Our story on Crocodile Effigies is a two-parter. To learn about the significance of crocodile effigies in the Iban mali umai ritual, click here: Crocodile Effigies Part 1: The Iban mali umai ritual
Reptiles, from the smallest little cicak to the most fearsome Bujang Senang, have always provoked varying degrees of fear and awe. The crocodile, in particular, has played a key role in riverine cultures around the world, from the crocodile-headed god Sobek in Ancient Egypt to modern day Goa where it is still worshipped in a ritual called mannge thapnee.
In Sarawak, earthen crocodile effigies were a tradition among the local communities, most notably the Iban and the Lun Bawang although their purposes differ from each other.
While the Iban community used baya tanah (mud crocodile effigies) to protect their crops from pests, the Lun Bawang community moulded the effigies – ulung buayeh – to celebrate successful head hunting trips.
The Crocodile as a mark of heroism
Even though headhunting is typically associated with the Iban community, it was also common among the Lun Bawangs during the pre-Brooke era.
Crocodiles effigies were made to celebrate and publicise a warrior’s heroic feat during his headhunting expedition which was significant for both the upper classes and the common classes in the Lun Bawang community.
In the old days, the Lun Bawang community was segregated into three main classes – lun ngimet or nguyut bawang (leaders), lun do (commoners) and demulun (slaves).
As the statuses of leaders were hereditary, commoners had to elevate their social status by excelling in the battlefield to attain the lun mebala (renowned person) or lun mesangit (fierce warriors) labels.
After a successful expedition, the warrior would hold a ‘nuwi ulung buayeh’ ceremony (literally translated as erect the crocodile pole ceremony). The crocodile effigy was said to represent their strong and fearsome enemies.
During this time also, crocodile effigies were constructed from mud and pebbles were used as its scales and eyes. After ceramics were available, they were used instead.
Each guest would then be given tebukeh or rattan string tied with knots as a time piece.
The warrior would also cut notches from the tail end of the effigy, each notch representing every head he had taken during the head hunting trip. While doing this he will boast loudly about the details of each deed in an act called tengadan.
He would then cradle the latest trophy wrapped in leaves and lead an ukui and siga procession (name praising) around the effigy. Other men who had similarly proven themselves in previous raids would follow behind.
The men would encircle the effigy and ritually slash, spear or shoot at the effigy, affirming their prowess and bravery over a fierce and strong foe which they had defeated.
Among the highlights of the ceremony is when the warrior ‘slays’ the crocodile effigy with his blade.
During the ceremony, food and drink is served liberally to everyone, although women and children are not allowed to directly participate in the ceremony, but witness it from a distance.
As head hunting was officially banned during the Brooke administration, the practice ceased.
The rapid conversion of the Lun Bawang to Christianity also led the community to abandon the old tradition.
Crocodile effigies in other cultures
Besides publicising a warrior’s successful expedition, it is believed crocodile effigies were also used in peace agreements and acts of reconciliation between two factions.
These kinds of effigies can be found at Pa’ Berayong and Kampong Lebor, Jalan Gedong in Serian.
The Kampong Lebor crocodile effigy was made during the pre-Brooke era as a peace agreement between the native Remuns and the Brunei sultan.
It was said that a representative of the Brunei sultan was killed during an intense negotiation with the Remuns. Later, an agreement was reached and a mud effigy was made to acknowledge that peace agreement.
What makes this interesting from an archaeological point of view is that some of the soil that forms part of the effigy’s head was said to be taken from the sultan’s astana.
Meanwhile, for Kampong Tang Itong and Pa’ Gaya of the Lawas District, the effigies were said to be made as land boundary markers.
Crocodile Effigies Today
While the construction of crocodile effigies were closely associated with headhunting, presently it is mostly performed in opening ceremonies of important festivals.
Honoured guests are supposed to place a blade on the neck of the crocodile to symbolise head cutting, in the same way we cut ribbons today.