a new weave to appease the spirits she represents in her weavings. The Kayan womens’ ‘tedek’ were handtapped onto their fingers in motifs called ‘song irang’, or bamboo shoots, while some ethnic groups had parallel lines without any discernable designs.

According to Iban customs, certain illness were brought upon by evil spirits. If the ‘manang’, or witch doctor, fails to cure it, they might try a name-changing ceremony. A new tattoo is given to the patient near the wrist. The new name serves to conceal the patient from the evil spirit and confuse it, and to renew the patient’s body. Whilst for the Kayan, the aso’ and ‘tuba’ plants, ‘silong lejau’ or face of the tiger, were used to scare away evil spirits,

According to tradition, only the souls of tattooed women who provided generously for their families and headhunters who possessed hand tattoos – a token of their success – were able to cross the log bridge that spanned the River of Death. Maligang, the malevolent guardian of the bridge, oftentimes refused such passage forcing souls to descend into the river’s depths to be eaten by Patan, a giant catfish. However, if the lingering soul was properly tattooed, it was free to pass into the darkness that awaited it on the other side.

And in the darkness the tattoos will burn bright and become the light that will guide the soul through the darkness into the afterlife where it will join the ancestors in his or her final resting place.