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Mengayau: A Traditional Tryout of Men’s Bravery, Dayak Iban, West Kalimantan

Boys Ready for Mengayau Ceremony

Mengayau is derived from the word kayau, meaning to behead. The rite used to be practiced by Dayak Iban people in West Kalimantan as they went to a war. This tradition aimed at showing men’s bravery, protecting the members of the tribe, widening their territory, and also surviving life. Mengayau was performed using mandau (the traditional blade of Dayak) and only by men.

1. Prologue

The general meaning of mengayau is to hunt enemies or more specifically to cut off enemies’ heads. In the comprehensive dictionary of Indonesian language (Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia, published by Balai Pustaka) on page 519, mengayau is listed as a derivation of the word kayau which means to kill a person to take his/her head off. In cultural studies, mengayau is known to be the traditional ceremony of Dayak people in Kalimantan (Borneo) (Yekti Maunati, 2006). There are many purposes of mengayau such as to show one’s bravery, to defend or expand territory, to protect the members of the tribe, to worship Gods, and to survive life. Meanwhile, according to J.U. Lontaan (1975: 533-535), mengayau purposes to protect farms, to get spiritual power, to revenge, or to pray for a building durability.

Mengayau is performed using mandau[1] (the traditional blade of Dayak) and only by men. It is because men are considered to be protectors of their tribe and family. Consequently, in the past there were many Dayak women found widowed as their husband were killed. The tradition of cutting off the heads of enemies clung to a way of life that Dayak people much relied on and took pride of their tribe. In accordance with this, Alfred Russel Wallace (1986) interpretes mengayau tradition as “a custom originating in the petty wars of village with village and tribe with tribe”.

The tradition prevailed for a long time and started to wear off since Christian teachings began spreading in Kalimantan. In current time, mengayau is only performed as a traditional celebration. Pig heads are now used instead of human heads ( Mengayau is always associated with Dayak Ethnic Group, but one thing that must be understood is that not all Dayak Ethnic Subgroups actually do the tradition. There are variations of tradition among Dayak Ethnic Subgroups.

One of Dayak Ethnic Subgroups that still practice mengayau is Dayak Iban Tribe of West Kalimantan[2]. Dayak Iban people live dispersely, inhabiting Sambas Regency, Sanggau/Malenggang Regency and surrounding areas, Sekadau Regency (Belitang Hilir, Belitang Tengah, and Belitang Hulu), Sintang Regency, Kapuas Hulu Regency, Serawak (Malaysia), Sabah (Malaysia), and Brunei Darussalam. It is important to notice, though, that even not all of Dayak Iban people do this tradition. Dayak Iban consists of Mualang, Ketungau, Kantuk, Sebaruk, Banyur, Tabun, Bugau, Undup, Saribas, Desa, Seberuang, and many other subtribes (Tjilik Riwut, 2003). Among them who still preserve mengayau are Dayak Iban people living in Kapuas Hulu Regency.

Dayak Iban people believe the tradition of mengayau is inherited by their predecessor, Urang Libau Lendau Dibiau Takang Isang. Due to his bravery and heroism, he was entitled Keling Gerasi Nading Bujang Berani Kempang. Keling means a brave man while kayau, in Dayak Iban language, stands for enemy. In this context, ngayau can be interpreted as to go to a battlefield on the purpose of defending one’s authority by beheading the enemies. In past times, the number of enemies’ heads carried home signified their expanding authority. Whereas in the context of individual, the more a man carried home heads, the more powerful and brave he was.

Dayak Iban people interpret ngayau as the collective activity of hunting heads. They call it “kayau banyak”. Those that managed to bring home heads would be regarded as heroes and entitled “Bujang Berani”. For Dayak Iban’s predecessors, the object of mengayau or beheading was not only the enemies’ heads, but also their relatives’ in order to be sacrificed for their Gods.

Based on the aforementioned data, ngayau, for Dayak Iban people, must be performed in certain conditions and only by certain people as there were rules. It was on the other hand a hard punishment for the winner of kayau as he would likely get his head cut off by the enemies next time.

Mengayau could not be performed in random places, it should be the place that had been chosen and informed before by the head of adat. If somebody practiced mengayau not in the given place, he would be considered a bad pengayau (beheader). Mengayau, thus, must be carried out under quite complex requirements and rules.
2. Time and Place

Long time ago, when the original tradition of mengayau was frequent, mengayau was performed as the warrior were going to the battlefield of kayau. However, in current time when the tradition is modified and rarely performed, the traditional ceremony is only practiced in certain occasions, such as in Dayak cultural exhibition and harvest season.

Mengayau is started a week before the core ceremony is held. A week period is for preparing everything, including the tools and offerings for the core ceremony. It is important to get the tools and offerings well prepared long before the due day because if they miss something when it is already time, the sacredness of the ceremony will be disturbed or in the past, it was even believed to lead them to losing the war.

As for the place, mengayau is performed in and around betang house, Dayak traditional house. The traditional house is indeed built especially for traditional ceremonies, including mengayau. Betang house is sanctified by the people hence nobody can get in without the permission of the head of adat or being a participant of the ceremony, or in this case, mengayau.
3. The Masters and Participants of the Ceremony

Mengayau, as it is performed today, is led by both the village chief and head of Adat of Dayak Iban tribe. Both direct the ceremony from the start to the end. All equipments and offerings are prepared a week before the due day. The ceremony is performed in and around betang house by the participants with the rest of the Dayak Iban tribe watching. The ceremony ends with the scene of pengayau coming back home from the battlefield.

Mengayau is attended by the pengayau, who are illustrated as if going to war, and other members of the Dayak Iban, either men, women, or children. The pengayau and several other people, either men or women, would be involved actively in the preparation, during the ceremony, and in the closing. Women’s tasks are preparing, serving, and handing the offerings over the village chief or head of adat and also accompanying the pengayau to dance. While men’s tasks are decorating the betang house, preparing their armaments, and also the equipments and materials needed for the ceremony.
4. Equipments and Materials

There are two kinds of equipments and materials needed for mengayau ceremony, namely the compulsory and the supplementary. Some of the equipments such as spear, mandau and shield are always involved, put in a special place without anybody being allowed to touch them as they were sacred.

The compulsory equipments are:

sangkok or spear
terabi or shield
mandau or blade

The supplementary equipments are:

tersang or bamboo shelf as the place for the offerings
a five-colored flag, that is red (signifies bravery), green (signifies fertility of land), kuning (signifies sincerity), black (signifies protection from evil), and white (signifies pure heart and mind)
grumung or small gong
tawak or big gong
gendang or kettledrum
bebendai or middle-sized gong

Aside from the equipments above, in a ngayau ceremony, there are usually prepared also the pedara (offerings) containing:

seven plates of pulut (sticky rice)
seven plates of tempe (pulut mixed with rice)
seven plates of rendai (made of roasted sticky rice)
seven boiled chicken eggs
betel vine, sedek (gambier), cigarrete, lime, areca nut, and tobacco quid put in a separate plate
seven bundled ketupat (rice-cake snack cooked in a small container of woven young coconut leaves)
seven jalong cubit, that is a cord of thread tied on the ketupat
a plate of utai bekaki, that is pulut flour mixed with rice flour
two pigs (male or female)
three roosters
human skulls as symbols of man
old coconut as symbol of man’s head
tuak (palm wine)

All of the equipments and materials above can be obtained easily in the jungle of West Kalimantan because almost all of them are taken from nature. The materials are even used in the everyday life of Dayak Iban people.
5. Performance

The performance of mengayau as a whole is divided into three acts, the preparation, main performance, and closing. The three stages are carried out by all participants under the instructions of the village chief and head of adat interchangeably.

a. Preparation

The preparation of mengayau is a period wherein people prepare all the equipments and materials needed for the ceremony. The activity is carried out by the committee, involving all members of the Dayak Iban tribe under the instructions of the head of adat. The instructions are important to ensure they do not miss anything so that the ceremony will go well and sacredly.

The preparation begins a week before the ceremony. In this period, female members of the tribe will do engkira, i.e. making the pedara (offerings). Meanwhile, the male members will ready their armament, pengaroh (talisman), and ration for them during mengayau. The ceremony will start when the preparation is done.

b. Main Performance

The main performance of mengayau traditional ceremony constitues three acts, namely delivering the offerings, going down to do ngayau, and entering the betang house.

1. Delivering the pedara or offerings

Mengayau starts with the pedara brought into the betang house, wherein the ceremony is going to be held. After a while, the pengayau will come and sit in a row. When they all sit neatly, seven plates of pedara will be served before them by two women. The plates are believed to signify seven spheres of the sky.

As every pengayau has the offering before them, the head of adat will say a spell while wagging a rooster above the heads of the pengayau three times each. Then, the village chief will ask the head of adat to cast a spell on the offerings. After that, the head of adat will pour tuak water on the ground seven times to call the spirits of ancestors to protect and help the pengayau in war.

Next, the head of adat will pour tuak water three times more on the ground to invite the Gods to come along in the betang house. Then, he himself will drink the tuak. By doing this, it is expected that their ancestors’ spirits coming in the betang house will join them eating the offerings. The first offering to eat is the pulut. It is thought to symbolize the good bond and cooperation between them in the forthcoming war.

The head of adat and the village chief will enjoy the food followed by the pengayau and other guests. They will then drink tuak together. The people believe that tuak has a warming effect on the body. Thus, the pengayau will be more energetic during war. The village head will then take the soybean cake and scatter the rice on the head of the pengayau. This act implies that Dayak Iban people have the heart as honest and noble as rice.

The head of adat will take the betel leaf, cigarette, apok leaf, and other offering materials, each five items and place them on a plate. The offerings will then be put on the ancak that will be stood on the central column (tiang ranyai) of betang house. This is for inviting Gods to come in the house.

After delivering the pedara, the next thing to do is turun ngayau.

2. Turun Ngayau

This part starts with a spell reading by the head of adat directed on the armaments in order to get the blessings from the spirit of former heads of adat. Later on, the head of adat will slaughter the rooster. This is done on the staircase of the betang house. The blood of the rooster will be smeared on the legs and foreheads of the pengayau as blessings. Moreover, the feather will be taken off and wiped on the foreheads of other attendants to keep them from evil spirit.

Afterwards, the pengayau will take up their armaments and put them on their waists. Then, they will descend the staircase bringing a pig so that the Gods will descend from heaven and come along with them in the war.

The pengayau will design a strategy enabling them to behead their enemies quickly and correctly from far away. After that, it is presented as if the war is breaking and the enemies are defeated and beheaded, which is symbolized by the old coconuts or human skulls. After coming back with heads in hand, the pengayau will express their happiness by dancing on their way back to the betang house. They will put the heads in front of the house’s staircase while sharing their stories with fellow pengayau about their recent war experience.

After a moment, two women and a pawang (shaman) will descend from the betang house to deliver the offerings as a symbol of blessing on the victory. The host will wag a rooster and select the people to make the offering. The offering is a form of gratitude to their Gods for helping them in the war. It will be put before the staircase, left there for three days, and nobody is allowed to move it anywhere. Moving the offering is believed to bring in disaster.

After everything in this part is done, the ceremony will move on to the third act, i.e. entering the betang house.

3. Entering the betang house

This part begins with some people playing traditional musical instruments of Dayak Iban. Such is the sign of allowance for the pengayau to enter the betang house. Before getting in the house, the head of adat will read a spell while wagging a rooster above their heads. The head of adat will then pull out the feather of the rooster, slaughter it, and smear its blood on the foreheads of the pengayau. When it is done, the pengayau will be allowed to go up the staircase. When they are on the uppermost stair, the head of adat will pour tuak water on them, then they will ask the warriors to drink the tuak to lift their spirit and stamina after war.

In the betang house, the village chief will have prepared the offerings. When the pengayau enter the house, the head of adat will wag a rooster over their head once more and slaughter it. The blood is smeared on the heads of enemies, which are symbolized by human skulls and coconuts. He will then pull out the rooster’s feathers and wipe them on the foreheads of the pengayau. When it is done, the offerings will be hanged upon ranyai column, one of the columns in the betang house. As all the pengayau are in the house and the main ceremony in the betang house is over, the ceremony will be closed with a victory dance.

c. Closing

According to the belief of Dayak Iban people, taking many enemies’ heads home is a pride and achievement to celebrate. Therefore, mengayau is closed with a dance. The pengayau, while carrying the enemies’ heads symbolized with coconuts, will dance around the ranyai column accompanied by the women. Not only is the dance done inside, it is also performed by surrounding the betang house by instruction of the head of adat.
6. Prayers

In mengayau, prayers are read by the head of adat. The prayers are aimed at three directions, at the pengayau, the weapons, and the attendants.

The prayer for the pengayau intends to beg Gods to bestow them spirit, power, and courage to fight the enemies. This is read as they are leaving for mengayau. The prayer for the weapons is read so that the weapons can swing quickly and hit the targets precisely, which are enemies’ heads. Even, people say that the weapons can swing by themselves to seek for the heads. Miraculously, the weapons can distinguish which is enemy and which is fellow Dayak Iban. The other prayer is read for the attendants, so that they are not possessed by evil spirits during the ceremony.
7. Forbiddances

There are some forbiddances either for the pengayau or other participants of mengayau ceremony. Here they are:

The pengayau must be clean in their heart and it is forbidden for them to do bad things to others. This is important to get protection from Gods.
The pengayau must stay in group and shall not disperse, otherwise they will lose the war.
All the members of the tribe shall not move the offerings put in the betang house, otherwise disaster will fall on them such as losing war or failing harvest.

8. Values

As a multipurpose traditional ceremony, mengayau contains values for Dayak Iban people. The values might not be realized rationally by the people, but seeing the substantiality of the ceremony, it seems like the values have been embodied by them. Mengayau has become a belief for Dayak Iban people, not merely a traditional ceremony. Among the values contained in the ceremony are as follows.

a. Value of sacredness. The value is manifested in the prayers read by the head of adat, the sanctified weapons that are kept in a special place and manner, and the preparation a week before the due day. These indicate the sacredness because if not, the ceremony will be prepared only casually. Moreover, this value is as well reflected in some of the purposes of mengayau, such as defending their authority and teritory and also protecting their people. These two objectives are closely related with human soul, that it is sanctified as the loss of a soul means the loss of life for the people. Therefore, mengayau in this point can be seen as a ceremony to appreciate life.

b. Value of courageousness. This value is reflected in the spirit of the pengayau when they are heading to the battlefield. The pengayau are so eager to behead their enemies. The spirit can be even higher due to the effect of tuak they drink after being prayed on by the head of adat. Besides, this value is also embodied in the title given to the pengayau who beheads many enemies. The more a pengayau behead enemies, the more courageous he is regarded by the people.

c. Value of pride. The value is manifested in the dance performed by the pengayau after war. While carrying heads in hand, they will be dancing accompanied by music and the women first in the betang house and surrounding it later. The dance is thought to be the symbol of pride of defeating their enemies. Thus, in the past the dancing seems to be a chatarsis for them as they must be terrified and worried for a long time before. The pengayau were afraid of losing and killed and have their head cut off by the enemies. Dancing might also become a chatarsis for the people watching as they were all in a terrifying situation and anxiety of losing their husband or sons. Death in this context was seen as a dreadful condition as they were aware of the situation, which is horrific.

d. Value of authority. This value is reflected in the assumption Dayak Iban people have in mind that if the pengayau come back home with many enemies’ heads, their territory is expanding. It does make sense because if they can defeat the enemies, they will become their subordinates (prisoners of war). In this context, authority is a tempting and pride-giving material objective.

e. Value of social responsibility. It is important to notice that one of the original objective of mengayau is to become a manifestation of the head of adat’s social responsibility to protect his people. In past times, mengayau was a tradition of beheading enemies’ heads practiced when the life and security of the people was harmed. The village chief and the head of adat must of course protect his people. In such situation, mengayau would be thought to be the best way to do that. The enemies being beheaded means to be the end of their attempts to kill the people of the beheading tribe. However, it did not actually work that way. The tradition of mengayau in fact created a never-ending killing tradition as one of the purposes of mengayau was believed to be to revenge. Out of the consequence above, mengayau was a way of defending, fighting, and protect one’s self when someone or his people’s lives was threatened.

f. Value of education and enlightenment. This is manifested in some of the objectives of current mengayau, namely:

1. to diminish the negative perception of people out of Dayak tribe about the tradition of mengayau, which is considered to be a bad tradition (read: cannibal or primitive) of Dayak people, particularly Dayak Iban.

2. to understand what mengayau actually means for them, that is not as simple as cutting enemies’ heads off but more as a sacred social responsibilty.

3. to make the next generation understand about the negative effect of mengayau tradition performed not in accordance with the rules. Among the effects are emergences of conflicts and the increasing number of widows.
9. Epilogue

As a modifed traditional ceremony intends to find meanings and see good things in the action of originial mengayau such as courage, pride, power, spirit, and social responsibilty, it is important for us to appreciate the traditional ceremony. However, as a tradition with a negative side, in the context of modern societal and national life based on the Indonesian ‘45 constitution, the original practice of mengayau must not be preserved as it contravenes the basic human rights. Yet, aside from its negative side, there is one thing important to understand, that the Dayak people is a tribe that love peace. They are not a primitive tribe like many people perceive about them so far. Yusuf Effendi (bdy/20/03-10).

Translation by Reza Daffi (trans/11/04-10)

Alfred Russel Wallace, 1986. Kepulauan nusantara. Sebuah kisah perjalanan, kajian manusia dan alam. Jakarta: Komunitas Bambu.
Departemen Pendidikan Nasional, 2005. Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia. Jakarta: Balai Pustaka.
J.U. Lontaan, 1975. Sejarah hukum adat dan adat istiadat Kalimantan Barat. Jakarta: Bumi Restu.
Tjilik Riwut, 2003. Sanaman mantikei manaser panatau tatu hiang. Menyelami kekayaan leluhur. Palangkaraya: Pusaka Lima.
Yekti Maunati, 2006. Identitas Dayak, komodifikasi dan politik kebudayaan. Yogyakarta: LkiS.


C. Wahyu Haryo dan Fandri Yuniarti. Meski di pedalaman mereka punya ponsel. Downloaded from (Accessed on March 6, 2010).
Oktavianus Oki. Dayak bukan pemakan manusia. Downloaded from (accessed on March 6, 2010).
Muhlis Suhaeri. Yang magis di upacara nyobeng. Downloaded from (accessed on March 7, 2010).
Source of photo:

[1] Some mandau is ornamented with some motifs of carvings. The ornament symbolize a certain meaning or achievement of the owner. The more achievements he gets in mengayau and cutting off enemies’ heads, the more ornaments the mandau will have (

[2] In fact, back in 1894 and 1909, the Dutch government initiated an agreement among Dayak people to quit the tradition of mengayau. This agreement was made in Central Kalimantan and known as the Tumbang Anoi Treaty. However, it currently seems that this agreement does not have much implication with the breakout of the conlfict between Dayak and Madura ethnic groups in Sampit, Central Kalimantan, some years ago.

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