Authentic Iban Longhouses in Central Region of Sarawak
In Sarawak, a visit to an authentic longhouse is considered a must.
In the Central Region of Sarawak, an Iban longhouse is one of the main attractions for tourists. Several other ethnic groups traditionally live in longhouses, so expect a variety of ways in which you are welcomed. Traditionally the Iban do not shake hands to welcome visitors. Today, though, this is highly acceptable.
Longhouse headmen are respectfully addressed as “Tuai Rumah”. Hence, when addressing him during conversations, he should customarily be addressed as “Aya (uncle) Tuai Rumah”.
Each longhouse is led by a Tuai Rumah. He is usually appointed by his own group of people; the criteria for selection include leadership qualities and success in life.
In the olden days, more was required. He needed to present proof of his bravery – a human skull or two would suffice as credentials. This was when head-hunting was rife. Succession was fairly straight-forward. Usually the eldest son takes on the mantle of headman if he possesses the same leadership qualities, and has the trust of his community. If this isn’t possible, the post goes to a younger sibling, or next-of-kin such as an uncle or cousin.
Thus the Tuai Rumah is not a dictator, as we understand in accordance to the definition what it is today. His decision in all matters affecting his anembiaks (those under his leadership) is usually final but only after they are consulted. A good Tuai Rumah is exemplary in all his activities, a sterling example for his anembiaks. Therefore, close rapport and dialogues, known as randau ruai (which means general conversation conducted in the longhouse verandah) is a daily affair, particularly in the evening. Normally, each longhouse is named after the Tuai Rumah. This randau ruai can last up to early mornings before decisions can be made!
Ngajat Cultural Dance (Ngajat) – The Iban community is known for several forms of cultural dances. In longhouse functions, the most popular dances are the Ngajat Ngelalu Pengabang (Welcoming Dance) and Ngajat Bujang Berani (Warrior Dance). Both men and women dancers are decked in full traditional costumes.
Sometimes, visitors are invited to join in. Be sporting enough to try. Poor footwork? You won’t be penalised. Don’t miss this wonderful experience.
Tuak (Rice Wine)
“Tuak” (Rice wine) – Tuak is brewed from glutinous rice (pulut) and yeast (ragi). First, the yeast is dried, while the glutinous rice is soaked for up to ten hours. In olden days, this glutinous rice will be cooked in bamboo. In the heating process the bamboo cylinders will be repeatedly turned over until the rice is fully cooked. The cylinders are then turned upside down to drain the water to ensure that the rice will not become stale even over a long period of time. After a few hours, the rice is taken out and spread out evenly on a mat.
Fermentation begins by mixing the rice thoroughly with yeast. Then, the rice is placed into a glazed earthenware jar. Make sure the jar has never been used for storing sour or salty food.
Before being used, the jar has to be washed thoroughly and left to dry.
The first brew (ai suling) should be ready after a fortnight. It is extracted and bottled. For a more potent brew, many Ibans keep them on racks above the fireplace in the kitchen.
For the Ibans, the “Miring” (offering) ceremony is meant to make wishes known to departed ancestors. It is to seek their protection and for the smooth organising of events. Usually, this ceremony is led by elders or VIPs.
The Iban normally have their meals in the main room; seated in a circle. Rice and accompanying dishes are served on plates or bowls. It’s self-service – pile on whatever you want onto your plate. Just make sure there are no leftovers. So it’s best to have a little to start with. Go for seconds later. Sometimes the host provide extra helpings later on if he senses your hesitance during the meal time. You will be excused for not finishing this extra helping.
Small talk is encouraged during meals. No vulgarities please. Your host is especially delighted to see you have a good appetite.
The Iban community practises several different ways of welcoming important guests. One is Ngelangan. It involves a ceremony before the guest enters a sort of tunnel festooned with pua kumbu (traditional woven fabric). Accompanied by the headman, the guest walks the length of the longhouse before taking his seat in the verandah.
During Gawai Dayak (Harvest Festival) or any other festival held in the longhouse, you will witness an intriguing dance around bountiful trees known as the “ranyai”. The ranyai tree is usually made of a palm top whose shoot can be eaten afterwards and is stationed in the middle of the verandah. Food and drinks are hung on it ad its fruits and for decoration and merry-making purposes.
Visitors are invited to dance around the tree, select a food item, retrieve it, before taking a seat. It all climaxes with the felling of the tree, symbolising a bountiful harvest.
The “pua kumbu” is a popular native handicraft of the Ibans. It literally means a blanket or a coverlet.
Weaving Pua Kumbu
This colourful cloth, woven with intricate combinations of various designs and colours, however, serves more significant meanings other than that of providing covering.
In the olden days, the “pua kumbu” was very much an integral part of the day-to-day affairs and special rituals of the Iban society. One or more pieces of “pua kumbu” are being hung prominently in the midst of joyous gatherings such as harvest festivals or weddings. For solemn events, such as farming rituals or healing ceremonies, the “pua” is used to veil structures containing charms and offerings to the gods. When head-hunting was still a much-valued tradition of the Ibans, the “pua kumbu” are used by the ladies to receive the “prize” brought home by their warriors.
Modern Iban society now have more contemporary uses for the “pua kumbu”. Cushion covers, handbags and wall hangings are some of the novel uses of this particular craft.
The ibans like to tattoo their body with traditional motives normally to mark their achievements in life and their journey.
SOME IBAN PHRASES
Kami or kita We
Selamat pagi Good Morning
Selamat tengahari Good Afternoon
Selamat malam Good Night
Selamat tinggal Good bye
Ari ni penatai nuan? Where are you from?
Siapa nama nuan? What is your name?
Berapa pintu kita serumah ditu?
How many doors (meaning families) do you have in the house?
Sapa Tuai Rumah kita ditu?
Who is the Headman of your longhouse?
Tau aku ngambi gambar nuan?May I have your photograph taken, please?
Berapa umur nuan? How old are you?
Ulih aku nanya nuan? Can I ask you something?
SOME DO’s AND DONT’s
Wear flat shoes and wear suitable clothing
Take off your footwear before sitting on the mat in the longhouse.
Ask for water for washing if you need it.
Do not stretch your legs when sitting on a mat. If you have to do so for one reason or another, ask for the host’s permission. This also applies during meal times.
Do not spit, or blow your nose, or utter vulgarities during meal times.
Do not feel shy but be at home with your host, particularly at meal times.
To keep your host happy, get into animated conversations, and ask lots of questions.
Do not hesitate to ask for any information – e.g. the Iban way of life, customs or traditions.
Do not hesitate to try speaking in Iban. This will give your host an impression that you feel at home. The more you feel at home, the more you can learn about them.
Author: Visitor Infor Centre Sibu
Posted by Sarawak Travel, Borneo at 5:11 pm