The Ritual Use of Longhouse Space for ritual activities

The Ritual Use of Longhouse Space
Ritual brings into play, at different times, each of the major structural levels
represented in the ritual and physical constitution of the longhouse. Thus the
Iban divide the greater part of their ritual activity into three major categories:
bedara’, gawa’, and gawai (see Masing 1981:34–55; Sandin 1980:40–42; Sather
1988:157–159). The bedara’ are essentially bilik-family rites, small thanksgiving
or propitiation rituals held, for example, to nullify ill omens or acknowledge
spiritual favours. The Iban distinguish between bedara’ mata’ (unripe bedara’),
and bedara’ mansau (ripe bedara’). The first are held inside the family apartment,
the second on the longhouse gallery. The movement from apartment to gallery
marks an increase in the seriousness of the ritual and a shift in its social focus
from the family as a separate entity to the family as a part of the longhouse
community. The gawa’ are essentially longhouse rituals of intermediate
complexity, while the gawai are major bardic rites, witnessed by guests drawn
from the larger river region, including the community’s sapemakai (co-feasting
allies). Both are performed on the gallery.
The distinction between these three broad classes of ritual reflects not only
social structure but also the processes by which each individual is incorporated
into the social and ritual order itself. From birth, Iban children are prepared for
participation in ritual activity. Beginning by taking part in small bedara’ offerings
made inside the family apartment, a child’s ritual incorporation gradually extends
outward to include participation in major longhouse and gawai rituals. Only as
an adult, however, is a person empowered to act as a ritual sponsor, and maturity
marks the beginning, for both men and women, of a life-long quest for
recognition of spiritual favour, prestige, power and reputation, pursued largely
by ritual means (Sather n.d.).
This process of incorporation and the movement of the individual through
the social and ritual order are marked by transformations in the ritual
Posts, Hearths and Thresholds: The Iban Longhouse as a Ritual Structure
organization of the longhouse itself, the attribution of alternative meanings to
its spatial and architectural features. Iban rituals are characteristically structured
as journeys (jalai) and meanings are conveyed through images arranged linearly,
in space and time, to create an itinerary of travel or movement. Thus each
person’s life trajectory from birth to death is enacted as a series of journeys
through the longhouse itself, with significant transitions signalled within this
setting by scene changes, the entry and exit of actors, and by ritual processions,
inversions and transformations of staging, time and scenery.
Underlying these processes, Iban categories of phenomenal experience posit
two parallel realities (see Barrett 1993). The first comprises a wide-awake reality
in which each person acts bodily within a social world constituted of other living
persons. The second consists of a dream reality in which the soul, ordinarily
unseen, interacts with other souls, the spirits, spirit-heroes and gods. The
performed reality evoked by ritual reflects on both these parallel realities,
creating a mediation in which relations between the two are made explicit,
merged, reversed and transformed in ways which, for the Iban, not only ‘reflect
on’ these realities but are instrumental as well, signalling transitions and
producing consequences within the phenomenal worlds they evoke.

Rites of Birth

Rites of Death

Gawai Antu – after death festival


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