In days gone by, Ibans carried out rituals and festivals for all occasions. From celebrating the birth of a new baby to warding off bad omens, pest control was no exception.
While some traditions are still practiced today – like the meri anak mandi ritual where a new baby is given a traditional baptism in the river – the mali umai , ngemali umai or nambai umai ritual which sees crocodile effigies being made to ward off pests is rarely done today.
As of 2014, the Sarawak Museum Department has recorded about 40 sites with confirmed effigies built by the Iban community throughout Sarawak. Some of these effigies can be dated back to 100 years.
Among them, 19 can be found in Kuching, Samarahan, Sri Aman and Betong division, while seven can be found in Sibu and Mukah division, three in Sarikei division, and six in Kanowit district.
Presently, there is one at Fort Alice in Simanggang, otherwise known as Sri Aman.
Living next door to Alice
Fort Alice was named after the second Ranee of Sarawak, Margaret Alice Lili de Windt. Until 2015, it was an abandoned building until it was refurbished and reconstructed into a heritage museum under the Sarawak Museum Department.
The 153-year-old building was built following the victory of Charles Brooke, the second White Rajah of Sarawak, over Rentap, an Iban chieftain. It functioned to control the activities of the Iban from the Saribas area.
While the newly renovated building itself is worth visiting, the earthen crocodile effigies (baya tanah) located outside the compound at the foot of the building also deserves equal attention for their fascinating history and purpose.
Traditional pest control
The effigies were typically made in pairs; one female and one male, the latter often slightly bigger than the former.
Sometimes, the pair would be accompanied with a smaller crocodile effigy, supposedly the baby crocodile.
As part of a hill paddy planting ritual, it is used as an ‘agent’ to get rid of paddy pests such as grasshoppers, locusts, sparrows, rats and monkeys during the weed clearing season (mantun) before the paddy began to bear grain.
According to an entry called “Mali Umai Iban” in the Sarawak Museum Journal vol I.XX, a path would be cleared from the crocodile snouts to the edge of the intended paddy farm after the ritual so that the crocodile spirit wouldn’t get lost.
Typically 2 to 3 metres in length and 0.4 to 0.8 metres in width, most of the effigies face a water source, such as a river or stream.
Only a few face inland. Those that do are in Simanggang, where the effigies face the paddy farm or the setting sun.
The earthen effigies would often be made on flat ground from the clay soil located at or around the chosen site.
The crocodiles would normally be made with outstretched limbs, forward-facing heads and slightly curved tails.
The ones at Fort Alice have porcelain cups and plates used as the eyes and scales of the crocodile.
Before the availability of porcelain dishware, pebbles were used instead. Besides porcelain, white glass marble or coins were also used.
Protection against the natural elements
Besides pest control, it was also said that the effigies were used in rituals to stop droughts, known as gawai minta ari.
Usually used in severe weather conditions, rituals were also conducted during torrential rain and flood, asking for dry weather.
The effigies were also used for a ritual called pelasi menoa, meaning to ward off bad omens and calamities.
With most Ibans being exposed to Christianity and the availability of pesticides, however, many have abandoned the practice.