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Part 2 of:
Borneo Holiday in Sarawak Malaysia Longhouses

After dinner, the warm glow of kerosene lamps and candles illuminated the ruai of the Iban longhouse. Families set up a veritable handicraft market with baskets and mats, bead bracelets, wooden carvings and woven wall hangings (Iban pua). There was no pressure to buy, although the low prices almost guaranteed sales.

Woman displays handicrafts for sale in Murat Iban longhouse.
Woman displays handicrafts for sale in Murat Iban longhouse.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We completed our shopping and presented Tuai Rumah Bansing with the tuak and gifts. (It's taboo to give gifts to individuals, especially children, in a longhouse.) He graciously accepted them, opened up the packages and divided them into 25 equal mounds.

Our host opened the bottle of tuak, and poured some against the longhouse pillar, for the ground spirits, before filling a glass. Tuai Rumah Bansing took the first sip (as is customary, to prove it wasn't poisoned) then offered us each a drink. The tuak was cloudy and sweet, with a kick that we didn't feel until we tried to stand up.

Agung musicians began playing ketebung drums, large and small tawak brass gongs, and engkerumungs, a set of eight small gongs. Women, some wearing special-occasion beaded collars and traditional silver headpieces, and others wearing everyday sarongs, performed graceful welcome dances. We applauded in appreciation. They each shook our hands, in turn, then stopped by the headman to pick up their gifts.

Harvest festival

"You can see many more traditional Iban costumes during the Gawai Dayak Festival on June 1," explained Joseph. "Communities and longhouses in Sarawak, Malaysia, celebrate the harvest with music, dancing, drinking and traditional foods."

The Iban men, dressed as warriors, with loincloths and hornbill feather headdresses, performed the ngajat, or combat dance. Armed with parang ilang (traditional long swords) and colourful wooden shields, they pierced the air with battle cries, as they rotated and flapped their arms.

Iban man with hornbill feathered headress, shield and parang ilang sword, dances the warrior or combat dance (ngajat) in Sarawak longhouse.
Iban man with hornbill feathered headress, shield and parang ilang sword, dances the warrior or combat dance (ngajat) in Sarawak longhouse.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Lulled into a comfortable stupor by the tuak, we enjoyed the show until one of the men, with an outstretched tattooed arm, invited us up to dance. Suddenly, we realized that we were part of the entertainment.

You don't say no to someone carrying an arm's-length sword, decorated with strands of human hair — even if it was only his great-grandfather who was the headhunter.

Iban elder, with pierced stretched earlobes and tattoos, holds a parang ilang sword decorated with human hair.
Iban elder, with pierced stretched earlobes and tattoos, holds a parang ilang sword decorated with human hair.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We didn't do a perfect rendition of the dance, but everyone clapped politely, nonetheless. Afterward, our hosts served tea and biscuits. Joseph reminded us about another taboo: "Never refuse food or drink. If you don't want any, touch the plate or glass gently with your fingertips, then your lips, to symbolically eat or drink."

With Joseph Daniel as our translator, we asked an elderly man about his age. "I'm 70 times the harvest," he replied. We noted that his pierced ears drooped, from large earrings that once enlarged the holes. "Younger men have surgery to remove the dangling earlobes, so they look more modern," explained Joseph.

Body art tattoos

Likewise, only older men had tattoos. "They punctured the skin with a mixture of honey and charcoal," said Joseph. "In the old days, tattoos indicated that a man was brave in war or had taken heads." Tuai Rumah Bansing pointed to his arms. "Each tattoo is from a different trip," he said. "This one's from Brunei, where I did construction work, several years ago."

Woman wears traditional beaded shoulder covering and silver headdress in Borneo Iban longhouse.
Woman wears traditional beaded shoulder covering and silver headdress in Borneo Iban longhouse.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Families retired to their quarters for the night, as our host brought out a foam mattress, clean sheets and pillows, and laid them on the ruai for our bed. We drifted off to sleep, serenaded by a jungle chorus of screeches, squawks and chirps.

Suddenly, we both woke up with a start. Something was moving in the darkness near the skulls.

"Did I drink too much tuak last night, or did you see what I saw?"

"I saw it too. What is it?"

"I don't know, but it's sliding along the floor towards us."

Fumbling for our flashlight, we focussed the beam on a burlap bag. It squealed.

Relieved to learn that it was only a piglet destined for the morning market, we tried to fall asleep. No success. A group of hunters returned from their jungle hunt. Pigs snuffled on the ground below the floor boards. Roosters crowed. Chickens clucked.

By dawn, the women were up, preparing breakfast. The men needed a hearty meal before their three-hour walk to the padi fields for a full day of work.

As Joseph cooked eggs for our breakfast, we watched an Iban woman winnow rice on the balcony. She repeatedly flipped the grains from a handwoven tray, into the air, so the wind could blow away the chaff.

Iban hunter shoots dart through a blowpipe.
Iban hunter shoots dart through a blowpipe.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Whatever you do, don't inhale

After breakfast, a hunter showed us how to blow darts through a blowpipe. "The trick," he said, "is to blow from your chest, not your mouth."

We, each in turn, grasped the pole, and discovered that aiming a blowpipe wasn't as easy as it looked. The long blowpipe swayed. Thwup! Our darts failed to reach the target.

Iban hunters can hit a monkey 25 metres away. "If we want monkey for dinner, we aim for the hand, so we can cut out the poison before it taints the meat," he explained. "The poison is ipoh tree sap. It can kill in three minutes." (Iban people know which jungle plants are antidotes.)

Joseph Daniel introduced us to medicinal plants and edible plants during a jungle walk. With pants tucked into our socks, to protect our shins from leaches, we discovered that the Borneo jungle was not only a pharmacy, but also a grocery and hardware store.

Wild orchids

The jungle was also beautiful. Joseph pointed out wild orchids. "Bat-like flying foxes drink the nectar from jungle flowers."

Not all plants are friendly. "This small pitcher plant captures and digests insects. Larger ones eat rats," he said.

Other jungle plants are useful. "We use this rough leaf like sandpaper to smooth blowpipes. And see this large leaf? When hunters are in the jungle, they wrap rice inside and steam it. They also use the leaf as a plate."

Human skull severed by headhunters
Human skull severed by headhunters
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Human skulls

Before our Borneo adventure ended and we returned to Kuching, we had to satisfy our curiosity about the skulls. "Who were they?" we asked. "Enemies," replied Joseph.

"The Ibans were headhunters until 1839. James Brooke, a British adventurer who became Rajah of Sarawak, in return for quelling a tribal rebellion, put an end to headhunting. When the Japanese invaded during World War II, the practice resumed."

"Why did they sever the heads?"

"They weren't just trophies. Ibans believed that if they killed the enemy leader, they would capture his spirit and control it. By giving it offerings, the spirit would be happy and do what they wanted it to do."

Aha! That explained those pill-shaped baskets hanging from the longhouse ceiling like palm leaf-wrapped smoke detectors.

"They contain rice, eggs and meat. People still make offerings today, if someone has a bad dream or if an evil spirit causes illness in the building."

"Why are the skulls black?"

"They smoked the skulls to dry them after removing the flesh," explained Joseph. "Nowadays, we still light fires below the skulls to keep them warm. You must never let them get wet and shiver. I remember, as a boy, hearing the skulls grind their teeth when they got wet. It was scary!"

Nor must you ever let the skulls go hungry. Judging by the numerous offering baskets in this longhouse, the Iban occupants extend their traditional hospitality to the severed heads, as well as guests.

Return to Part 1: Borneo Holiday in Sarawak Malaysia Longhouses


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