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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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 (ngepanibanonline.com)         Picture sourced from : ngepanibanonline.com

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

marek empang (museumvolunteersjmm.com)Picture sourced from : museumvolunteersjmm.com

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

Kain kebat (borneoart.com)Picture sourced from : borneoart.com

4. Lampit (Silver Belt)

lampit (ngepanibanonline.com)Picture sourced from : ngepanibanonline.com

5. Rawai (Silver Corset)

rawai (borneoartifact.com)Picture sourced from : borneoartifact.com

6. Tumpa Pirak/Bentuk (Silver Bangles)

tumpa pirak (borneoartifact.com)Picture sourced from : borneoartifact.com

7. Gelang Kaki/Gerunchung (Anklets)

gelang kaki (ngepanibanonline.com)Picture sourced from : ngepanibanonline.com

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

9. Selampai (Sash)

selampai (handicraft.my)Picture sourced from : handicraft.my

10. Tali Ujan/Mulung (Fine Silver Chain)

tali ujan (ngepanibanonline.com)Picture sourced from : ngepanibanonline.com

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

sementing buchai (mgepanibanonline)Picture sourced from : ngepanibanonline.com

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: parenbonjour.com)

baju iban 2Ngepan Saribas (Source: pinterest.com)

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 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.

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!

The tattooed man is the perfect and sacred man

tattoos1

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.

Borneo Hornbill Festival 2012 by Warisan Sarawak

Keling 2012 Ricky Jores wearing the ethnic Bidayuh warrior’s costume (finally a Bidayuh won!)

Congratulations to the winners of the Kumang, Keligit and Keling of Borneo Hornbill Festival 2012 and the dancing teams this year. May the event run for years to come and be successful!

Kumang Bidayuh: Theodosia Elicia Wilrode (Winner), Jessica Go (2nd place), Magdalen Patrick Bejig (3rd place)

Kumang Iban: Gloria Jimbai (Winner), Suzzy Ramli (2nd place), Darwina Entaudu Maringgal (3rd place)

Keligit (Orang Ulu): Karen Laleng David (Winner), Esther Paya Avit (2nd place), Penelope Ering Laing (3rd place)

Photos courtesy of Persatuan Warisan Sarawak.