Birth rites: Nengkadah langit ngau ari, ngetup garam ngau meri anak mit mandi

Shortly after birth, as soon as the severed umbilical cord has dropped off, the infant’s confinement is temporarily interrupted and it undergoes a secondary birth, this time outside the bilik, in a brief rite called ngetup garam literally ‘to taste salt’. During this rite, the infant is carried from the bilik to the open-air veranda. Here it is presented to the sky (nengkadah langit) and to the daylight (nengkadah hari), the latter epitomizing the visible, ‘seen’ dimensions of bodily reality.[33] It is made to look up into the sky and so ‘take cognizance of the day’ (nengkadah hari). At the same time, a small bit of salt is placed in the infant’s mouth to give its body ‘taste’ (tabar). The elder holding the child then pronounces an invocation presenting the infant to the gods (petara) and asking them to take the child into their care. Reflecting Iban notions of the dichotomous nature of experience — the contrast between waking reality and the dream world of the soul — the principal gods invoked are Selampandai, the creator-god who, as a blacksmith, forges and shapes the child’s visible body (tuboh) (and later repairs it should it receive physical injury), and Ini Inda who, as the shaman goddess, is the principal protective deity associated with the soul (samengat) and with the invisible plant counterpart (ayu) that represents human life in its mortal aspect.

For the Iban, a child’s introduction into ritual life is graduated. Thus ngetup garam signals the first enlargement of its relational field beyond the bilik. Through ngetup garam the infant is removed for the first time from the confines of the bilik apartment and is introduced to the basic temporal dimensions of the Iban visible world, to daylight and the orbiting sun, and, at the same time, its presence is made known to the gods into whose care it is placed. The principal gods invoked are those responsible for the main constituents of its newly created person: namely, its visible body and its unseen soul. Finally, the journey from the bilik to the tanju’ and back to the bilik is seen by the Iban as a movement between areas of minimal and maximal spiritual danger, and back again, within the longhouse.

The main rites of birth conclude with the infant’s ritual first bath (meri’ anak mandi’) at the longhouse bathing place. Ritual bathing gives recognition to the child’s social persona within the community, while similarly locating it ritually in a beneficent relation with the spiritual forces believed to be present beyond its threshold. The rite opens at dawn with the preparation of three sets of offerings on the family’s section of the longhouse gallery. When prepared, one set of offerings is carried into the bilik apartment. There it is presented to the family’s guardian spirits (tua’). The other two are carried to the river side where, as part of the bathing ritual, one is presented to the spirits of the water (antu ai’), the other to the spirits of the forest (antu babas).


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