CELEBRATING LIFE WITH THE IBAN

SARAWAK

I couldn’t think of a better title. This is a short documentary on my visit, for one night, to an Iban longhouse in Rumah Nelson Surau, Durin, Kanowit, Sarawak.

I start my journey in Kapit, in the southbank of the Rajang river, also known as the “gateway to the heart of Borneo”. I came to learn more about the culture of the once fearsome headhunter tribe, the Iban. From Kapit I arrange a visit to a traditional longhouse, close to another major village along the river, Sibu, about three hours away by express boat.

On my way, I learn that a special cerimony is being prepared to honour my arrival. It will be hosted by the owner of the house inside the longhouse where I’ll stay overnight.

I meet Alex, Ben and Moilan in Sibu and after one hour driving we arrive at the Iban residential area known as Rumah Nelson Surau. The longhouse I’ll stay in is very antique. Though equipped with electricity and other facilities, it still preserves its original wooden arquitecture.

When we arrive, the ceremony, known as Miring, is almost ready.

Alex introduces me as a member of My Mobile University and explains that my mission is to learn about Iban culture.

We are having a Miring Tujúa, a basic cerimony for welcoming special visitors. Mirings can be done for different reasons: to celebrate the harvest; to bless a soldier that is sent to war, before a marriage, or even if a member of a family is suffering from persistent nightmares.

We see that is a Miriang Tujua because there are seven dishes per raw; for a soldier protection, for instance, there would be nine. All dishes contain rice, in different varieties. Another two important elements are rice wine and eggs.

They start the cerimony preparing the rice wine: one for the gods and one to be drunk by the people gathered. Apart from the first glass of wine, other presents are offered to the gods and spirits, such as tabacco and penang leaves. A chicken has also been brought and, for the ritual, it will be used alive.

The lady on the right is the daughter-in-law of the wiseman hosting the cerimony. Her husband is one of the very few young xamas among the Iban. In his 20s he became very ill, and in his dreams he was given three choices: dying, being paralised for the rest of his life or embracing his gift and become a xaman. He chose the 3rd option. His father, the ritual performer, even when he is not a xaman, he’s still gifted, and began celebrating cerimonies after receiving messages from the Iban omen.

All food from different dishes has to be put together, along with the leaves and the rest of elements. Only then the ritual will begin.

Ooohhaaaa is the sacred word for the Iban, and with its invocation the ritual begins. The master of cerimony is making a rhyme explaining that I cam efrom overseas with the purpose to learn about them. He invoques the Father God, the Mother God, the Grandfather God and the Grandmother God.

The wiseman addresses the Gods to express his gratitude for my visit.

The word “revai”, meaning foreigner, is emphasized. I wasn’t aware, at the moment, that my presence there was seen as a message of hope from the Gods, to let them know that the children in the community will be successful, will be able to have good education and will have the chance to go overseas one day.

In his final pray the wiseman emphasizes that the children will have good education and will become successful.

After the miring it’s time for joy and celeration. Everyone, men and women, dance. Children are allowed to stay, even when it’s late at night. It’s a special occasion. Those who can, play instruments too.

We are now in the main corridor of the longhouse, outside the door where the miring took place. What is hanging form the ceiling, on the left, are the skulls of 11 warriors, some of them Japanese soldiers from the Second World War, some older that that. On my way to the longhouse I had been strongly warned against taking pictures or recording the skulls before the miring. I could only do that once then the spirits were praised and the Gods were present.

Iban dancing resembles animals movements, and it requires more technical expertise than imagined from a first impression.

There isn’t a shortage of alcohol tonight. When Ibans celebrate, they do it big, and they even challenge each other. “Gods are present, you have to be strong” Alex told me at some point.

Iban dancing resembles animals movements, and it requires more technical expertise than imagined from a first impression.

There isn’t a shortage of alcohol tonight. When Ibans celebrate, they do it big, and they even challenge each other. “Gods are present, you have to be strong” Alex told me at some point.

The news about the miring has spreaded throughout the neighbourhood, and youngsters from here and there join us in our party, as children, one by one, go to sleep.

It calls my attention the tatoos that some of them still have them made on their bodies. Tatoos were very mportant for the Ibans in the old times, when they were ,mainly, warriors andheadhunters. They believed to be invisible to the Gods eyes unless they had tattoos on their bodies.

This is a major tattoo in the Iban iconography. It’s generally worn on both shoulders, on the front side.

This other is intended to protect the headhunters from losing their own head. It is said that, when made on someone’s neck, this becomes unvulnerable to weapons.

Tonight I’ve heard a thousand stories about the fearsome Iban, and I’ve had the chance to contemplate 11 skulls that give good testimony of their fame. But I leave this place with the sole impression of having been spoilt by the most warm, friendly, happy and hospitable people that I’ve met in a long long time.

 

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