The Mysterious Iban – A Living Tradition

The Mysterious Iban
A Living Tradition
The very mention of Sarawak (north-west of Borneo Island) brings to mind images of mysterious jungles, headhunters and Iban longhouses. Indeed the land of the White Rajahs is far cry from the teeming metropolis of many busting Asian cities but, given just half the chance, this exotic destination will grow on you.

The Iban were friendly and hospitable, majority of Sarawak population, especially in the lowlands, living mostly in longhouses along the main rivers and their tributaries. They were Christians but still maintain their strong cultural identity and heritage., which keep to their traditional beliefs whereby reverence is paid to mythical and legendary heros and deities. Traditionally Ibans used dreams and bird augury as a means to determine whether or when to commence an important undertaking.

Iban have many festivals called ‘Gawai’. There are the ‘Gawai Kenyalang’ (hornbill festival), ‘Gawai Antu’ (festival for the dead) and ‘Gawai Dayak’ (harvesting festival). During such festivals, besides the customary observance of ritual, there is usually much drinking of the locally brewed rice wine called ‘tuak’, much merriment and dancing called ‘ngajat’ and displays of elaborate traditional costumes. Please bare in mind that whenever you visit a longhouse, at the enterance you will be given a glass of tuak for warm welcoming and never say no because if you resist you are not respecting their kind offer.

As regards their material culture, they are well known for their textile weaving, woodcarving and weaving of intricate mats & baskets. Their valued creactivity & artistic skills in both men & women. A well rounded Iban man would not only be eloquent in argument, strong & courageous in male pursuits like hunting & war, but would also be skilful in the use of adze & knife. With these two implements he is able to fashion wood into all kind of objects and particularly into those which gladden the eye and help to mediate between mortal man & extraterrestial spirits which bring both harm & good to Iban. Any Iban man possessing all these qualities could be expected to play a major role in longhouse affairs. As a young unmarried man, he would be regarded by both parents and young girls as a very desirable & eligible bachelor.

An Iban boy starts to use the implements of th wood-worker and carver from an early age. He gains his first lessons through observational learning.The gallery of an Iban longhouse is an open area in which men talk and ply their skills. Often the skill is exhibited in the carving of some subjects. Well before the age of five, young boys will imitate their fathers, grandfathers or men well disposed to them. They would use a blunt duku (all purpose Iban sword). As a boy enters into adolescence, he starts to caarve objects such as toys for younger siblings to test his emerging skills. Those who show little skill or talents quickly desist out of fear that derision would greet their paltry offerings. In contrast, the gifted continue to hone their skills, probably decorating the head of their first perau (longboat) with some abstract figure, carving the decorated paddle to use on ceremonial ocassions, and armlets to enchance their good looks when they dance. Carving would use abstract mofits at this period of a boy’s apprenticeship. For the Iban, the carving of any figure represented something powerful in spirit world. Consequently, when a person carved such a figure, he would enter into a close relationship with that particular spirit. In this process the spirit would get to know him and thus know how to attack him if provoked or if it felt so inclined. Only a man of experience and spiritual strength therefore, would be able to resist the powerful presence of the spirit he was trying to represent. Being experienced, he would also have acquired a number of charms which would help him to resist the presence of spirit and any aggressive act perpetrated by it.

The aspiring young male would probably come to the general attention of a longhouse for the first time when he etched a bamboo for a girlfriend. The fact that etching bamboos first occurs early in an artist’s career might help to explain why motifs are usually stylised patterns of common flora and therefore purely decorative. Only rarely are figures found on Iban decorated bamboos. They usually found on the staffs of lemambang (Iban bards who recite the sagas of the gods at festivals) and therefore would be carved by experienced men.

Decorated bamboo containers are sign of a bachelor’s affection for a young, unattached women as well as being a mark of his own accomplishment and refinement. Traditionally, the Iban have a highly developed and refined process of wooing nayap which take a prospective couple from initial interest to a love affair and thance, if enduring, to eventual mariage. As an affair starts, the bachelor will fashion a pair of jew’s harps ruding and accompanying by her bedside so that the pair can play love songs to each other at night. A really gifted person might take the jew’s harps out of brass.

Once an affair progresses beyond the first largely physical attraction, the young man carves a decorated bamboo container as a permanent token of his affection. The is designed to hold weaving equipment like bodkins. Such a gift spurs the woman to weave some small object to reciprocate the token of affection and to demonstrate her skills at the loom. Weaving is the skill most desired in a woman because it enables her to produce the beautiful textiles which men wrap themselves in for sleep. The textiles, because the designs are given to women by the gods through the medium of dreams, are objects concieved in heaven. They therefore help the man’s soul to travel to the heavens when the body is asleep and obtain the right dreams to ensure success in his endeavours. Carving is equally important for a man because it demonstrates a capacity to make almost all the objects an Iban needs to survive and prosper in a very harsh environment. A skill in working wood also demonstrates that a man would be able to carve the kinds of figures which would protect a growing family from the ravages of the many malevolent spirits which share the world with the Iban. For the Iban, an ideal is for a gifted carver to marry an accomplished weaver. Such a union, by the very nature of the objects it is able to produce, would be amply blessed by the gods.

On marriage, the Iban groom either moves to his wife’s family or the bride moves to the husband’s family. In either case, where accomplished carver and weaver join in matrimony, one of th first task of the husband is to make a set of weaving equipment for his new wife so that she no longer has to borrow her mother’s. For the Iban, beautiful equipments is much more likely to inspire beautiful weaving that purely utilitarian equipment. Every weaver when performing her craft, likes to be seen with beautiful equipment. It enhances her beauty; beautiful equipment produces an aura of confidence in the woman which helps to release all her creactive power. The result is a textile of great beauty to complement the beauty of both the woman and the equipment she uses to make it.

The confidence of a woman is also important in another realm. Weaving, because of its central importance, must be guarded against the acts of mischievous and malevolent spirits, particularly when the woman is absent either at work or when sleeping. Consequently, a man will carve strong protective figures on pieces of equipment – especially those which are permenantly attached to the yarn – in particular on the spinning wheel to protect the undyed yarns and on the warp beam to protect the developing pattern.

For the weaver, the two most important and personal pieces of equipment are the beater belia which sometimes can also have protective designs on it and the shuttle jengkuan. The belia is usually carved out of tapang, a jungle hardwood of exceptional strength which, with use, develops a very smooth surface and attractive polished patina. Again, like decorated bamboos, the fact that both implements are normally first carved early in marriage, before a man is usually regarded as sufficiently exprience to carve figure, might explain why designs on both of these implements are purely decorative foliate scrolls and arabesques. A third important decorated piece of weaving equipment is the bobkin which would be kept in the bamboo container carved at the outset of the love affair and which is used by the weaver to pick out the threads while working on a supplementary weave called sungkit.

About two years after marriage, especially if a child has been born, the couple will move out of the parental apartment to start its own bilik (strictly a bilik is an apartment in a long house but the word also denotes a discrete family unit within a longhouse). The new bilik family takes only personal belonging from the parental bilik. The personal belongings include the weaving equipment made by the husband, but little else.

It is the man’s role to protect his family and fields from terrstial and extraterrestial pests & predators. By the time he has established his own bilik, the Iban male would have embarked on a long journey (berjalai) in which he would have been away from his longhouse for a substantial amount of time. On his expedition he would have striven to earn a significant amount of money so that he would be able to return to his longhouse with some tangible reward for his enterprise, like an old chinese jar or a gong. A hundred years ago, a man establishing his bilik would also have been on a raiding party which, if successful, would have resulted in his returning with trophy heads and other booty. In the course of all these adventures and other experiences, he would have acquired a number of charms. Some would make him invulnerable to the darts of enemies, others successful in his ventures, immune to sickness, eloquuent in arguing a case in his dispute, or irresistable to women. His maturity, success and resourcefulness would ensure his ability to carve the figures of powerful spirits which would be called upon to protect him and his immediate family from the malevolent.

Spirits and individuals of evil intent, like humans, normally enter into a bilik through the front door. Protection then is best afforded by carving powerful figures on the door into a bilik. While there are many designs carved on Iban doors, the most common one is in relief on a two-pannelled door. Down the centre of each panel is extended a twin tailed crocodile with twin pythons coiled along each side. Between the open fangs of the python and the head of the crocodile is a frog place there to serve as food for these voracious reptilian spirits in the belief that should no food be provided, the hungry spirits might turn and feast on the inmates of the apartment. Crocodile and python are both reptiles of immense power in the Iban spirit world.

Farming is a critically important activity for the Iban because it provides the substance which keeps a family alive. The young head of a new bilik family might decorate two pieces of farming equipment used in the planting and the harvesting of padi. He would carve a dibbling stick out of hardwood with a clapper as an integral part of the shaft. He might also carve the harvesting knife with some decorative design.

As important to protect as the bilik are the fields in which the family will grow its very sustenance and the bins in which the harvested padi is stored. Protection is secured by carving two kinds of figure called agom. Each has a similar purpose; to guard the padi. Agom are small carved figures placed either on the pathways leading to padi fields or in lofts where the harvested padi is stored. The two kinds of agom are quite distinct in form.

Agom are figures carved on pointed stakes. They are inserted into the ground after the padi has been planted at a ritual called pemali umai. In this ritual, offerings are made to the gods, a hen is killed to purify the ground and all those taking part, an elder calls on the gods to make this a bountiful harvest and curses all evil spirits which attack growing padi. The agom is usually placed in the ground on a pathway leading to the field or, together with others provided by other bilik beside a path leading to the main body of fields. The spirit of the agom then either singly or en masse attacks all malevolent spirits which might be found in the vicinity of a padi field.

Most agom are carved quickly, simply and crudely. When carving an agom, the carver follows the instructions of Pulang Gana, the Iban god of fertility and of the earth. He carves them in the form of a human being with head, arms and legs and dresses them appropriately to their sex. Male agom are given arms. Those that clearly are carved for effect tend to be carved in the hunkered squatting position so popular in Iban figurative carving. They are clothed and given arms when placed in situ. Most have teeth bared in wide voracious grins to frighten and consume malevolent spirits caught in the vicinity of a farm. The figures also frequently display a peculiar characteristic often found in Iban carving. They have their sexual members carved on the post below the squatting body.

Pulang Gana’s instructions about the agom which guards the stored padi are equally clear. First the carver hews the rough form of the agom. He then must make an offering to the gods to ensure that the powers of the agom are in no way circumscribed. If these rites are not held, like its counterpart guarding the paths to the padi fields, the agom would completely ineffective (ala gulu-incmpletely made). In such a case the carver would find himself a mortal danger from the malformed spirit of the agom . Once the ritual has been held, the carving becomes an agom and part of the heirloom property of a household. It is cared for in much the same way as other belongings of value and people are expected to treat it with respect.

Agom which are placed in the lofts of a longhouse are quite different in form from their counterparts guarding the fields. However, they are also dressed according to their sex. Male agom wear loincloths and carry spears and swords. Female agom wear skirts and carry small seed baskets. They are placed in the loft either on the floor beside a padi bin or in the bin itself, where they are usually accompanied by a dried fish.

One of the purposes of these agom is to protect the harvested padi from the malevolent spirits of animals like rats and of insects like weevils which eat stored padi. Their principal purpose, however, is to protect the belongings and padi of the household from tau tepang (usually translated as ‘people with the evil eye who ruin everything and anything they look at’). Tau tepang are the living Iban invariably from the poorer strata of Iban society, who project loss and failure onto the successful. Because they are poor and lack success, they hunger after padi.

Tau tepang operate by detaching their heads from their bodies at night. These voracious appendages go off in search of padi and other food. In the absent of any agom guarding the padi, the heads are able to gain access to the padi bins where, it is said, they fill two or three large baskets of padi taking them to a kind of perch they have constructed below the longhouse. There they gorge themselves until satiated.

Agom prevent tau tepang from gaining these evil ends. They can adopt the character of baya (crocodile) or menarat (monitor lizard), both fiercesome reptiles from the underworld. With the ability to adopt these characteristics, they are able to guard a family’s belongings effectively. Equally importantly, they prevent the wandering heads from invading the slaves of a household and turning them into tau tepang. The dead fish placed in a padi bin complements the agom. With its all-seeing eye (the one uppermost), it prevents a tau tepang from being able to see the padi stored there. It is also able to watch the head return from whence it came. With this knowledge, the household believing itself to be disturbed by a tau tepang is able to curse the ‘bilek’ of the wandering head and attack the bilek family at the source.

As the couple’s children begin to walk and enter into their mischevous early years, they run the risk of endangering themselves if they do not need their parents’ or caretaker’s admonishments. A concerned father carves one or two wooden masks. Known as indai guru (literally, mother teacher), the masks are used to frighten naughty children. The indai guru resides in the loft. Like the witch, or Rosina Sugarfoot in Hansel and Gretel, she gobbles up little children. The masks are usually worn by an older woman whose immediate family has no young children (so young children never happen upon a bodiless mask). She would put up on the mask and cover her hair with a cloth. With no part of her person visible she would then peer out from the opening into the loft and moan at the child. Most children are transfixed with fear at seeing the apparition and immediately cease doing what they were doing and run for protection to a parent or caretaker.

Indai guru masks vary from the painted cross-section of a gourd to intricately carved and painted wooden masks. Traditionally they were stained black with the outline of eyes, forehead and mouth picked out in white lime. Most have two things in common: wide staring eyes and an open mouth with teeth bared and lips everted. Great prominence is usually given to the teeth.

After carving his figures, the skilful carver could now test his talents at carving a tuntun, the piece which came to epitomise a truly gifted artist. Tuntun essentially are utilitarian and prosaic objects crafted to set the trip wire of a pig trap at the correct height. To ensure that the trap is successful in its purpose of attracting and killing a pig, the Iban carve a figure at the top of the shaft. When animated, the tuntun operates in the spirit world enticing the spirit of the pig to the trap. Tuntun are carved to be beautiful so that they catch the eye of visitors to the longhouse. Attracted by a beautiful tuntun, a visitor is expected to approah it, take it down and admire it. A tuntun which has the power to attract a discerning Iban is also believed to have the power to attract a pig. As it attracts the visitor with it physical beauty so, at the same time, its powers entice a pig inexorably towards a trap. Cultural beliefs, consequently, place a great value on the beauty of the design of a tuntun and the skill with which it is executed.

At much the same time as he carves his first tuntun, a carver also begin to fashion sword hilts into objects of beauty. Iban carve sword hilts out of the antlers of rusa (sambur deer) for both his straights shafted parang ilang and curved nyabur swords. They frequently carve figures on hilts of their ilang. Iban hilts can be distinguished from those of others only with difficulty, they are freer in their designs. Consequently the range is large, one feature of Iban sword hilts is that they tend to fill in the spaces round their figures with interlocking scrolls, raised incisor teeth and hatched raised circles. In contrast, the hilts of the nyabur are simple with abstract foliate designs not unlike those found on the decorated bamboos.

While most Iban are farmers, hunters, and adventurer, some enter into a profession. Traditionally there are two. Both are dependent for entry on a man having the right dreams. With those dreams, a man can choose to become a manang (a shamanistic healer) or a lemambang (a bard). To become either requires a formidable memory, both manang and lemambang as they practise their craft, must be able to recite long, rhyming sagas which can literally last for days. Both require a staff with which to beat out the rhythms of his verse. The lemambang often carves a memory board which acts as mnemonic to help him remember the sequence of verses in the journey of the gods to visit the Iban. A board consists of sections, each of which has a pictogram to jog the memory of the lemambang. The boards are also used to train aspiring lemambang trying to remember the long sequence of events in the Iban sagas. The manang also requires a lupong (medicine box) and sometimes carves small figures (penting anak yang) to assist him in his search for the errant soul of the sick person he is treating.

Lupong manang are usually simple bark boxes. Some, however, are distinguished by having a pair of squatting figures attached to their sides. Carving these figures is one of the riskest undertakings an Iban can embark on, for they protect the contents of the box from spirits which hail from the abode of the dead. Carving these figures take the carver to the very gates of the dead, for it is there that the spirits of these figures must perform their protective tasks. Consequently, the figures on lupong manang are always carved by extremely experienced men who possess most powerful charms which can protect them from the dangers of such an extraterrestial adventure.

The manang uses pentik to help him cure the sick. They are often a threesome – male, female and a third. When a manang embarks on the dangerous journey to recover the soul of the invalid, the pentik become fierce spirits which confront all obstacles and act as guildes for the soul of the manang.

Any Iban might also carve a pentik to help stave off some disaster afflicting a longhouse. These figures are carved on the end of rods and are rarely longer than a finger. They are carved when a serious epidemic or other misfortune has been visited on a longhouse. A rite called ngampun is held to exorcise the longhouse of evil spirits. In this rite, pentik are driven into the ground by the base of the ladder into the longhouse or at a specially constructed hut called a langkau ampun (submission hut). There, offerings of food are placed to appease the malevolent spirits invading a house. Once the spirits have eaten their fill the pentik provide a barrier beyond which the satiated spirits cannot proceed.

In his early forties, an experienced and gifted carver will be commissioned to carve a kenyalang, an icon carved to represent the rhinoceros hornbill and used in a festival to commemorate the successful headhunter. A man carving a kenyalang place himself in great ritual danger, for the kenyalang is a powerful spirit of war. In the carving, it will consume a great amount of spiritual energy of the person carving it. It would also get to know the charms and other protective devices possessed by the carver. Consequently, a carver waits at least five years before carving another kenyalang to guard against the possibility that in a weakened state and with spirit which understood his charms, he would be unable to resist the power of the bird.

A kenyalang is carved from pelai (Alstonia) in two stages. In the first, the bare outline if the kenyalang is shaped and, after attendant ritual, it is brought into the apartment of a person holding the festival. Later, detail is added. Decoration is refined and the bird is painted. It is then animated in a ceremony in which offerings are made to it and its tongue symbolically cut to set it free.

The kenyalang is the most monumental of Iban carvings. Early examples made around the turn of the century show a much smaller figure than the present one metre high and one and a half metre long one (though an examination of the early examples in museum collections strongly suggests that they were made as models for the collectors concerned).

Embelishment has been added, especially around the casque and on the tail. The casque is extended backwards into a sweeping curve and surrounded by colourful foliate designs filling in the spaces between casque and body. On the tail are placed figures which have no intrinsic value other than to please the eye and fill what would otherwise be an empty and undistinguished tail.

Finally, on death, after burial and a period of mourning, a man of note of the kind we have been describing would expect some kind of monument to be erected over his grave. The monuments take two forms. In the Balau, a carved, painted board usually of foliate scrolls and arabesques is placed above the grave. Occasionally, one side of the board is carved with serpents (nabau) or dragons (naga) representing the spirits of the underworld and consequently, the afterworld. It seems probable that other graves across the border from Pantu also had small huts placed over them with the head of a dragon at one end and the tail at the other acting as finials, These graves or graveyards also had figures placed around them, the purpose of which is unknown.

In certain area, a sungkup ( a small decorated hut) is placed over the grave after a major festival, the Gawai Antu (literally, festival for the departed souls) has been performed to honour the recently departed. The traditional sungkup consists of an ‘A’ frame structure with four finials carved in foliate scrolls extended upwards from the gable ends (which are similar to the finials on Ngaju houses). More recent sungkup are clearly influenced by Kayan burial houses (salong), in which the external walls of the hut are carved and painted with foliate scrolls.

Iban carving is distinctive. Much of it can clearly be distinguished from that of others. Sometimes it have a signature which distinguishes them from those of others. They have genitalia carved on the shaft below the body. The Iban also have a stylised mask which is unique. It is black and has its eyes and forehead outlined in white lime.

In sum, the Iban have made a marked contribution to the great wealth of Sarawak art. Iban carving ranks with the best produced in Borneo. With the tuntun, the Iban have converted a humble measuring stick into an outstanding art from. Iban decorated bamboo or artefacts and sword hilts are also outstanding in their genre. Individual artists have porduced works of great beauty to serve many different functions. To dismiss Iban carving as inconsequential, as many people have done, is to depreciate a great carving tradition and numerous great Iban artists who have passed on to Sebayan (the Iban abode of the dead) unremarked, unheralded and, as a group, hittherto unsung.


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