Manang Bakak “Asu Rangka” of the Paku.
While serving a prison sentence at Simanggang Jail, Manang Bakak was said to have left his cell and wandered freely at night, returning again in the morning. This occurred when he was imprisoned in the late 1890s for attempted murder and for his attitude towards the government.
He was found guilty of using a friend’s spear in attempting to murder a
Trader and his wife at Nanga Sekundong in the Paku. Luckily his victims were only wounded. Suspicion fell strongly on him and led to his arrest and inprisonment in the Simanggang jail. While he was in jail, he left his cell and sat outside house at night. The Resident and other government officers were wondering how he was able to break open the strong iron door with his bare hands. In their amazement they considered him insane. After he did this several times, he was transferred to the Kuching jail.
Here he also came out of his cell at night to sit outside the building. But because he never ran away, the government pardoned him. At the Kuching jail Bakak was said to have broken the iron bars of the cell in which he was locked.
At one time according to these stories, he was called by the Rajah to the Astana grounds. Bakak came with his escort. Sir Charles Brooke told Bakak that he had heard that he was a strong man, and asked him to lift a huge iron cannon that stood in the grounds. Bakak immediately took hold of the cannon, raised it from the ground and asked the Rajah where he would like him to throw it. For himself he wanted to throw it into a deep pool in the Sarawak River off the Astana landing place. The Rajah merely asked him to put the cannon back, he was so puzzled to see such extraordinary strength.
After he had been released from prison, the mischievous Bakak unlawfully carried a flag of State op the Krian and down the Rimbas River. He informed the Iban of these rivers that the Rajah wanted all warriors to join a government war expedition to fight the Julau Iban. Of course, this was a false story, so the Resident of the Second Division, Mr. Bailey, ordered that Bakak be arrested. To carry out this order Tait, the brother of Penghulu Saang, accompanied by his brother M’eling and a certain Indit, went to arrest Bakak at Ulu Bayor, Rimbas, where he was hiding. As they knew that Bakak was a strong man, his companions asked Tait to catch him with the aid of a pelemah charm which would weaken him. When they reached the Ulu Bayor longhouse at midday they found that Bakak was sleeping in the headman’s house. Seeing this, Tait and his friends caught him with the pelemah charm, which made Bakak very weak, and brought him to Simanggang where he was again im¬prisoned.
Again, he behaved in strange ways, and at last he was seen eating his owe feces, But this action was of course not real; he did it by a conjuring trick. Later due to his escape from the prison house, he was released and declared an outlaw by the government. This meant that if anyone disturbed Bakak the government would not be responsible for the mischief done.
Once, while troops were staying at Simanggang while on their way to the Delok Cholera expedition in 1902, Bakak did an extraordinary thing which was witnessed by many in the Simanggang bazaar. He told a certain Chinese trader that all the iron bars he sold in his shop were soft and could not be used for making knives. Hearing this, the Chinese shopkeeper told Bakak he could take all the iron bars in his shop, if he could break them to pieces with his hands. Bakak took the iron bars one by one, and broke them by cutting them with two fingers. This action amazed all who witnessed it. The trader, who had promised to give all the iron bars to him if he could break them, fulfilled his promise. So Bakak took them and distributed them to those who had gathered to watch.
At one time about 80 Iban were stranded in Kuching, on their way home from tapping wild rubber in various places throughout the country. They had run short of money for paying their fares. Bakak, who was staying in Kuching, played various tricks in order to raise money to help them. He bought about twenty fathoms of white calico cloth which he hung across Carpenter Street. In between these curtains he demonstrated various kinds of magical tricks, such as turning a pingan leaf into a mouse-deer, a brass areca-nut box into a tortoise, and many other things into centipedes and snakes. Everyone who was attracted by these tricks had to pay two cents for a short glance into the enclosure where Bakak was performing his magic. From these tricks Bakak collected about $100/- which was enough for his friends to go home by the sailing schooners used in those early years of the century.
Bakak was a Saribas Iban, born at Tanjong, who lived at Beduru and Matop, Paku. From boyhood he had been interested in the secrets of the medicine men. Wherever he travelled in his bachelor days, he studied all branches of magic from famous manang or dukun wherever he could find them. Being learned in all these things, he was able to turn sireh leaves into dollar notes and white, red and black calico towels into white, red and black snakes.
When he was serving a sentence in the Baram prison for his involvement in the Asun affair, he went to cure a patient in an Iban longhouse at Nakat. Next morning his friend Kakat sent him back to the Baram bazaar by canoe in order that he might go back to the prison house. On the way, Kakat told Bakak that he had no money to buy food in the bazaar. Bakak told him not to worry for money came whenever anyone was in need of it. As they neared the town, Bakak asked Kakat to lend him the black towel which he wore around his waist. Kakat handed his towel to Bakak, who pronounced a spell (puchau) over it and threw it into the river. When they reached the landing stage at Marudi, they found that a great number of people were in panic. Bakak asked the reason. Someone told him that the son of a rich Chinese trader had been bitten by a black cobra near his father’s shop and had fallen un¬conscious. The man said that the boy’s father was looking for someone who could cure his son. Hearing this Bakak went to a shop to take some refreshments with Kakat. After the boy’s father was told that Bakak was in town he came to look for him. When he met him, he begged Bakak to see his son who was unconscious due to the snake bite. Bakak told him that he could not help him as he had never cured anyone of snake bite before. Finally, he let himself be persuaded to try to cure the trader’s son, and went to see the boy and read a spell (puchau) over the tiny wound on the boy’s leg. After this the boy became conscious and was well again shortly afterwards. In appreciation, the trader handed Bakak $60/-, as Bakak had expected. He knew that all this funny business would happen, because the black calico towel he had thrown into the river had become the black cobra, and he had sent it to bite the trader’s son, whom he had named in his spell. He gave this money to Kakat who needed it.
In his young days when he led a party of Iban rubber tappers to work at Mukah, he and his followers were invited to attend a tamat pencha festival, – a feast at which the penikar, or teacher, chooses the first, second and third class martial arts dancers. At the end of the feast the penikar invited Bakak’s men to compete with his students in the dance. Bakak agreed and asked his friends to enter the competition. After all the men had danced, the penikar suggested that Bakak should dance in opposition to him. Bakak agreed and he started to attack his opponent more roughly then the dance allowed. Due to the roughness of the battle dance they soon fell into open quarrelling. When the time came for Bakak to accept the blows of his opponent, he prevented his approach with a gayong dalam spell, which spiritually struck the liver of his opponent. Due to this, the quarrel became very bad and this caused a lot of trouble. In his anger, after his friends had left the house, Bakak pulled away the house ladder and threw it to the ground. Having done this, with his great strength he pulled down an areca palm which he placed upside down in place of the ladder. In fear of him, none of his opponents dared to say anything.
There are many other strange things that Bakak is said to have done to confuse people. He could cause a few glasses of wine never to be finished, even if drunk by several hundred people all day. The last time he did this was in 1943 at the end of a festival at the Batu Anchau cemetery on the Paku River.
During his time Bakak was a famous manang or shaman. He was especially renowned for the power and courage he showed in performing dangerous pelian in which he summoned demons, some of them in the form of monkeys, crocodiles, river-turtles, or barking deer. The demons, it was believed, caused sickness. When the demons he summoned appeared in a reptile or animal guise, Bakak was brave enough to fight them with a knife.
In the 1940s, on his way from Julau to his sister’s house at Matop in the Paku, Bakak was invited to perform a pelian for a sick woman at Penom. During the night’s performance the drinkers finished their wine and had no money to buy more from the Chinese boat-hawkers in the river nearby. Due to this, they begged for money from Bakak who was singing his pelian prayers while seated on a swing. Bakak asked for sir eh leaves from a man who sat near him, and the latter gave him all the sireh leaves he found in his areca nut box. Receiving these Bakak rolled them many times between his palms, chanting a spell, which turned the seven leaves the man had given him into dollar notes. With this money the young men bought bottles of wine from the Chinese hawkers. But a week later one of the traders complained that a strange thing had happened to him. “Someone,” he said, “mischievously threw sireh leaves into my money box.”
After Bakak was released from the Baram prison in about 1935 he returned to live at Pakan in the Julau River. From Julau he visited his relatives in the Paku once every few months till his last visit in 1955. Most of his lifetime was spent at Pakan. He died of old age at Matop, Paku in 1955, aged about 81 years.