Head feast and house washing ceremony by Iban

The custom by which the Dyaks are best known is that of cutting off and preserving the heads of their enemies, a barbarous method of perpetuating the memory of their exploit, which they celebrate with every sign of triumphant, rejoicing.

When a head has been taken, the brains are removed, and the eyeballs punctured with a parang, so as to allow their fluid contents to escape.

If the boat in which the fortunate captor sails is one of a large fleet, no demonstrations of success are made, lest the head should excite the cupidity of some chief; but if she has gone out alone, or accompanied only by a few others, she is decorated with the young leaves of the nipa palm. These leaves, when unopened, are of a pale straw colour, and, when cut, their leaflets are separated and tied in bunches on numerous poles, which are stuck up all over the boat.

At a little distance, they present the appearance of gigantic heads of corn projecting above the awning of the boat, and amongst them numerous gay-coloured flags and streamers wave in the breeze. Thus adorned, the boat returns in triumph; and the yells of her crew, and the beating of their gongs, inform each friendly house they pass of the successful result of their foray.

The din is redoubled as they approach their own house. The shouts are taken up and repeated on shore. The excitement spreads; the shrill yells of the women mingle with the hoarser cries of the men, the gongs in the house respond to those in the boat, and all hurry to the wharf to greet the victors.

Then there is the buzz of meeting, the eager question, the boastful answer, the shout, the laugh, the pride of triumph; and the gallant warriors become the cynosure of every eye — the envy of their equals, the admiration of the fair. When the excitement has in some degree subsided, the crew, leaving some of their number in the boat, go up to the house, where a plentiful supply of siri, pinang and tobacco are produced, and over these Dyak cheerers of the social hour, the event is related and discussed in all its breadth and bearings. At length they prepare to bring the trophy to the house.

A long bamboo is procured, and its lower joint split into several pieces, which are then opened out and wrought by means of rattans into a sort of basket.Into this basket the head is put, and is carried by the chief man in the boat from the wharf to the house, in the doorway of which, and at the head of the ladder, the principal woman of the house stands to receive it. The bearer, standing below, presents it to her, and as she endeavours to take it, withdraws it: he again presents and again withdraws it, till, at the seventh time, he allows her to obtain it. Thence she carries it to the bundle of skulls which hang in the open gallery, and it is there deposited along with the rest.

As night approaches, preparations are made for drying, or rather roasting it. A fire is lighted in a little shed outside the house; the head is suspended close above the flames; and when it has been dried to satisfaction — that is, well smoked, and partially scorched — it is taken back and redeposited in the bundle, to remain there till it is feasted.

“And what becomes of the flesh?” I asked of an aged warrior, who was displaying to me a recently captured head, to which the scorched and shrivelled integuments still adhered, while from the earlier skulls all trace of flesh had long since disappeared. With the utmost nonchalance the old savage replied: — “The rats eat it.

“In the meantime, friends, chiefly the young of both sexes, resort to the house to congratulate the successful warriors. Siri and pinang, the never-failing accompaniments of a Dyak meeting, are produced in great quantities; the gongs and drums are beaten throughout the whole night; and the victors, amid scenes of gaiety and sport, rejoice in the admiring envy of the youths, and bask in the smiles of the fair.

During the few succeeding days, feasting proceeds to a certain extent, and a basket of offerings to the spirits is suspended on the top of the house; but the grand entertainment is delayed till an abundant harvest should enable them to celebrate the head-feast in a manner suited to the dignity of the occasion.

For this important event, which frequently does not take place for two or three years after the head has been taken, preparations are made some weeks previously. Large stores of cakes and sweetmeats are provided, and many jars of tuak, or native beer, are prepared; much siri, pinang, and tobacco collected, and every preparation made for an extensive display of hospitality.

On the morning of the appointed day, the guests, dressed in their best, and ornamented with all their barbaric finery, begin to assemble, and rarely, except on such occasions as these, are their savage ornaments now seen. Such at least, is the case among the Balos, a tribe who are in a sort of transition state between ancient barbarism and modern civilisation, and whose young men would now, on ordinary occasions be ashamed to appear in those fantastic ornaments, which a few years ago were the delight of their hearts.

I cannot say they have gained much in appearance by the change. A handsome savage, in his embroidered chawat, with his pure white armlets shining on his dusky arms, his brass-wire bracelets, his variegated head-dress of blue, while, and red, hung with shells, or adorned with the crimsoned hair of his enemies, and surmounted by the feathers of the argus pheasant, or by some artificial plume of his own invention, girt with his ornamented sword, and bearing in his hand a tall spear, as with free step he treads his native wilds, is a sight worthy of a painter.

The same individual, clothed in a pair of dirty ragged trousers, with perhaps a venerable and well-worn shooting-jacket, the gift, of some liberal European, suggests ideas of anything but the picturesque or the beautiful.

Many of them, however, have adopted the Malay costume, which is both civilised and becoming, and have thereby effected a compromise between beauty and propriety. But whatever costume they adopt, whether Dyak, Malay, or pseudo-European, all are clothed in the best, garments they can procure; and they come in troops from the neighbouring houses to that in which the feast is to be held.

As they arrive, eight or ten young men, each with a cup and a vessel of tuak, place themselves in a line inwards from the doorway, and as the company enter, they are presented by each of the tuak-bearers with a cup of the liquid. To drink is compulsory, and thus they all run the gauntlet of all the cups. As tuak is not a pleasant liquor to take in excess — the headache from it is tremendous — it is to the majority of them a penance rather than a pleasure, and many attempt but in vain, to escape the infliction.

In this manner the male guests assemble and seat themselves in the gallery, the chiefs being conducted to the place of honour in the middle of the building, and beneath the bundle of skulls. All the rooms are at the same time thrown open, and each family keeps free house for the entertainment of the female guests. These as they arrive, enter and partake of the dainties that are provided for them; and many of the men being likewise invited to join them, the feast of reason and the flow of soul proceed as triumphantly as in similar cases in Europe.

Cakes, sweetmeats, eggs, and fruit are produced, discussed, and washed down with tuak, and occasionally with a little arrack; while siri, pinang, gambier, and tobacco serve as devilled biscuits, to give zest and pungency to the substantial dessert.

Conversation never for an instant flags; the laugh, the joke, the endless chatter, the broad banter, and the quick reply, pass unceasingly round the circle, and a glorious Babel of tongues astounds the visitor.

Outside, in the gallery, the same scene is enacted, but with less animation than in the rooms, for, as there, the ladies form no part of the company — the assembly — wants all its soul, and much of its life.

The girls of the house, however, dressed in their gayest, and looking their best — “beautiful as stars,” a Dyak once told me — have formed themselves into a corps of waitresses, and hand round the viands to the assembled guests.

As it is not, according to Dayak etiquette to take a thing when first offered, the young ladies have it very much in their own power as to who shall be helped, and to what extent — a privilege which, I have been told, they are inclined to exercise with great partiality with most given to bachelors and a little to older men and children but none to boys.

The mannangs, male and female, next take part in the ceremony. They congregate in the gallery, and seating themselves in a circle, one of them begins his dreary and monotonous chant, while the rest at stated intervals join in the chorus. They occasionally intermit their rhyme, in order to take a little refreshment; after which, another of the brotherhood takes the lead, and they continue their dismal monotone as before.

After sometime, each of them is furnished with a small plate of raw rice, dyed a bright saffron colour, holding which in their hands, they perambulate the crowded gallery, and, still continuing their chant, scatter the yellow grains over the seated multitude, “for luck.”

In the meantime, the object of all this rejoicing, the captured head, hangs along with its fellow in the bundle almost unnoticed. In the morning, before any of the guests have assembled, some one has stuffed a half-rotten plantain into one eye, and fastened a piece of cake and a little siri and pinang near (not into) its mouth. It is then replaced in the bundle, and no more notice taken of it throughout the whole feast, unless a few boys, warriors in embryo, occasionally advance to inspect it.

It has been said by former writers that it is stuck upon a pole, and its mouth filled with choice morsels of food, but I never saw this done, nor did any Dyak whom I have questioned know anything of such a custom.

As to the opinion that they endeavour to propitiate the souls of the slain, and got them to persuade their relatives to be killed also, or that the courage of the slain is transferred to the slayer — I am inclined to think that these are ideas devised by Malays, for the satisfaction of inquiring whites, who, as they would not be satisfied till they had reasons for everything they saw, got them specially invented for their own use.

Offerings, however, are made to the superior powers. A pig has been killed early in the morning,and its entrails inspected to furnish omens, while its carcase afterwards serves as materials for a feast. Baskets of food and siri are hung up as offerings to the spirits and to the birds of omen; among which latter, the burong Penyala, or rhinocecros hornbill, is reckoned especially the bird of the spirits.

The grand event of the day, however, is the erection of lofty poles, each surmounted by a wooden figure of the burong Penyala, which is placed there “to peck at their foes.” These figures are rather conventional representations than imitations of nature, and do not convey a very exact idea of the bird they are intended to represent. Still they so far resemble the original, an to possess a body, head, and tail; and they have likewise a long slender bill, and a horn twisted like an ammonite. They are about twenty inches long, painted in an astonishingly variegated manner, after the most approved Dyak fashion, the heads being often decorated with a downy crest.

They are made sometime previous to the festival, and a day or two before it are carried about to the different houses in the vicinity, accompanied by gongs and flags, to levy contributions for the benefit of the feast.

The poles on which they are to be elevated are young trees, some of them about forty-five inches in circumference at the lower end, and eighty feet in length; posts so long and so heavy, that it may well be matter of surprise how men, unaided by ropes and pulleys, could erect them.

The method employed, however, is both simple and effective; the posts are carried up, and laid on the platform of the house, and two frameworks, about twenty feet high, and thirty feet long, are erected parrallel to, and within a yard of each other, on the ground at the end of the platform. These are constructed some days previously, and are so placed that the lower end of the post, when launched off the platform, may pass between them.

When it is intended to erect, the post, the burong Penyala, together with a proper amount of flags and streamers, is fixed on its upper end; and it is then pushed along the platform till its lower end, projecting beyond it, and passing between the frameworks, is overbalanced by its own weight, and falls to the ground. The post then lies at an angle of about twenty degrees to the horizon, one end resting on the ground, while its middle is supported by the platform.

One of the Dyaks below then advances with a fowl in one hand, and a drawn parang in the other; and placing the neck of the bird upon the end of the post, chops its head off, and smears the base of the post with its blood. After this sacrificial ceremony, the signal for raising it is given.

The Dyaks swarm upon the two frameworks before mentioned, and putting their shoulders under the post, while its lower end is kept fixed upon the ground, they mount up by degrees to the top of the framework, and thus gradually elevate it.

The beak of the Penyala is then pointed in the direction of the foe, whom they wish it to peek at; and the mast-like pole, securely lashed to the two frameworks, stands at once a trophy of victory and a symbol of defiance.

Eight or ten such posts are erected, a fowl being sacrificed on each; and about half-way up the largest, which is erected first, a basket of fruit, cakes, and siri is suspended, as an offering to the spirits.

Meanwhile, those who remain in the house still continue the feast, and those who have been engaged in erecting the posts return to it as soon as their labour is finished.

The festivities are prolonged far on into the night, and they are resumed and continued, though with abated vigour, during the two following days.

The poles, in the preparation and erection of which so much labour is expended, are permitted to remain for about a fortnight, after which they are taken down, and the Penyala given to the children; new ones being generally made for each festivity.

The head-feast is the greatest of their feasts; the Dyaks say that if a man, when running, is cleverly decapitated by a stroke of a parang, the body will continue to run while the head is rolling on the ground.

The next in importance is what we would call a house-warming, or what they denominate a house-washing; that is, the entertainment given in honour of a new house.

As soon as the first harvest after its erection has given the community a plentiful supply of paddy, preparations for it similar to those made for the head-feast, but on a much less extensive scale, are commenced; but as the rejoicings on this occasion always begin with cock-fighting — a sport which we discountenanced as much as possible, and of course never went near — I never witnessed them till the afternoon.

By this time most of the guests had departed; the majority of those who remained were lying about in a pitiable state of intoxication, while the rest, with red eyes, staggering gait, and wretched attempts at finery, were forming a procession round a few decorated pillars in the house, chanting and beating time with their staves like mannangs. It was a miserable sight, and not such as to tempt me to go back; consequently, though I had many subsequent opportunities of witnessing the whole affair, I never again went near it.

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