James Ritchie on the religious basis for headhunting in Sarawak, Borneo
WoWasis correspondent James Ritchie on the religious basis for headhunting. You may also want to read How Headhunting originated in Sarawak, Borneo and An Iban veteran tells how heads are smoked in Sarawak, Borneo.
Headhunting was the result of serious religious beliefs among the Ibans of Sarawak. It was a ritual filled with pomp and ceremony, performed down to the last minute detail.
To the Ibans, the human head represents “vitality, supremacy and fertility” and according to timang (Iban folklore), the head contains padi (rice) grains. Dr James Jemut Masing, in his essay ‘imang and its significance in Iban culture” (submitted for his Master of Arts degree at the Australian National University), says that “the soul, from which all life springs, resides in the head.”
The timang is narrated like an epic by a lemambang (bard) during a gawai (festival) ambang invokes the spirits and gods to guide the Iban warriors and ives them magical protection while out on headhunting missions. Thus, the Iban custom of headhunting is believed to be part of a system of religious beliefs that dates back to ancient times.
The Ibans still hold various religious ceremonies to appease the spirits, says Dr. Masing, who has studied Iban mythology. He says that in the old days the gawai amat ritual (also called gawai burong) was held to ask the spirits for success in warfare and headhunting.
Gawai antu was held for the spirits of dead warriors who lost their heads in battle. At this gawai, the spirits are invited from the mythical land of the dead called Sebayan to join the living longhouse folk for the last time. The warriors in attendance, who take part in the drinking of the sacred rice wine called ai jalong, are Iban braves who have taken the life of an enemy, if not a head, at some time in their lives. Because the head represents supremacy, the comrades of Iban warriors who died in battle would lop off the heads of their friends so that they would not fall into enemy hands.
Charles Hose in his book Natural Man says: “In the case of those who die fighting, their heads are hacked off at once, while the trunk is left lying where it fell. In the case of the Ibans, if any of the attackers are killed, their heads are taken away and buried by their friends.”
Dr. Masing says there are four types of gawai in Iban culture, starting with the gawai antu. The second type of gawai includes gawai batu (whetstone ritual), gawai benih (seedling ritual) which is held before clearing of farm land, and gawai nyimpan padi (storing of padi rites) which is held after harvesting.
The third type is simply called gawai. It is held when something unusual takes place, for example, if a longhouse member has a dream or someone wants to thank the spirits after recovering from an illness. he fourth is called gawai amat (named so by Ibans in Baleh district) or gawai burong (original name from the Saribas and Batang Lupar area). Under this category there are nine types of ritual starting with the biggest one called gawai kenyalang (hornbill rites).
James Ritchie on How Headhunting originated in Sarawak, Borneo
WoWasiscorrespondent James Ritchie on how headhunting originated in Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia. You may also want to read: An Iban veteran tells how heads are smoked in Sarawak, Borneo and The religious basis for headhunting in Sarawak, Borneo.
Are headhunters still alive in Sarawak today? The answer is yes and no. If you consider that Dayak members of the security forces were engaged in jungle warfare against the enemy not too long ago, then it is difficult to dismiss the possibility that headhunting was still practiced in the past decade or two.
Taking heads was like a hobby among the Ibans of Sarawak. Spenser St John, in his book Life in the Forests, quoted an Iban headhunter as saying “the white man read books, we hunt for heads instead.”
According to Iban tradition, headhunting started as a religious rite several hundred years ago. At the turn of the 1800s, headhunting was rampant in Sarawak.
It was considered “prestigious” to acquire heads in Iban society. The social status of a headhunter as a courageous man would be enhanced if he possessed heads, either taken by himself or acquired by other means.
The weapon used in headhunting is often the parang ilang — a heavy steel blade with a convex cutting edge, about 55cm long, mounted on a handle made from deer horn or belian (hardwood).
Heads were mainly taken in battle. Following any successful headhunting mission, the Ibans would hold a gawai enchabu arong (a thanksgiving ritual).
Not the good smell
The heads are taken back to the village wrapped in the plaited leaves of the nipah palm. They usually emitted an odor, which 19lh century naturalist Sir Hugh Low said surpasses the odorous durian…”
Most of the heads taken by the Ibans were smoked in a manner similar to that in which fish is smoked. In this way, the head (minus the eyes) is preserved, together with the flesh and hair. Sometimes during the process the head is singed black.
A typical headhunting scene is described in a battle which occurred in the mid-1800s between loyal government Ibans who killed several enemy Ibans in an attack in Saribas. The Illustrated London News (as cited in the book Rajah Brooke’sBorneo) describes the scene:
“The dayaks, having killed their enemy, immediately cut his head off with a fiendish yell; they then scooped out the brains (from the occipital hole at the back of the head) with a rod of bamboo.
“They then light a slow fire underneath so that the smoke ascends through the neck, and penetrates the head, thoroughly drying the interior (until all the juices are evaporated).”
Headhunting picked up when the Arab “Sharifs” and some Malay leaders took advantage of the warlike nature of the Ibans — particularly those from Skrang and Saribas — to help them organize raids on longhouses as well pirate raids on vessels plying the coastal waters of Sarawak.
Having convinced the Ibans that they could have all the glory by taking heads (leaving the booty to the others), combined raids against vessels began to take place.
In his book Wanderings in the Great Forest, another 19th century naturalist, Odoardo Beccari, said: “It is said of the Sakarrang and Seribas Dayaks that within the memory of man they were peaceable and inoffensive, although they did take a few heads from inland tribes; but afterwards the Malays and Lanuns took advantage of their skills as warriors and joined them in piratical expeditions along the coast, for the Dayaks were content with the beads alone, and left the booty to their allies.”
There were other means of acquiring heads apart from taking them in battle. These included killing innocent victims and stealing heads. Former Resident Charles Hose, in his book Natural Man, said: “So strong is the morbid desire that a war party sometimes has been known to rob tombs of villages of other tribes and, after smoking the stolen heads of the corpses, bring them home in triumph.”
The girls can’t help it
In the past Iban women played a leading part in encouraging headhunting, as in hunting for “trophies.” Hose said: “… often a girl will taunt her suitor by saying that he has not been brave enough to take a head…”
This led Sarawak White Rajah Charles Brooke to say that the “principal inciters or instigators of these bloody exploits” were Iban women. Thus it was not uncommon for some of the lesser warriors to sneak up and attack innocent women and children who were bathing at some isolated spot separated from the main tribe.
It was also a custom that heads had to be acquired after the death of a member of the family in order to appease the spirits. This custom goes back to the belief that Iban warriors must secure a heads before the end of the burial ritual, failing which the burial would be incomplete and mourning would have to continue until a head was found.
For example, in mourning a death, family members of the Kanowit tribe (a fierce headhunting group which existed before the arrival of James Brooke in 1839) were taught that it was their duty to kill the first-person they meet. Thus they would not hesitate to take the heads of “man, woman or child, even if they were members of their own tribe, and even, relatives.”
After a head is taken it is given the greatest respect. Sir Hugh said: “The head, for months after its arrival, is treated with the greatest consideration, and all the terms of endearment… are abundantly lavished on it. The most dainty morsels… are thrust into its mouth and it is instructed to hate its former friends and that having been adopted into the tribe of its captors, its spirit must be always with them.”
James Ritchie: An Iban veteran tells how heads are smoked in Sarawak, Borneo
WoWasis correspondent James Ritchie on how headhunters smoke heads. You may also want to read: How Headhunting originated in Sarawak, Borneo and The religious basis for headhunting in Sarawak, Borneo .
TEMENGGONG Jinggut anak Atari, who is in his early 60s and is the titular chief of the Ibans in Kapit, has seen heads being taken during his lifetime. He claims that Iban soldiers lopped off the heads of communist terrorists during the Emergency.
Temenggong Jinggut, who was among the first Iban trackers recruited to fight the terrorists in Malaya, says: ”During the initial months of the Emergency in 1948, some Ibans hacked off the heads of the enemy, not knowing that it was an offence. In one instance in Perak, members of my unit were caught cutting off the heads of some communist terrorists.
“The British officer in charge reprimanded the offenders and ordered the heads to be stitched back to the corpses so that they could be photographed. ”After the incident several Gurkhas who had helped the Ibans were court martialled. We were warned not to do this again or we would face the same consequences.”
In 1965 during the Malaysian-Indonesian confrontation, Iban members of the security forces also took many heads. In one incident at least 30 enemy heads were taken in gunny sacks back to Sri Aman (then called Simanggang).
Temeoggong Jinggut says the only time he witnessed the smoking of a head was when he was a young man during the Japanese occupation. He says: “We had killed two Japanese soldiers. Their heads were taken to a longhouse just below Nanga Mujong (in the Baleh district) for the ceremony. Our heroes returned with the heads, walking the length of the longhouse ruai (the roofed verandah) past a long line of admiring spectators. After various rituals the heads were taken to the stream by an elderly and experienced expert in preserving heads.
“I noticed that the man first made a clean cut from under the chin and close to the jaw, right to the back of the head, removing the stump of the neck. He then proceeded to widen the occipital hole with the pointed end of his parang. He next sliced one end of a piece of rattan.
“He then placed the splayed end of the rattan strip into the occipital hole and dug out a bit of the brains. He placed it in some glutinous rice and swallowed quickly. He did not vomit. (If he were to throw up, the Ibans believe that the man would fall ill and die because his semangat (spirit) was weak).
“He then began cleaning out the hole with the rattan strip with a vigorous twisting and poking movement (Eike using a bottle brush) while holding the head in She water. In this way the soft matter was -easily washed away by the water and removed.”
After that the expert removed the eyes of the victims with his parang (sometimes the eyes are not removed, in which case leaves are placed to cover the eyes so that they will not bulge or pop out during smoking). The heads were then wrapped in several large scented leaves gathered from the river bank, and tied with rattan strips. The heads had to be tied properly so that the jaws would not fall off. The heads were hung on a bamboo rack, consisting of a horizontal pole with both ends attached to a pair of angled uprights tied together and smoked for three days until they were completely dried out. During the smoking of the heads more ceremonies were held.
James Ritchie worked with the New Straits Times for 25 years, before joining the Sarawak Civil Service as a Consultant Public Relations Officer in the Chief Minister’s Department in 1998. He writes for the Sarawak Tribune, Borneo Post, and The Malaysian Today. A prolific writer on Sarawak affairs, he has written hundreds of newspaper articles and authored or co-authored about 15 books, including Man-eating Crocodiles of Borneo, Bruno Manser: the Inside Story, Mystical Borneo, Changes and Challenges: Sarawak 1963-1998, and Tun Ahmad Zaidi, Son of Sarawak. He has won numerous journalistic honors including the prestigious Shell-Kenyaland Award.
For more James Ritchie on headhunting, visit these two WoWasis posts: