Iban folktales: How the Iban learnt to plant rice Part 1

A long time ago, in the deep jungles of Borneo, lived a fierce tribe called the Ibans. They were hunter gatherers, living off the bountiful fruits of the jungle. Wild tapioca and yam, fruits as well as wild animals were part of their daily meals.

In a longhouse with three hundred families, there was a handsome young man named Siu, son of the tuai rumah. He had a coat of brightly-coloured patterns, hand woven by his mother. on a rattan headband that he wore on his head, were magnificent plumes of hornbill feathers. Around his waist was a sharp sword and magic charms that he believes will protect him from danger. His constant companion is a long spear in his right hand and a sturdy yet light shield on his left. His father died when he was still a child, yet the light of his father’s ferocity and nobility shone in his eyes.

Siu was an athletic and active young man. One day he gathered all the young men of his longhouse and said, “Let us hunt for birds today.”

They all went off into the jungle, carrying their deadly blowpipes, each going their separate ways. Silently and stealthily they prowled the forest searching for prey. Siu went towards a mountain not far from his longhouse. His hunting was not fruitful, as morning became evening and he has yet to catch sight of an animal to kill.

“How strange! The jungle is so quiet and peaceful today,” he thought.

Out of the blue, he heard the sounds of chirping birds not far away. Inching closer, he saw hundreds of birds gathering around a tall tree. He was surprised to see birds with many colors and shapes he has never seen before. He raised his blowpipe and shot a poisoned dart at one of the birds. Oddly, more than one bird fell to the ground. Soon he killed more than he could carry. He decided to craft a bamboo basket to carry the dead birds home. Tying the bamboo basket to his back, he headed home.

He tried to retrace his steps back the way he came. But he could not find the way.

“I must hurry or I’ll have to spend the night in the jungle,” he thought.

Soon he came upon a winding path hat led him to another longhouse. “I didn’t know there was a longhouse here,” he said to himself.

He could hear the people of the longhouse inside. So he hid his basket of birds and his blowpipe and tried to call out to them. “Hello! Is anyone there?” he said. But no one answered. He called out again and was greeted with a reply. “Yes. Come on up!”

The ruai of the longhouse was empty. So he sat there waiting for the host to come out.

“Make yourself at home, Siu. I’m cooking some food for you,” said a woman’s voice from inside one of the rooms.

“How does she know my name? Who is she?” Siu wondered to himself.

After awhile, a pretty young maiden emerged from the room and brought with her freshly cooked food. “Please, eat first,” she said. “We will talk later. You must be tired from hunting all day.”

After he had finished eating, she came and sat down beside him.

“Why are you living here all alone? Where is everyone?” Siu asked the young maiden.

“I will tell you later,” the girl replied. “First, tell me, how did you find this longhouse?”

“I was hunting birds and lost my way. I followed a small path and it led me here. I must return home tomorrow or my mother will be worried about me,” he answered. He continued his story about himself and his life.

“Why do you want to leave so quickly? Stay here for a few days at least,” she said. Her sweet demeanor and persistence led Siu to agree. That night, Siu slept soundly since he was so tired from the hunting trip.

The next morning he woke to the sounds of children playing. Yet, he still did not see any adults in the longhouse besides the lovely young lady.

After a week in the longhouse, he gradually grew enchanted with the young maiden. He decided to return home.

“I must return home now,” Siu said to the young lady. “But I have something to ask you. I hope you will not be offended.”

“What is it?” asked the young lady.

“Will you be my wife and come home with me?” he said.

The lady did not say anything for awhile. Then she replied, “I shall be happy to marry you. But you must promise never to tell your people about this house or anything you have seen. And you must promise never to kill a bird again or even catch one. If you should break this promise, I shall leave you.”

“All right,” said Siu. He was excited that she agreed.

“First you must know something. I am Bunso Burung, youngest daughter of Sengalang Burong. I am sure you have heard of him. My people are fighting a war with another tribe. Many have died and now all the men have left and are still at war. I hope they will win this time. My people can change shape into birds. That is why I want you to make that promise.”

Siu was amazed. He was especially glad he did not bring in the basket of birds he hunted. He promised her.

When Bunsu Burong left the longhouse with Siu,  he saw that she seemed to know the way. After walking for several days, they reached a stream not far from where Siu lived. They stopped to take a bath. Some children from Siu’s longhouse saw them. They ran home shouting, “Siu has returned! He has brought a beautiful girl with him as his wife.”

All of Siu’s people came out to welcome him and Bunsu Burong. His mother kissed both of them. “My son,” she cried, “I thought you were dead and I would never see you again. Now you have returned home with your lovely wife, we must have a big feast.”

So they had a big feast and drank a lot of wine and everyone was laughing and happy. Siu’s mother prepared a special room for her son and his wife. They were greatly liked and respected by all the families living in the longhouse.

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The Female Iban Attire (Ngepan Indu Iban)

baju iban 3The Iban ngepan (or traditional attire) is generally worn for special occasions (Gawai), ceremonies, rituals and dances. The Iban comprises about 30% of Sarawak’s population, with varying differences in terms of dialect, tradition and ngepan. Most famous of the use and promotion of the ngepan in current times is for the Kumang Gawai. Kumang is the Mother Goddess of the Iban back in the animistic days. Considered a supreme beauty and great weaver, she is now embodied in the annual Pekit Kumang, a beauty pageant that showcases the traditional attire of the female Iban as well as other qualities commonly associated with the great Kumang. The winner of the competition is crowned Kumang, which is held in many parts of Sarawak at various levels.

Due to the huge distances and location between different groups of Iban, each has developed its own different and and yet somewhat signature ngepan indu (female costume/attire). However, now a modern standard has been set that only allows a potential Kumang to wear a specific set of ngepan with its accompanying accessories, roughly based on the Iban of Saribas’ ngepan to be worn for Pekit Kumang.

1. Sugu Tinggi (Silver Headgear)

  sugu tinggi (ngepanibanonline.com)         Picture sourced from : ngepanibanonline.com

2. Marek Empang/ Tangu (Worn around the shoulder)

marek empang (museumvolunteersjmm.com)Picture sourced from : museumvolunteersjmm.com

3. Kain Karap/Kebat (traditional woven skirt or Pua Kumbu)

Kain kebat (borneoart.com)Picture sourced from : borneoart.com

4. Lampit (Silver Belt)

lampit (ngepanibanonline.com)Picture sourced from : ngepanibanonline.com

5. Rawai (Silver Corset)

rawai (borneoartifact.com)Picture sourced from : borneoartifact.com

6. Tumpa Pirak/Bentuk (Silver Bangles)

tumpa pirak (borneoartifact.com)Picture sourced from : borneoartifact.com

7. Gelang Kaki/Gerunchung (Anklets)

gelang kaki (ngepanibanonline.com)Picture sourced from : ngepanibanonline.com

8. Buah Pauh (Silver Purse) buah pauhPicture sourced from : ngepanibanonline.com

9. Selampai (Sash)

selampai (handicraft.my)Picture sourced from : handicraft.my

10. Tali Ujan/Mulung (Fine Silver Chain)

tali ujan (ngepanibanonline.com)Picture sourced from : ngepanibanonline.com

11. Sementing Buchai/Sengkiling (Coin Corset with Dangling Coins)

sementing buchai (mgepanibanonline)Picture sourced from : ngepanibanonline.com

The diversity of the Iban ngepan is evident with the rise of increasing awareness among younger Ibans and Sarawakians. Here are some samples of other types of ngepan indu Iban. Bear in mind that there are many more types not listed here.251412_10150251515707606_1086414_n

baju ibanNgepan Skrang

kuasNgepan Kuas Sri Aman (Source: parenbonjour.com)

baju iban 2Ngepan Saribas (Source: pinterest.com)

I cannot be sure as to why a standard form was set, but it was most probably due to a need to allow a cohesive look to band together the Iban identity during the rise of nationalism and preventing tampering that might occur due to over-creativity. There are both opponents and supporters of various forms of ngepan, but the main thing is to understand that we should celebrate the great diversity of ngepan we now have and know about, as well as preserving it for future generations.