The Iban Longhouse and their activities

The Iban Longhouse at the Sarawak Cultural Village provides a fascinating glimpse of the Iban tribe. The Ibans are the largest tribe in Sarawak. They constitute 29.2% of the state’s population. The Ibans are also called “Sea Dayaks” for they live along the lower reaches of most major rivers in Sarawak. Originally animists, Ibans are now mostly Christians. The Ibans live in longhouses, which is a row of family rooms connected by a long communal verandah.

Ibans celebrate many festivals, called Gawai, which follow the farming cycle. In addition, minor illnesses may require performing a ceremony to heal it, while weddings and funerals call for a more elaborate affair.

The biggest festivals for the Ibans, such as Gawai Kenyalang or hornbill festival, and Gawai Antu or festival for the departed are rarely staged, for they require long preparation and expense.

The Ibans’ Gawai Antu may happen only once every generation, or even more likely, once a century. If it happens at all, it usually takes place in November or December. Central to this Iban festival is the construction of a small, beautifully carved hut called sungkup which is placed in the graveyards. Made of belian ironwood, the sungkup is roughly 6 ft long by 4 ft wide, and 3 ft high, with curved wings on the ends of the roof, from which baskets are tied. The festival includes one night of ritual weeping.

The Iban womenfolk are gifted at weaving. They produce artistic textiles using the wrap-ikat technique. This technique calls for threads to be tied and dyed before weaving. One use of this technique is in the making of the Iban ceremonial cloth called the Pua Kumbu.

Until a few generations ago, the Ibans still practised headhunting. Indeed, an Iban man was not considered eligible for marriage until he had produced this gruesome token of courage. The Ibans have a whole set of words connected to headhunting – bedengah means having taken an enemy’s head, udah ngerok means having scrapped the brain from the enemy skull, and tau nasak is a person who has done all that.

In the assembly of Iban tribal elders, a person with many heads is reverred as a wise counsellor. The prize heads are hanged over small fireplaces in the Iban longhouse verandah, displayed for all to see and form their own conclusion. Offerings are made to these severed heads during festivals, for the Ibans believe that properly placated heads bring blessings while neglected ones may summon misfortune.

In addition to the heads, the Pua Kumbu, the gongs and cannon, one prized possession among the Ibans and many other Borneo tribes are Martaban jars. These are usually made in China, though the name cames from the Gulf of Martaban in Myanmar. These massive jars are Iban family heirloom and are highly valued. Some believe that they carry magical properties, able to cure illnesses or summon spirtis when gently struck. Some are said to emit a human sound to warn their owners of impending disasters.


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