4. RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS
To the Iban mind, the deities are the messengers between the principal god of creation, Bunsu Petara, and man and are similar in power to the prophets of the proselytizing religions of Islam and Christianity. In folklore and the song cycles deities are remembered and celebrated by the Iban. Each deity taught the people the way to worship God (Bunsu Petara) with offerings in various festivals and smaller ceremonies, such as follows:
1. Bedara mata i.e. “unripe” ceremony for making an offering to God and His deities, and
2. Bedara mansau i.e. a “ripe” ceremony for making offerings to God and His deities.
These two kinds of bedara are small ceremonies held by the Ibans in their family bilek, in the case of bedara mata, and at their family gallery (ruai), in the case of bedara mansau. They are held specially to call for the deities to bestow a blessing on the family, especially if one of its members is ill or is going abroad in search of wealth.
In the past when warriors returned successfully from the battle field, the people of the longhouse held a traditional festival of Enchaboh Arong to celebrate the enemies they killed and the loot they had brought home. The mothers, sisters or sweetheart of the warriors will formally receive the skull of the enemies with their best blankets (pua kumbu) at the landing place of the longhouse. The feast of Enchaboh Arong lasted a day and a night and was celebrated on the communal galleries and open-air verandah (tanju) out side the main longhouse building.
Makai di ruai
Occasionally a man may be informed through a dream that a deity, mythical hero or the spirit of a deceased ancestor wants him to hold a makai di ruai ceremony, i.e. a feast to be held at midday on the communal gallery (ruai). For this ceremony the feast chief appoints the longhouse elders to make offerings to God and to the particular deity or spirit who has asked him to hold the feast. After the offerings have been made, one of the elders recites a long prayer (sampi) to beseech God and the deities and their followers to bless the feast chief so that he can successfully do his future work in good health. After the prayer is ended, a meal is served on the communal gallery.
Sandau hari (Gawai mata laban sekali aja ke tanju)
Sometimes a man is inspired in a dream by a deity or the spirit of a deceased ancestor or other close relative to hold a sandau hari festival which is bigger than a makai di ruai ceremony. To this feast, the people of the longhouse invite guests from other villages. Gawai Sandau Hari means “day time festival” and is celebrated on the open-air verandah, tanju, only during the daytime.
As soon as the guests have arrived and are received by the hosts along the ruai, the feast chief waves a cock along the longhouse gallery to invite all who have come to be seated upon his tanju which has been decorated for the occasion with good mats and woven blankets to attend his feast.
After all of the guests have taken their seats in order, three to five warriors each make from three to five offerings to God and the spirits. Having done this, one of the warriors stands up with a cock in his hands to recite a long sampi prayer to call for the deities and the universal spirits to come to the feast with blessings and charms of all kinds. He beseeches the almighty God in his mercy to grant to the feast chief and his people good health and prosperity in times to come. After the recitation of this prayer, the young men serve the guests with tuak wine on the tanju. After the guests have drunk the tuak wine, expert drummers perform gendang pampat music on ketebong drums.
As the quick music is booming, three to five warriors perform their ray ah dance around the sacred Kalingkang pole which is carefully raised at the middle of the tanju. At this moment it is believed that Sengalang Burong, the god of war; his sons-in-law, Ketupong, Beragai Bejampong, Embuas, Pangkas, Papau and Nendak; and their wives from the heavens are spiritually present and mingling with the hosts and guests on the tanju.
The music from the drums continues, accompanied by the tinkling sound of iron adzes struck by a chosen warrior. This music is made for Sengalang Burong’s sons-in-law to join the rayah dance spiritually with the warrior dancers. At this time another warrior burns wild flowers and crabs on a hearth to welcome the coming of spiritual guests from the Panggau Libau and Gellong worlds. These guests are Keling, Laja, Simpurai, Pungga, Tutong, Ngelai, Renggan and others.1 If these wild flowers and crabs are not burnt on the hearth (bedilang) the unfortunate human guests would faint (luput – pansa arong) by the presence of these spiritual heroes.
After the dancing ceremony around the sacred pole is over, the spirits are believed to return to their own home. The guests and senior hosts are served food along the open tanju. After the meal is over, the feast chief waves a cock to inform all the people that his sandau hari festival is now coming to an end. As soon as the announcement is made, the guests disperse; some return to their own longhouse immediately, while others continue to drink tuak wine with the hosts till sunset.
The most important festivals to be celebrated by the aristocratic chieftains and their descendants are the nine stages of Gawai Burong, the bird festival. This is one of the greatest of all Iban ceremonies. Although initiated by a single individual, the whole neighboring longhouses along the same stream to which the gawai sponsor belongs is caught up in the preparation for this festival, and the anticipation of attendance generates tremendous excitement among the longhouses within the region in which it is held. The stages of this festival are as follows:
1. Enchaboh Arong is a feast for receiving the heads of enemies killed in war.
2. Gawai Kelingkang, the sacred pole is made of payan bamboo, about nine feet high, with a jar as its knot (bungkong) at the middle of the pole.
3. Mulong Merangau feast, the sacred pole is made from durian wood, and is cleverly carved like an old sago palm tree when all its fruit has fallen to the ground.
4. Gawai Sandong, the sacred pole is made from the selangking tree.
5. Gawai Lamba Bumbun, the sacred pole is made from the heart of the selangking tree.
6. Gawai Mudor Ruroh, the sacred pole is made of a bunch of spears, which have been used in fighting against the enemy in various wars.
7. Gawai Ranyai, the sacred pole is made from a bunch of warrior’s spears.
8. Gajah Meram feast, the pole is made of a strong wood with branches decorated with skulls and isang palm leaves, and
9. Gawai Gerasi Papa, the sacred pole is a statue of a demon hunter (antu gerasi papa).
Other than these stages or sub-festivals, another that must be mentioned here is the Gawai Ngaga Kenyalang (a festival held for the making of a Rhinoceros hornbill statue). In the Paku, Saribas, only chief Saang; Linggir, the son of Uyut “Bedilang Besi”; and Jiram “Rentap” celebrated this festival. The statue made by Saang was burnt by James Brooke and Captain Henry Keppel when they attacked Linggir “Mali Lebu” house at Paku in 1843. The one made by Jiram “Rentap” is now at Matop longhouse in the Paku, while the one made by Linggir, the son of chief Uyut’ “Bedilang Besi”, was burnt with the entire longhouse at Senunok in 1944.
According to genealogies, ten generations ago chief Saang held a “Gajah Meram” feast in order that he might tie in two rows the skulls he and his warriors had collected during their pioneering days in the Paku sub-district. These heads were burnt with the longhouse of Penghulu Kinyeh, the son of chief Linggir “Mali Lebu”, at Beduru, Paku, in 1898.
When he lived at Nanga Ngelai in the Paku, chief Libau “Buban” seven generations ago held a similar feast as that celebrated by chief Saang (Gajah Meram) to tie forty-two skulls in a row. These skulls are still intact at Samu, Paku, to this day.
In the Padeh, Saribas, chief Orang Kaya Beti “Tajai Ngindang” once held a feast he called “Bunga Ketunsong” which was similar to the “Gawai Ranyai”.
Another Padeh chief who celebrated the “Gajah Meram” feast was Orang Kaya Akun “Bedindang”. The skulls used in the celebration are still in the possession of his descendants at Nanga Geraji, Padeh to this day.
In the Layar River a warrior named Saban, when he lived at Tanjong Serian, held a “Gawai Ranyai” to mark his conversion to Christianity sometime in the early 1880s. The leading bard who sung the ritual songs for this feast was Lemambang Berinau of Skrang.
In the upper Padeh, a warrior named Belaka of Sungai Sibau once held a feast he called “Gawai Meligai” to celebrate his success in killing a number of enemies in a war led by the Orang Kaya Pemancha Dana “Bayang” to Singkawang near Sambas in what was then Dutch Borneo.
In the Awek, Saratok, Penghulu Minggat and his brothers, Menggin and Enchana “Letan”, celebrated 3 types of Gawai Burong in a single festival, namely: Ranyai, Mudor Ruroh and Lamba Bumbun, to mark their pioneering wars against the inhabitants of the area four generations ago. At Kumpai, Kerian, Chulo “Tarang” held a festival of Lamba Bumbun shortly before his conversion to Christianity five generations ago.
In the Skrang, Libau “Rentap” once held a Ranyai feast to celebrate his victories at Mt. Sadok against an invasion by the Tuan Muda Charles Brooke in about 1858.
At Nanga Bunu Skrang, Kedu “Lang Ngindang” once held a feast he called “Gawai Kalingkang” to pray for victory against the government’s invasion of his longhouse in 1879.
Gawai Burong, celebrated to honour the War God Sengalang Burong, is one of the greatest of all Iban festivals or ceremonies and was first celebrated by Sera Gunting himself on his return from this grandfather longhouse. The other festivals of bird rituals, by order of importance and expense, includes Gawai Mata’, Enchaboh Arong, Gawai Kenyalang and Gawai Burong, the latter being celebrated in nine ascending stages known as:
1) Gawai Kalingkang
2) Gawai Sandong
3) Gawai Sawi
4) Gawai Salangking
5) Gawai Mulong Merangau or Lemba Bumbun
6) Gawai Gajah Meram
7) Gawai Meligai
8) Gawai Ranyai or Mudur Ruruh
9) Gawai Gerasi Papa
For each stage of the gawai burong, a different pole called “tiang chandi” is built, on which the statue of hornbill is placed during the gawai feasts. The materials for the construction of Tiang Chandi are as follows:
For Gawai Kalingkang, the sacred pole is made of payan bamboo, about nine feet high, with a jar attached in the mid of the pole, acting as its knots (bungkong);
For Gawai Sandong, the sacred pole is made of Selangking tree;
For Gawai Sawi, the sacred pole is made up of illi peanut palm trunk (pinang) or core of durian trunk (kah rian);
For Gawai Selangking or Lamba Bumbun, the sacred pole is made of the heart (kah) of the selangking tree;
For Gawai Mulong Merangau, the sacred pole is made of durian wood and is cleverly curved like an old sago palm tree when all of its fruits has fallen to the ground;
For Gawai Gajah Meram, the sacred pole is made of a strong wood with branches decorated with skulls and isang palm leaves;
For Gawai Meligai, the sacred pole is made of decorated strong wood;
For Gawai Ranyai or Mudur Ruruh, the sacred pole is made from a bunch of warriors’s spears which have been used in fighting the enemies in war and
for Gawai Gerasi Papa, its sacred pole in constructed with a figure of a demon huntsman or antu gerasi papa curved on the top.
Similarly the chants by the lemambang vary for each stage, but the ceremony, on the whole, maintains basic outlines except that each concludes with a different line of verse. At this juncture, it is timely to briefly describe other Iban festivals and its order of importance to better understand the significance of Gawai Burong in Iban society.
Gawai Mata’ is a small ceremony (implicit in its name for mata’ which literally means “unripe”) that may be performed by any warrior who received instructions in a dream to make food offering to his guardian spirit (orang Panggau or other guardian spirits like Enting Naing). It is also held as curing ceremony for the sick. No bard is required to recite chants; one piglet is used as sacrifice, food is served for the guest, spirit and human alike, only once. Guest is usually from same longhouse or just a selected few close relatives from neighbouring longhouses.
Enchaboh Arong is formerly performed to receive a newly taken head into the longhouse and is sponsored by anyone who has taken an enemy head or killed an enemy in war or battle. A piglet is sacrificed to provide an offerings and food served to the human guest and spirit alike similar to gawai mata’.
Gawai Kenyalang, like Gawai Burong, is a big ceremony, involving bards, cock fight, many sacrificial pigs, brewing of tuak with invitations extend to surrounding longhouses and with preparation period of a farming season (umai bedandang). This gawai should only be sponsored by an outstanding warleader or his descendant, and should not be given by a young man, for fear it will shorten his life. The sponsor decides to perform the ritual as proof of his greatness and not necessarily from instructions received in dreams. The centrepiece of this gawai is an elaborate rhinoceros hornbill statue mounted on the towering pole called tiang chandi at the climax of the festival.
Traditionally, only warriors who has killed an enemy was allowed to fell the tree used to construct the hornbill statue without fear of supernatural repercussions. Similarly, a warrior who has killed numerous enemies on a single expedition should cut the piece of wood used to construct the hornbill’s beak. This rule have been modified in modern times with the role of the warriors being taken over by senior men of respected positions. The Kenyalang statue becomes sacred after it has been consecrated in a Gawai Kenyalang ceremony. Old statue are placed and stored in the longhouse loft (sadau) and are brought out for display on top of Tiang Chandi on another bird festival to receive the offerings. This Kenyalang bird statue is thought to represent the chief of worldly birds and it is used to welcome the god of the augural birds, Sengalang Burong, to the feast and celebrations of humankind.
Before Sera Gunting celebrated the Gawai Burong proper in stages, he performed the first stage of the gawai called Enchaboh Arong to celebrate the spoils of war (a jar and a gong) he brought home and to commemorate the first three heads he obtained in a war expedition with his uncles, the omen birds, when he was visiting Sengalang Burong longhouse.