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Sarawak traditional handicrafts in danger of being lost

In a paper published in the Sarawak Museum Journal in August 1983, former Sarawak Museum director Lucas Chin came up with a list.

The list is made of Sarawak traditional handicrafts he had observed would become extinct.

It has been almost 40 years since Chin listed down these items. Going through the list, however, we could not agree more that these Sarawak traditional handicrafts are in danger of being lost or have already vanished.

So here are the endangered Sarawak traditional handicrafts in need of revival according to Chin in 1983:

Wood carvings:

  • Kenyah carved wooden utensils: dishes, bowls and spoons which are elaborately carved and decorated should be revitalised and promoted.
  • Kenyah traditional ceremonial wooden masks. He recommended that smaller but genuine versions be produced for the market.
  • Sape musical instrument – smaller versions should be produced and sold together with the cassette music tape.
  • Parang Ilang- Chin noted that those produced in the Baram and Belaga were very coarse and simplified. Traditionally, the parang ilang blade is proportionately cut and decorated and the sheath decorated with tufts of hair or fibre and carved bone.
  • Blowpipes which are only produced by the Penan should be further promoted.
  • Traditional walking sticks which are more elaborately carved than those simplified ones available in the market today, should be encouraged to be produced and promoted.
  • Traditional ceremonial Iban hornbill carving, a stylised interpretation of a striking bird, which holds and honoured place in the Iban folklore – smaller genuine versions are recommended to be produced and promoted.
  • Iban carved trap charms (tuntun peti) – these small carvings in the form of squatting human figure with the elbows resting on the knee, etc., were traditionally made and used by the Iban to attract and lure game, especially wild pigs. The Iban no longer produce these as most of them own shotguns.
  • The series of sickness images made by the Melanau in connection with their healing ceremonies, should be encouraged to be produced and promoted. Traditionally, these images were quickly carved from sago pith. It is recommended that carvers should produced these images from more lasting soft wood (for instance jelutong) but not hard wood as it is difficult to carve the intricate designs onto hard wood.
  • The series of fishing fetishes elaborately carved from the antlers by the Melanau as fishing charms, should be encouraged to be produced and promoted. Antlers are difficult to get nowadays, but it is recommended that other bones, like those of buffalo, should be used by the craftsmen for carving these items.
  • The series of bamboo items such as ceremonial shields, walking sticks, tobacco pipes, pencil holders, etc., which are still being popularly produced by the Bidayuh of Kampung Pichin, need further improvement as their workmanship and standard somewhat deteriorated.

Textiles Weaving

  1. The Sarawak famous Kain Songket, Kain Berturus and other garments produced by the Malay, should be revitalised and promoted. Apparently only one elderly lady living along Datu’s Road (sincd renamed Jalan Datuk Ajibah Abol after Sarawak’s first female minister) could produce this craft.
  • Iban textiles like blankets, skirts, jackets and other smaller garments traditionally woven on simple loom, should also need to be looked into as the technique is gradually being modified. Weavers nowadays no longer take the trouble to collect, prepare and process the raw materials for weaving. Instead, more and more weavers prefer to use commercial coloured threads, dyes, etc.,
  • Kenyah/Lun Bawang/Kelabit bark cloth – it is recommended that simple sleeveless jackets made of bark and decorated with traditional designs should be revitalised and promoted, not so much for wearing, but for decorative purposes.

Basket, Mats and Hats

  • Smaller versions of the tikar lampit produced by the Kayan, Kenyah and Kelabit and should be encouraged to be produced. Nowadays, it is difficult to see any good tikar lampit on sale. It is suspected that the saga rattan is getting difficult to obtain in the jungle nowadays;
  • The Kayan/Kenyah sun hats (saong in Kenyah/hong in Kayan) traditionally produced by the Kayan and Kenyah should be encouraged to be produced and promoted as these items are popular among tourists.
Sarawak traditional handicrafts that are in danger of being lost
A Kayan woman weaving a traditional mat.

Hopes for Sarawak traditional handicrafts

Some of these handicrafts that Chin predicted as ‘in danger of being lost’ have become extinct 40 years later due to a number of factors like change in lifestyle and depletion of natural resources.

There is no way we could revive Iban hornbill carving, for example, as the bird is an endangered species. Even so, we still can find other alternatives to revive this art form without harming the environment.

Overall, other Sarawak traditional handicrafts on Chin’s list have potential to be revitalised. For example, promoting the Kayan and Kenyah sun hats just as vigorously as Vietnam promotes their leaf hats. You can find them in almost every handicraft store in that country.

Thankfully, Sarawak traditional handicrafts such as sape and Iban textiles are still being promoted and produced today, even taking on the world stage in contemporary art and music.

Other items like the Iban tuntun peti, fishing fetishes carved from antlers and Melanau sago carving, however, are almost never heard of nowadays.

What Chin wrote in 1983 still rings true today:“A country without heritage can be likened to a person without a passport or identity. Although the Government is making gradual efforts to preserve and protect our heritage, I believe that the people themselves should also play a major part in preserving their heritage.”

What we can learn about Iban customs from Rev Edwin H. Gomes

Reverend Edwin Herbert Gomes was an Anglican missionary in Sarawak at the beginning of the twentieth century.

During his 17 years of working here, he wrote several books about Sarawak including Seventeen Years Among the Sea Dyaks of Borneo (1911).

He received permission from ethnologist Dr Charles Hose to use his photographs for the book.

Through the book, readers can not only read a missionary’s experience in Sarawak but images to give the rough ideas of what it was like in those days.  

Rev Gomes recorded mostly about the customs of the Ibans with whom he worked closely.

From naming the children to burial rites, Gomes’ writing is based on what he had observed and what the Ibans in the early 19th century told him.

Perhaps because of the nature of his job as a pastor, the tone of his writing is not condescending but respectful.  

Iban customs
The figures in this picture were posed to give some idea of Dayak warfare. In the foreground was a ‘dead’ man. The Dayak over him was grasping his hair about to ‘cut off’ his head. Meanwhile, the two figures on the left and the man behind were waiting with their spears to attack the man who had taken refuge in the hole in the stump of a tree. Credit: Creative Commons. Copyright Expired.

So here are some of the things we learned about Iban customs as observed by Reverend Edwin Herbert Gomes:

Iban Customs 1
A Sea Dayak with Shield
The man is dressed in the usual waist-cloth the Dayak wear. On his head is a headkerchief decorated with a fringe. He wears a necklace of large silver buttons. On his arms are sea-shell bracelets, and on his calves a large number of palm fibre rings. His right hand is holding the handle of his sword, the sheath of which is fastened to his belt, and his left hand is on his shield. The shield is made out of one piece of wood and coloured with a fanciful design. It is decorated with human hair from the head of dead enemies.
Credit: Creative Commons. Copyright Expired.

1. Iban customs on adultery

First of all, Gomes described Iban customs on adultery as “peculiar and worthy of notice.”

 “If a woman commit adultery with a married man, his wife may make a complaint to the headman of the house, and receive a fine from the guilty woman; or, if she prefer it, she may waylay the guilty woman and thrash her; but if she do so, she must forgo one-half of the fine otherwise due to her.

In the eyes of the Dyak the woman is alone to blame in a case like this. “She knew,” they say, “the man has a wife of his own; she had no business to entice him away from her.” If a married man commits adultery with an unmarried woman the procedure is similar. The wife of the man may punish the girl, but no one punishes the man. The whole blame, according to Dyak ideas, falls on the woman for tempting the man.

If a married man commits adultery with a married woman, the husband of the woman is allowed to strike him with a club or otherwise maltreat him, while the wife of the adulterer has the right to treat the adulteress in the same way.

The innocent husband supposes the one most to be blamed is not his wife, but her tempter, and vice versâ. This striking must not, however, take place in a house; it must be done in the open. The club used must not be of hard wood.

Very often this striking is merely a means of publishing the fact that adultery has been committed, and no one is much hurt, but I have known cases where the man has been very badly wounded.

No striking can take place after the matter has been talked about or confessed, and if one knew for certain of a case of adultery, one could easily stop this maltreatment of each other by talking about it publicly.

The case is then settled by fining the guilty parties. Where both parties are married, and no divorce follows, the fining is no punishment, because each party pays to the other.”

2. Who owns a tree according to Iban customs?

Iban Customs 3
Iban longhouse. Credit: Creative Commons. Copyright Expired.

Gomes also recorded the Iban customs regarding the ownership of a tree and the answer might surprise you.

“Fruit-trees are owned by the people who plant them. The different families in a Dyak house plant fruit-trees near their part of the house. When they leave the spot and build a new habitation elsewhere, they each still claim ownership of the trees they planted.

The rule with regard to fruit-trees is that anyone may take the ripe fruit that has fallen, but only the owner or someone deputed by him may climb the tree.

Banting Hill, where I lived for some years, was covered with fruit-trees (durian), and at night during the fruit season crowds of men and boys would watch for the falling of the ripe fruit. They would each have a torch made of the bark of some tree, and they would sit and wait with the torch smouldering by their side.

As soon as a ripe durian fruit was heard to fall, they would wave their torches in the air to make them flare up into a flame, and they would rush to the spot, and the person who found the fruit would take possession of it.”

3.Iban customs when mourning

Every culture has its own custom especially when mourning for someone’s death including the Iban.

When anyone dies, the ulit, or mourning, has to be observed by the immediate relatives of the deceased, and continues until the feast in honour of the dead (Gawai Antu) is held. All the finery and bright articles of apparel belonging to the relatives are tied up in a bundle and put away. At the Gawai Antu the string which binds this bundle together is cut by the headman of the house, and they may use their bright garments again. The mourning (ulit) includes many other restrictions beside the prohibition of ornaments and bright-coloured clothing. There must be no striking of gongs or drums or dancing or merrymaking in the house. In the old days the mourning could not end until one of the relatives managed to secure a human head.

On the third day an observance called Pana is made. A plate containing rice and other eatables, as well as a Dyak chopper, an axe, and a cup, are taken by several of the neighbours to the room of the dead person. They go to tell the mourners to weep no more, and to give the dead man food. They enter the room, and one of them—generally[140] an old man of some standing—pushes open the window with the chopper, and the offering of food is thrown out for the benefit of the dead man and his spirit companions. Up to this time the near relatives of the dead man live in strict seclusion in their room, but after it they may come out to the public part of the house and return to their usual occupations. But the ulit, or mourning, is still observed, and does not come to an end till the feast in honour of the dead (Gawai Antu) is held.

4.The power of the tuai rumah

According to Iban customs, the tuai rumah or head of the longhouse also played the role of judge when there is a conflict. The reverend had the opportunity to witness trials during his missionary work in Sarawak.

“Whenever I have been present, the fine was cheerfully paid. The punishment, in fact, was very slight. Though the Government recognize this method of settling disputes among themselves, still, if Dyaks are discontented with the decision of their headmen, they can always bring their case for trial before the Government officer of the district. But this is seldom done. The fine imposed by the headman is so small compared to that which would have to be paid if the case were tried elsewhere that the guilty party generally prefers to pay it cheerfully rather than appeal to the Government.

If the dispute be between the inmates of one house and those of another, then the headmen of both houses have to be present at the trial. When matters are at all complicated, headmen from other houses are also asked to be present and help in the administration of justice.

I learn from conversations with the older Dyaks that in bygone days the power of the headman was much greater than it is now. Then he used to impose much heavier fines and take part of them himself for his trouble, and no Dyak dared to murmur against the decision of his Chief. In those days there was no court of appeal. The only means of protesting was to leave the house and build on to another, and in the old days such a thing was not so easily done as at present. The Dyak houses were much longer and built much farther apart, and to join another house meant moving to a district very far away and cutting off all connection with relatives and friends.

5. Iban custom of settling disputes by diving

Of all the Iban customs which recorded by Gomes, the one that no longer practiced is the diving ordeal since sometimes it resulted in death.

Here is Gomes’ record on it:

The practice of referring disputed questions to supernatural decision is not unknown to the Dyaks. They have the trial by ordeal, and believe that the gods are sure to help the innocent and punish the guilty. I have heard of several different methods, which are seldom resorted to nowadays. The only ordeal that I have frequently seen among the Dyaks is the Ordeal by Diving. When there is a dispute between two parties in which it is impossible to get any reliable evidence, or where one of the parties is not satisfied with the decision of the headman of the Dyak house, the Diving Ordeal is often resorted to.

Several preliminary meetings are held by the representatives of both parties to determine the time and place of the match. It is also decided what property each party should stake. This has to be paid by the loser to the victor. The various articles staked are brought out of the room, and placed in the public hall of the house in which each litigant lives, and there they are covered up and secured.

The Dyaks look upon a Diving Ordeal as a sacred rite, and for several days and nights before the contest they gather their friends together, and make offerings and sing incantations to the spirits, and beg of them to vindicate the just and cause their representative to win. Each party chooses a champion. There are many professional divers who for a trifling sum are willing to undergo the painful contest.

On the evening of the day previous to that on which the diving match is to take place each champion is fed with seven compressed balls of cooked rice. Then each is made to lie down on a fine mat, and is covered with the best Dyak woven sheet they have; an incantation is made over him, and the spirit inhabitants of the waters are invoked to come to the aid of the man whose cause is just.

Early the next morning the champions are roused from their sleep, and dressed each in a fine new waist-cloth. The articles staked are brought down from the houses and placed upon the bank. A large crowd of men, women, and children join the procession of the two champions and their friends and supporters to the scene of the contest at the riverside. As soon as the place is reached, fires are lit and mats are spread for the divers to sit on and warm themselves. While they sit by their respective fires, the necessary arrangements are made.

Each party provides a roughly-constructed wooden grating to be placed in the bed of the river for his champion to stand on in the water. These are placed within a few yards of each other, where the water is deep enough to reach the waist, and near each a pole is thrust firmly in the mud for the man to hold on to when he is diving.

The two men are led out into the river, and each stands on his own grating grasping his pole. At a given signal they plunge their heads simultaneously into the water. Immediately the spectators shout aloud at the top of their voices, over and over again, “Lobon—lobon,” and continue doing so during the whole contest. What these mysterious words mean, I have never been able to discover. When at length one of the champions shows signs of yielding, by his movements in the water and the shaking of the pole he is holding to, the excitement becomes very great. “Lobon—lobon,” is shouted louder and more rapidly than before. The shouts become deafening. The struggles of the poor victim who is fast becoming asphyxiated are painful to witness. The champions are generally plucky, and seldom come out of the water of their own will. They stay under water until the loser drops senseless, and is dragged ashore apparently lifeless by his companions. The friends of his opponent, raising a loud shout of triumph, hurry to the bank, and seize and carry off the stakes. The vanquished one, quite unconscious, is carried by his friends to the fire. In a few minutes he recovers, opens his eyes and gazes wildly around, and in a short time is able to walk slowly home. Next day he is probably in high fever from the effects of his dive. When both champions succumb at the same time, the one who first regains his senses is held to be the winner.

I have timed several diving contests, and where the divers are good they keep under water between three and four minutes.

Among some tribes of Dyaks, the champion is paid his fee whether he wins or loses. They say it is not the fault of the diver, but because his side is in the wrong, that he is beaten. Among other tribes, however, no fee is given to the losing champion, so he comes off very poorly indeed.

There are certain cases where diving seems to be the only means of a satisfactory decision. Take the case of the ownership of a durian tree. The tree probably does not bear fruit till fifteen years after it has been planted. Up to that time no one pays any attention to it. When the tree begins to bear fruit two or three lay claim to it. The man who originally planted it is probably dead, and no one knows for certain whom the tree belongs to. In a case like this, no amount of discussion can lead to a satisfactory decision, whereas a diving contest settles the matter to the satisfaction of all parties.

The Dyaks have great faith in the Diving Ordeal, and believe that the gods will always maintain right by making the man who is in the wrong be the loser. In fact, if a Dyak refuses the challenge of a Diving Ordeal, it is equivalent to his admitting that he is in the wrong.

Read Seventeen Years Among the Sea Dyaks of Borneo (1911) here.

Numbul and Bedukun, the Bisaya traditional healing ceremonies

Before there were doctors and nurses, the people of Sarawak relied on traditional healing ceremonies to cure sickness.

Every ethnic group has its own healing ceremony, for example the Ibans have their pelian and the Melanau turn to berayun and berbayoh to heal the sick.

For the Bisaya people in the Sarawak, their traditional healing ceremonies are called numbul and bedukun.

The numbul ceremony

It is the custom of the Bisaya that if a woman is sick, a numbul ceremony is held in order to cure her.

According to Benedict Sandin in his paper The Bisaya of Borneo and the Philippines, the word numbul means a curing ceremony for a sick woman officiated by a female shaman.

Benedict wrote, “To carry out the ceremony, a female shaman wears a petticoat, sarong, cloak and bracelets. From the wrist to the elbow of her silver are nine silver buttons.”

As she starts her invocation chants, the shaman sits at the centre of the gathering of people who beat the gongs at the open veranda of the house.

The invocation chants last from dusk till dawn. As she chants her songs, she summons the soul of the patient to return quickly from where it has wandered away.

If the patient can be cured, her soul will come back as summoned by the shaman.

What happens if she cannot be cured? Then her soul will never again come back to her.

The moment the soul comes back, the shaman catches it with her hand and places it carefully on a white piece of calico cloth. Then she places it on the head of the patient.

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What happens if the numbul ceremony fails?

After the shaman has successfully performed her numbul over the patient, the latter and her family are assured that she will be cured from her current illness.

If her soul did not return to her, another numbul ceremony can be officiated by the same shaman.

The shaman before this can still perform the numbul over the same patient up to three times.

If the patient still cannot be cured, another female shaman should be called upon to perform the numbul ceremony for her.

In the meantime, many people are invited to attend the numbul ceremony. The whole night they will partake in food and drink at the house of the patient’s family.

At the end of the ceremony, the shaman declares that every member of the patient’s family and those who stay in the same house must not do any outdoor work for three days.

Besides this, the shaman also strictly prevents any visitor who come to the house to bring with him a knife which has resin (malau) in its handle.

Any visitor found bringing such weapon will be fined according to the customary rules of the numbul ceremony.

Bedukun ceremony for a sick man

If a man is sick, the Bisaya family usually calls for a dukun (medicine man) to come to cure him.

For this ceremony, the dukun does not necessarily wear ceremonial dress as does the female shaman and he recites no long chants for the patient.

The dukun performs the ceremony only for about one hour. During this time he only blows (taurik) the air to the painful spot of the sick man’s body. Additionally, he recites a special spell (puchau) over the place of the patient’s pain.

Just like the numbul ceremony, the dukun declares that all members of the patient’s family must not do outdoor work for three days.

At the same time, he forbids all visitors to the family’s house to bring with them a knife which has resin in its handle.

Although we may not practice Sarawakian traditional healing ceremonies, it is always important to at least remember them.

The Lun Bawang legend of a giant man named Temueng

Long time ago, there was a giant man named Temueng and his friend named Pengiran who first lived at Kemaloh in Kalimantan, Indonesia.

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According to legends, these people were believed to be the ancestors of Lun Bawang people.

Benedict Sandin in his paper The Bisayah and Indigenous Peoples of Limbang, Sandin recorded the life journey of this Lun Bawang legendary hero.

“Temueng and Pengiran were much ashamed that they could not defeat in battle chief enemy named Yada. Therefore Temueng moved from Kemaloh to Punang Trusan, and Pengiran also moved and settled at Illot, now in Indonesian Borneo,” Sandin wrote.

The life of Temueng

Legend has it that owing to the extraordinary size of the body, Temueng could easily eat one whole pig per meal. He was also rumoured to be a very strong man.

Meanwhile, Abdul Karim Abdul Rahman in his paper History of the founding of Brunei Kingdom Based on Oral Tradition (2016) pointed out that Temueng was Upai Semaring’s son.

He is another giant who is a Lundayeh legend from the Krayan Highlands, Kalimantan.

Upai Semaring 4
Upai Semaring hill, where he allegedly lived in Krayan Highlands.

When he lived in the Ulu Trusan, he carved a number of rocks and the posts of his house were all made of rocks which are still intact at that location to this day.

According to Sandin, while at Punang Trusan, Temueng lived at the present day Semado Nesab village.

His house there was surrounded by wide and deep drains for protection against invasion by his enemies.

While Temueng was living at Long Lopeng, hundreds of Kayan came to attack him. Also known as Luping, Long Lopeng is a settlement in the Lawas division.

When the enemy came, he was reportedly at ease smoking his pipe.

But when they came, he knocked each one of them on the head with his pipe and killed them all.

A giant bigger than Temueng?

Another story circles around Temueng; one day Temueng went out hunting animals in the forest.

He found a huge coil of rattan which could be used in a fish trap.

Thinking that the coiled rattan cane was a leg ornament, he put his leg into it.

But the coil was bigger than Temueng’s leg, and this frightened him. Temueng immediately thought there was a giant bigger than him living in the area.

While Temueng was not afraid of those who were smaller than him, he was afraid of people bigger than him.

Terrified, he fled from Long Lopeng and down the Trusan river to live at the foot of a mountain near Long Merarap. It is believed that is where he stayed until he died.

The Lun Bawang people after the death of Temueng

It is unsure how Temueng died but the Lun Bawang people still remember him even many years on after his death.

In memory of his settlements on the upper Trusan river, the Lun Bawang people from Kemaloh moved to the lands between the headwaters of Trusan and Limbang rivers.

They moved there in small groups, each group gradually followed by others.

Expanding their territory, they moved down the Trusan till they were attacked by the Kayans.

According to Sandin, the Lun Bawang successfully repulsed the Kayans, driving them away.

To this day, the Lun Bawang still settle in various areas of Lawas and Limbang regions.

Get to know the three principal sources of Iban augury

Where were omens believed to have come from? Get to know the three principal sources of Iban augury

In Iban augury, believers rely on different ways to receive indicative omens when making a decision or taking an action.

The omens can be deliberately sought or accidentally encountered.

According to Clifford Sather in his paper Iban Agriculture Augury (1985), the Ibans viewed augury as a form of spiritual communication.

Animals such as birds are what the Iban described as the earthly manifestations of gods and spiritual heroes.

“In entering the physical world, they assume the outward form of natural species, always appearing to mankind the same form whenever they present themselves. Thus, each species has a specific connection with the spiritual world, and it is largely in terms of these connections that individual omens are interpreted and function, from the Iban point of view, as media of communications,” Sather stated.

But where do these omens come from? Here are what Sather pointed out as the three principal sources of Iban augury:

1.Singalang Burong

The first and most important is Singalang Burong. In the world of Iban mythology, he is the most powerful of the Iban deities, the god of war and male prowess.

He used seven omen birds to give warnings and guidance for his people.

The seven omen birds are rufous piculet (ketupong), banded kingfisher (embuas), scarlet-rumped trogon (beragai), Diard’s trogon (papau or kalabu), crested jay (bejampong), maroon woodpecker (pangkas) and white-rumped shama (nendak).

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These seven birds are the crucial omens in Iban augury.

Each of the seven bird omens has its own meaning. For example, the appearance of beragai during clearing of field when farming is considered auspicious.

2.Orang Panggau

Another major source of Iban augury are reptiles associated with the spiritual heroes or Orang Panggau.

Sather stated, “The world of the Orang Panggau represents an ideal image of the traditional society of the Iban themselves; its inhabitants are conceptualised as dwelling in a riverine land (menoa Panggau), present in this world but invisible to man except in dreams.”

Moreover, they frequently act through dream revelations.

Orang Panggau are often associated with knowledge of useful plants and traditional skills. Through dreams, they come to aid of craftsmen and warriors giving their helpful advise.

In the meantime as omens, they appear as snakes to become the guardian of the Iban people.

Sather listed four snake omens which are sent by Orang Panggau. These are cobra (tedong), python (sawa), coral snake (kendawang) and king cobra (belalang).

The presence of these augury snake means danger to humans hence it is advisable to return home and take a day off.

Overall, the appearance of snake omens are generally inauspicious. It forewarns of a family death, serious illness and a sign to choose a new farms it.

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3.Simpulang Gana

Like Singalang Burong, Simpulang Gana is a major deity in Iban mythology. He is the god of agriculture and custodian of the earth.

He presides over rice-farming on top of sending farming omens.

Sather stated, “The earth is Simpulang Gana’s personal domain. Thus he has a special connection with rice fields and associated with him are a number of animals and insects especially linked with the earth.”

His principal augural emissaries are belangkiang lizard, hairy caterpillar (ulat bulu), tarsier (ingkat), loris (bengkang), monitor lizard (menarat), mouse deer (pelandok), porcupine (landak), barking deer (kijang), bear (beruang), wild boar (jani) and sambar deer (rusa).

For instance, it is generally considered auspicious to discover either loris, tarsier or belangkiang lizard when clearing a new farm site.

Interestingly, Sather pointed out, “The belangkiang lizard should be cut open, and is acknowledged, as a rule, only if eggs are found inside its stomach. The number of eggs is said to equal the number of paddy bins the farmer can expect to fill at the time of harvest.”

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How a magic mushroom caused people to speak in different languages

How everyone began speaking in different languages according to a Taman legend.

Have you heard of Psilocybin mushroom? Widely known as ‘magic mushroom’, this type of fungi is usually consumed for its hallucinogenic effects.

Once consumed, the person may experience euphoria and change in consciousness, mood and even perception.

They may even experience visual and auditory hallucinations.

As fascinating as this magic mushroom may sound, it is not as interesting as a type of mushroom found in a Taman legend.

The Taman people belong to the Dayak group of Kalimantan.

Though they are few in number (estimated at about 30,000 people), their culture and mythology are colourful.

How a magic mushroom caused people to speak in different languages

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An illustration by

Long time ago, the descendants of the first man and woman were numerous and they all spoke the same language.

Then one day, one of them came across some magic mushrooms. Everyone ate them and instantly fell into a drunken stupor.

When they woke up, they started to ask each other what had happened.

Oddly, nobody really understood each other.

They began to seek those who spoke the same language and started to form groups with them.

The dispersal

Not long after this happened, a great flood inundated the land.

The whole island of Borneo was covered by water except Mount Cemaru. It is a mountain located at Long Apari district of Mahakam Ulu at East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Standing at 1681m high, the mountain is the source of Mahakam river.

Many Dayak people took refuge there during the flood.

However, most people built rafts, sampans and other larger boats which took them to the four corners of the earth.

With these people migrating to the different parts of the world, that was how these languages became dispersed.

University of Hull researcher Victor T. King collected this legend during his trip to West Kalimantan from July 1972 to Sept 1973 and recorded it in his paper “Main Outlines of Taman Oral Tradition”.

7 things Kayan women were forbidden to do when the men left for headhunting trips

In the olden days, Kayan men were renowned as notorious headhunters. Their reputation as fierce warriors spread so wide and wild that they were often mistaken as cannibals.

Whenever the men went for headhunting trips, the women were left in the longhouses fending for themselves.

These headhunting trips usually took months before they could return to their loved ones.

In the meantime, the Kayan women would take care of the household and their farms, making sure their families had enough to eat.

Back in those days, the Kayan people also had their own traditional beliefs and shamanism.

Besides commencing their usual chores, the Kayan women were forbidden to do certain things due to their beliefs.

7 things Kayan women were forbidden to do when the men left for headhunting trips:

Ethnologist Benedict Sandin published his paper The Traditional Folklore of the Kayan of Upper Rajang when he was a Senior Fellow in Universiti Sains Malaysia.

From his interviews with the elders of Kayan from Upper Rajang river, he recorded seven things wives, sisters, mothers and close female relatives were not allowed to do.

  1. Eat the meat of barking deer, as this animal was believed to produce bad luck.

2. Eat the dongan fish (a type of freshwater fish) as the stripes on its body also could mirror the marks the warriors would receive on their bodies made by the enemy on their warrior son or husband.

3. Eat the cabbage of palm of any kind, in order not to blind the warrior’s eyes while fighting against his foe.

4. Hold a needle, so that the legs of the warriors were prevented from being pricked by thorns and spikes made by the enemy.

5. Have sexual intercourse with another man, in order that the warrior or husband mat not fall down under the body of his foe. Besides this, it was believed that the warrior would act as if he was having sexual intercourse in front of his foe.

6. Eat mekai leaves (Albertisia papuana), to prevent the eyes of the warrior from being unclear when drawing out his sword from its scabbard and thus give a chance to the enemy to cut him.

7. Wake up late in the morning, so that the warrior husband will not be slow to fight while on the warpath.

Henry Ling Roth in The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo

Anthropologist Henry Ling Roth recorded similar dos and donts for women in his book The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo.

However, he did not point out which tribe that practiced them and generalized them as Dayak women.

Regardless of what happened during the headhunting trip, the women would continue their daily activities as usual. Roth noted, “As long the men are away their fires are lighted on the stones or small just as if they were at home.”

Apart from carrying on with their daily jobs, the women carried out a couple of tasks symbolically to protect their men from afar.

For example, the women spread mats and kept the fires up till late in the evening and lit them again before dawn.

This was to ensure men during the war expeditions would not get cold.

Roth added, “The roofing of the house is opened before dawn, so that the men may not lie too long and fall into the enemies’ hands.”

It is good to know that women had their own roles when it came to headhunting and warfare.

The Iban legend of Batu Indai Binjut you might never have heard of

Legend has it that in Paku river at Nanga Anyut, there is a stone of three petrified women called Batu Indai Binjut.

In ancient times before the Paku region was populated by the Ibans the area sparsely inhabited by an ancient tribe of people called the Baketan.

The last of their group who left Paku took place in the days of Iban chiefs Kaya and Bayans eight generations ago.

Long before Tindin the first Iban migrant arrived in the Paku from Skrang, one sunny morning three Baketen women went out to fish (mansai) at the mouth of the Ayut stream.

As they fished an empelasi fish jumped out of the water and touched one of the girl’s breasts.

On seeing this, the girl sigh and said, “Eh! If it were only a young man, even an empelasi fish been attracted by the beauty of my breasts”.

On hearing her words her companions started to laugh and joke with one another and said that, “Even a tiny fish had wanted to covet them, so what more if a young man should see her breasts”.

They continued joking and laughing.

Invoking the wrath of gods

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The sky turns dark and the women slowly turned into stone.

As they laughed the sunshine suddenly disappeared and the sky started to become overcast, the wind blew strongly and was followed by torrential rain. Due to the heavy storm the three poor women could not find where to go.

They stood where they were and they gradually turned into stone.

It was said that up to seven days after their petrification, their heads were still able to speak and ask food from those who happened to come to that place. No one dared to give them anything, and they died due to petrification as well as due to starvation.

Even now this stone can still be seen in the shape of human beings, lying at the left bank of the Paku river below the mouth of the Anyut stream.

The mention of Batu Indai Binjut in an Iban folk song

According to Benedict Sandin, a former Sarawak Museum curator who recorded this legend, there is a mention of Batu Indai Binjut in the Iban Pengan song.

The song is about when either Simpulang Gana and Sengalang Burong became puzzled on hearing the sound of wind which came to invite him to attend the feast of men.

Here is the lyric of the song goes:

“Who amongst us angers the land and the world?
Well try and burn the remains of our derris,
And crop the hair which falls over our foreheads!
But still the wind would not stop blowing,
And the hurricane blew continually!”
“Oh! Maybe the children have collected the red ants!,
In baskets with holes
Or maybe someone has dipped a frog into a wooden trough?”
The children would reply:
The stone of Indai Binjut
At the mouth of river Anyut,
Has long been known to us, Serit Mamut,
As caused by a disaster during fishing”.

The similarity between the legend of Batu Indai Binjut and the legend of Ikan Pasit

If you feel the legend of Batu Indai Binjut sounds familiar, it is because it is almost familiar with Ikan Pasit.

The first Ranee of Sarawak, Margaret Brooke recorded this legend in her book My Life in Sarawak.

According to the legend, there was a village called Marup.

One day there was a girl who went fishing and caught what the locals called ‘ikan pasit’.

As she was preparing the fish, one of them jumped up and touched her breast.

“What are you doing? Do you imagine that you are my husband?” she said, laughing at her own joke.

The people who were there also laughed and those who heard the commotion came over and also laughed.

Suddenly, the sky turned grey and a mighty wind blew accompanied by flashes of lightning.

Then a hail-storm began. Hail stones fell down non-stop and hitting everybody even their houses, turning them into stone.

Meanwhile, the girl who made fun of the ikan pasit was only partly petrified. Just like the three Baketan ladies, the girl’s her head and neck were unchanged while the remaining part of her body was turned into stone.

Together with the rest of her village, the whole longhouse and its residents fell into the river.

Living as part human, part stone

While the Baketan women died due to the petrification and starvation, sadly for the girl, she lived many years with a living head and stone as her body.

Many tried to end her misery by striking her with a blade but nothing worked. Until one day, a man who heard her cries came.

Like many who came before him, he tried to strike her head with an axe and a sword but neither worked.

Eventually he struck her with a spindle and her cries finally stopped while her head and neck slowly turned into stone.

It is believed, the group of rocks believed to be Marup village were not far from Lubok Antu.

The Melanau Oya legend of Bunga Lawan and the wicked antu sababu

Here is the Melanau version of a changeling; the legend of Bunga Lawan and the wicked antu sababu.

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Long time ago, there was a nobleman who lived happily with his wife.

Once upon a time, there lived in Oya a Melanau nobleman with his lovely wife and his sister. This man was Bunga Lawan, the “Flower of Strength of Melanau Warriors”.

His wife was Dayang Tri-Ikat-ku Bunga and his sister was Dayang Salalan.

When Dayang Tri came with child, she told her husband that she would like to eat buah pangai, a fruit that tastes sour when it is eaten unripe but is still a favourite among Melanau women.

The tree that bore buah pangai fruit was on the opposite bank of the river, so Bunga Lawan asked his wife to accompany him. Dayang Tri also asked her sister-in-law to join them and together they set off in a boat, bringing some food with them.

On reaching their destination they were surprised to find the fruit tree was not there. Dayang Tri persuaded her husband to look for another tree, and so Bunga Lawan went deeper into the forest with his sister, leaving Dayang Tri alone in the boat. In those days, it was a Melanau taboo for women who were with child not to go into the forest.

Dayang Tri and antu sababu

While Bunga Lawan and his sister were off looking for the fruit, Dayang Tri sat alone in the boat trying to amuse herself by putting her hands into the water.

Suddenly she saw a woman coming towards her from the river bank.

It turns out that this woman was the wicked fairy, the antu sababu, who was out to do her harm.

Dayang Tri did not realise this, inviting the woman to sit down in the boat with her. No sooner had the fairy entered the boat than she knocked Dayang Tri unconscious and threw her into the river.

Then the cunning antu sababu changed herself into Dayang Tri.

Antu Sababu living as Dayang Tri

When Bunga Lawan and his sister returned, the wicked fairy tried to greet them as Dayang Tri had always done, but she was unsuccessful because she was an antu.

It is said that wicked antu shout at people rather than talk to them, and so try as she might, she could not keep her voice down.

Believing that it was Dayang Tri, and not a wicked antu, Bunga Lawan thought that the atmosphere of the forest had affected his wife’s disposition and he hurriedly rowed homeward.

In time the antu sababu’s behaviour became worse, so much so that Bunga Lawan left her alone as often as he could. Soon she gave birth to a son who was just as ugly and wicked as his mother.

As the boy grew his wickedness became more pronounced; he would bully and beat up all his friends. Bunga Lawan was so angry that he ordered his men to kill his wife but spare the boy as he believed he was of his line.

Bunga Lawan also swore he would never marry again.

Ugul and Mainang

Near where Bunga Lawan had gone to look for buah pangai there lived an old couple who had no children. The couple were named Ugul and Mainang.

Ugul was a farmer and a fisherman. One morning, Mainang told her husband that she had had a dream the night before. She dreamt that the moon had fallen to earth and that she had picked it up.

To the Melanaus such a dream was portentous of good fortune.

Ugul teased his wife about it, making her angry. She turned away and told her husband not to follow her no matter where she went that day.

Mainang went to the river and looked into the trap that Ugul had set the previous night. To her surprise, she did not find fish, but a beautiful woman! She shouted for her husband to come and they strained as they pulled it up – for they were very old – at last successfully dragging the trap onto the bank.

They opened it and took the woman out. They rubbed her with a reviving potion and at long last she opened her eyes, and said, “Where am I?”

“You are with us, child,” said Mainang. They then brought her to their home and the aged couple treated her as their own.

Dayang Tri living with Ugul and Mainang

The woman was, of course, the lovely Dayang Tri whose place the antu sababu had usurped.

In time Dayang Tri gave birth to a fine boy who looked very much like his mother.

At the sight of the boy, Dayang Tri would often weep as she remembered husband Bunga Lawan.

Her son was called Berdak Mas. When Berdak Mas was 3-years-old, he found his mother weeping one day.

Little as he was, he wanted to know why.

Dayang Tri revealed to him who she was and who his father was.

On hearing this, the boy went away resolving that he would go to look for his father one day.

However, whenever he told his mother about this, Dayang Tri said he was far too young to think about it.

Berdak Mas and his dream

One night, Berdak Mas was asleep when he saw an old man coming to him.

The old man told him that his father, Bunga Lawan was very sick. “You are the only person, my child, who could cure your father’s illness. But before you go to him, you must be made strong so that no harm will come to you,” said the old man.

The next morning, Berdak Mas told his mother what had happened and sought permission to leave her.

His mother reluctantly agreed, even packing some food for his journey.

He bid farewell to her and travelled day and night.

Berdak Mas goes against Antu Sababu’s son

At last Berdak Mas came to a place where he saw a group of boys playing marbles.

He asked about Bunga Lawan and one of the boys who was very ugly said to him, “He is my father. Come and play with me. If you beat me in the game I shall lead you to him, but if you lose I shall beat you up.”

Berdak Mas agreed. No sooner had the ugly boy’s marble come into contact with his than it broke into hundreds of fragments. The ugly boy became very angry, dragging Berdak Mas to his father who lay in bed.

The happily ever after

As soon as Bunga Lawan saw him he bid him come near and asked, “Who are you, child?”

The little boy then told his father the story that his mother had told him. On hearing this, Bunga Lawan was so delighted that he got well again and followed his son back to his mother.

Dayang Tri was waiting for them both at the door and great was their reunion.

The ugly boy, son of the antu sababu, became their servant while Ugul and Mainang were taken to live with them in Bunga Lawan’s home. They all lived happily ever after.

This legend was recorded by Gertrude Wong and published in The Sarawak Gazette on Nov 30, 1953.

Iban, Malay or Chinese? Looking at the origin of the name ‘Santubong’

The name Santubong is widely known among Sarawakians as the name of a mountain located in Sarawak.

The common myth is that the mountain takes its name after a celestial princess. But what other origin stories are there behind the name Santubong?

The legend of Princess Santubong

The common understanding of the legend behind Puteri Santubong is that she and her sister Puteri Sejinjang had an epic fight. As it usually is when it comes to fairy tales and legends, the two were fighting about which one of them was the more beautiful.

Sejinjang hit Santubong’s head, causing Santubong to fall to the earth. Managing to get the last ‘word’ in, Santubong threw the beam of her weaving loom at Sejinjang right before she fell and became a mountain.

The impact of her weaving loom broke Sejinjang’s body, and the pieces of her scattered into the ocean, forming nearby islands Pulau Satang, Pulau Talang-Talang and so on.

The discussion on the name Santubong in Sarawak Gazette correspondence

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The view that greets you from the top of Mount Santubong.

In the Sarawak Gazette which was published on Aug 31, 1953, there is a glossary of terms “with distinctly Chinese flavour which may be interest to readers.”

One of the words is Santubong. It stated that the word ‘Santubong’ was suggestive of Sanchubong (Kheh) ‘King of Wild Boars’ or Santoobong ‘Lord of the Jungle’.

In those days, readers were welcomed to write in and state their opinions on the subjects that have published in the gazette.

One reader, named I. A. N. Urquhart responded to the subject of the name Santubong, writing in to the gazette in September that year.

He stated, “I offer, without comment, a further fact, namely that ‘Santubong’ is the Iban word for ‘coffin’.”

C.N. Chong then responded to Urquhart in the November publication of the gazette. He agreed with Urquhart stating, “Coffin is also known in Iban as lungun. It appears, therefore, that ‘santubong’s an original Iban word as the Malays don’t use that word.”

However, Chong also pointed out that it would be interesting if anyone could explain whether the Iban meaning of ‘santubong’ has anything to do with the locality at all.

Santubong, Kheh (Hakka) or Cantonese origin

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Take a relaxing dip at one of the waterfalls at Mount Santubong.

Responding to all these correspondence, P. Aichner elaborated more about the name Santubong in his letter dated on Jan 27, 1954.

“The common opinion would be against it; it would rather deter people from going to Santubong, if they connect Santubong with the meaning of coffin. It is very likely that Santubong is Chinese (Kheh or Cantonese).

The explanation in August issue is certainly a good one, (Lord of the Jungle), if it can be proved that there was a Chinese temple in the locality in ancient times, because the Chinese would have gone there to worship the Tu Vong, the King of the earth.

However, Lim Swee Kee, Kapitan China of Dalat offers a more plausible explanation. The word Santubong is definitely Chinese (Kheh and Cantonese dialect) San-to-mong, i.e. the mountain much to gaze (the mountain with a good view), or it may also mean: the mountain much to hope for.

Nobody can deny the first meaning, that there is a good view from that mountain, and for many years it has been a holiday resort.

The second meaning, the mountain much to hope for, would also be justified. Imagine the Chinese coming with their junks from China, having been tossed about the waves, sighted the mountain and cried out full of joy San-to-mong, the mountain much to hope for. The perilous journey came to an end, and the sight of the mountain gave them fresh hopes for what lay ahead.

That San-to-mong became Santubong can easily be explained by the fact that people did not speak Chinese would have tried to imitate the pronunciation, sounded the m a little too hard, and it became Santubong.”

A Sarawakian mountain

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Meanwhile, Lee Kok Yin agreed that the name Santubong indeed came from the Hakka language.

He wrote in the Sarawak Gazette on Aug 31, 1957 , “In Chinese Hakka dialect, San means mountains; tu means in; bong means King. Santubong means ‘King of the Mountains’.”

Lee related it to a legend about how a Ming Dynasty fleet came to Sarawak. The leader of the fleet, Sam Pau Tai Chian gave honour to the local chief who helped them to fight piracy as San Tsung Wang (King of Mountain).

As time passed, the mountain which the chief lived on became ‘San Tsung Wang’ and eventually Santubong.

Overall, there are different kinds of accounts and legends explaining the meaning of Santubong, from a Malay celestial princess to a Iban and Chinese words.

Regardless, this symbolic mountain of Sarawak is truly Sarawakian with various races have their own stories and legends behind it.

Do you have stories on what is the meaning of Santubong? Let us know in the comment box.

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