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Old customs when building a new Iban longhouse

In the olden days, building a new longhouse was usually heavily influenced by superstitions.

Reverend William Howell once recorded his observation of the Iban customs when building a new longhouse.

He stated, “It is not uncommon among uncivilised races, whose lives are influenced or rather haunted by superstitions of various kinds, to find the majority are in the habit of continually removing from place to place. For more than half of a dozen reasons they desert their houses, even when only just finished.

“The terror of death or that some misfortune might befall their yearly crop of paddy, or the revelation of certain bad omens or ill visions, are the principal causes that will determine them promptly to leave their house.”

So what did Howell observe in those days? Here are the old customs when building a new Iban longhouse, which have most likely been forgotten today:

The meeting before building a new Iban longhouse

The chief assembles all his followers at a certain time in the evening in his ruai. Mats are spread, chewing ingredients in profusion and tuak are placed in the centre.

All the men sit in a circle with the women and children behind them. The chief opens the meeting after the distribution of the tuak. The subject is generally well-discussed and everybody gives his opinion.

At such a meeting the chief has to be most careful. Although his carry weight, yet he has to go by the votes of the majority.

It is, in fact, a sort of parliament, and the debates last a long time.

Those who cannot agree with the final arrangement cut themselves off and join another house or village.

In consequence the size or length of an Iban longhouse is not limited. To maintain the size of his house a chief has to exercise a great deal of self-denial.

He is like a parent who has to make peace among his children and please them equally. His family must share his sympathy.

Choosing the site of the Iban longhouse

The day following the meeting all the men go out to examine the spot for the site of the house. If it be a good one they beburong it at once. It means they go to hear the cry of a certain bird which prognosticates health, fortune, and good luck.

As long as the good omen is obtained they cut a peace of wood and hang it on the spot where the house is to stand. The spot thereby is considered sacred, being guarded by the kayu burong which is hung thereon.

As soon as the site of the house is cleared they beramu (go to get material for the house). The site for the house must not be burnt and the jungle that is cut down is cast aside.

If the site for the house is burnt it will give less work than in carrying away the jungle is cut down, but the house is said to be angat i.e. it will be visited by plagues and sickness.

A convenient places is selected for the palan. The palan is the place for retreat in case of hearing a bad omen when cutting material collected material for the house.

Out of every kind of material collected for the building, one piece is cast aside to ninggang burong (to plead excuse in the case of having neglected bad omens.

Iban Longhouse 2
How the ruai of a traditional Iban longhouse looks like in the 21st century.


The evening before the ngentak rumah, they ngelangkar (laying the foundation and arrange where the posts are to be).

Nearby everybody goes to the site of the new building, men, women and children, to beat their musical instruments.

The noise is most deafening with the intention to avoid hearing a bad omen.

A piece of bamboo about a span long is put into the ground on the site of the building and filled with water up to the brim.

This ceremony of divination is called betenong ai, which prognosticates good or bad luck with reference to their yearly crops of paddy during the whole time they occupy the new house.

If the water in the bamboo decreases considerably it indicates perpetual famine, and if it does not, it foretells good years to come.

Ngentak rumah

Before the ngentak rumah another meeting is held by the chief. This meeting is simply to arrange the situation of each person’s door. The nearer they are related the nearer they build to one another.

The building is done in common as far as putting up the posts and framework are concerned.

It is called ngentak rumah. One door a day is put up. It is hurried through and everything is bound by rattan or the monkey-cup creeper called entuyut.

If there be the slightest shower of the rain the work is knocked off. To work in the rain when building a new house is to prognosticate the shedding of tears over some misfortune.

The ngentak rumah begins in the morning and the work is supposed to be finished by one o’clock at midday.

The first day of the ngentak rumah is an important and memorable one. A great sacrifice to Pulang Gana is offered for a propitiation, he being the god of the earth.

Makai di ruai

A full grown pig is sacrificed and its blood is smeared on the middle post of the house and the carcass is eaten.

Makai di ruai is the topic of conversation during the ngentak rumah, it signifies eating and feasting together on the veranda of their house.

This feasting after a spell of hard work is a welcome relaxation for them all.

At the ngentak rumah, while the men are hard at work, all the women and children who are not engaged in preparing the midday repast beat the different instrument to deafen their ears against an ill omen.

With some tribes the custom differs a little, the blood of the sacrificed pig is made to run into the hold of the central post of the house.

It is an understood thing that the chief supplies the pig and the pig that is killed is also a pledge between the chief and his followers. It is hereafter called a penti or compensation to be made over to the chief whenever any of his followers leave him.

Iban Longhouse
An example of a modern-day Iban luncheon.

Howell’s observations were later published in the Sarawak Gazette on Aug 31, 1955.

Once they move into a new longhouse, the people would perform mandi rumah. Read here, to know more about this old Iban housewarming ceremony.

Reminiscences of former Sarawak Museum Curator Edward Banks

Founded in 1888 and opened in 1891, the Sarawak Museum is the oldest museum in Borneo.

Since its inception until 1974, the head of the museum was called ‘Curator’. After this, the title for the head of the museum became “Director.”

Sarawak Museum has seen so many curators and directors passing through its doors since it was first opened. Each head of the museum has their own stories on how they ended up at their post.

After Sarawak joined to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, we’ve had our own Sarawakians as directors: Benedict Sandin (1966-1974), Lucas Chin (1974-1991), Dr Peter Mulok Kedit (1991-1996), Ipoi Datan (1996-1997, and then again in 2009) and Sanib Said (1997-2008). Currently, Suria Bujang is Acting Director.

Of course like any other working environment, Sarawak Museum has its own office stories or rumours to tell. Who better to tell the story other than one of its own curators, Edward Banks?

He served as the curator from February 1925 to 1945. Banks was interned at Batu Lintang camp during the Japanese occupation of Sarawak during World War II.

The former curator once wrote his experiences working at the Sarawak Museum. In the article, he roughly pointed out the contributions and achievement of all the curators that came before him.

Kuching Sarawak the museum building. Photograph. Wellcome V0037397 scaled
Kuching, Sarawak: the museum building. Photograph. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Photograph c. 1896 By: Charles Hose.
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution.

Here is the article written by Edward Banks which was published in The Sarawak Museum Journal in August 1983:

There are several stories about the origin of the Sarawak Museum. There is no doubt the idea first started from a suggestion from Alfred Russel Wallace when he visited the country. He became a close friend of James Brooke, first Rajah of Sarawak, in fact they went away together to his country house on Peninjau Hill behind Siniawan. It seems certain Wallace persuaded Brooke to have a museum and orders were given for this. Later events delayed the start but Charles Brooke, the second Rajah, took his uncle’s orders seriously and went ahead with the scheme for a Museum.

I have always been told that when looking through magazine he saw a picture of a girl’s school in Adelaide – “Just the thing for a museum”, said he, whistled up the PWD (Public Works Department) and so it was built. You can see a picture of it in Shelford’s book. The question of somewhere for the Curator to live came up and on looking at a picture book about Switzerland and he saw a photograph of Swiss Chalet – “Ha, just the thing for a Curator” and that is where I used to live.

A museum had to have glass cases and stuffed animals. To it came Bartlett, sometime assistant in the London Zoo. He was a very good taxidermist indeed, many of his mounted specimens are still on show. He also sent many specimens home to be mounted by Gerarrd in London and they are still probably home some of the main Museum today with a certain amount of artistic merit. Bartlett’s assistant was a Chinese gentleman named Chiang Jee Koo who became nearly as good as mounting birds as was his master.

Bartlett was replaced by Shelford, almost certainly recommended by Wallace. He brought order to the Museum, everything was catalogued and numbered so that what every specimen you wish could easily be found among the very large reference collection that he accumulated. The museum owes its firm foundation to his orderly mind. I believe Shelford was a cripple and there used to be in Museum a very large back basket in which he is said to have been carried up Mount Penrissen.

Shelford was followed by Hewitt, an indefatigable collector of insect and of plants but he did not stay very long before retiring to Natal.

Then came John Coney Moulton. His service to the museum was immense, he had another wing built on, started the Sarawak Museum Journal and became an authority on Cicada; with a foretaste of things to come the museum was soon full of files and of memos and all the signs of coming bureaucracy. Then can came the first War and Moulten went off to Singapore to join his regiment and when the war was over, he was appointed Director of the Museum in Singapore. Up to this time, Charles Vyner Brooke had been his own secretary, all outstation officers wrote to him and he wrote back to them. In about 1923 he made Moulton his Chief Secretary in Sarawak. It was not a popular appointment, most administrative officers thought they could have done the job better. (After the second war there was once a suggestion they might do worse than have another curator for Chief Secretary and I know what the anti feelings were like!)

The Curator at that time was a Swede named Mjöberg. He must have been the finest collector the Museum ever had. Nothing moved on foot or fin or wing but he had it, he knew what he was collecting too, a very able man. His manners aroused the dislike of many people, some D.Os (District Officers) would not have him in their district, in fact he was just not popular with anyone. He must have used his position as Curator to obtain large numbers of old jars and plates which did not reach the Museum collections. This led to a furious row with Chief Secretary Moultan and Mjöberg had to go. It is almost incredible that he packed up numbers of jars and of plates to take with him. They were of course confiscated by the customs and placed in the Museum. A furious correspondence followed, ordering me to send on his property which of course I could not do and we all got well shot at between the pages of his book “Durch die Insel der kopfjarger.”

I was the next Curator, arriving in February 1925, Moulton put me through it and was apparently satisfied and I was allowed to move in. Here I met an old Chinese gentleman named Chiang Jee Koo who became a lifelong friend. He had started with Bartlett, had seen Shelford, Hewitt, Moulton and Mjöberg come and go and now I must say he had picked up some astounding English from former Curators and it was quite exciting being taken around the Museum exhibits by him. But he was a dear, we got on famously and did not always work too hard, he loved talking about the past. The Sarawak Museum was his God and it owes a great deal to this old gentleman.

Moulton died shortly afterwards and I was on my own. Then came a slump and many officers more useful than I were made redundant, I have not the slightest idea why they kept on. The Museum was at its lowest when Mjöberg left and I remedied this as best I could. It soon became clear to me there could be no lasting support for an institution with just a lot of pin-ups and I began to apply Museum work to technical problems in public life. Sometimes it was the Turtles, the birds nest soup industry, I used to act for the Director of Agriculture or the Secretary for Native Affairs when they went on leave. I know this was often done in time that might have been spent in collecting or research but it gave the museum a very good name with the authorities -they even appointed G.T.M. MacBryan as Assistant Curator!

When the war came, I stayed behind with some idea of persuading the Japs to spare the Museum. I did not have to try very hard, they showed a great respect for the place and never touch a thing.

Finally when the Japs had gone, I rescued from the Printing Office another number of the Sarawak Museum Journal and gave them to my successor.

So who are the people mentioned by Banks in his article?

1.Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

Best known for independently conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection, Wallace was a British naturalist, explorer, geographer and biologist.

He arrived in Kuching on Nov 1, 1854 after a brief spell recovering from a shipwreck on his return to England following his explorations of Brazil between 1848 and 1852.

During his stay in Sarawak as the guest of James Brooke, he wrote a paper while occupying a government lodge in Santubong.

Wallace first met James in Singapore in 1854. James invited him to continue his exploration of animal species and to discover the beauty of Sarawak nature.

Entitled “On the Law which has regulated the introduction of new species”, the paper was then published in The Annals and Magazine of Natural History in London in September 1855.

The paper was later known as the Sarawak Law which in it Wallace declared, “Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with closely allied species.

2.Edward Bartlett (1836-1908)

Bartlett was the Curator of the Sarawak Museum from 1893 to 1897. Prior to his stint in Sarawak, he had travelled to Palestine, Amazon basin and Peru. He was Curator of Maidstone Museum, England from 1974 to 1890.

Banks pointed out that Bartlett was a very good taxidermist. He perhaps learned the trait from his father Abraham Dee Bartlett. Abraham was a taxidermist and an expert on captive animals. As a superintendent of the London Zoo, he was known to bring the zoo into prominence. It was maybe under his father’s influence that Bartlett was able to work as an assistant in the London Zoo, as stated by Banks.

One of Bartlett’s publications is “The Crocodiles and Lizards of Borneo in the Sarawak Museum,” published in April 1894 in the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Gerrard that was mentioned by Banks is most probably referring to Edward Gerrard, another fellow taxidermist. He worked for the British Museum (Natural History) as the resident Taxidermist from 1841 to 1890.

3.Robert Walter Campbell Shelford (1872-1912)

Portrait Robert W C Shelford
Portrait of Shelford. Credits: Creative Commons

Shelford was a naturalist with a special interest in entomology and insect mimicry. His favourite insects? Cockroach and stick insect.

After graduating from Cambridge in 1895, he went to Yorkshire College as a demonstrator in Biology. He arrived in Sarawak in 1897 and held the post as Curator of the Sarawak Museum for seven years. During his tenure in Sarawak, he sent a number of specimens to his alumni at Cambridge.

Banks believed Shelford was a cripple and while it is a derogatory term, it is kinda true. He developed a tubercular hip joint as a child that incapacitated his mobility. After an operation, he became more mobile again but with some limitation. For instance, he could never participate in sports.

His best-known book A Naturalist in Borneo was published in 1916 after his death. It would be interesting if the Museum still has the basket which Shelford was carried around in.

Read more about Shelford here.

4.John Hewitt (1880-1961)

Banks pointed out that Hewitt did not stay very long in Kuching as the Curator of the Sarawak Museum, which is true. The herpetologist only served in Sarawak from 1905 to 1908.

5.John Coney Moulton (1886-1926)

Moulton was the Sarawak Museum Curator from November 1908 to January 1915. As per mentioned by Banks, he was the founding editor of the Sarawak Museum Journal in 1911.

Thanks to him, Sarawak has one of the oldest scientific journals of the South-east Asian region.

The Sarawak museum building in 1911
The Sarawak museum building in 1911. The construction of new wing of the museum was in progress. However, the brick work steps outside the old wing was demolished in 1912. Credits: Public Domain.

6.Eric Mjöberg (1882-1938)

While Mjoberg was not able to take the old jars and plates from Sarawak (thanks to the Customs Department), he did take material from Australian Aboriginal people illegally.

During his 1910 expedition to Australia, Mjoberg took the skeletons of the Aboriginal people without permission, passing them off as kangaroo bones to get them out of the country. This might make you wonder; how similar are human and kangaroo bones?

Anyway, he served only for two years as the Curator of the Sarawak State Museum from 1922 until 1924.

He died in poverty in Stockholm. Towards the end of his life, Mjoberg was reportedly being haunted by constant nightmares of Aboriginal people chasing him.

7.G.T.M MacBryan

Gerard MacBryan after his pilgrimage to Mecca. Credits: Public Domain.

G.T.M MacBryan was born Gerard Truman Magill MacBryan. He entered the Sarawak government service in 1920 at the age of 18.

He was the acting Curator for Sarawak Museum only for about two months from Dec 20, 1924 to Jan 24, 1925.

Some historians believed he was Sarawak’s equivalent to Rasputin.

Read more about MacBryan here.

8.Chiang Jee Koo

The most interesting figure mentioned by Banks is none other than Chiang Jee Koo. The only online record found about him is from National Herbarium Nederland.

According to the record, he was an employer of the Sarawak Museum since it was first founded. He was working as a clerk and taxidermist. Chiang retired from the museum in 1927 and died in 1932 in Kuching.

Despite some of their flaws and quirks, each of the curator had contributed significantly to the museum. Today, Sarawakians have the collections at Sarawak State Museum to thank them for.

If you have any information on Chiang Jee Koo let us know in the comment box.

A look back at how Chinese New Year was celebrated in Sarawak in 1922

Chinese New Year is the festival that celebrates the beginning of a new year on the traditional Chinese calendar.

Besides China, the festival is widely celebrated in other countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand.

Traditionally, it is a time to honour their respective deities as well as ancestors.

It is also a celebration associated with several myths and customs. Over the years, the celebration has changed here and there especially in terms of customs.

A writer who wrote under the pseudonym ‘M.M’ in The Sarawak Gazette (Mar 1, 1922) shared how the Chinese New Year celebration took place in Sarawak.

According to the article, even in 1922, there were many who were not aware of some of the most outstanding features of the Chinese New Year.

To see these features, one must “peep into the home of an old fashioned orthodox Chinese”.

Here are some of the significance and customs of Chinese New Year in 1922:

red lantern 1202514 1280

1.Chinese New Year’s Eve

This is the day for the settling of accounts. This task is more or less arduous according to the means and business dealings of the head of the house.

After the accounts have been settled, the house is thoroughly washed, cleaned and decorated.

Then two sugar canes with leaves and roots are wrapped in Chinese red paper then kept on either side of the door. This is an emblem of the authority vested in the headman of the house over the other members of the family.

At 2pm the same afternoon, the family members gather to pay their respects to their ancestors and worship the household gods.

In the evening there is a regular feast and a large round table loaded with the most varied Chinese delicacies is laid for dinner.

According to the writer, this dinner is called the “ooi lor” which means round the world. The writer stated, “The god of the family hearth is dispatched to heaven on the twenty-fourth day of the twelfth moon of each year. This god, it is generally believed, will report on the good and bad acts of the family. After making this report, the god of the hearth is expected to resume his place in the family hearth on the morning of the New Year Day.

At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve the doors are opened, lamps and candles are lighted and all preparations are made for worshipping the various household gods.

The father then takes three largest joss sticks, lights them and prays for health, longevity, wealth, happiness and tranquillity in the family.

After that, the children follow the father’s example but with smaller joss sticks.

Once the worship is over, they wish each other a happy New Year and this concludes the New Year’s Eve ceremony.

2.First day of Chinese New Year

Nothing has changed since 100 years ago on New Year’s morning when the whole family put on the best garments for the purpose of visiting or in waiting for visitors.

However, there is one difference in giving angpau. The writer pointed out, “Red papers, four inches by nine inches, with one’s named printed on them are exchanged during visits, and gifts, of silver coins, wrapped in red paper, are given to children when they visit. The day is devoted to much conviviality.”

Today’s angpao or red packets can be found in so many shapes and designs.

3.The second day of Chinese New Year

This day is the Chinese have what is called the “First Luncheon” in the year.

“Pigs, goats and fowls are slaughtered and form various dishes. After the luncheon is over shop hands and servants in private cease work until the sixth hands,” the article stated.

4.The third day of Chinese New Year

Meanwhile, the Chinese called the third day the day for the “sending away of the poor”.

It is one Chinese New Year’s custom that is no longer practiced which is probably a good thing for the environment.

The writer wrote, “All the rubbish which had accumulated in the house from the first day of the New Year is swept and put into a vessel. This vessel is taken to a river or any running stream. Joss sticks and candles are lighted and after prayers, the rubbish is thrown into the running stream.

“Thus the poor are ceremoniously sent away. The orthodox Chinese never call nor visit on this day.”

5.The seventh day of Chinese New Year

Fast forward to the seventh day which is the creation day, raw and uncooked fish the highlight of on this day.

“Ikan parang and ikan haruan are dressed, sliced then soaked in vinegar mixed with chilies and are eaten with salad, cucumber, celery, radish and other vegetables,” the writer wrote.

6.The ninth day of Chinese New Year

This is the day regarded as God’s birthday, God as in the God creator according to Confucius, not the household gods.

According to the writer, this is a day of worship more or less and commences at midnight the previous day.

The writer explained, “An improvised ‘altar’ illuminated with candles and joss sticks and loaded with sweat meats, roast pig, boiled capon, tea, brandy, flowers and fruits is placed in the street by the house and firing of crackers continued for some time. No image or idol is used.

This day is said to have been chosen as God’s birthday -although the Chinese realise that the infinite can have no beginning and no end because it is the ninth day of the first moon.”

Furthermore, the number 9 and 1 are regarded as the two most important numerals.

7.Chap Goh Meh

According to the writer, the fifteenth day or Chap Goh Meh is the most picturesque and the culminating festival.

“On this night Chinese ladies, young and old all parade the street in vehicles and almost invariably bright moonlight favours them.”

The spiritual causes of sickness, according to Iban shamanism

Long time ago, the Iban believed that a variety of illnesses were caused by ‘antu’ or demonic spirits.

According to Iban ethnologist Benedict Sandin, one such sickness was known as ‘pansa utai’ or ‘pansa bulu babas’. It was thought to be caused by an attack of the invisible antu grasi, or demon huntsman.

“A wound made by these spirits is likely to be dangerous and a fully initiated manang (shaman) should be called upon to treat this type of spiritual injury,” Benedict wrote in his paper “Mythological Origins of Iban Shamanism”.

If it is not that dangerous, the manang may simply apply his ‘penampal abi’ or patching ointment on the afflicted part of the patient’s body.

What if it is serious? The manang is likely to perform a ‘bebunoh antu’ rite in order to slay the demons huntsman who has spiritually wounded his patient. If the manang is afraid to perform such a ‘pelian’ (healing ceremony) himself, then he may suggest to the patient’s family that they call a more senior, daring manang.

Stalling the attacks from antu grasi

According to Iban shamanism belief, in order to forestall attacks by the antu grasi, Iban manang and dukun warn those who experience bad dreams or encounter ill-omens that they must not work outside their longhouse for a day or more.

This was so that they would not tbe seen by the roaming demon huntsmen who invisibly hunt over the countryside. To these spirits, the souls (semangat) of those who ignore the warnings of dreams and omens appear as wild boars.

1277px Schwaner Een Bilianfest der Dayakkers van Soengie Pattaym Jahre 1846
Dayak Festival in a traditional Longhouse, 1846, Dutch Borneo. Credit: Public Domain

Spirits believed to cause miscarriage

If there were a case where a woman suffered from repeat miscarriages, the cause was often believed to be the sexual assault of incubus spirits.

These spirits are called tunang utai or tunang antu. They are thought to appear at times in the form of animals or fish or eels.

To prevent such assaults, women are warned to be careful while washing their clothes in the river.

If a woman’s clothes are lost, the incubus may trace them to their owner in order to have sexual intercourse with her spiritually.

Some of the animals believed to be able to court women are crocodiles, monitor lizards, deer, clouded leopards, short-tailed macaques, bear cats and cobras.

The only way to protect a woman is to employ an expert manang to kill the spirit through bebunoh antu.

Typically, a married woman is troubled by that kind of spirit dreams that she is sexually courted by a man who often appears to her in the form of her husband or a handsome young man.

Frequently, the spirit is seen early in the morning leaving the longhouse in the guise of an animal. With this, others know that a woman is being molested by a tunang spirit.

Antu Buyu

Another harmful spirit in Iban shamanism belief is the antu buyu. They represent the bad souls of old women who are thought to act like witches. These spirits disturbs and possibly even kill newborn babies.

Benedict stated, “The presence of such women is particularly associated with old, long-inhabited longhouse settlements. The antu buyu feed on rice bran (seku) left un-swept by the women after winnowing their rice along the main passage-way of the house.”

Hence, bran should be carefully swept away and not left for the spirits to feed upon.

Occasionally, Iban bachelors as they walk quietly along the longhouse’ gallery to court girls at night, see the antu buyu walking below the eaves of the longhouse.

It is believed that these antu buyu are on their way to look for rice bran or to frighten or kill infants as they sleep.

They also appear to grown-up children in the form of an ugly black, hairy spirit. Moreover, children who see them could become nervous and ill.

To guard a child from such danger, a manang may be called upon to perform a protective pelian.

In the end of the pelian, the manang may hang a charm made from wasps on the door or window of the family’s room. This is to frighten away the antu buyu and other spirits.

Nonetheless, there are sicknesses that the manangs cannot cure. Usually, these are the afflictions caused by disobeying taboos such as causing a fire at a cemetery or forbidden islet of forest.

Mythological origins of Iban Shamanism was published in The Sarawak Museum Journal in August 1983.

Looking back at a punitive expedition to upper Batang Lupar in 1875

Headhunting was rampant in 19th century Sarawak. In an effort to control the death toll brought on by headhunting, the-then Brooke government sent out punitive expeditions to suppress this activity.

Here is an account of a punitive expedition that took place at upper Batang Lupar in 1875. It was written by an unnamed writer and published in the Sarawak Gazette on Nov 3, 1875.

Batu Nabau Engkilili
A bridge over Batang Lupar river.

The Sarawak Government, finding peaceable negotiation of no avail with the upper Batang Lupar tribes – who have for the last four years made frequent raids on the Lemanak and Skrang people, causing these rivers to be nearly depopulated- organised a force to attack the upper country, which left Simanggang on the 6th, and arrived at Delok on the 11th, after experiencing hard work, ascending the river and passing the rapids, where it had been expected the enemy would make some opposition, but the way was found clear so far.

The Delok stream is on the left bank, and after ascending three reaches, the river was found to be so small and shallow, that a halt was called and an encampment made at a sharp point.

The force then set to work at clearing the ground for a considerable distance to avoid any hidden surprise.

After throwing up a strong fence which served as a stockade, a council of war was held, in which future arrangements were made for a land force to march against the enemy who were living at the head of the stream and on some of the hills that were within sight of the encampment.

The land force started on the morning of the 13th a pathway having been constructed by a strong party the day before, leading into the Dyak main road.

The country is a succession of steep hills, varying from 400 to 700 feet in height; and the paths leading to them are often so steep; that it is necessary for hands to be used in both the ascent and descent in addition to carrying rifle, forty rounds of ammunition and four days’ provisions – or in the case of Dayaks, a shield, three spears and food – makes the journey no easy matter.

The guides expected the force to come into collision with the enemy, between 9 and 10am the same morning, which some of the leaders did, having been led into ambush by the tactics of the enemy, against which they were specially cautioned.

The ambush tactic during the expedition to Upper Batang Lupar

The mode of ambush with Dayaks is as follows: a few active fellows are sent on, who appear before the leaders of the advancing force, then turn round as if surprised and run for their lives, throwing spears and shields away. This was too much for the young aspirants to glory in the Sarawak force who are not so much used to war as those experienced headhunters.

They broke away and pursued the fugitives until they had separated themselves from the main body; and after passing a ridge the enemy came on them in force; and killed 19 in the course of a few minutes, fighting hand to hand.

The enemy, when the main force came up, retreated, and it was found they had left five dead bodies among the slain.

Meanwhile, the houses of the enemy were mostly deserted and although they were strongly situated, there were not defended and were mostly burnt by themselves on the approach of the force, which early in the afternoon were in the heart of the inhabited country and during four days laid the place waste.

The women and children fortunately had been removed to a distance, and judging by the tracks, they had gone in the direction of Batu Bangkai, which is in the Dutch territory.

Large bodies of the enemy were seen on hills in the distance, and it was reported that all the Dayak of Lanjak and the Seriang had collected to assist their relations in the tribe to oppose the advance of the force.

The Dayaks of the force finding the houses contained little property, or were burnt, now spread in small parties to search, and it was not long before they came on goods and chattels of every Dayak description, either buried or secreted in their farming lands, as well as their paddy, these were all taken or destroyed, and thirsty houses, averaging about ten families in each were burnt in the Delok.

The battle continues

Schwaner Een dayaksche Dorp Benting
A Dayak Longhouse, known as Rumah Betang in Indonesia or Rumah Panjang in Malaysia, the traditional dwelling of many Dayak Tribes. Original watercolour painting by Carl Schwaner, 1853. Credits: Public Domain.

On the 15th, while a force of Dayaks were advancing to attack a village some distance off, under the chieftainship of a notorious enemy named Jumput, the leaders were surprised by a party of the enemy, and after a hand to hand encounter the Sarawak force lost 11 lives; the enemy suffered severely, but their loss was not known.

On the following day, the force was strengthened under the leadership of Minggat of Kalaka, who marched against the enemy and burnt down all the houses in the vicinity, the enemy did not make any opposition.

A good deal of plunder was brought in from Jumput’s country. A force was also sent from the main camp in Delok to the Menyang stream. And there, three houses and their property were destroyed.

This completed the work of the expedition which had encamped for nine days, had destroyed about 40 houses, and rendered the enemy houseless and foodless. The effect of the expedition remains to be seen. The only danger is that the Dayaks on the Dutch side will assist these rebels sufficiently to cause them to rise again to give trouble on some future day, unless an attack is made on the former also.

The expedition arrived at Simanggang on the 21st. It was under the command of H.H. the Rajah accompanied by Messrs T.S. Chapman and F.R.O Maxwell, and was composed of 300 Malays and 6000 Dayaks- who were raised and has started in boats with twenty days’ provisions, within six days from the time of the command being given. From first to last it has taken less than a month to complete the whole affair.

Where were these battles took place in upper Batang Lupar

The Delok River was where the government’s forces built their camp in 1875. Today, the river is part of Batang Ai National Park and Rimba Sarawak (Research for intensified Management of Bio-Rich Areas of Sarawak).

Meanwhile, Lanjak is a small town in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Most of the Iban communities there migrated from Sarawak during the 19th century.

Seriang in the article refers to a river which is also located in West Kalimantan. As for the Menyang, the river was on the news for its orangutan population.

These places where heads were once hunted and villages were burnt are not only historically colourful but ecologically rich as well.

Batang Ai
Batang Ai lake today.

Remembering an old Iban ceremony called ‘Gawai padi datai’

The Iban community is known for having different kinds of gawai celebrations.

Even though we associate the word ‘gawai’ with partying today, the feasting and festivities are actually secondary to the main event of the gawai celebration which is the religious ritual.

Some of the examples of gawai rituals include Gawai Antu (rituals to invite dead souls to their final separation from the living), Gawai Ngar (to celebrate patrons of weaving) and Gawai Melah Pinang (for the deity of creation).

One of the rare gawai rituals that are perhaps no longer celebrated is Gawai Padi Datai.

Betong’s then acting district officer A.M. Phillips witnessed the ritual, writing about it in The Sarawak Gazette on Sept 30, 1955.

According to Phillips, Gawai Padi Datai is held when the harvest is low, and is a celebration for paddy which they believed fell from the sky.

He stated that most longhouses in the Layar, Padeh, Spak, Rimbas and Paku areas had either performed the Gawai Padi Datai themselves or had at least attended one or two of the ritual.

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Gawai Padi Datai is celebrated when the harvest is low.

Here is Phillips’ account of Gawai Padi Datai:

A feature of this gawai is that paddy which alleged to have fallen from the sky is brought from other houses to the house which is about to celebrate.

On arrival at the foot of the ladder a babi bland and manok labang (white pig and spotted white chicken) are killed and an offering made at the bottom of the ladder.

From the landing stage (pendai) to the foot of the ladder, thence up the ladder on to the ruai, and from the tanju to the bilik and into a tajau lama run strings, either of decorated rattan or of red cotton threaded with hundreds of puffed rice grains (letup).

The whole house is spread out with mats covering all the ruai and the whole of the bilik.

The visitors with the padi datai sit on the ruai together with 11 or possibly 13 women dressed in white, as men, with feathered hats and parangs, who make the offerings etc.

What happened after the offerings?

After this, during the night, grains of paddy are found from time to time either on the mats or on the ground outside the house.

Stones and animals’ teeth are also found, sometimes on the mats, sometimes in the offerings, sometimes falling from the roof.

All these grains of paddy and pebbles are supposed to bring good luck.

Most of the paddy probably falls out of the paddy bins in the roof whence it is disturbed by the usual rats, cats, or shaking of the house caused by the crowd of visitors.

The stones and animals teeth could also be placed in situ by subterfuge. If it is a hoax it is a big one and is yet undiscovered by the locals. The house carrying out this gawai and who place not a little faith in its efficacy include houses with many Christians. This phenomenon impresses or seems to impress, much more quickly and effectively than such mundane benefits as local authorities, or indeed V.H.F. telephones.

So what do you think? How did the paddy grains, stones and animals’ teeth are found after the Gawai Padi Datai? Let us know what you think in the comment box.

5 things you should know about the old customs of Iban divorce

Many of Sarawakians’ old customs are no longer practiced mainly because they have been replaced with a more uniform judiciary laws.

Some proceedings in the olden days did not rely on justice or what is best for all parties. Sometimes, the old generations relied on omens and dreams to decide including divorce.

Here are 5 things you should know about the old customs of Iban divorce as recorded by Reverend William Howell in The Sarawak Gazette on Mar 16, 1909:

1.There were two kinds of Iban divorce.

In those days, there were two types of Iban divorce. According to Howell, a temporary divorce was effected through an ill omen or a bad dream. Meanwhile, a permanent divorce was brought about by incompatibility of temper, inhospitableness, ill-temper and adultery.

The Ibans called temporary divorce “belega'” or “beluit”. The marriage could be renewed again after a short interval.

As for a permanent divorce, it could be effected before it was brought in front of the chiefs and elders.

Howell stated, “The guilty part is amerced. The innocent party takes the fine and divides it with the chiefs or elders and friends who witness the settlement of the case.

If the husband is the guilty party he pays a fine not only to the woman but towards the upkeep of the children also if he has any. The woman’s fine is called “pekain” and the upkeep of the children is called “pelanja”. The man’s fine is called “pesirat”.

2.How the fine is imposed

The fine was imposed according to the offence. If both parties would not agreed to the settlements of the chiefs or elders or even if one of them disagreed, the case would be settled by a diving contest.

By doing so, not only the fine is settle but also the bet on who would win the contest.

In this case, the losing party would have to meet not only the loss by the shame also.

“A ring or a bracelet given by the party that brings about the divorce, if it is received by the other party, is an ample sign of divorce. Before a person can consider himself properly divorced according to the Dayak point of view such person takes away all his or her belongings from the room where they lived together,” Howell stated.

3.A temporary divorce could be brought to a permanent one.

If the temporary divorce was brought to a permanent divorce, there would be no fine.

Interestingly, the news or occurrence of death in the area of the newly married couple may result in a permanent or temporary divorce.

For an unknown reason, it was generally more taboo if a death occurred upriver.

4.Superstitions which lead to divorce.

Howell pointed out that the Iban superstition seemed to be an advantage to them in creating a plea or to exculpate them from punishment.

“If a man says he has had a very bad dream or an ill omen, with that plea he is justified putting away his wife. In view of such religion or superstition or a great many of them have simply invented a story and have had a divorces with impunity. The same thing has been also practiced by women,” he stated.

5.The children matters in an Iban’s divorce.

The binding nature of an Iban marriage seems to depend on the children. Howell gave an example of how the children influence their parents’ divorce proceeding:

The wife of a certain man had already misconducted herself three times but her husband forgave her. The fourth time she did so with a relation and her husband swore by the gods of his ancestors that he would put her away. The case was brought before the court of justice, the man divorced his wife and the wife was fined but the children all agreed and said to their father that unless he lived again with their mother they would have nothing to do with him. The father gave in and took his wife back and paid her fine for her.

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Cultural similarities between Naga people of India and Myanmar regions, and the people of Borneo

The Naga people are tribes who live in northeastern India and northwestern Myanmar. They make the majority of the population in the Indian state of Nagaland and Naga Self-Administered zone of Myanmar.

The Naga people are known for their strong warrior tradition. In the olden days, the Naga people practiced headhunting, as they took the heads of their enemies in the belief that they would also take their power.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles from India and Myanmar, the indigenous people of Borneo also had a culture of headhunting. But what do these two indigenous groups share besides cutting off the heads of their enemies?

Former Sarawak Museum curator Edward Banks explored this question in a paper published in The Sarawak Museum Journal in August 1983.

According to Banks, there were many other things the Naga and Borneo peoples did the same way because they lived under the same conditions, not because they are related.

Naga People
The Naga people made an appearance during Rainforest World Music Festival in 2019 at Sarawak Cultural Village.

Here are some of the comparisons between the Naga people and the ethnic groups in Borneo according to Banks:


The Naga people, like the tribes in Borneo, wore loin cloth in the olden days. In Assam, they called it lengta.

Naga People 2

2.Slash and burn method of farming

“Both sides plant rice by first cutting down the jungle, burning it off and then planting hill rice in the clearings,” Banks wrote.

To celebrate bountiful harvest, both cultures also have festivals at the end of harvest season.

3.Rice Wine

Most societies that rely on rice as a staple food tend to use its surplus to brew rice wine.

Here in Sarawak, we are known for our tuak and burak. The Naga people also have their own version of rice wine.

Banks stated, “The brews seem to be very much the same, boiled rice fermented with the dust from the winnowing of the husked rice. The taste seems to be much the same and so does the result, not very intoxicating at the time you merely feel rather ill the next day.”

4. Knife and sword

Naga knives, known as “dao”, were made so that the hilt angled upwards from the blade to prevent the back of the hand being skinned against the tree trunk or log which was being cut.

The “dao” mostly resembles the Bidayuh people’s war sword called pandat as well as the parang latok or latok from Kalimantan.

5. How a woman was buried

Banks in his paper pointed out, “One of the oddest things common to Kayans and to Nagas was the hanging up of the departed lady’s sun hat beneath her tomb. I do not know anyone else does this and it is an extraordinary custom to crop up thousands of miles apart.”

6.Bachelor’s house or head house

A baruk (also known as pangah/baluh/balu/pangarah) is an important architectural feature in a traditional Bidayuh village.

It works as a meeting hall, shelter and where they used to keep the heads of their enemies.

Similarly, the Naga people have a bachelor’s house where they had meeting, welcomed strangers and kept the heads.

In the olden days, women were not allowed to enter this house.

7.Jar burials

Jar burials were common in many cultures throughout Southeast Asia. However, the manner of how a jar burial was conducted might differ.

According to Banks, the Kelabits used to cut a ridge in the jungle, dig a trench, put in the jar containing the bones of the deceased and erect an upright stone pillar with a large flat stone at its base.

“These menhirs are just the same as those used by some of the Nagas, the likeness is astonishing,” he stated.

8.The naming of a son

Banks also claimed there was a similarity in the ceremony for naming a son between the Naga people and the Kayans.

He stated, “A 100 foot jointed bamboo pole was placed in the ground and supported by a forked stick about one third of the way up so that the rest of the pole bent over in a graceful arc with the tip almost touching the ground. The pole was covered with bamboo leaves, gourds and flat pieces of bamboo were tied on near the tip and the whole thing clapped away merrily when the wind blew. You can see a picture of one in Hose’s book. In pre-war days, there were lots of these lovely things up and down the banks of the Baram river.”

Early nagas
Black and white photographs taken by R.G. Woodthorpe, c.1873-1875 Tangkhul Nagas photographs Tangkhul Woodthorpe/ R.G.(1873-1875). Pitt Rivers Museum Archive, Oxford AL.62.1.4 Credit: Public Domain.

Mandi Rumah, an old Iban housewarming ceremony

Iban Batang Lupar Kalimantan Barat 3
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.

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.

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

Iban Batang Lupar Kalimantan Barat 9
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.

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.

The story of Apai Saloi being a glutton over smoked deer meat

Here is an Iban legend of comedic hero Apai Saloi being a glutton over smoked deer meat:

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One day, Apai Saloi took his wife and children to stay at their farm hut.

There, he went to the edge of his paddy field to catch a deer for its meat. After they caught the deer, they cut up its meat.

He then salted and smoked most of the meat while giving the rest to his wife to cook for dinner.

The salted and smoked deer meat were then preserved in dried telak or bamboos.

Later that night, Apai Saloi took the meat in which he already stored in the bamboo into his mosquito net.

He did this so that the rats would not eat it. Apai Saloi also used the bamboo as his pillow.

The next morning, Indai Saloi asked Apai Saloi to send some of the smoked deer meat to her parents.

Before he went out, Indai Saloi told Apai Saloi what to say if her mother asked where he got the deer meat from.

This was what he was supposed to answer,

“The meat of a deer,
Killed by Apai Saloi,
Because it had eaten the tapioca leaves,
In his paddy field.”

After receiving the instruction from his wife, Apai Saloi went to his in-law’s house. As he handed the deer meat to his mother in-law, he told her as his wife instructed.

Apai Saloi and his midnight snack

He then returned home to his family. During the following night, Apai Saloi went early to bed.

Before he slept, he secretly took the bamboo which contained the deer meat.

Apai Saloi munched on the meat in between his sleep throughout the night. Immediately after midnight, Apai Saloi woke up and began to eat the meat again.

This time, the meat inside the bamboo was almost finished. Determined to have some more, Apai Saloi slipped his hand into the bamboo to take the meat.

Because he had to reach farther in to take the meat, his hand got stuck. Despite all his efforts, he could not free himself of the bamboo.

He had to wake his wife up to help him. Indai Saloi was nothing but furious and scolded Apai Saloi for being greedy.

While scolding her husband, Indai Saloi broke the bamboo into halves releasing Apai Saloi from his agony.

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