Vanishing Iban adat
By Eve Sonary Heng
The rich tapestry of Iban folkIores is fast fading with the passing of the older generations and might eventually disappear without efforts to save them from extinction.
THE Ibans form the biggest ethnic group in Sarawak with a population of about 682,400 or 28.9 per cent of the state’s population of 2,357,500.
They live in 3,800 longhouses and villages throughout Sarawak — 82.1 per cent are found in the rural areas while the remaining 17.9 per cent live in the towns.
Over the years, some Ibans have also migrated to peninsular Malaysia, particularly Pasir Gudang and Masai in Johor, and Sabah, concentrated mostly in Merotai and Tawau.
In his presentation at the recent Iban Cultural Seminar in Betong, Dato’ Sri Celestine Ujang Jilan noted that the Ibans were well-known for their rich folklores, especially oral traditions, as well as costumes, dances and music.
However, he pointed out that with the swift transformation of the community to modern lifestyles, brought about by the rapid growth of infrastructural development and tertiary education, this cultural heritage was in danger of vanishing.
Take for example the musical ensemble called enkerumung, performed in accompaniment to Iban traditional dances.
According to Sylvester Anam Kakok, tuai rumah (longhouse chief) of Sungai Malang Atas, Bakong, Baram in Bukit Peninjau in Miri, the main reason for the dwindling number of skilled engkerumung players is that younger Ibans are not very keen to master the art.
He said the engkerumung is an ensemble of seven pieces of cymbals with different sound tones and played together with a ketawak, bendai (gong) and ketebung (drum made of animal skin) for the ngajat (Iban traditional warrior dance) on festive occasions. The ketawak is a bigger gong than the bendai. Each instrument is played by an individual to the beat of the engkerumung.
The players are now popularly known as Band Temaga or Copper Band because the cymbals and gongs are made of copper.
The engkerumung is commonly performed in longhouses and during celebrations such as the Harvest Festival or Gawai, wedding receptions and birthday parties.
The adat betenun — weaving of kain (cloth) or pua (blanket) — is another tradition fast losing its appeal and not practised as much now.
A female Iban weaver, Angkik Ragai, fears this traditional art will be lost forever one day, saying the younger generation is not keen to take it up — unlike their forebears.
According to Angkik, kain-weaving is an art that takes patience and dedication to master and the exquisite elegance of the finished product evokes a deep sense of personal accomplishment.
“When the weaving is completed, the material becomes a piece of ornamental hand-woven fabric, worn by an Iban maiden as part of the traditional Iban costume. It has beautiful and intricate patterns handed down from generation to generation.
“The designs are preserved by weaving them into stripes on mats called ngarap. From there, one can copy the designs. The work is intricate but also satisfying,” she said.
Celestine, meanwhile, said the vast repertoire of Iban oral traditions had been transmitted down the generations since time immemorial.
The traditions continued to exist only in oral forms until the end of the 19th century when a lot of the oral materials were collected, transcribed and published in the Sarawak Gazette and the Sarawak Museum Journals, he added.
However, it was only in the 1960s that a large amount of the materials were published by the Borneo Literature Bureau which was taken over by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 1976.
The oral traditions are really encyclopedic in that there is a huge volume of them. They are either sung in tune (benyawa) or just recited or related (disebut-ditusui), and in both cases, they may sometimes be accompanied by music.
Among the recited items are the genealogies of the family tree, fables and legends (jerita tuai), myths, epics and sagas (ensera), prayers and invocation, troupes which consist of proverbs, idioms and sayings (jaku dalam: jaku tuai, sempama, jaku sema, jaku karung) and riddles (entelah).
Each of these oral traditions has its own particular functions and significance in various aspects of Iban social and communal life, covering the basic values, culture, mores, manners and convention, and adat, ranging from child birth, romance and courtship, marriages, entertainments to healing practices, funeral rites, house construction and farming activities.
The legends for folklores are very much related to the genealogies and important sources of the Iban heritage and culture, tracing back to the founders and origins of the various adat.
There are scores of such stories — sengalang burong, the founder of adat berburong; puntang raga who left messages regarding prohibitions affecting incestuous marriages (jadi salah serak); serapuh regarding adat pemati and sempulang gana regarding the guidelines for farming activities.
Besides these, Celestine said, there were tales of tribal conflicts among the earlier settlers of the various territories in early Sarawak.
Other forms of folklore are myths, epics and sagas. These are actually narrated to entertain the audience and highlight moral values.
The most famous figures, who happened to be a couple, are Keling and Kumang. Besides his good looks, Keling is famous and well-remembered for his exemplary gallantry in war while Kumang is remembered for her extraordinary and unmatched skill in weaving the traditional fabric — pua kumbu.
Celestine elaborated that the oral traditions sung in various tunes were the chants (timang and pengap), dirges or laments (sabak), healing chants, love songs, songs of praise and lullabies.
The dirges or laments are unique. When patients become too sick to recover and finally pass away, the traditional Ibans get the service of the dirge singers (tukang sabak), normally women, to chant the dirge (sabak) to guide the soul of the deceased on a journey to the Land of the Dead (Batang Mandai) and return to Earth after the mission is accomplished.
The dirge is lengthy and full of interesting descriptions of the journey, using classical vocabularies, fabulous imageries and euphemism concerning the Land of the Dead.
Celestine believed one of the reasons for decline of the oral traditions and other forms of folklore was that the Iban folklorists, well-versed in oral traditions and other components of folklore, were generally old and illiterate, and thus, unable to put their knowledge into writing.
In fact, many of the knowledgeable bards, shamans and other experts had already passed away and hardly any of the younger Ibans are either experts or keen in maintaining the tradition.
On Iban traditional costumes, Celestine said those for the men weren’t as elaborate as those for the women.
The common headgear is made of a cap, woven with split rattan strips with several pointed projections (ketapu tunjang) where long plumy feathers of hornbills or pheasants are inserted. Another similar headgear is the ketapu silung, decorated with beads, feathers and animal furs.
Making the ketapu tunjang or a ketapu silung is not easy nowadays because the plumes are not readily available since they come from birds protected under the Sarawak Wild Life Protection Act.
Among the other costumes are the jacket which has several alternatives, including the war coat made of animal skin still covered with fur called the gagung, and the dress called the sirat, a long piece of cloth wound several times round the loin after covering the man’s private part just enough for decency.
The accessories include the tikai burit, a small mat woven from rattan or bemban strips tied loosely from the waist just wide enough to be a place for the wearer to sit on, the engkerimuk which are brass or silver rings worn around both legs just above the ankles.
For the women, practically every part of the body is adorned with some kind of gear. Pinned to the hair is the tall curved hair comb of decorative silverwork. This head-dress consists of a conical cap made of hollowed softwood, covered with a piece of colored cloth. Fixed to the cap are scores of antennae-like projections wrapped with colorful papers. Each antennae has colorful beads, cotton wool, silver coins and tiny bells.
The women’s dress consists of several kinds of jacket and vest worn together with different types of skirts. One is the baju ringgit comprising mainly chains of pure silver coins hanging from the shoulder down to the knee and covering the inner layer of the dress.
The next set of costumes consists of several types of skirts such as fabrics woven with the tie and dye method (kain kebat bebuah), the embroidered cloth (kain sulam or kain anyan) and the skirt decorated with cowrie shells (kain buri).
All these skirts can be worn and kept tight round the waist by wearing the silver belt with large heads (lampit pirak). The belt is made of coins strung together (nyawir or sementing ringgit).
Above the skirts covering the abdomen and the ribs is the corset, made either of silver or brass.
Costume accessories include gold rings, silver bracelets (for ankles) and two silver balls of about three inches in diametre to be held in the left hand when the wearer walks.
According to another presenter at the seminar, Datu Nillie Tangai, long ago, the Ibans believed in superstitions and myths but as time passed by, and with the disappearance of the older generations, these folklores began declining.
When major religions had not yet permeated the lives the indigenous communities, they usually had some kind of paganistic religion often rich in beliefs, taboos and rituals.
Before Christianity reached the Iban community of Borneo, one of the things they religiously observed was the adat berburong — a system of beliefs based on the augury of observing the calls, flights and behaviors or actions of birds.
Nillie mentioned that according to the folklores, humankind first lived in the same abode with the gods. When feuds and conflicts broke out among the humans, they began to fragment and disperse.
But just before they went their separate ways, the gods made a promise to the humans that if they ever wanted to ask for the god’s help, they would have to make their petitions through songs, prayers, incantations and music.
On the other hand, if the gods wanted to send a message to the humans, they would do it through birds, dreams and patterns that could be scrutinized on a pig’s liver.
“Adat berburong is a belief that what the birds do or utter are messages from the gods. Humans would have to heed these omens to either benefit from the missives or if they ignored or violated what they had been told, mishaps or calamities could befall them,” Nillie explained.
There are only eight types of birds considered authentic messengers, of which seven are extremely potent. The eight birds are pangkas (maroon woodpecker), beragai (scarlet trogon), ketupong (rufous piculet), sengalang burong (a kind of god, the founder of the adat berburong), bejampong (crested jay), embuas (banded kingfisher), papau (diard’s trogon) and nendak (white-rumped shama).
Observers of messages from these birds are particularly wary and fearful of signs that portend bad omens. For instance, it is ominous if a banded kingfisher perches at a longhouse because it signifies that someone is going to die.
If the bird stalks someone from behind while he is on his way to visit a sick person, then that someone should turn back. If he remains defiant and goes ahead, the sick person may become more sick or even die.
According to Nillie, a length of a small tree trunk or a branch is believed imbued with some kind of curative property or magical power if it is taken possession of at the time a certain bird’s call is heard.
This length of wood known as the birdstick’ is called tambak burong or paong burong and can be used to cure, say, a headache or used through a ritual to invoke a good padi harvest.
There are actually many other uses of tambak burong but knowledge of it or even of the whole adat of beburong is gradually dying out with passing of the older generations.