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.


The Kayan/Kayaan of Borneo

Kayan Ladies during an open house.

The Kayan are part of the Orang Ulu people, occupying Northeast Borneo. Although the term Dayak usually applies to all indigenous people of Borneo, the Kayan (or other Orang Ulus for that matter), prefer to call themselves Orang Ulu, and assign the term Dayak to the others like the Ibans and Bidayuh.

Ethnologist believe that the Kayan and Kenyah of Borneo has been inhabiting the island for about 900 years, migrating from southern China. According to a Kenyah Lepo Tau man, King Akalura of Tiongkok in China sent to ships to Borneo 900 years ago. One landed in Brunei, the people who would become the Kayan, while another landed in the Baram basin, where they settled, of which later became known as the Kenyah. This shows why the Kenyah-Kayan people have many things in common.

3 waves of migration occurred for the Kayan.

1st wave (15th century): Apo Duat (Mt. Murut and Baram River) and to Usun Apau (Balui and Tinjar)

2nd wave (16-18th century): Apau Kayan, Kayan River and Bahau River

3rd wave (18-20th century): Annexation of Malinau, Sesayap, Segah, Kelinjau, Telen, Wehea, Belayan, Mahakam and Medalam River. Some turned back to Sarawak (Balui, Tinjar, Baram and Baleh rivers)

Between the 17th to the 19th century, the kayans were fierce headhunters (ayau kung) and conquerors. They occupied many new lands from the west of Sarawak up to the northeast of Kalimantan, displacing the locals and renaming it with new names to signify their power. They even fought wars with the Suluk, Bajau and Tidung of Sabah.

In the Mahakam (Kalimantan), the Ot Danum, Bukat, Penihing, Punan, Murut, Tunjung, Benuaq and Maloh retreated to West and Central Kalimantan to escape the Kayan. Those who stayed must accept their new masters.

In the north of East Kalimantan, the Burusu and Tenggalan escaped to the east coast of Kalimantan after the Kayan expansion.

Their huge numbers, war experience, their high mobility, and the rich resources of newly conquered lands made the Kayan absolute rulers of East Kalimantan for 300 years. But they were never acknowledged as true rulers by the colonial powers because they were deemed as primitve tribes compared to the Sultanates of Brunei, Kutai, Bulungan, Berau and Tidung.

There are 3 types of Kayan (divided by language):

1. Ga’ay/Mengga’ay

Origin of the name comes from the word ‘gay’ (gai) meaning sword (mandau) used in headhunting (meng-ayau). A 2nd version comes from the Kenyah Lepo Tau who call these people “ba’ay” meaning people staying at the mouth of the river.

Long Glat, Long Huvung Lama and Keliway. Seloy/Gong Kiya:n and Long Ba’un by the Kayan River. Long Way spt: Long Nah, Melean, dan Long Bentuk by the mouth of the Ancalong. Long La’ay dan Long Ayan of the Segah River.

2. Kayan

Meaning “this is our land”. They live mostly by the Baram River.

In East Kalimantan, Uma’ Suling, Uma’ Lekwe, Uma’ Tua:n, Uma’ Wak, Uma’ Laran, Uma Lekan etc. In West Kalimantan, Uma’ Aging, Uma’ Pagung, etc. Kelompok In Sarawak, Sungai Balui, Sungai Baram, Sungai Tinjar, etc

A subgroup call themselves (Kayan) Busang, a name adopted before their migration to the Apau Kayan.

3. Bahau

According to the Kenyah, the word comes from the word “baw” meaning high (plains), where the Bahau used to live in the Baram before migrating.

Hwang Tring, Hwang Siraw, Hwang Anah, and Hwang Boh in the Mahakam. Ngorek, Lalu Pua’ of the Kayan River, and the Merap in the Malinau.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Bahau lady and a Kenyah man

Due to the huge influence of the Kayan expansion, many ethnic groups became Kayanized, like the Melanau and the Muruts. In the Mahakam, there are two types of Kayan, Kayan Amoh (False Kayan) and Kayan Laan (True Kayan). The Kayan Amoh are the Muruts who call themselves Kayan.

Unofficial estimates of the Kayan population of Borneo is at 100,000 people.