Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Headhunting in Borneo

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 02:34:16 PM

Iban skulls at a Bidayuh longhouse 

“And there, up there, above the rest of the people, is where the witch-doctor or shaman stays.” We look in the direction Reno’s finger points to. Our guide-cum-driver then excitedly climbs up the rickety bamboo-and-wood staircase. We gingerly follow him into a dark room. It’s empty. Reno moves to the centre of the room and points to a cage. We had expected some treasure — old herbs, antimony, gold dust, anything. But, skulls? Human skulls!

Reno smiles triumphantly. This is what most tourists, mainly from Australia and mainland Malaysia, come to the Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse for; this and the Annah Rais hot-spring in the hills nearby. We take a closer look at the skulls, the cage and the new stainless steel lock that keeps the contents ‘safe’. “These were Iban warriors,” Reno reveals.

In Malaysia's largest state, Sarawak, the Dayak Ibans comprise nearly 34 per cent of the population. While the Ibans today are a generous, hospitable and placid people, the tribe has a long history as pirates and fishermen. The fierce warriors were reputed to be the most formidable headhunters on the island of Borneo.
Reno says, “The Ibans and Bidayuh's are historical enemies. The Bidayuhs were the first tribe to come to Sarawak in 1380 from Kalimantan in south Borneo (which is now part of Indonesia). They were peace-loving people and settled here into agrarian communities and built their longhouses. The Ibans followed them. They would always look out for a fight with the Bidayuhs and raid the latter’s villages.” It would inevitably result in war. Men on both sides would be killed and their heads would be taken by their enemies as trophies. The women and children of the ‘enemy tribe’ were taken as slaves.

Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse
The victorious warriors would bring the heads to the shaman. The skulls would be carved out and engraved on and then washed with coconut water. The coconut water was believed to be potent and would be passed around to the warriors, for them to drink. It would then be distributed to the villagers, who would sprinkle it into the ground before they started sowing the seeds for the next season's crops.

A 73-year-old (even I couldn't believe that she was that old) Bidayuh woman making a basket. The traditional  rattan weed is slowly giving way to more durable but ecologically harmful plastic. Besides baskets and cloth, the Bidayuh are also known for their wood-bark products such as purses and mobile phone covers


We step out of the shaman’s house into the common space that makes the communal space of the stitled, windowless, longhouse, which is not unlike the long corridor of a chawl in Dadar in Mumbai. Life seems normal here. The women weave the rattan (Java weed) mats and baskets that the Bidayuh’s are famous for. Others wash tapioca roots and leave the leaves to dry in the sun. These will be later used to flavour rice which will be cooked in bamboo over a woodfire. Cats and the Kampung (village) children lay sprawled across the bamboo flooring. We pick up strains of Hindi film music that is playing on a TV channel.  A middle-aged woman offers us a glass of tuak or rice wine (RM 20 for a bottle) while Reno chats her up. She talks freely because he belongs to her tribe.

Cocoa in their backyard!
The practice of headhunting is banned by the three countries which govern Borneo – Indonesia, the Kingdom of Brunei and Malaysia. Relics, in the forms of bones and exquisitely carved human skulls are found in museums such as the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore and in antique shops all across South East Asia. The Ibans and the Bidayuhs have ‘settled down’ into other occupations. Reno notes that the inherent aggressive streak the Ibans have, has turned some of them into Sarawak's most successful businessmen. The Bidayuhs, on the other hand, take up jobs as professionals or in the government service. Most of the tribes in Sarawak now follow Christianity. But, the shamans still exist and so do their beliefs in the powers the skulls possess.

Getting there: The Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse is a 1.5 hour-drive away from Sarawak's capital, Kuching. Taxis and shuttles are available from outside the Grand Margherita Hotel and may cost you about RM 150 (1RM = INR 15 approx) per head. Buses are cheaper but difficult to come by. Kuching is well-connected by air to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

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