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10 things you need to know about baruk, the Bidayuh cultural house

A baruk or pangah is the main section of a traditional Bidayuh village in Sarawak.

It is also known as baluh, balui, balu, or pangarah according to the different dialects of the Bidayuh.

In the olden days, every Bidayuh village used to have one baruk as the centre for various purposes, much like our modern day multipurpose halls.

A baruk at Sarawak Cultural Village.

Here are 10 things you need to know about the baruk:

1. A place for Bidayuh warriors to come together

The commonly known purpose of it is as a place of congregation for Bidayuh warriors. When headhunting was still the norm, this was where the headhunters gathered to meet up.

2. Baruk designs can vary

This cultural house has been built in octagonal or circular shapes. It is usually built on stilts about three to five meters above the ground. Some come with a door in the side while some of the earliest designs can only be accessed through a trap door through the floor.

3.The earliest written records of the baruk dates back to the 1840s

Speaking of earliest designs, Sir Hugh Low (1824-1905) a British colonial administrator and naturalist wrote an early account of baruks in Sarawak, its Inhabitants and Productions (1848).

He referred to it as a pangah, describing it as an octagonal structure built on stilts. There was a large fire place in the middle of the building and platforms encircling it.

4. A trophy room for headhunters

Another early account of the baruk is written by English journalist Frederick Boyle (1841-1914) but he called it a pangaran house.

In his book Adventure among the Dyaks of Borneo (1865), Boyle described his experience visiting a baruk in a dilapidated state at Kampung (village) Krokong, Bau.

He wrote, “In it were hung nine human heads, among which an immense specimen belonging formerly, as we were told, to a Dyak from Serike.”

This is why some Western scholars refer it as the ‘head-house’. Apart from the skulls of their enemies, it also houses relics such as gongs and weapons.

Baruk 1
Skulls on display inside the baruk at Sarawak Cultural Village.
5. The olden day meeting room

When government officers came to a visit at a Bidayuh village, the baruk would serve as the discussion venue for the meeting.

It also served as a meeting room for the villagers to discuss farm work and other affairs.

6. A place for religious purposes

Before Christianity came, the baruk played a major role as a ceremonial place for the Adat Lama (old practices) of the Bidayuh.

Ritual and religious ceremonies were held in the baruk for all villagers to attend.

Baruk 2
A traditional ritual such as Nentang Jule (a post-harvest thanksgiving ceremony) held in Kampung Pichin Longhouse Homestay, Serian. This kind of ceremony would have been held in a baruk back in the olden days.
7. It also served as shelter

When there was a sudden attack on the village, the villagers would gather at the baruk for protection. Since it was built on high stilts, this gave the Bidayuh warriors a upper hand against their enemies.

New Zealand anthropologist Dr. William Robert Geddess spent two years at Kampung Mentu Tapuh Serian after the end of World War II. He described that the baruk stood higher off the ground than other buildings in the village, giving an advantageous a viewing point for the warriors to keep watch for incoming attacks.

It also offered shelter for visiting travellers seeking accommodation.

8.The house is a some sort of ‘detention room’

According to local historian Chang Pat Foh in The Land of Freedom Fighters, the building is a some sort like a detention room in the olden days.
He wrote, “All unmarried men and young boys were compelled to sleep in the baruk to keep them out of mischief.”

9. Only a few authentic baruk remain

Perhaps because of the spread of Christianity and headhunting no longer in practice, most Bidayuh villages do not have a baruk.

With change in lifestyle and modern conveniences, the baruk has fallen out of use.

Nonetheless, those who are interested can still find authentic ones at Kampung Opar (Bau), Kampung Benu (Padawan) and Sarawak Cultural Village.

10. It’s design has inspired many modern buildings in and around Kuching

Despite falling out of use in modern living, the baruk remains an iconic structure for the Bidayuh people. The octagonal or circular shape of the building has inspired a few modern buildings including Bau Civic Centre, Dayak Bidayuh National Association (DBNA) hall and Kampung Taee community hall.

You can also stay in a baruk-inspired hotel room at Damai Beach Resort, Santubong which comes complete with a view of South China Sea.