The religious basis for headhunting in Sarawak, Borneo

James Ritchie on the religious basis for headhunting in Sarawak, Borneo
Written By: herbrunbridge – Jun• 07•10

James Ritchie

WoWasis correspondent James Ritchie on the religious basis for headhunting. You may also want to read How Headhunting originated in Sarawak, Borneo and An Iban veteran tells how heads are smoked in Sarawak, Borneo.

Headhunting was the result of serious religious beliefs among the Ibans of Sarawak. It was a ritual filled with pomp and ceremony, performed down to the last minute detail.

To the Ibans, the human head represents “vitality, supremacy and fertility” and according to timang (Iban folklore), the head contains padi (rice) grains. Dr James Jemut Masing, in his essay “Timang and its significance in Iban culture” (submitted for his Master of Arts degree at the Australian National University), says that “the soul, from which all life springs, resides in the head.”

The timang is narrated like an epic by a lemambang (bard) during a gawai (festival). The lemambang invokes the spirits and gods to guide the Iban warriors and gives them magical protection while out on headhunting missions. Thus, the Iban custom of headhunting is believed to be part of a system of religious beliefs that dates back to ancient times.

The Ibans still hold various religious ceremonies to appease the spirits, says Dr. Masing, who has studied Iban mythology. He says that in the old days the gawai amat ritual (also called gawai burong) was held to ask the spirits for success in warfare and headhunting.

Gawai antu was held for the spirits of dead warriors who lost their heads in battle. At this gawai, the spirits are invited from the mythical land of the dead called Sebayan to join the living longhouse folk for the last time. The warriors in attendance, who take part in the drinking of the sacred rice wine called ai jalong, are Iban braves who have taken the life of an enemy, if not a head, at some time in their lives. Because the head represents supremacy, the comrades of Iban warriors who died in battle would lop off the heads of their friends so that they would not fall into enemy hands.

Charles Hose in his book Natural Man says: “In the case of those who die fighting, their heads are hacked off at once, while the trunk is left lying where it fell. In the case of the Ibans, if any of the attackers are killed, their heads are taken away and buried by their friends.”

Dr. Masing says there are four types of gawai in Iban culture, starting with the gawai antu. The second type of gawai includes gawai batu (whetstone ritual), gawai benih (seedling ritual) which is held before clearing of farm land, and gawai nyimpan padi (storing of padi rites) which is held after harvesting.

The third type is simply called gawai. It is held when something unusual takes place, for example, if a longhouse member has a dream or someone wants to thank the spirits after recovering from an illness.

The fourth is called gawai amat (named so by Ibans in Baleh district) or gawai burong (original name from the Saribas and Batang Lupar area). Under this category there are nine types of ritual starting with the biggest one called gawai kenyalang (hornbill rites).

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

An Iban veteran tells how heads are smoked in Sarawak, Borneo


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s