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!


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.

I am HARAM, is it?

Living in Sarawak  is unlike any other experience. Without sounding too cliched, the numerous ethnic groups (about 60 plus on last count) that populate the state makes for a very diverse and colorful environment. We probably have more cultural festivals (Borneo) combined than any other place in the world.

Living with neighbours that differ so much from us means that you get used to and accept the adat or traditions of the different ethnic groups. The ethnic composition of Sarawak is such that there is an almost equal balance of the major ethnic groups with the Ibans making up 30%, Malays 28% at 2nd place (rough estimates).

Which brings us to Sarawakian Malays. I have always prided in Sarawakian Malays. They are (mostly) open, tolerant and moderate people who has lived beside the Dayak with not much problems. Most of them have no qualms about eating in a Chinese cafe, or using crockeries/cutleries in a non-Muslims house. They understand their faith and what it stands for. They know what Islam means. Like the Mufti of Perlis Dr. Mohd. Asri Zainul Abididin said,

Soalan: Sebagai seorang bukan Islam, saya dimaklumkan terdapat juga orang Islam yang berasa tidak selesa berkongsi peralatan dapur seperti pinggan dan cawan di rumah saya. Bagaimanakah Islam memandang persoalan ini

Jawapan Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin: Mengarut! Apa perlu berkunjung rumah seseorang kenalan bukan Islam kalau kita menganggap tidak boleh makan atau minum di situ? Saya kecewa dengan pentafsiran Islam begini. Agama itu sebenarnya membuatkan kita menjadi lebih bijak. Pandangan ini menjadikan seseorang lebih bodoh.

Selagi sesuatu yang dijamu kepada kita itu halal, maka ia boleh dimakan, sama ada buah, ikan atau sebagainya. Kemungkinan-kemungkinan yang kita tidak nampak itu tidak wajib diambil kira. Kerahmatan ini tidak terhad kepada orang Islam sahaja.

Kalau kita buat baik kepada orang bukan Islam, kita juga mendapat pahala, macam kita memberi sedekah kepada orang bukan Islam. Perkara ini soal keinsanan dan nilai agama yang tamadun.

And there’s this.

Persatuan Peguam-peguam Muslim Malaysia (PPMM) meminta Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (Jakim) dan majlis agama islam negeri turut menyiasat dakwaan bahawa menjadi kebiasaan bagi kedai kopi di Sarawak menjual makanan halal dan haram di tempat yang sama.

Presiden PPMM Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar berkata, ini kerana makanan yang bercampur boleh menukarkan yang halal kepada haram.

“Apatah lagi cara penyucian peralatan yang digunakan seperti pinggan mangkuk, sudu garpu dan sebagainya perlu juga diteliti.”

Many Muslims work at Chinese cafes. Unknown to many, the Chinese owners always makes sure that the Muslim staff do not touch the plates/fork/spoons but only to collect the glasses and wash them. I work in the industry, I know. Most stalls collect their own plates too.

So what if a Muslim food stall stands next to a Kolo Mi stall? Is the Kolo Mi owner going to throw pieces of pork into the kuah Mi Jawa? If even plates/spoons contaminated by “najis” unusable, then what about made in China products? My hands touch pork all the times, does it mean you must samak if I shake your hand?

Sad to say most Muslims never actually fully understand the Quran. They wave it at protests, hang it in their cars, but do they truly know what they are mindlessly reciting? Most Muslim practices today aren’t found in the Quran. Instead they’re traditions, or based on the Hadith. Even the hijab doesn’t exist in the Quran. It’s meant to keep sand out, unles you’re pro-Taliban.

This type of extremism didn’t exist a decades ago. Now the more extreme brand of Islam is contaminating the Sarawakian Malays who have never had any problems eating with their non-Muslim friends or at their homes. I worry. The source of Malayan(PPMM is one such entity) fear over the sovereignity of Islam (which I MUST stress is never Sarawak’s official religion) is deeply rooted in the fact they don’t know much about their own. They undermine the religion of others to pamper their own insecurities.

I dread the day when the Muslims here turn into zealots like their Malayan counterparts. (Like my brother studying in Terengganu said, “The Kelatanese are quick to explain (about Islam), the Kedahans are quick to convert (you).”)

You get thrown to hell for touching pork? Or breathing in air that has pork particles (whatever the hell that is)?

If your faith is strong, you wouldn’t have any problems with others. Must I even tell you what your own Prophet said? Sheesh.