How heads are smoked in Sarawak, Borneo?

James Ritchie: An Iban veteran tells how heads are smoked in Sarawak, Borneo
Written By: herbrunbridge – Jun• 07•10

James Ritchie

WoWasis correspondent James Ritchie on how headhunters smoke heads. You may also want to read: How Headhunting originated in Sarawak, Borneo and The religious basis for headhunting in Sarawak, Borneo .

TEMENGGONG Jinggut anak Atari, who is in his early 60s and is the titular chief of the Ibans in Kapit, has seen heads being taken during his lifetime. He claims that Iban soldiers lopped off the heads of communist terrorists during the Emergency.

Temenggong Jinggut, who was among the first Iban trackers recruited to fight the terrorists in Malaya, says: ”During the initial months of the Emergency in 1948, some Ibans hacked off the heads of the enemy, not knowing that it was an offence. In one instance in Perak, members of my unit were caught cutting off the heads of some communist terrorists.

“The British officer in charge reprimanded the offenders and ordered the heads to be stitched back to the corpses so that they could be photographed. ”After the incident several Gurkhas who had helped the Ibans were court martialled. We were warned not to do this again or we would face the same consequences.”

In 1965 during the Malaysian-Indonesian confrontation, Iban members of the security forces also took many heads. In one incident at least 30 enemy heads were taken in gunny sacks back to Sri Aman (then called Simanggang).

Temeoggong Jinggut says the only time he witnessed the smoking of a head was when he was a young man during the Japanese occupation. He says: “We had killed two Japanese soldiers. Their heads were taken to a longhouse just below Nanga Mujong (in the Baleh district) for the ceremony. Our heroes returned with the heads, walking the length of the longhouse ruai (the roofed verandah) past a long line of admiring spectators. After various rituals the heads were taken to the stream by an elderly and experienced expert in preserving heads.

“I noticed that the man first made a clean cut from under the chin and close to the jaw, right to the back of the head, removing the stump of the neck. He then proceeded to widen the occipital hole with the pointed end of his parang. He next sliced one end of a piece of rattan.

“He then placed the splayed end of the rattan strip into the occipital hole and dug out a bit of the brains. He placed it in some glutinous rice and swallowed quickly. He did not vomit. (If he were to throw up, the Ibans believe that the man would fall ill and die because his semangat (spirit) was weak).

“He then began cleaning out the hole with the rattan strip with a vigorous twisting and poking movement (Eike using a bottle brush) while holding the head in She water. In this way the soft matter was -easily washed away by the water and removed.”

After that the expert removed the eyes of the victims with his parang (sometimes the eyes are not removed, in which case leaves are placed to cover the eyes so that they will not bulge or pop out during smoking). The heads were then wrapped in several large scented leaves gathered from the river bank, and tied with rattan strips. The heads had to be tied properly so that the jaws would not fall off. The heads were hung on a bamboo rack, consisting of a horizontal pole with both ends attached to a pair of angled uprights tied together and smoked for three days until they were completely dried out. During the smoking of the heads more ceremonies were held.

James Ritchie worked with the New Straits Times for 25 years, before joining the Sarawak Civil Service as a Consultant Public Relations Officer in the Chief Minister’s Department in 1998. He writes for the Sarawak Tribune, Borneo Post, and The Malaysian Today. A prolific writer on Sarawak affairs, he has written hundreds of newspaper articles and authored or co-authored about 15 books, including Man-eating Crocodiles of Borneo, Bruno Manser: the Inside Story, Mystical Borneo, Changes and Challenges: Sarawak 1963-1998, and Tun Ahmad Zaidi, Son of Sarawak. He has won numerous journalistic honors including the prestigious Shell-Kenyaland Award.

For more James Ritchie on headhunting, visit these two WoWasis posts:

How Headhunting originated in Sarawak, Borneo

The religious basis for headhunting in Sarawak, Borneo


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