Evolution of the Kenyah cosmology

The Kenyahs are highly artistic people living in the interiors of Borneo. Unlike their Orang Ulu counterpart the Kayan, Kenyah is a collective term for groups of people sharing a similar culture and linguistic origin, yet distinct from the Kayan. Oral traditions has it that the Kenyahs arrived from across the sea (China?) and landed in Telang Usan (Baram) and multiplied alongside their Kayan neighbors. After many generations, they subdivided into many separate groups/dialects. Terms such as Badeng, Lepo Tau’, Lepo Kulit, Lepo Timai etc. started to appear after a number of the Telang Usan (present day Sarawak) Kenyah migrated to Kalimantan in the Upper Iwan River, in relation to specific characteristics of their settlements.The term Lepo Tau’ was derived from the tau tree which grew in the vicinity of this particular group’s settlement.

In the beginning, the Kenyah practiced a belief system called the Adat Puon. The Kenyahs are a highly stratified society, meaning they practice a caste system. Under the Adat Puon, society is divided into:

Paren: Detau Bio’ (High Nobility)

Paren: Detau Dumit (Low Nobility)

Panyen Tiga (intermarriage between the Paren and Panyen)

Panyen Kelayen (Commoners)

Ula’ (Slaves)

The Detau Bio’ and Detau Dumit is used only during certain ceremonies. After the rituals are over, the High and Low Nobility converge back into a single Paren category.

The Adat Puon is a highly complex and restrictive belief system. It is central to their social activities. If an omen is unfavourable, they will abandon it immediately even if the task is halfway done. Activities that are intrinsic to their survival in the wilds of Borneo like choosing a settlement, farming and hunting are governed by omens. Birds are used extensively, like many other animistic belief system widespread among the peoples of Borneo. The sound and direction of passage of said animal can be interpreted as good or ill, animals like the isit bird, pengulung (owl), kijang (deer), cobra and many more. Heavy ceremonial requirements are needed like animal sacrifices. For example, if a plague hit a settlement, protection against this evil is done through the tepo ceremony, using the blood of a murdered man.

A new religion emerged in 1947-1950, called Adat Bungan. A man named Juk Apui of Long Ampung (Lepo Jalan subbgroup) received a dream of a revamped belief system. Animal sacrifices were scrapped and strict taboos lifted because it placed a heavy burden on the people. The main requirement is the worship of Bungan Malan Paselong Luan (goddess of creation). Chicken eggs were used in lieu of animal sacrifices. It eliminated the need for the separation of Paren into Detau Bio’ and Detau Dumit, causing great opposition from the Paren. The Paren felt responsible for the safety of the people and didn’t want to incur the wrath of the gods with an incomplete ceremony. However the belief flourished and became accepted by many, partly due to the ease of practising this revised version of the Adat Puon.

In the mid 19th century, Christian missionaries started to venture among the Dayaks. In Kalimantan, they were brought in by the Dutch while in Sarawak, a limited number of missionaries were allowed due to the Brooke’s dynasty restriction on unbridled evangelism among the natives. Thus, the Dutch declared whoever still followed the old ways are considered ‘godless’ and accused of Communism, subject to punishment. Many groups were split on the idea of converting to this new Western religion. Some who were adamant in maintaining the Adat Bungan/Puon split and opened new settlements. However, the first researchers who realized the value of the unique heritage of the Kenyah began putting it in writing, allowing for preservation of these traditions.

The effects of Christianisation is the Paren merged into a single category, and the Panyen as well. The Ula’ were abolished, although the social stigma of being an Ula’ was still evident. No leaders are elected from the Panyen and Ula’ categories.

The Kenyah Peselai, and the aftermath of Konfrontasi

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A Kenyah peselai group, 1930, with Dutch photographer HF Tillema

Peselai, an ancient ritual of the Kenyahs of Borneo, is a coming of age journey undertaken by men to discover new lands, wealth and trading. It is the equivalent of the Iban’s bejalai.

… peselai is a rite of passage with deep roots to the land; it is the journeying to distant territories by Kenyah men discovering new territories and cultures. Peselai was once large associated with long-distance raids, scouting for new arable lands, hunting ¬†or trading expeditions. The wide array of ancient Chinese jars, Javanese bronze gongs, Venetian nad Mesopotamian beads, batik textiles and even Papuan penis gourds that can be found in possession among upriver kenyah and Kayan communities are ample evidence that central Borneo had been part of an extensive trade network, indicating the importance of mobility.

Before the outlawing of headhunting 1900s, peselai were organised into large group from 50-500 men, led by a paren (aristocrat) to ensure safety in numbers. Rampant headhunting by Iban raiders were always cause for concern.

But nowadays, especially the late 1900s, peselai trips has evolved into migrant labor journeys, where Kenyah men seek work in logging camps in Sabah and Sarawak.

The dynamic fluidity of movement between the Kenyahs of now Kalimantan (Indonesia) and Sarawak (Malaysia) resulted in many peselai journeys between the borders, which back then didn’t exist. It all came to an end when the Confrontation happened, and the borders of Indonesia and Malaysia were finally formed.

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Peselai expeditions of the Kenyahs between North Kalimantan and Sarawak.

Long Mekaba, a village with four longhouses, sits between Baram River and Silat River, in Miri. It is a sister village of the Kenyah in Apo Kayan (North Kalimantan), and kinsmen remain in contact with each other via peselai expeditions. Garau Dian, who now lives in Long Mekaba and owns a Malaysian IC, was born Eban Dian in the village of Nawang Baru in the Apo Kayan. In 1974, he went on a peselai trip to Sarawak with around 20 men for jobs in logging camps. He and many Kenyah men chose to settle down in Sarawak in the 1970s peselai trips.

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PeLencau Bilong

PeLencau Bilong, of Nawang Baru, a paren iut (minor aristocrat) made 11 peselai trips in his lifetime. He rescued Tom Harrison in a parachute incident when Mr. Harrison first landed in Borneo for Ops Semut in WWII. He said,

We used to go to the Baliu (Balui). It was called Malaysia after Konfrontasi. But we are happy; when we travel to Malaysia, we won’t go hungry as our kinsmen are there. Before we were still at war with the Iban, it was difficult to find food.

Knowledge was gleaned from these journeys between the different lands. These men picked up languages like Malay, Kayan, Iban, Penan and even some Foochow. Yet now with the disappearance of this rite of passage, the lingua franca of the Heart of Borneo has devolved to Malay or Bahasa Indonesia.

Pak Ubang Ding, of Long Nawang, neighbouring settlement of Nawang Baru, went on his first peselai trip to Belaga after being recruited by the Sarawak (British) government to build an airstrip there in 1958. Together with his father and 500 Kenyah men, they crossed the non-existent border. In 1960, he was personally invited by Tom Harrison, then curator of the Sarawak Museum in the Niah Caves excavation project.

Families have been sundered across distances that used to be a mere journey into a neighbour or relative’s land. As Pak Ubang put it so eloquently,

Kenapa dulu kita bisa berkumpul dengan saudara kita di Sarawak walaupun harus berdayung berbulan-bulan. Dan sekarang sudah ada jalan, ada mesin, ada outboard engines tapi nggak bisa, karena ada halangan, susah masuk ke Sarawak secara legal.

(Why is it back then we could meet our kin in Sarawak even though we need to paddle for months, yet now we have tarred roads, machines and outboard engines, we no longer could because borders make it hard to enter Sarawak legally.)

wpid-Screenshot_2013-12-25-17-28-20-1.pngLong Nawang, Apo Kayan Plateau

Excerpts taken from “The Malaysian Roadless Trip” by Adeline Ooi & Dave Lumenta, B-Side Magazine Dec 2014

Photo credits belong to The B-Side Magazine, Adeline Ooi and Dave Lumenta.

Mural Painted by Long Nawang Kenyahs, 1960

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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 Kaul Festival of Dalat

The annual Kaul Festival of Dalat (specifically Kpg. Medong) is held on January 1st every year (villages within the area celebrate around closer dates), as opposed to the Kaul of Mukah, which is celebrated on the 3rd week of April. This festival is a large and pagan festival celebrated by the Melanaus of Sarawak. The Kaul in Dalat does not have the “Tibau”, the large swing that men jump on as part of the festivities.

Taken from Learn Melanau.

The festival’s ritual ceremony starts when the Serarang, made from sago, bamboo and meduk leaves, are placed on the boats or tongkang.Offerings are placed in a container containing, chicken eggs, yellow glutinous rice, tobacco leaves and betel leaves. The Serarang is part of the Melanau Liko belief system in the Sea Deity, Ipouh. The festival is to appease Ipouh and provide offerings.

The ceremony is led by the Bapa Kaul (Kaul Father), who undergoes the ritual cleansing or purification before beginning the ceremony.

During the 3 days of the festival, no animal are allowed to be slaughtered within the borders of the village, already marked with red flags. Sago palms (staples of the Melanau) are also not to be felled. Gunshots and fireworks aren’t allowed because peace and quiet must avail in the surrounding area where the ritual is being held.While the Serarang is carried around the village, no one should paddle their festival boats against the approved direction.

The tongkang, which carries the Serarang leads 60-100 small boats, that travels behind or beside it only. They act as guards of the main tongkang.