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.

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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.

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!

An earnest request

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When I first started this blog, my dream was to write what I know about my culture and heritage for the world to read.

Now, I write because I feel a responsibility to disseminate largely hidden information that are usually tucked between the dusty sheets of science journals and scholar gazettes.

I’ve always wondered why are there so much information, yet most of it is inaccessible to the curious public? I’ve always thought the purpose of all these researches is so that laymen, like you and me, can learn more about who and what we are, and what will become of us.

It’s sad that the majority will never know, and most of what is found will probably never see the light of day.

Dig.

Rifle.

Scour.

Seek.

And the truth will set you free.

Let everyone know, start a blog, post it on your Facebook, but let’s learn about our dying culture together and be proud of this beautiful, fiery culture that carried our ancestors through aeons.

It’s our land, our life, our love.

Sincerely,

The Author

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.