I is for Iban

by Shafinaz Ahmad Shaharir

Image credit: Dennis Ong

Sarawak, Land of Hornbills, is the largest state in Malaysia. It is located on the northwest coast of Borneo Island. Sarawak is a stunning state with unique and diverse cultures, along with wild and ravishing rainforests. Before 1841, the Brunei Sultanate reigned over the state, before the Brooke era from 1841 to 1941 and before the Japanese Occupation from 1941 to 1945. After the Japanese sought peace in August 1945, Sarawak was placed under British Military Rule until April 1946. On July 1, 1946, Sarawak became a British Crown Colony before it eventually joined Malaysia in 1963.

Map of Borneo: This island of Borneo that consists of three different countries, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Image source: Peter Fitzgerald, minor amendments by Joelf, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Borneo_map.png

Sarawak is a diverse state, consisting of 26 different ethnic groups including Malay, Chinese, and Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau and other indigenous tribes collectively known as Orang Ulu. Each group has its own language and unique culture. Generally, the indigenous peoples of Sarawak continue to show reverence towards their rainforests even until today. Despite the prolonged exposure to the outside world, the indigenous peoples of Sarawak retain their ancestors’ culture and traditions.

Formerly known as Sea Dayaks, the Iban is one of the most populous ethnic groups in Sarawak. They were known as Sea Dayaks by the British because they were often seen patrolling the sea to help Malays fight against pirates. Furthermore, the ancestors of Iban Sarawak are believed to have come from the Kapuas River region in western Kalimantan; their move into Sarawak was to search for new swidden land and to expand their territories. The earliest Iban migrations to the thinly populated Sarawak can be categorized as an establishment of pioneer settlements along the tributaries of the Batang Lupar and Saribas rivers. The migration during that time is the beginning of the first major movement, which took about sixteenth generations, approximately during the middle of the sixteenth century. Since then, the Iban gradually travelled northward and eastward through the Rejang Valley; today, they are present in every district and division of Sarawak, be it in the countryside or urban areas.

An Iban war perahu (bangkong) on Skerang river. Image credit: Henry Ling Roth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iban_Prahu.jpg

The Iban have a special and unique residence namely the longhouse where the villagers live under one roof. Back then, most the Iban longhouses were situated by the river as it was their main mode of transportation. In addition, there are variations of longhouse designs between different ethnic groups However, the Iban village would normally have only one longhouse, which is in straight-line with a rectangular shape, built using heavy hardwood posts and beam structures. The floors and walls are constructed using bamboos, sometimes with wood barks and palm thatch roofs. It is almost conceptually similar to that of terrace row houses, with each compartment or home separated by walls and sharing a common street. Each family has its own personal compartment known as bilek, which is equipped with sleeping and cooking areas. The cooking area is the area where the ‘ladies of the house’ clean and cook, as well as socialize with other women. Simply said, it is an area only for the females in the house.

An illustration of an Iban Longhouse. Image credit: Henry Ling Roth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iban_Langhaus.jpg

Additionally, the covered corridor known as ruai and located at the front of the bilek, running along the longhouse, can be considered as the men’s domain. The ruai is an area where community meetings, major ritual performances and wedding receptions are held, apart from it being a hall to entertain guests. Here, men also gather for daily chores such as mending fishnets and traps. In essence, while the bilek is a private and domestic space for the family, ruai is a public space dedicated for the longhouse members and guests; it is on the upper floor of the longhouse known as sadau in Iban. The distance between the ground and the base of the house can be several feet. It is assumed that the style of the house, gathered in one common structure, is convenient in order to protect the villagers. Furthermore, its high structure helps prevent effects of flooding and provides protection from wild beasts. In essence, the longhouse structures were developed as a defensive measure to protect the villagers from tribal ambushes, particularly during the old headhunting days, considering the longhouse is difficult to access, especially as the ladders were removed at night as a security measure.

The ruai, where people gather. Image credit: Seth Peli via https://www.expatgo.com/my/2017/01/18/headhunting-in-borneo/

The ancient Iban are well known as fearless and brave warriors, very determined in securing desirable land for swidden agriculture, They will fight enemies or other tribes that intercept their movement or during their mission in extending their lands. The way they fight is different from other Borneans since they are fearless when it comes to displaying their bravery and full-frontal attacks. They also showcase their strength through headhunting or ngayau. It was a custom of Iban warriors to cut off the heads of their enemies after their battles, which were brought back to the longhouse. During the time when ngayau was still practised, it was considered as the symbol of bravery and heroism as well as used to determine an individual’s social status or social rank in the tribe. It is believed that ngayau started when their lands were intruded upon by other tribes and because of the arrival of outsiders that occupied lands belonging to them.

Punan heads taken by the Iban. Image source: https://robinsonmike.blogspot.com/2014_08_01_archive.html

Typically, the Iban warrior possessing strong skills and effective techniques in battles will be the one appointed as the tribal chief, praised by others, as well as feared among the tribes. This explains why, the Sarawak Iban are famously known as warriors and have been called as ‘the wickedest head-hunters’ even though their headhunting days ended a very long time ago. Additionally, because of their bravery, the Iban were recruited as part of the military known as Sarawak Rangers. The Sarawak Rangers played a vital role in fighting the Japanese during Japanese Occupation (1941-1945) and against the communists during Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).

The sword used by the Iban during headhunting is known as Parang Ilang. The sword represents the symbol of courage and their excellent fighting skills. Most Iban men would usually own a Parang Ilang as it is an essential weapon used for hunting and protecting their family from enemies. Apart from that, the same sword would also be used for rituals and traditional medications, which include a cure for shingles (kayap). In the past, the hilt of the sword would be decorated with human hairs obtained through ngayau. Iban hold a strong belief that if the warrior passed away and owned the Parang Ilang, then the sword shall be inherited by the heir of his family because as it is believed that the warrior’s soul remains with the sword despite his demise. Therefore, it shall not be easily passed onto other people except their legal heir. In essence, Parang Ilang is the traditional weapon of Iban where the sword remains important in the Iban community, making it a part of tangible heritage that is still being preserved among the Iban cultures until today.

A beautifully carved hilt of a parang ilang from Muzium Negara’s collection. Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur

Like most of the indigenous people, the Iban are traditionally animists, who believe that everything, be it animate or inanimate, has a spirit that can influence the events in their life. One of the many rituals still being practiced by the Iban is Miring, an offering ceremony aimed to honour the gods, spirits and souls of dead ancestors. This belief seeks their ancestors’ help and blessing before any important event is held. According to the old faith of the Iban, it is believed that if the supernatural is not fed, they will not obtain the blessing, which will cause disasters and misfortunes. The miring ritual is still practiced whenever the Iban celebrate their annual harvest festival known as Gawai Dayak, in order to thank the rice spirits that have blessed their community with good harvests. Gawai Dayak is a major festival not only for the Iban, but also for other indigenous people in Sarawak.

Animistic rituals have been practiced by the indigenous people for a long time but over time, some communities have embraced other religions and changed their lifestyles; majority have embraced Christianity. Nowadays, the Iban have successfully adapted to the modernisation and globalization era, their longhouses are completely equipped with modern facilities and essential necessities such as electricity and water supplies, the Internet, telephone line and roads. Most of the younger generation can also be found living in the urban areas, yet they always return to their hometown especially during the festive seasons to visit families. Furthermore, they also live peacefully with other tribes and races such as Bidayuh, Malays and Chinese. Although, the Iban today have been exposed to modernization and globalisation, yet they have impressively managed to preserve their ancestors’ customs, ritual and traditional beliefs including their traditional costumes, the Ngajat dance, Pua Kumbu, Parang Ilang, traditional foods, the longhouse, Gawai Dayak festival and many more.

The boy is in traditional costume accessorised with headgear and Parang Ilang. The girl is wearing the rawai, a corset of rattan hoops secured by small brass rings stiffened around the torso, with sugu tinggi (silver headgear) and tumpa (bangles). Image credit: Charles Hose, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Young_Ibans,_or_Sea_Dayaks.jpg


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