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Mandi Rumah, an old Iban housewarming ceremony

An example of an Iban Longhouse. Dusun Kedungkang, an Iban longhouse located near Danau Sentarum, West Kalimantan.

Different cultures have different housewarming traditions as people embark on the next step of their lives, which is settling into their new homes.

While housewarming rituals can encompass religious blessings, other cultural traditions may include symbolic gestures like lighting a candle on the first night, or painting the front porch roof blue or ringing a bell around the house to create positive spaces.

For the Iban people of Sarawak in the olden days, their specific ceremony when they started to move into a new home was called mandi rumah.

One of the few testimonies of mandi rumah from back then was written by Reverend William Howell, who submitted an essay about the ceremony to Sarawak Gazette which was published on March 1, 1909.

Here is what Reverend Howell wrote about the Iban ceremony, mandi rumah:

When a new house has been taken possession of by its future occupants, there are few ceremonies that must be gone through in order to make it habitable, such as the rite of making it lawful for the house to receive food for its inhabitants.

But the rite of mandi rumah (house washing) may be deferred although the house must be under certain restrictions until it has been performed.

Mandi rumah literally translated is “to bathe the house”. Yet the term is more common than the more exact phrase masu rumah ‘to wash the house’.

Muai rumah (to abolish the house) is also used as the name of this feast, having reference to the abolishing of restrictions by its observance.

It is hard to say what was the original significance of this observance, for nothing but the name implies anything about washing, the ceremony as now performed having nothing to suggest it. Perhaps, however, there is a hint of the original idea remaining in the restriction that prevents anyone polluting the water of the bathing and watering place, by fishing with the aid of tuba (poisonous root) which is thrown into the water to stupefy the fish or kill them, before the masu rumah.

Again, if, as the name implies, a cleansing of the house is meant it is difficult to divine its purpose. The washing of an old house might signify the purging of some stain of guilt attaching to it or its inmates, but in the case of a new house it seems to imply a sort of consecration to good purposes, and the formal renunciation of all that is accounted by Dayak custom immoral.

The restrictions before mandi rumah

Iban ceremonies typically have a period of “fasting” before the actual event, where certain daily activities which could affect the outcome of said ceremony will be put on hold.

In the case of mandi rumah, that means that alot of the activities typically held in the longhouse veranda are prohibited. These include settlements of disputes; fines, if imposed may not be paid; wearing and the making of blankets from bark (tekalong) are also prohibited until the housewarming ceremony is held.

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Anybody caught breaking these rules will have to pay a fine, which usually takes the form of sacrifice. It is believed that paying this penalty will prevent any misfortune from falling upon the residents of the longhouse as a result of their misstep.

Preparing for mandi rumah

The mandi rumah feast itself is generally held after a good harvest. According to Howell, preparation for the feast typically takes two to three months.

When the event, or “promise of three days” nears, invitations are sent out, and fighting cocks are prepared for the festivities.

Much like Gawai Dayak today, mandi rumah also takes place over the course of three days. Unlike Gawai Dayak, however, the main event – which is the feasting – is on the third day.

The first day is devoted to making the ladder for the house which will be used in a ritual called beban tangga. The second day to preparing cooking of piring i.e. offerings that are to be made to the gods at the feast.

Three rites properly belong to the feast; namely beban tangga, mangkong tiang (striking the post) and ngiga igi engkuni (seeking the seed of the engkuni tree) which is used as a charm.

The feast of mandi rumah

When all the guests, who include all the men of importance arrive, they are received with great ceremony and a pig is sacrificed for them, or a libation made of their tuak, or homemade drink.

This is by way of an offering to their patron saints or gods.

The opening ceremony is miring ka tangga (the offering of the ladder). As soon as the new ladder is placed in position, Pulang Gana and other gods are honoured with an offering, which is hung underneath the ladder, and the sacrifice of a pig.

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Howell says a chanter (typically an old man) then recites as follows:

“But thou art the heart of iron wood,
Come up, and bring with them brassware,
As gongs, tetawak and bebendai,
Let their merchandise be cheap, etc.”

Mangkong tiang

The second ceremony is mangkong tiang. The same chanter enters the room of the tuai rumah, or head of the longhouse first, to perform this rite.

Another offering is prepared in the room, and is placed on the shelf of the kitchen for Pulang Gana, the god of the earth.

The old chanter then strikes a post of the house with a bamboo containing pulut while reciting this incantation:

“Thou art not a common bamboo,
Thou at the heart of iron wood,
Be thou a supporter to fill the paddy bin,
And cause the Malays, the Chinese, the Europeans,
To come and buy paddy, and help us, O Pulang Gana.”

The chanter must repeat the ceremony in every room. According to Howell, it can take a better part of the day, and the old man might feel very drowsy or fatigued by the whole thing.

Ngiga igi engkuni

The ruai of Dusun Kedungkang, an Iban longhouse of Batang Lupar district, West Kalimantan.

In the ruai or reception room of the house, the professional reciters are deeply engaged with their incantation called “pengap” to look for igi engkuni.

It is a long recitation and it is done at the top of their voices to implore the father of Nendak to descend from above and give them the igi engkuni.

Apai or the father of Nendak, is believed to come down and put the igi engkuni in the engkuni post from where the longhouse people will pick it up.

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The incantation begins in the afternoon and will continue until daylight the next day.

The feast itself lasts a day and a night and the house or village is generally quite full.

At the approach of daylight, the longhouse is a hive of activity again as Apai Nendak, Pulang Gana and the rest of the gods are believed to have arrived at the feast.

Offerings are made to them and musical instruments are struck louder and with more liveliness and energy.

“Shouting and laughter, the crowing of cocks and dogs fighting all about the place are enough to drive anyone mad. Such is this religious feast of the Dayaks.”

Have you witnessed this ceremony of mandi rumah in your own longhouse? Let us know in the comment box.

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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