The Iban Longhouse – by Stephen Anggat

The Iban Longhouse

The Iban are a vigorous, outwardly expansive people of West-Central Borneo who number some 400000 in the east Malaysian State of Sarawak. Despite increasing urban migration, the great majority live in longhouse settlements along the main rivers and smaller streams of the interior and subcoastal districts. Here most subsist by shifting hill-rice agriculture, supplemented by the cultivation of perennial cash crops, most notably rubber. All speak closely related dialects of a single Ibanic language, part of a larger complex of Bornean Malayic languages (see Adelaar 1985:1–5; Hudson 1970, 1977).[1] The Iban are divided internally into a number of major riverine groupings. Referred to as ‘tribes’ in the nineteenth century literature, each of these groupings comprises a loose territorial unit made up of longhouse communities arrayed along the same river or tributary system. The organization of Iban society is bilateral. Descent groups are lacking and marriage is preferentially endogamous within widely ramifying kindred networks. These networks characteristically extend throughout the river region and provide the organizational basis for a variety of individually organized, task-oriented groups (see Freeman 1960, 1961).

The present paper specifically deals with the Saribas Iban population that lives along the Paku River and its tributaries, between the Rimbas and upper Layar rivers, in the lower Second Division of Sarawak (Figure 1). Today, of a total Iban population of some 35000 in the Saribas, the Paku Iban number nearly 4000 and are divided between thirty-three longhouses, ranging in size from six to thirty-nine bilik-families, the mean number being 16.5 (see Sather 1978, 1985, 1988).

The longhouse (rumah) forms the principal local community (see Figure 2). In the Paku all longhouses are located along the banks of the main Paku River and its chief tributaries: the Bangkit, Anyut and Serudit streams. Structurally, each house consists of a series of family apartments arranged side by side. The same term bilik refers to both the longhouse apartment and the family group that occupies it. The bilik-family typically consists of three generations — grandparents, a son or daughter, his or her spouse and their children — with membership acquired by birth, marriage, incorporation or adoption (Freeman 1957). Fronting the biliks is a covered, unpartitioned gallery called the ruai. This runs the entire length of the house and, while divided into family sections (each built and maintained by an individual bilik family) the whole is available for communal use. The wall that separates the biliks from the ruai thus bisects the structure into two equal halves (Figure 3).

Hearths and Posts

Upriver, Downriver, Parts and Wholes

Trunk, Base and Tip

East and West

The Longhouse Bathing Place

Interior Architecture

The Ritual Use of Longhouse Space

Rites of Birth

Rites of Death

The Gawai Antu


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