Iban Adat of Birth

Adat of Birth

For the Iban, a child’s introduction into ritual life is graduated. Thus ‘Ngetup Garam’ signals the first enlargement of its relational field beyond the bilik. – Anang ngelaban sida ke tuai, sida dulu Ngetup Garam.

          Through ‘Ngetup Garam’ the infant is removed for the first time from the confines of the bilik apartment and is introduced to the basic temporal dimensions of the Iban visible world, to daylight and the orbiting sun, and, at the same time, its presence is made known to the gods into whose care it is placed.

          The principal gods invoked are those responsible for the main constituents of its newly created person: namely, its visible body and its unseen soul. Finally, the journey from the bilik to the tanju’ and back to the bilik is seen by the Iban as a movement between areas of minimal and maximal spiritual danger, and back again, within the longhouse.

          The main rites of birth conclude with the infant’s ritual first bath (Meri Anak Mandi) at the longhouse bathing place. Ritual bathing gives recognition to the child’s social persona within the community, while similarly locating it ritually in a beneficent relation with the spiritual forces believed to be present beyond its threshold. The rite opens at dawn with the preparation of three sets of offerings on the family’s section of the longhouse gallery. When prepared, one set of offerings is carried into the bilik apartment. 

          There it is presented to the family’s guardian spirits (Tua). The other two are carried to the river side where, as part of the bathing ritual, one is presented to the spirits of the water (Antu Ai), the other to the spirits of the forest (Antu Babas).

          As soon as these preparations are completed, the bathing party assembles on the gallery and is formed into a procession. After making a complete circuit of the gallery, its pathway strewn with popped rice, the procession, bearing the child, descends the entry ladder and proceeds in file to the river bathing place accompanied by the music of drums and gongs. At the ‘Penai’ the offerings to the water spirits are cast into the river. The chief ritual officiant then wades into the water. Standing in the river, he pronounces a complex invocation (Sampi) in which he calls on the spirits of the water to form a parallel, unseen procession in the realms beyond the longhouse threshold.

          The spirits are described in his invocation as arriving at the penai’ from both upriver and downriver, from the river’s headwaters, its many branching streams, and from its mouth at the sea. Like human beings, the spirits, although unseen, inhabit ‘this world’ (Dunya tu). The invocation is characteristically structured as a dialogue in which the officiant becomes a number of different characters, both seen and unseen. 

          At first he self-reflexively describes the purpose of the rites and the intent of his own actions. Then, as they assemble, he assumes the identity of the spirits. These include the spirits of turtles, crocodiles and river fish. The spirits, through this dialogue, announce their arrival in processional order. Speaking through the officiant, they describe the magical blessings and charms they have brought to distribute among the bathing party and declare their intention to look after the infant, preserving it particularly from drowning. The guardianship of the river spirits, established at first bathing, is believed to continue throughout an individual’s lifetime. 

          In the poem of lamentation following death, the souls of the dead leave the familiar world of the longhouse by way of its bathing place, travel by river to the Otherworld (Sebayan) and pass the homes of their former spirit-guardians. As they come to each of these homes in turn, they release the spirits from guardianship and bid them farewell. Later, in rituals that involve the souls return from the Otherworld (Sebayan), the souls again pass these homes just before they reach the ‘Penai’ of the living. The spatial imagery thus locates the river spirits within the living world but beyond the boundaries of human society, its outer limits defined in this ritual construction by the ‘Penai’.

          As the infant is bathed, a chicken is sacrificed and its blood is allowed to flow into the river. The final set of offerings is then presented to the spirits of the forest. If the infant is male, these are hung from a spear (Sangkuh), if female, they are hung from a shed-stick (Leletan). Why spears and shed-stick? Spears (Sangkuh) and shed-sticks (Leletan) symbolizing the pre-eminent gender roles of men and women: warfare (Ngayau) for men and weaving (Nenun Pua Kumbu) for women.

          As these offerings are being set out the procession reassembles and, bearing the infant, returns to the longhouse gallery. Here the mother and infant undergo a secondary bathing rite called ‘Betata’, literally ‘to drench’ or ‘sprinkle with water’. The mother and child are seated together on a gong (Tawak), covered by a ritual ‘Pua Kumbu’ cloth, at their family’s section of the upper gallery (ruai atas). Here they are individually touched with water by other longhouse members and the family’s guests from neighbouring communities. ‘Betata’ thus dramatizes the end of the mother’s and child’s confinement and their ritual reintegration into the community.

          In the series of rites that follows birth, beginning with ‘Bekindu’ and ending with ‘Betata’ each rite makes use of a different socially demarcated area of the longhouse and its surroundings. As a result, the series as a whole is constituted as an ordered movement through the longhouse community at large. 

          This movement ritually effects the progressive engagement of the newborn infant in an expanding series of social and ritual relationships — moving outward from the bilik to the longhouse and beyond to the larger river system that encompasses them both — and from confinement within the spiritually secure bilik apartment to location within an all-embracing, but increasingly dangerous cosmological order. 

          Spiritual danger is spatialized and through the ritual organization of the longhouse, this danger is progressively confronted as the infant journeys through the community, becoming in the end a source of efficacy and spiritual protection. Finally, these journeys are always, like the internal ordering of the longhouse itself, bidirectional, returning to the source from which they began. Thus they move from inside to outside the longhouse, to its veranda and river bathing place, then back inside again, first to the bilik, then to the communal gallery; hence, not upriver and downriver but along its opposite, life-symbolizing east–west coordinates.

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