The tattooed man is the perfect and sacred man

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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.

Tokong: The first headhunter of Borneo (?)

Although it seemed that the Chebup were peaceful people when they were driven out of Usun Apau, legend has it that they were the ones who started the practice of headhunting. Of course, this is another oral history passed down.

Tokong is claimed as ancestor by the Chebups and by the Punans. The Chebups attribute the first head hunting to him. Back then, only the hairs of the enemy are taken to adorn their shields.

The story goes that Tokong and his people were about to attack a village. Before leaving, he was addressed by a frog who said to him, “Wong ka kok, tetak batok.”

This species of frog (Bufo) makes a croaking noise similar to that. “Tetak batok” in the Chebup language means “to cut through the neck”.

At first the people scoffed at the frog’s advice, but the frog assured them that taking heads would guarantee prosperity of every kind. It demonstrated by cutting off the head of a smaller frog.

Tokong was determined to follow the frog’s advice. he brought back the heads of his enemies. As the party returned home, the padi fields they passed through grew very rapidly. As they entered the fields, the padi was only up to their knees, but by the time they reached the end it has ripened. When the reached the house, their relatives came out to rejoice and greet them, telling of all the good fortune that has befallen them.

Thus the words of the frog came true, and the new practice of cutting of heads became the norm, and learnt by others.

Sourced from Hose and McDougall, 1902.

Of course this is just one of the legends describing the origins of headhunting. Various races make claims to be the pioneer of headhunting. What’s for sure is that we’ll never really know as the truth becomes lost in the mists of time.

Borneo: People with tails?!!

The map above was created in the 1300s based on the coordinates given in Ptolemy’s Geographica, the most systematic account of the whole world known to man in the 2nd century. Ptolemy was a Roman citizen living in Egypt, a scientist who wrote on astronomy, geography and astrology. I looked up the map and tried to find Borneo (circled in red).

Instead of the dog-shaped island we have come to know and love, it’s actually a group of 3 islands. On the left, where Peninsular Malaysia should be, is called Aureus Chersonesus (Golden Peninsula). Oddly, Sumatra and Jawa is missing. The map was made based on accounts of sailors and explorers, so understandably it ain’t accurate.


Now, if you see the group of 3 islands on the right (supposed to be Borneo), there’s a note written in red. It reads,

“Islands of the Satyrs. Those who inhabit these islands are said to have tails, such as the ones they paint of satyrs.”

It is assumed that the 3 islands are actually at the area near the mouth of the Kapuas river, where it branches off so to the foreigner, it might look like 3 islands instead.

Anyway, I haven’t met an tailed people before in Borneo. By the way a satyr is a Greek mythological creature that has a human body with horns like a goat, but below the waist is like a goat, tails, hooves and all.

There are rumours of their existence. No more nowadays as people stop believing in such things. But the people of Kaltim calls them orang boentoet, the Ibans of Lundu orang tungkin panjai (Otto Steinmeyer), so maybe it is real.

Or maybe someone saw a Dayak wearing a chawat, the tail end of it looking like an actual tail. That or we just enjoy telling tall tales to foreigners. You know, like how we live on trees, and ride turtles to KL.

Although the satyrs are (in Greek mythology) followers of Dionysus, god of wine and ecstacy. Tuak anyone?

A Bidayuh Legend: Origin

(Photo source: Mattias Klum)

You can find many texts on the migration of prehistoric humans across early landmass. So instead of going into the boring hypothetical assumptions that litter other anthropology books, let me tell you a story.

In a remote corner of the world, an island lie quietly among the seas and oceans. It was lush and green, great rivers snaking all over its land, high mountains running down its middle, like a very dry and old backbone. Deers, pigs and beast of many kinds roamed the thick forests. Birds flew the air, cruising in the wind that came down from the mountains. No one lived there but the animals, except for one man, the first Land Dayak.

His name is Tenabi. He lived at the foot of Bukit Suit and Baru. He had a wife named Kitupong, but she died during childbirth. Yet, tenabi conceived a child in the calf of his leg. When it matured, his calf burst, and a baby girl was born. When she became a woman, Tenabi married her and had three children.

They had a daughter named Timuyau, a son named Padat and another named Tiruah. When the grew up, the moved out of the family home and ventured to find a place to call their own. They finally settled at Sinyang and Bukit Saki. They both got married and had children. All seemed well.

One day Padat’s son walked by Tiruah’s sugarcane field. He felt hungry and stole some. Tiruah’s son was furious when he found out that someone stole the sugarcanes his father planted. So he set a trap. Padat’s son came again the next day to steal some more, not knowing of the trap that lay in wait. Just as he was about to get to the sugarcane, he got caught in the trap and beheaded.

Padat was both sad and angry, desiring for revenge. He moved his family to Sikangan and launched an attack on Tiruah and his family. Tiruah, managing to escape in time, didn’t want to fight his brother, moved away and settled at Inikabut, on the right branch of the Sarawak River.

There, Tiruah’s son, Sikaya, fell in love with a spirit named Sekama. They both got married and had two children, a boy and a girl. Soon their children grew up and got married. They were blessed with many children, Bena, Bungu, Bibawang, Biatah, Singai, Bikirup, Baang, Bratak, Peninjau and Puruh.

Based on an article by Dr. John Hewit (The First Land Dayak).

For the unfamiliar, the grandchildren of Sikaya and Sekama is the ancestors of the Bidayuh. Some of the names are based on real places where many Bidayuhs came from.

“Bi” means “people of” and Dayuh, “land”. The British termed them Land Dayaks, but upon the Amendment of the Constitution, it was changed to Bidayuh.

Bidayuh is not pronounced as Bi-da-yooh. It should be Bi-da-yeh  (uh as in urn/learn). That’s how the natives pronounce it. A dead ringer for who’s one and who’s not.