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A headhunting story told through ngajat in 1871

The ngajat is a traditional Iban dance in Borneo. It is traditionally performed as a welcoming dance, before and after a war or headhunting trip and to celebrate a bountiful harvest.

Just like the Kayan kajer, a ngajat performance usually tells a story or a theme. The common story for men’s ngajat or kajer is a man showing his story of the hunt through dance, all while displaying his gracefulness and agility. Finally, the performance ends with the dancer successful in his ‘hunting trip’.

Another common story told through ngajat is performed by two male dancers. These two dancers battle each other in a ‘dance’ combat with one of them emerging victorious.

Unfortunately, most ngajat or kajer these days by young dancers center around elegant hand movements and smooth hopping without telling any specific story or theme.

Here at KajoMag, we look back at an example of how Iban male dancers in 1871 performed their ngajat and the story they told:

The Sarawak Gazette dated Dec 15, 1871 reported a performance in Kuching led by 15 Iban fortmen.

“First came a solemn dance by two men in native costume, that is to say with a long chawat or waist cloth wrapped around them and hanging down to their feet and a tight jacket, who gyrated round at opposite corners of a square formed by laying down four long planks on the ground, in a shuffling step, keeping time to a monotonous beating of gongs; this was succeeded by a spirited combat with drawn parangs and shields,” the report stated.

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“Whenever they thought they were coming to too close quarters, both combatants rapidly retreated.

“It was grotesque enough when matters came to such a pass that the dancers, crouched or lying on the ground, took furtive stabs at each other round the edges of their shields.”

The ngajat for men usually have the dancer holds a wooden shield in his left hand and a sword in his right hand and dances facing the enemy with his body swinging to the left and to the right. Credits: Pixabay.
The ‘cutting of head’ during ngajat

According to this Sarawak Gazette report, the ngajat performed for Singaporean guests featured a headhunting scene.

The choreography started like this, “One warrior is engaged in picking a thorn out of his foot, but is ever on the alert for the lurking enemy with his arms ready at hand. This enemy is at length suddenly discovered, and after some rapid attack and defence, a sudden plunge is made at him and he is dead upon the ground.”

Then the dancer performed the taking of his head in pantomime, which the writer reported, “The last agonies of the dying man were too painfully and probably too truthfully depicted to be altogether a pleasant sight.”

This happened in 1871 when headhunting was still rampant, so perhaps the depiction was too close to home. (There was a report of a Kayan man who danced too excitedly that he cut off the head of one of his audience members).

The story of the ngajat didn’t stop there, as the dramatic part of the ngajat that could inspire a plot in Korean drama or Spanish telenovela came next: The Iban warrior discovered that the man he was just slain was not his enemy but his own brother. (Cue dramatic sound effect).

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In the end, the story told in this ngajat concluded with what the writer stated as “the least pleasing part of the performance – a man in a fit, writhing in frightful convulsions, being charmed into life and sanity by necromantic physicians.”

Perhaps the writer wouldn’t enjoy how Marvel characters are brought back to life.

Ngajat, a characteristic dance
Sarawak: Sea Dayaks with weapons and head-dresses. Credits: Creative commons.

The unnamed writer (who is most likely a European) praised the ngajat as authentic to its roots and in its depictions.

He wrote, “Dyak dancing being really savage, is more characteristic than the mock savagery exhibited at the Northern Meetings in Scotland, and to our ears the musical accompaniment is rather less disagreeable than the nasal drone of the bagpipes.”

We can’t say which one is better; bagpipes or the tabuh. But we have to say it would be interesting to see a ngajat performance at the Sarawak Cultural Village or cultural function depict a gruesome headhunting scene followed by a victim writhing around on stage in pain.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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