Where is Bukit Rabong Menoa?

I am grateful to Martin Baier and Herwig Zahorka for pointing out some current discrepancies in the topographic mapping of Kalimantan–particularly with regard to mountains–their names, locations, and elevations.

Their Brief Communications remind me of a difficulty i encountered, myself, in the course of working with Iban shamans (manang) in the Saribas region of western Sarawak. The difficulty concerns a seemingly problematic mountain which local shamans and others call Bukit Rabong (alt. sp. Rabung). The term rabong, by itself, means, literally, ‘highpoint,’ ‘apex,’ or ‘summation.’ In its more abstract noun form, as perabong, it signifies ‘zenith’–hence, Saribas shamans often describe Bukit Rabong as being located directly beneath, or itself forming, at its top, the perabong langit, literally, the ‘zenith of the sky.’ It is said that the summit of Bukit Rabong, in fact, connects with the sky (langit) and so, for Saribas shamans, with the home of the upperworld gods, most importantly Menjaya and his sister Ini’ Inda, both of whom are closely associated with shamanism, and, the latter, with the initiation of novice shamans. This ritual initiation (bebangun), which is enacted by living shamans in this world, is said to take place, in actuality, unseen, on the ‘summit’ (tuchong) of Bukit Rabong (see Sather 2001: 29).


Bukit Rabong is associated not only with shamans, but also with death. Like most places identified with death, Bukit Rabong is thought to have both a physical presence in ‘this world’ (lit., dunya tu’), that is to say, in the ordinary visible world of everyday life, as well as an invisible counterpart presence, unseen to us, as living human beings, in the afterworld. For the Saribas Iban, Bukit Rabong is, more specifically, the place to which the ‘souls’ (semengat) of dead shamans journey after death and, thereafter, the place where their ‘spirits’ (antu) are thought to make their home in the Iban afterworld. As one Saribas shaman, the late Manang Bangga of Muton Ionghouse, put it, Bukit Rabong is, in essence, ‘the land of the shamans’ souls’ (menoa semengat manang) (see Sather 2001 : 116). In this sense, Bukit Rabong precisely parallels Batang Mandai, which, for the Saribas Iban, is the place to which the souls of ordinary human beings (iban, as opposed to manang) (1) journey after death. The Batang Mandai also has a physical presence in this world–in this case, as the Mandai River, a southern tributary of the Kapuas in West Kalimantan (also known to Saribas manang as the Batang Mandai Idup, ‘the Mandai River of the Living’), as well as an invisible afterworld counterpart (Batang Mandai Mati, ‘the Mandai River of the Dead’) along which the spirits and souls of the great majority of Iban are said to make their home after death.

Today, when a death occurs, most Saribas Iban perform a simple Christian burial and prayer service. This was not the case, however, in the 1970s and 80s, when I began fieldwork, and elsewhere I have described “traditional” Saribas Iban death rituals as I observed them during those years (Sather 2003). The significant point here is that both Bukit Rabong and Batang Mandai loomed large in these rituals and in the ways in which the living, in this world, continued to interact with the dead.

The Saribas region, comprising the present-day Betong Division, is located some distance from the West Kalimantan border. Consequently, very few Saribas Iban have traveled to Kalimantan and I never met anyone who claimed to have been to either Bukit Rabong or the Mandai River. Stories are told, however, of men who are said to have traveled to these places in the past in order to obtain pengaroh (charms) directly from the dead. In these stories, many fail to return, while others bring back charms which in time become family pesaka (inherited wealth). Considerable secrecy surrounds pengaroh, however, and 1 never met anyone who acknowledged owning such charms. People I spoke with, including manang, expressed considerable uncertainty about where Bukit Rabong and Batang Mandai are located, but nearly all were sure that these places exist in a physical form somewhere in West Kalimantan. The main trunk road that now connects the Saribas with Kuching runs in several places very close to the Kalimantan border and here, at higher elevations, Bukit Rabong is said to be visible on the distant horizon from the Sarawak side of the border. Moreover, it is readily recognizable. It has a distinctive shape, with steep sides and a high bulging summit that is described by Saribas shamans and others, including persons who say that they have seen it, as exactly resembling a tawak or agong gong when seen in profile (Sather 2001:117). According to the late Benedict Sandin, the former Curator of the Sarawak Museum, and several other Saribas authorities, Bukit Rabong rises from the true left bank of the Mandai River. This fits closely with descriptions from Saribas chants which depict the journey of the shamans’ souls up rapids from the Mandai River. From the head of these rapids the souls jump to the summit of Mount Rabong (Tuchong Rabong).

On the other side of the border, the presence of the Mandai River has never been in question. Bukit Rabong, on the other hand, is a different matter. 1 was never able to locate a mountain of that name on maps of West Kalimantan. If it exists, as most people assured me that it did, including those who had actually seen it from afar, it must be either unrecorded on maps or known to Indonesian cartographers by another name. But what name? And where precisely is it located?

For people in the Saribas, including even manang, these questions, for all practical purposes, have no particular significance. The physical mountain cannot be seen from where they live, and, in any case, it is the invisible, not the this-worldly mountain, that matters.

In time, I came to think about Bukit Rabong in pretty much the same way. That is, until one day, four or five years ago, when I was working in the Research Section of the Tun Jugah Foundation’s offices in Kuching. The secretary came to my desk and said that 1 had a visitor. The visitor turned out to be an amateur ethnographer named Roland Werner who had published, several years earlier, a book on the art and material cultural of the Jah-het, an Orang Asli community in peninsular Malaysia. He was visiting Sarawak and had read my book on Saribas Iban shamanism (Words of Play, Seeds of Power, 2001). He had a question for me. He then produced a map of Kalimantan and asked me to locate Bukit Rabong. He had searched the map himself and couldn’t find it where I had indicated that it should presumably exist. I told him that I had experienced the same difficulty. If the mountain had, indeed, been mapped, which, to me, wasn’t at all a certainty, then it must be known to Indonesian map-makers by a different name. This wouldn’t be surprising, as the area in which it is said to be located is not inhabited by the Iban, but by other ethnic groups. Moreover, from where I did my fieldwork, Bukit Rabong couldn’t be seen at all. None of the shamans I worked with had ever been there, nor, for that matter, did they express any particular interest in the physical, this-worldly mountain. Instead, their concern, as practicing shamans, was with its invisible otherworldly counterpart. Here, they said the spirit shamans (petara manang) live who assist them as spirit companions in their healing performances, including, among them, the spirits of formerly living shamans. And here, their own souls would eventually find a home.

Indeed, manang when they refer to Bukit Rabong in rituals are not always referring to an actual mountain, even an otherworldly one. Individual rituals are called pelian and each pelian contains a sung component called the leka pelian, meaning, literally, ‘the gist’ or ‘seeds of the pelian.’ In describing the leka pelian, one must necessarily enter a riddle-like speech domain described as jako’ dalam, literally, ‘deep speech,’ in which words typically have multiple meanings. References to Bukit Rabong occur frequently in the leka pelian. For example, in the final lines of nearly all leka pelian, the manang sings of leaping into the air, together with his spirit companions, and of alighting on the summit of Bukit Rabong. In the course of performing a pelian, the shaman is believed to send out his ‘soul’ (semengat), which, together with his spirit helpers (yang) and other spirit companions, performs, unseen, the actual work of the pelian. In these concluding lines, Bukit Rabong refers not only to a mountain, but also to the top of the head, more specifically, to the bubun aji, the ‘anterior fontanelle,’ through which the human soul is believed to enter and leave the body. At one level, then, these lines describe the return of the manang’s soul to his body, as well as, very often, the return of his patient’s soul which the manang has succeeded in recovering. At the same time, the words also describe the return of the shaman’s spirit companions to the top of Bukit Rabong.

I’m afraid my visitor found all of this less than satisfactory. His own interests, as far as I could make out, were exclusively with physical mountains, magnetic directions, and the material objects, including crystals, used for curing.

Shortly after this, I began to work on a long essay on Saribas Iban ancestors and concepts of ancestorship for a panel, “Ancestors in Borneo,” which Kenneth Sillander and Pascal Couderc were then organizing for the BRC biennial meetings in Kuching. Writing the paper brought me back once again to the question of Bukit Rabong. The fact that the souls of deceased shamans travel to a separate afterworld and that, from there, their spirits enter into quite different relationships with the living than the spirits of the ordinary dead, meant that it was necessary to treat deceased shamans as a separate category of “ancestors.” Differences are marked in many ways. For example, during burial, the orientation of the body in the grave is reversed for shamans; with the head oriented so that it points upriver, rather than downriver. Summing up these differences, I wrote in my essay (“Recalling the Dead, Revering the Ancestors”):

   While the souls and spirits of the ordinary dead are believed to
   travel downriver (kili') to Sebayan, those of dead shamans travel,
   by contrast, upriver (kulu), to a separate afterworld of their own
   located on the summit of Mount Rabong. In Sebayan, the ordinary
   dead are believed to live along an invisible river known as the
   Mandai ... Like a number of other Borneo peoples, the Iban believe
   that this river has a visible counterpart in the living world, also
   known as the Mandai ... Mount Rabong, too, has a visible
   counterpart, but its location is less certain. From their abode at
   the summit of Mount Rabong, the spirits of ancestral shamans play a
   notably different role [in the affairs of the living] than the
   spirits of ordinary ancestors. While the latter are concerned with
   renewing and strengthening the lives of the living, the former are
   more specifically involved in the ritual work and initiation of
   living shamans. Thus during curing rituals, they are regularly
   invoked ... as spirit companions. Many shamans take [their] name
   ... as their shamanic title (julok) and some of these spirits act
   as personal spirit helpers. The top of Mount Rabong is said to be
   directly accessible to the upperworld ... [and here,] according to
   myth, Ini' Inda [one of the principal shamanic gods] initiated the
   first human shamans ... Since then.... she carries out these same
   rites [whenever] ... novice shamans undergo initiation in this
   world. In the process, the ancestral shamans assist as spirit
   companions and bestow upon the newly initiated novices charms and
   ritual paraphernalia.

The late Reed Wadley and I were regular email correspondents during this time. I shared with him several earlier drafts of the ancestors essay and benefitted greatly from his comments. In the course of our correspondence, the question of Bukit Rabong’s possible location came up a number of times. In September 2007, Reed was in West Kalimantan. Here, he asked a number of local Iban about Bukit Rabong. On September 17, 2007, he wrote by email:

   You're going to love this, Cliff: According to an aka' [editor:
   honorific term for an older friend] in Lanjak (who would know),
   Bukit Rabong is in Sarawak; where exactly he didn't know

As in the Ulu Paku, where I did my own fieldwork, so, too, in the Emperan, where Reed worked, people seemed equally uncertain about the location of Bukit Rabong. However, from the area around Lanjak, near the Sarawak border, Bukit Rabong is sometimes visible, although at a great distance. In the same letter, Reed went on to write:

   It would seem that Bukit Rabong stays quite firmly on [the] edge of
   visibility. I wonder though if in the past, when Sarawak Iban would
   have been traveling more into West Borneo and more knowledgeable
   about its geography, these sacred sites were equally removed from
   visibility. I think it's only been with the creation of Malaysia
   and its extraordinary economic success that has kept Sarawak Iban
   on their own side of the border and thus led to a diminution of
   geographical knowledge. During the Dutch period, there seems to be
   an almost ubiquitous presence of lban from Sarawak in places up and
   down the Kapuas, either raiding (early on) or working. Bukit Rabong
   might have been a little farther removed back then, on the edge of
   geographic awareness.

Here, I think, Reed makes several valuable points. First, there was almost certainly more travel in the past by Sarawak Iban into what is now West Kalimantan. This is well attested to by Saribas oral traditions, not only by stories of men traveling to the Mandai River and neighboring mountains to obtain pengaroh, but also accounts of raiding, trading expeditions, and return migrations (cf. Sandin 1994). Second, as the Iban have moved and expanded over time, it is possible that the mountain identified by local Iban groups as Bukit Rabong may have changed as well–but always preserving its location on the periphery of visibility. This is suggested by the leka pelian in which the manang frequently describe Bukit Rabong, tellingly, as “famed Rabong Summit visible from afar’ (Tuchong Rabong tampak benama, see Sather 2001: 422).

Later Reed passed on some of this correspondence to Michael Eilenberg, a Danish anthropologist who was then traveling in West Kalimantan. Michael climbed Bukit Seberuang, just above the town of Lanjak, West Kalimantan, and from there took the photograph that appears below (Photo 1), which he sent to Reed as an email attachment. Reed, in an email message to me dated Monday, December 10, 2007, sent on a copy of Michael’s photo. Reed’s accompanying message read as follows:

   Cliff, I wonder if I've just found Bukit Rabong, or at least the
   possibility of it. See the attached jpg photo, taken by Michael
   Eilenberg from Bukit Seberuang right abo[ve] the town of Lanjak:

   Looking up to the upper left corner, you can see a mountain in the
   shape of a tawak, right on the edge of [the] horizon. I don't know
   what the mountain's name is, but Sellato would know--that's his
   people's menoa. But damned if that might [not] be the one!


The direction in which the photo is taken, with Bukit Rabong on the far left, toward the Mandai River, does, indeed, orient it generally toward the country (menoa) of the Aoheng and Ot Danum, people studied by the anthropologist Bernard Sellato. I wrote to Bernard at once, sending him a copy of Michael’s photograph. I received Bernard’s email reply soon after, on Thursday, December 13, 2007:

   Dear Cliff,

   Would that be Gunung Tilung, Tevilung, Tebilung? A sacred mountain
   to all uppermost Kapuas people, precisely because of its shape, and
   assumed by some to be the abode of the souls of the dead ...

   All the best, BS

In a second email, sent December 17, 2007, Bernard confirmed that Gunung Tilung is, indeed, visible from the Sarawak side of the border and so, given its distinctive shape, is very likely the same mountain that several Saribas Iban had told me that they had seen while traveling along the border and which they identified as Bukit Rabong. He also attached a photograph of Gunung Tilung, which appears as Photo 4 in his book, Hornbill and Dragon (1989, see Photo 2 below). The photo itself was taken near Putussibau. As he added in a subsequent note (December 21):

   Gunung Tilung or Tevilung, as far as I am aware, is where all the
   (ordinary) dead go ... Since it is fairly visible from Putussibau,
   where many groups came to trade, as my photo shows, as well as from
   the Sarawak border area, as [Michael's] photo shows, no wonder its
   shape has left a lasting impression on all people residing in or
   passing by those areas.


Continuing, he goes on to suggest,

   Possibly, the Sarawak Iban, who could only see it from afar, made
   the mountain the abode of dead shamans, while most local groups,
   like the Taman, Maloh, etc., view it as the abode of all dead

Concluding his note of December 17, 2007, Bernard additionally wrote, “I’m pretty sure it’s the same mountain. Many groups, beyond [the] upper Kapuas region know of it.” (2) Referring to what he describes as a “pretty poor” APA map of Borneo, he adds, “On my map, it is called Gunung Liang Sunan (987m) and is indeed on the Mandai (left bank).”


In his message of December 21, Bernard makes another point, which, I think, has considerable bearing on the possible significance of Bukit Rabong, not only for the Iban, but for other groups as well. Neither the Mandai River nor Bukit Rabong exist within an area of present-day Iban settlement. Although the Saribas iban trace their origins back through an extensive body of oral traditions to the middle and upper Kapuas, except for what is described by some accounts as a brief transit by way of the mouth of the Mandai, neither the Mandai River nor Bukit Rabong are regarded by the Iban as places of origin or even significant past settlement. While both clearly exist, as landmarks within the Iban cognative world, they occupy or define its outer peripheries, existing, as Wadley aptly put it, at the edge of Iban geographical awareness. As Sellato suggests in his note, Mount Rabong, Tilung, Tevilung, or whatever it is called by local groups, may be seen as peripheral, or boundary defining, in an even more fundamental sense. Thus, he writes (December 21, 2007):

   Actually, the interesting thing with this otherwise not especially
   interesting mountain is the fact that it stands right at the triple
   point between the territories of three major ethno-cultural
   clusters: Iban and Ibanic to the W and NW, Ot Danum and other
   Barito-speaking peoples to the S, and "central Borneo" (in the
   Rousseau sense) and nomads to the E--plus Tamanic to the N. So, no
   wonder, either, that it appears in the oral traditions ... of people
   living quite far away, such as the Berawan, although, of course,
   those could never have seen it themselves and have learned about it
   [only] from others.

While we are dealing here with a mountain that, in one way or another, is sacred to many people in Borneo, it is not entirely clear, at this stage, that all of these people are referring to the same mountain, although, as Sellato says, this seems highly probable. Equally uncertain is the question of whether this mountain is the same as the map-maker’s Gunung Liang Sunan. Here I would repeat Martin Baler’s call for a systematic review of the physical geography of Kalimantan as a way of reaching some definite answer.

Sandin, Benedict 1967 The Sea Dayaks of Borneo before White Rajah Rule. London: Macmillan.

1994 Sources of Iban Traditional History. Special Monograph No. 7, Sarawak Museum Journal.

Sather, Clifford 2001 Seeds of Play, Words of Power: An Ethnographic Study of Iban Shamanic Chants. Kuching: Tun Jugah Foundation and the Borneo Research Council.

2003 Transformations of self and community in Saribas Iban death rituals. In: William D. Wilder, ed., Journeys of the Soul: Anthropological studies of death, burial and reburial practices in Borneo. Phillips: Borneo Research Council, Monograph, 7, pp. 175-247.

2004 The Iban. In: Ooi Keat Gin, ed., Southeast Asia. A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC Clio Press, Vol. 2, 623-625.

Forthcoming: Recalling the Dead, Revering the Ancestors: Multiple forms of ancestorship in Saribas Iban society. In: Kenneth Sillander and Pascal Couderc, eds., Ancestors in Borneo Societies: Death, Transformation, and Social Immortality. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

Sellato, Bernard 1989 Hornbill and Dragon. Singapore: Sun Tree.

Clifford Sather

Editor, BRB 


(1) This use of the term iban. meaning “layperson” or, simply, “human being.’ is the most likely source of the modern ethnonym (cf. Sather 2004: 623).

(2) One such group that Sellato mentioned in his note are the Berawan. Thus, Sellato writes that Gunung Tilung “‘is even mentioned in Berawan texts given by Metcalf in Where are you/spirits?. although Metcalf did not recognize it as an actual mountain–he was so engrossed in his speaking-in-pairs stuff that he believed that all names mentioned in Berawan texts were just plat terms or names fabricated for the sake of rhymes, the interesting thing being that the Berawan here demonstrate that they know a lot of toponyms from regions far away from theirs.” Sellato touched on these matters in his review of Metcalf published in L ‘Homme (1991, vol. 120. XXXI, 4: 124-26).

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