Iban people

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Iban people
Sea Dayak
COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Portret van Iban Dajaks waarvan de man in krijgskleding in de garnizoensplaats Long Nawan TMnr 60034030.jpg
A traditional Iban Family.
Total population
c. 830,000
Regions with significant populations
(West Kalimantan)
Iban, Malay, Indonesian
Christianity, Animism, some minorities Islam
Related ethnic groups
Kantu, Dayak Mualang, Semberuang, Bugau and Sebaru

The Ibans are a branch of the Dayak peoples of Borneo. In Malaysia, most Ibans are located in Sarawak, a small portion in Sabah and some in west Malaysia. They were formerly known during the colonial period by the British as Sea Dayaks. Ibans were renowned for practising headhunting and tribal/territorial expansion and had a fearsome reputation as a strong and successful warring tribe in ancient times.

Since the arrival of Europeans and the subsequent colonisation of the area, headhunting gradually faded out of practice although many tribal customs, practices and language continue. The Iban population is concentrated in Sarawak, Brunei, and in the West Kalimantan region of Indonesia. They live in longhouses called rumah panjang[1].

Nowadays, most of the Iban longhouses are equipped with modern facilities such as electricity and water supply and other facilities such as (tar sealed) roads, telephone lines and the internet. Younger Ibans are mostly found in urban areas and visit their hometowns during the holidays. The Ibans today are becoming increasingly urbanised while retaining most of their traditional heritage and culture.

Ibanic Subgroup and Language[edit]

Main article: Iban language

Although Ibans generally speak a dialect which is mutually intelligible, they can be divided into different branches which are named after the geographical areas where they reside.

  • Majority of Ibans who live around the Lundu and Samarahan region are called Sebuyaus.
  • Ibans who settled in areas in Serian district (places like Kampung Lebor, Kampung Tanah Mawang & others) are called Remuns. They may be the earliest Iban group to migrate to Sarawak.
  • Ibans who originated from Sri Aman area are called Balaus.
  • Ibans who come from Betong, Saratok & parts of Sarikei are called Saribas.
  • The original iban Lubok Antu Ibans are classed by anthropologists as Ulu Ai/batang ai Ibans.
  • Ibans from Undup are called Undup Ibans. Their dialect is somewhat a cross between the Ulu Ai dialect & the Balau dialect.
  • Ibans living in areas from Sarikei to Miri are called Rajang Ibans. This group is also known as "Bilak Sedik Iban". They are the majority group of the Iban people. They can be found along the Rajang River, Sibu, Kapit, Belaga, Kanowit, Song, Sarikei, Bintangor, Bintulu and Miri. Their dialect is somewhat similar to the Ulu Ai or lubok antu dialect.

In West Kalimantan (Indonesia), Iban people are even more diverse. The Kantu, Air Tabun, Semberuang, Sebaru' , Bugau, Mualang & along with many other groups are classed as "Ibanic people" by anthropologists. They can be related to the Iban either by the dialect they speak or their customs, rituals & their way of life.

Religion, Culture and Festivals[edit]

Religions of Ibans (Malaysia only)[1]
Religion Percent
Folk religion-Animist
Other religions
No religion / Unknown
An Iban woman prepares cotton for spinning

The Ibans were traditionally animist, although the majority are now Christian, many continue to observe both Christian and traditional ceremonies, particularly during marriages or festivals. The majority of Iban people have changed their traditional name to a Hebrew based "Christian name" such as David, Christopher, Janet, Sona, or Joseph but a minority still maintain their traditional Iban name or a combination of both with the first Christian name followed by a second traditional Iban name such as David Dana, Christopher Changgai, Janet Jenna or Joseph Jelaing.

The longhouse of Iban Dayaks are constructed in such a way to act as an accommodation and a religious place of worship. The first thing to be erected during the longhouse building is the tiang pemun (the main post) from which the pun ramu (the bottom of any tree trunks) is determined and followed along the longhouse construction. Any subsequent rituals will refer to the tiang pemun and pun ramu.

Iban Belief and Pantheon[edit]

The Iban religion involves worshiping and honouring at least four categories of beings i.e the supreme god called Petara and his seven deities, the holy spirits of Orang Panggau Libau and Gelong, the ghost spirits (Bunsu Antu) and the souls of dead ancestors.

The supreme God is called Bunsu (Kree) Petara, sometimes called as Raja Entala or even Tuhan Allah Taala (Arabic defines the article al- "the" and ilāh "deity, god" to al-lāh meaning "the [sole] deity, God") in modern times.

There are seven main petaras (deities or gods or regents) of Iban Dayaks who act as the messengers between human beings and God. These deities are the children of Raja Jembu and the grandchildren of Raja Burong. [2] Their names are as follows:

  • Sengalang Burong as the god of war for protection and sustenance
  • Biku Bunsu Petara (female) as the high priest
  • Sempulang Gana as the god of agriculture along with his father-in-law Semarugah as the god of land
  • Selempandai/Selempeta/Selempetoh as the god of creation and procreation
  • Menjaya Manang as the god of health and shamanism being the first manang bali
  • Anda Mara as the god of wealth
  • Ini Andan/Inee (female) as the natural-born doctor and the god of justice

In addition to these gods, there are mystical people namely the orang Panggau Libau and "Gelong" with the most notable ones being Keling and Laja, and Kumang and Lulong who often help the Iban Dayaks to be successful in life and adventures.

Other spirits are called bunsu jelu (animal spirits), antu utai tumboh (plant spirits), antu (ghosts) such as antu gerasi (huntsman) and antu menoa (place spirits like hills or mounts). These spirits can be helpful, cause sickness or even madness.

The souls of dead ancestors are invoked by the Iban when seeking their blessings and showing respects for their souls usually during Gawai Antu (Festival for the Dead) and when visiting their graves.

Stages of Iban propitiation[edit]

Masing in 1981 and Sandin clearly categorise Iban's propitiation and worshiping into three main successive stages of increasing importance, complexity and intensity i.e. bedara (serving and distributing offerings), gawa (literally working) and gawai (festival).

Bedara can be divided into bedera mata (unripe rite) if the service is performed inside the family room (bilik) and bedara mansau (ripen rite) where it is carried out at the family gallery (ruai). Other specific miring rituals are called minta ujan (requesting for rain), minta panas (requesting for sunniness), berunsur (cleansing), mudas (appreciating) and genselan menoa (requeting for merciness).

Gawa includes all the medium-sized rites such as gawa beintu-intu (self-caring rituals) and gawa tuah (Fortune ritual). There are various types of gawa beintu-intu such as timang sukat (Life Measuring Chant), timang bulu (Human Mantle Chant), timang buloh ayu (Soul Bamboo Chant), timang panggang (Jar Board Chant), timang panggau (Wooden platform Chant) and timang engkuni (House Post Chant). As this category of rites involves mainly timang (chant), it is also normally called nimang (chanting). Gawa Tuah has two subgroups called nimang ngiga tuah (fortune seeking chanting) and nimang namaka tuah (fortune welcoming chanting).

Gawai comprises six major festivals namely gawai bumai (farming festivals), gawai amat (real festival) or gawai burong (bird festival), gawai tuah, gawai sakit (Sickness-healing festival), gawai antu (ghost or spirit festival) and gawai ngar (dyeing festival). The gawai bumai consists of two major festivals called gawai batu panggol (whetstone ritual) and gawai benih (seed ritual).

Gawai or Traditional festivals[edit]

Significant traditional festivals to propitiate the above-mentioned gods can be grouped into seven categories which are related to the main activities among the Iban Dayaks i.e. the Farming-related festivals to propitiate the deity of agriculture Sempulang Gana, the War-related festivals to honour the deity of war Sengalang Burong, the health-related festivals for the deity of shamanism Menjaya and Ini Andan, the Fortune-related festivals dedicated to the deity of fortune Anda Mara, the death-related festival (Gawai Antu or Ngelumbong) to invite ancestors, marriage-related festival (Gawai Lelabi) for the deity of creation Selampandai and weaving-related festival (Gawai Ngar) for patrons of weaving.

Rice farming is the key life-sustaining activity among Dayaks and thus there are many ritual festivals dedicated to this namely Gawai Batu (Whetstone Festival), Gawai Benih (Seed Festival), Gawai Ngalihka Tanah (Soil Ploughing Festival), Gawai Ngemali Umai (Farm-healing Festival), Gawai Matah (Harvest-starting Festival) and Gawai Basimpan (Rice-Keeping) Festival.

The rice planting stages start from manggol (ritual initial clearing to seek good omen using a birdstick (tambak burong), nebas babas (clearing undergrowth), nebang kayu (felling trees), ngerangkaika reban (drying out trees), nunu (burning), ngebak and nugal (clearing unburnt trees and dibbling), mantun (weeding), ngetau (harvesting), nungku (separating rice grains), muput (winding), nyembi padi (drying rice grains), besimpan (rice keeping) and nanam taya ba jerami (cotton planting).

The war-related festivals collectively called Gawai Burong (Bird Festival) in the Saribas region or Gawai Amat (Proper Festival) in the Baleh region is held in honour of the war god, Sengalang Burong (Hawk the Bird) which is manifested as the brahminy kite. This festival has some stages and is initiated by a notable individual from time to time and hosted by individual longhouses. It originally honours warriors but during more peaceful times evolves into a healing or fortune seeking ceremony.

Gawai Burong which is mainly celebrated in the Saribas region comprises nine ascending stages as follows:[3]

  • 1) Gawai Kalingkang
  • 2) Gawai Sandong
  • 3) Gawai Sawi
  • 4) Gawai Salangking
  • 5) Gawai Mulong Merangau or Lemba Bumbun
  • 6) Gawai Gajah Meram
  • 7) Gawai Meligai
  • 8) Gawai Ranyai or Mudur Ruruh
  • 9) Gawai Gerasi Papa.

Each celebrant-to-be will decide which stage fits his life achievement or success so far. Other festivals of this category are Gawai Ijok Pumpong and Gawai Sandau Liau.

In the Baleh region, the Ibans there celebrate a slightly different set of Gawai Amat (Proper Festival) as listed by Masing:[4]

  • l. Gawai Tresang Mansau
  • 2. Gawai Kalingkang
  • 3. Gawai Ijok Pumpong (Decapitating of gamuti palm ritual)
  • 4. Gawai Tangga Raja (Notched-ladder of wealth)
  • 5. Gawai Kayu Raya (Tree of wealth ritual)
  • 6. Gawai Kenyalang (Hornbill ritual)
  • 7. Gawai Nangga Langit (Notched-ladder to the sky)
  • 8. Gawai Tangga Ari (Notched-ladder of day).

Each celebrant will choose which level fits his lifetime achievement or purpose of celebration. Other variants of gawai amat in the Baleh region is called Gawai Lesung (Rice Mortar Festival), Gawai Nangga Medan, Gawai Sempuyung Mata Ari, Gawai Mapal Tunggul and Gawai Ubah Rebah.

The fortune-related festivals include Gawai Pangkong Tiang (House Main Post Banging Festival), Gawai Tuah with three successive stages (Luck Seeking and Welcoming Festival) and Gawai Tajau (Jar Welcoming Festival) to pray and to invoke Raja Anda Mara. Some people call Gawai Pangkong Tiang As Gawai Niat (Intention Festival) or Gawai Diri (Rising up Festival). For marriages, the wedding ceremony is called Melah Pinang (Areca/beetle nut spliting) and Gawai Lelabi (River Turtle Festival) is held for daughters who are ready for marriage. Here the God invoked is Selampandai for fertility and procreation purposes to bear many children.

The health-related festivals are Gawai Sakit (Sickness Festival), Sugi Sakit and Renong Sakit to seek magical healing by Sengalang Burong, Menjaya or Ini Inee and Keling. Before employing these healing festivals, there are various types of pelian (healing ceremony) by a manang (traditional healer), pucau (short prayers) and begama (touching) by a dukun to be tried first. A candidate will become a manang (shaman) after an official ceremony called Gawai Babangun (Manang-Officiating Festival).

After death, the last ritual is called the spirit festival for the dead which is called (Gawai Antu) in the Saribas/Skrang region and Gawai Ngelumbong (Tomb Building Festival) in the Baleh region. This festival is held once every 20 to 30 years per longhouse.

In addition, for women involved in weaving, their ceremony is called Gawai Ngar (Cotton-Dyeing Festival). Pua Kumbu, the Iban traditional cloth and custome, is used to decorate longhouses. There are various types of buah (motives or patterns) of pua kumbu which can be for ritual purposes or normal daily uses. Female Ibans will be graded according to their own personal capabilities during their lifetime, which include weaving as their topmost skills.

With the coming of rubber and pepper planting, the Ibans have adapted the Gawai Ngemali Umai (Paddy Farm Healing Festival) and Gawai Batu (Whetstone Festival) to hold Gawai Getah (Rubber Festival) to sharpen the tapping knives and Gawai Lada (Pepper Festival) to avoid diseases and pests associated with pepper planting respectively.[5]

Some of the gawai have been relegated into the medium category of propitiation called gawa such as Gawai Tuah into Nimang Tuah, Gawai Benih into Nimang Benih and the Gawai Beintu-intu into their respective nimang category. Gawai Matah can be relegated into a minor rite simply called matah.

It is common that all those festivals are to be celebrated after the rice harvesting completion which is normally by the end of May during which rice is plenty for holding feasts along with poultry like pigs, chickens, fish from rivers and jungle meats like deer etc.

Therefore, it is fitting to call this festive season among Dayaks collectively as the Gawai Dayak festival which is celebrated every year on 1 June, at the end of the harvest season, to worship the Lord Sempulang Gana and other gods. On this day, the Ibans get together to celebrate, often visiting each other.

The Iban traditional dance, the Ngajat, is performed accompanied by the Taboh and Gendang, the Ibans' traditional music.

The 'tuak', Iban rice wine[edit]

Tuak is originally made of cooked glutinous rice (Asi Pulut) mixed with home-made yeast (Chiping/Ragi) for fermentation. It is a wine used to serve guests especially as welcoming drinks when entering longhouses. Nowadays, there are various kinds of tuak, made with rice alternatives such as sugar cane, ginger and corn. However, these raw materials are rarely used unless available in large quantities. Tuak and other types of drinks (both alcohol and non-alcoholic) can be served on several rounds in a ceremony called nyibur temuai (serving drinks to guests) as ai aus (thirst queching drink), ai basu kaki (Feet Washing drink), ai basa (respect drink) and ai untong (profit drink). Another type of a stronger alcoholic drink is called langkau which contains a higher alcohol content because it is actually made of tuak which has been distilled over fire to boil off the alcohol from the tuak, cooled down and collected into containers.

Leka Main or Traditional Poetry[edit]

The recitation of pantun and various kinds of leka main (traditional poetry) is a particularly important aspect of festivals. Any ordinary persons can recite poetry for entertainment and customary purposes but sacred inchantations to invoke deities are only recited by specialists which are either a manang (shaman) or lemambang (bard) or tukang sabak.

According one Iban scholar,[6] the leka main (poems, proses and folklores) for Iban Dayaks can be categorised into three major groups i.e. leka main pemerindang (for entertaining purposes), leka main adat basa (for customary purposes) and leka main invokasyen (for invocation purposes).

The entertaining leka main includes pantun, jawang, sanggai, ramban, entelah, ensera, kana, pelandai ara and karong, wak anat mit, etc.

The customary leka main comprises jaku ansah, jaku geliga, tanya indu, muka kuta, muka kujuk, jaku karong, jaku dalam, jaku sempama, jaku silup, sugi semain, renong semain, renong sabong, renong kayau, renong ngayap, etc.

The invocation leka main consists of sampi, biau, timang, pengap, sugi sakit, renong sakit and sabak bebuah or sungkop or rugan. These invocation inchantations must be accompanied with piring (ritual offerings) to appease the gods invoked during the restival. The inchantation can last the whole night of the festival and the next morning a pig is sacrificed for divination of its liver which is interpreted to forecast the luck, fortune, health and success of the feast host and his family in the future.

Iban miring or ritual offerings[edit]

The Iban leka piring which is the number of each offering item is basically according to the single odd numbers which are piring turun 3, 5, 7 and 9. Leka piring (Number of each offering item) and agih piring (set of offerings) is dedicated to each part of the long house bilek such as bilek four corners, tanju (verandah), ruai (gallery, dapur (kitchen), benda beras (rice jar), etc. as deemed fit and necessary.

The rule on how to choose the leka piring according to its purpose is as follows:

  • Leka piring 3 – piring ampun/seluwak (for apologies or economy)
  • Leka piring 5 – piring minta/ngiring bejalai (for requests or journey)
  • Leka piring 7 – piring gawai/bujang berani (for festivals or brave men)
  • Leka piring 8 – piring nyangkong (for including others)
  • Leka piring 9 – piring nyangkong/turu (for including others and any leftover offering items are placed together)
  • Leka lebih ari 9 (10,11,12, to 18) – piring turu (leftover offering items must be all offered and cannot be eaten)

The basic items for the piring offerings include at least the following items: betel nuts, sirih leaves, sedi leaves and kapu chalk, cigar leaves and tobacco, "penganan" (disc-shaped cake made from glutinous rice flour which is deep-fried in cooking oil), senupat (sacheted glutinous rice), sungkoi (wrapped glutinous rice), asi pulut pansoh (glutinous rice cooked in bamboo container), tumpi (flattened glutinous rice flour cake), asi manis (semi-fermented glutinous rice), hard-boiled chicken eggs, cuwan (flowery-shaped molded biscuit made from glutinous rice flour) and sarang semut (ant nest biscuit made of glutinous rice), rendai or letup (pop glutinous paddy) and tuak (alcoholic drink fermented from glutinous rice with yeast). All these ingredients are put onto plates or woven baskets made of bamboo or rattan.

The genselan (animal offering) is normally made in the form of a chicken or a pig depending on the scale of the ceremony. For small ceremonies e.g. bird omens, chickens will be used while bigger occasions such as animal omens, pigs will be sacrificed. The chicken feathers are pulled and smeared into the blood of the chicken whose throat has been slit and the chicken head may be put onto the main offering plate. For festivals, one or several pigs and tens of chickens may be sacrificed to appease the deities invoked and to serve human guests invited to the festivals within the territorial domain of the feast chief.

Iban Omens and Augury[edit]

The augury system for the Iban Dayaks depends on several ways to obtain indicative omens for decision making and action taking:

  • dream to present charm gifts or sumpah (curse) by spirits which normally has a long or life-time effect.
  • omen animals (burong laba) such as deer barkings which also has life-time effects.
  • omen birds (burong mali) which give temporary effects limited to certain activities at hands e.g. that year of farming.
  • pig liver divination (Betenong ati babi) at the end of certain festival to read the future luck.
  • nampok (seclusion) or betapa (isolation)

The omens can be either purposely sought via dream during sleep, langkau burong (bird hut), pig liver divination and seclusion/isolation or received unexpectedly especially the animal and bird omens e.g. while working at farms or walking to enemy country.

The omen birds of Iban Dayaks are seven in total namely ketupong also known as jaloh or kikeh (rufous piculet), beragai (scarlet-rumped trogon), pangkas (maroon woodpecker) on the right hand of the Sengalang Burong's longhouse bilek and Bejampong (crested jay), embuas (banded kingfisher), kelabu papau (Senabong) (Diard's trogon) and nendak (white-rumped shama). Their types of calls, flights, places of hearing and circumstances of the listeners are factors to be considered during the interpretation of the bird omens.

The Iban Dayaks used to believe in having charms namely ubat (medicine), pengaroh (amulet), empelias (anti-line of fire) and engkerabun (blurredness) given by gods and spirits to help them to get things like rice and jars easily, to make them kebal (bullet proof), unseen to human eyes or to make them extraordinarily stronger (kering) than other men whose attributes are wanted for rice farming, headhunting and other activities. For ladies, the charms will help them to be skillful in weaving.

Iban Conversion to Christianity[edit]

There are several reasons why many Iban and other Dayaks turn to Christianity:

  • The traditional augury causes some complexity with many penti pemali (prohibitions), various omens, superstitions and delays in some works and progress of life.
  • The healing (pelian) by manangs are not effective in curing some diseases. In fact, the manangs cannot cure smallpox, cholera (muang ai), dengue, etc.
  • Christianity is considered as new branch of knowledge to be adopted and adapted to the traditional customs and way of life that led to realisation that old bad practices such as headhunting is self-destructive to the Dayak race survival as a whole.
  • Christianity comes with western education which can be used to seek employment on sojourns and upgrade living standard to escape poverty.
  • Defeats of Dayaks at the hands of Europeans with better weapons such as guns and cannons vis-a-vis traditional hand-held weapons such as swords, shields, spears and blowpipes despite strict adherence to traditional augury practices.
  • Some Ibans consider Christianity as an extension of human knowledge because it can accommodate some of their traditional practices e.g. some the ritual festivals can be celebrated in the Christian ways.

For the majority of Ibans who are Christians, some Christian festivals such as Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and other Christian festivals are also celebrated. Most Ibans are devout Christians and follow the Christian faith strictly. Since Christianity conversion, some of the Iban people never celebrate their ancestor's festival such as Gawai Burong or Gawai Antu but majority still practises Gawai Dayak (Harvest Festival) which is generic in nature and preserves their ancestors' culture and tradition.

However, some Iban festivals can still be celebrated in the Christian (European style) ways like Gawai Antu, Gawai Umai, Gawai Lelabi by offering prayers to their Ancestor's God (the original Dayak/Iban religion {Animist}) where traditional foods and drinks are offered and then traditional music and dance are played for merrymaking.The Ibans has no restriction in celebrating all customary and traditional Iban festival.

Despite the difference in faiths, Ibans of different faiths do help each other during Gawais and Christmas. Differences in faith is never a problem in the Iban community.[citation needed] The Ibans believe in helping and having fun together. Some elder Ibans are worried that among most of their younger Iban generation, their culture has faded since the conversion to Christianity where they are too excited to follow the western way of life.

A modern Iban longhouse in Kapit Division

Adat Iban or customary law[edit]

Among the main sections of customary adat of the Iban Dayaks according to Benedict Sandin [7] which are used to maintain order and keep peace are as follows:

  • Adat berumah (House building rule)
  • Adat melah pinang, butang ngau sarak (Marriage, adultery and divorce rule)
  • Adat beranak (Child bearing and raising rule)
  • Adat bumai and beguna tanah (Agricultural and land use rule)
  • Adat ngayau (Headhunting rule)
  • Adat ngasu, berikan, ngembuah and napang manyi (Hunting, fishing, fruit and honey collection rule)
  • Adat tebalu, ngetas ulit ngau beserarak bungai(Widow/widower, mourning and soul separation rule)
  • Adat begawai (festival rule)
  • Adat idup di rumah panjai (Order of life in the longhouse rule)
  • Adat betenun, main lama, kajat ngau taboh (Weaving, past times, dance and music rule)
  • Adat beburong, bemimpi ngau becenaga ati babi (Bird and animal omen, dream and pig liver rule)
  • Adat belelang tauka bejalai (Journey or Sojourn rule)

Musical & Dancing Heritage[edit]

Main article: Agung

Iban music is percussion-oriented. The Iban have a musical heritage consisting of various types of agung ensembles - percussion ensembles composed of large hanging, suspended or held, bossed/knobbed gongs which act as drones without any accompanying melodic instrument. The typical Iban agung ensemble will include a set of engkerumungs (small agungs arranged together side by side and played like a xylophone), a tawak (the so-called 'bass'), a bendai (which acts as a snare) and also a set of ketebung or bedup (a single sided drum/percussion).

The Iban music called taboh is made by playing a set of the four musical instruments namely engkerumong, tawak, bebendai and ketubong or sometimes called bedup which are respectively played by each person in synchronisation. There are various kinds of taboh depending the purpose and types of ngajat like "alun lundai".

The gendang can be played in some distinctive types corresponding to the purpose and type of each ceremony with the most popular ones are called gendang rayah and gendang pampat.

Sape is originally a traditional music by Orang Ulu (Kayan, Kenyah and Kelabit). Nowadays, both the Iban as well as the Orang Ulu Kayan, Kenyah and Kelabit play an instrument resembling the guitar called Sape (instrument). Datun Jalut and nganjak lansan are the most common traditional dances performed in accordance with a sape tune. The Sape (instrument) is the official musical instrument for the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It is played similarly to the way rock guitarists play guitar solos, albeit a little slower, but not as slow as blues.[8][9] One example of Iban traditional music is the taboh.

The Ibans perform a unique traditional dance called the ngajat, "kajat" or "ajat". The word kajat or ajat originates from the word "engkajat" which means "jumping on the spot". The Ibans perform the many kinds of dances accompanied by the music of gongs and drums. These dances include the ngajat, bepencha, bekuntau, main kerichap, main chekak.

The ajat dance is attributed to a spiritual being, Batu Lichin, Bujang Indang Lengain, who brought it to the Iban many generations ago. Another story says that the ajat dance originates from warriors who happily dance e.g. at the head of their war-boats after successfully obtain trophy heads during headhunting raids and the practice is continued until today. Today there are many kinds of ajat dances performed by the Ibans.

It serves many purposes depending on the occasion. During Gawai, it is used to entertain the people who in the olden days enjoy graceful ngajats as a form of entertainment. Iban men and women have different styles of ngajat. The ngajat involves a lot of graceful movements of body, hands and legs, shouts or war-cries and sometimes precise body-turning movements. The dancers sometimes use hand-held weapons. The ngajat for men is more aggressive and depicts a man going to war, or a hornbill walking (as a respect to the Iban god of war, "Sengalang Burong"). The women's form of ngajat consists of soft, graceful movements with very precise body turns and sometimes uses the traditional "pua kumbu" or handkerchief. Each ngajat is accompanied by the taboh.

Types of Iban Ngajat Dance[edit]

There are about four categories of Iban traditional ngajat dance according to their respective functional purpose as follows:[10]

A) Showmanship dance

  • ngajat ngalu temuai (welcoming dance) by a group of females,
  • ngajat indu (female dance),
  • ngajat pua kumbu (a female dance with a woven blanket which is most likely woven by herself),
  • ngajat lelaki (male dance),
  • ngajat lesung (rice mortar dance),
  • ngajat pinggai ngau kerubong strum (dance with one rice ceramic plate held on each palm while tapping the plates with an empty bullet shell inserted into the middle fingers of both hands),
  • ngajat bujang berani ngena terabai ngau ilang (warrior dance with full costume, a shield and sword),
  • ngajat bebunoh (hand combat dance normally between two male dancers),
  • Ngajat nanka kuta (fort defence dance)
  • ngajat semain laki ngau indu (dance by a group of men and ladies),
  • ngajat niti papan (dance by a group of men and ladies on a raised up wooden plank)
  • ngajat atas tawak (dance on top of gongs by ladies with gentlemen in the background)
  • ngajat ngalu pengabang (dance by a man with several ladies behind who lead the procession of guests during festivals)

These types of dance can be performed either on an open space or around the pun ranyai which is the tree of life.

B) Ritual dance

  • ngajat Panggau Libau as a group of men with a sword and isang leaves.
  • ngerandang jalai (pathway-clearing), ngelalau jalai (pathway fencing)
  • Berayah pupu buah rumah (longhouse contribution collection)
  • berayah ngelilingi pun sabang ngau tiang chandi gawai (dancing around the festival ritual pole)
  • Naku antu pala (Welcoming human heads)
  • Naku pentik kenyalang (Welcoming hornbill statue)

C) Comedial dance

  • Ajat kera (Monkey dance)
  • Ajat muar kesa (Stinging Ants' nest collection)
  • Ajat Matak Wi (Rattan pulling dance)
  • Ajat Nyumpit (Blowpiping dance)
  • Ajat Bekayuh (Paddling dance)
  • Ajat Mabuk (Drunk dance)
  • Ajat bunyan baka lari maya ngasu (Running scared dance e.g. scared of animals while hunting)[11]
  • Ajat ngelusu berapi, beribunka anak ngau nutok (Lazy woman dance)
  • Ajat pama (Frog dance)
  • Ajat gerasi tunsang (Upside down huntsman dance)
  • Ajat tempurung nyor (Coconut shell dance)
  • Ajat turun tupai (Squirrel going down dance)
  • Ajat jelu bukai (Other animal mimicking dance)

D) Self-defence dance

  • Bekuntau (Self-defence dance)
  • Bepenca (Martial art dance)
  • Main kerichap
  • Main chekak

According to one Iban writer,[12] when a warrior performs the ajat bebunoh dance with the music of a gendang panjai orchestra, he does it as if he is fighting against an enemy. With occasional shouts he raises his shield with one arm and swings his ilang knife with his other arm as he moves towards the enemy. While he moves forward he is careful with the steps of his feet to guard them from being cut by his foe. The tempo of his action is very fast with his knife and shield gleaming up and down as he dances.

The man dance has various unique moves such as minta ampun (apologising to guests first), showing skills of playing with the sword and the shield, biting the sword in the mouth for affirming his strength, balancing the sword over his shoulder while still dancing, engkajat (fast foot movement to distract the attention of the enemy), running forward with the sword pointed towards the enemy and shouting war cries to strike the enemy and finally the glory of holding the enemy's freshly chopped head. The enemy head may be symbolised by a coconut which is hung beforehand on the tree of life and the ending move is apologising to the guests again.

The performance of ajat semain is done in slower tempo and with graceful movements. The dancer softens his body, arms and hands as he swings forward and backward. When he bends his body the swinging of his hands is very soft. The performance of ngajat nanggong lesong dance is more or less like the ajat semain dance. Only when the dancer bites and raises the heavy wooden mortar (lesong) with his teeth, does he use extraordinary skill. It is not an attractive dance, although his audience enjoys seeing his trick of biting and raising a heavy mortar and then placing it carefully again on the floor.

When the dancers take the floor to dance, the musicians beat two dumbak drums, a bendai gong, a set of seven small gongs (engkerumong) and a large tawak gong. The music for the performance of ajat bebunoh dance is quicker in tempo than the music for the ajat semain and ajat nanggong lesong dances, as in the dance itself.

Types of Iban gendang musics[edit]

As from time immemorial, the people of the longhouse have been skilled in playing all kinds of gendang musics. Another important music performed by the Ibans is called gendang rayah. It is played only for religious festivals with the following instruments: 1. The music from a first bendai gong is called pampat 2. The music from a second bendai gong is called kaul 3. The music from a third bendai gong is called kura 4. As the three bendai gongs sound together, then a first tawak gong is beaten and is added to by the beating of another tawak gong to make the music.

Last but not least, is the music played using the katebong drums by one or up to eleven drummers. These drums are long. Its cylinder is made from strong wood, such as tapang or mengeris, and one of its ends is covered with the skins of monkeys and mousedeer or the skin of a monitor lizard. The major types of drum music are known as follows: 1. Gendang Bebandong 2. Gendang Lanjan 3. Gendang Enjun Batang 4. Gendang Tama Pechal 5. Gendang Pampat 6. Gendang Tama Lubang 7. Gendang Tinggang Batang 8. Singkam Nggam All these types are played by drummers on the open air verandas during the celebration of the Gawai Burong festival. The Singkam Nggam music is accompanied by the quick beating of beliong adzes. After each of these types has been played, the drummers beat another music called sambi sanjan, which is followed by still another called tempap tambak pechal. To end the orchestral performance the music of gendang bebandong is again beaten.

The ordinary types of music beaten by drummers for pleasure are as follows: 1. Gendang Dumbang 2. Gendang Ngang 3. Gendang Ringka 4. Gendang Enjun Batang 5. Kechendai Inggap Diatap 6. Gendang Kanto

When a Gawai Manang or bebangun festival is held for a layman to be consecrated as a manang (shaman), the following music must be beaten on the ketebong drums at the open veranda (tanju) of the longhouse of the initiate: 1. Gendang Dudok 2. Gendang Rueh 3. Gendang Kelakendai 4. Gendang Tari 5. Gendang Naik 6. Gendang Po Umboi 7. Gendang Sembayan 8. Gendang Layar 9. Gendang Bebandong 10. Gendang Nyereman

Gendang Bebandong also must be beaten when a manang dies and is beaten again when his coffin is lowered from the open air verandah (tanju) to the ground below on its way to the cemetery for burial.

Other Iban musical instruments[edit]

In addition to playing music on the above-mentioned instruments, Iban men enjoy the music of the following instruments: Engkerurai (bagpipe) Kesuling (flute) Ruding (Jew's harp) Rebab (guitar with two strings) Balikan (guitar with 3 strings) Belula (violin) Engkeratong (harp)

The women, especially the maidens, are fond of playing the Jew's harp while conversing with their visiting lovers at night, with the tunes from the ruding Jew's harp, the girls and their boyfriends relate how much they love each other. In past generations, there were very few Iban men and women who did not know how to converse with each other by using the ruding Jew's harp. Today very few younger people know how to play this instrument and the art is rapidly dying out.

Traditional costumes[edit]

The ngajat dancers will usually wear their traditional costumes.

The male costume consists of the following: - Sirat (loincloth) - baju burong (bird shirt) - baju buri (bead shirt) - baju gagong (animal skin cloth) - Engkerimok - Unus Lebus - Simpai Rangki - Tumpa Bala (five on both sides) - Labong Pakau or lelanjang (headgear)

The female costume includes:[13] - Kain Batating (Petticoat with decorated bells at the bottom end) - Rawai Tinggi (High Corset with Rattan Coils inserted with small Brass Rings ) - Sugu Tinggi (High headgear) - Marik Empang (Beaded Chain) - Selampai (Long Scalp) - Lampit (Silver Belt) - Tumpak (Armlet) - Gelang kaki (Anklet) - Antin pirak (Silver stud earrings) - Buah pauh purse

Note: Both marik empang and selampai are not originally belong to the Iban traditional costume but added to cover the chest of Iban ladies. There are variations of the Iban female costume as per the reference above.

Rhythms of Taboh Music[edit]

One Iban writer briefly describes the rhythms of taboh music played the Iban's brass band ochestra[14] which translates as "The number of musicians to play taboh music is four ie one playing the bebendai (small gong) which is beaten first of all to determine the rhythm of the taboh, responded to by the gendang or dedumbak drum, followed by the tawak (big gong) and finalized by the engkerumong set."

To the laymen's ears, the rhythms of taboh music for ngajat dance is only two i.e. fast or slow but actually it has four types namely Ayun Lundai (Slow swing), Ai Anyut (Flowing water), Sinu Ngenang (Sad remembrance) and Tanjak Ai (Against the water flow). The first three taboh types are slow to accompany the ajat semain (group dance), ajat iring (accompanying dance) and ajat kelulu (comedial dance). The fourth rhythm of taboh is fast which is suitable for the ajat bebunoh (killing dance). Other rhythms of taboh music are tinggang punggung for ngambi indu (taking the bride for wedding) and taboh rayah (rayah music) for ngerandang and ngelalau jalai (pathway clearing and fencing dance).

Iban Arts[edit]

Types of Iban carvings or Ukir[edit]

These include hornbill effigy carving, terabai shield, engkeramba (ghost statue), knife stilt normally made of deer horn, knife scabbard, decorative carving on the metal blade itself during ngamboh blacksmithing e.g. butoh kunding, and frightening mask (indai guru).

Another related category is designing motives either by engraving or drawing with paints such wooden planks, walls or house posts.

Even the traditional coffins will be beautifully decorated using both carving and ukir-painting.

Types of Iban pantang or kalingai (tattoo)[edit]

The Ibans like to tattoo themselves all over their body. There motives for each part of the human body. The purposes are to protect the tattoo bearers or to signify certain events in their life.

Some motives are based on marine lives such as lobster (rengguang), prawn (undang) and ketam (crab) while other motives are based on dangerous creatures like cobra (tedong), scorpion (kala), pasun (ghost dog) and naga (dragon). Other normal motives include items which Iban travellers meet during their journey such as aeroplane on the chest.

Some Ibans call this art of tattoing as kalingai.

To signify that an individual has killed an enemy (udah bedengah), he is entittled to tattoo his throat (engkatak) or his upper-side fingers (tegulun).

Some traditional Iban do have piercings on the penis (called palang) or ear lobes.

Types of Iban weavings or betenun[edit]

Several typeshttps://ibanology.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/pua-kumbu-the-legends-of-weaving/ of woven blankets made by the Ibans are pua kumbu, pua ikat, kain karap and kain sungkit.

Weaving is the women's warpath while kayau (headhunting) is the men's warpath.

The pua kumbu do have conventional or ritual motives depending on the purpose of weaving it. Those who finish the weaving lessons are called "tembu kayu" (Finish the wood) [[15]].

Among reknowm ritual motives are Gajah Meram (Brodding Elephant), Tiang Sanding (Ritual Pole), Meligai (Shrine) and Tiang Ranyai [[16]].

Using weaving, the Iban makes blankets, bird shirt (baju burong), kain kebat, kain betating and selampai.

Types of Iban plaitings or beranyam[edit]

The Iban calls this skill pandai beranyam (skilful in plaiting) various items namely mats (tikai), baskets and hats.

The Ibans weave mats of numerous types namely tikai anyam dua tauka tiga, tikai bebuah (motived mat),[17] tikai lampit made of rattan and tikai peradani made of rattan and tekalong bark.

Materials to make mats are beban to make the normal mat or the patterned mat, rattan to make tikai rotan, lampit when the rattan splits sewn using a thread or peradani when criss-crossed with the tekalong bark, senggang to make perampan used for drying and daun biru to make a normal tikai or kajang (canvas) which very light when dry.

The names of Iban baskets are bakak (medium-sized container for transferring, lifting or medium-term storage), singtong (container for raping ripen paddy worn at the waist), raga (small container), tubang (cylindrical backpack), lanji (tall cylindrical backpack) and probably selabit (almost rectangular shaped backpack).

Another category of plaiting which are normally carried out by men is to make fish traps called bubu gali, bubu dudok, engsegah and abau using betong bamaboo splits except bubu dudok is made from 'ridan which can be bent without breaking.

The Iban also makes special baskets called garong for the dead during Gawai Antu with numerous feet to denote the rank and status of the deceased which indicates his ultimate achievement during his lifetime.

The Iban also make pukat (rectangular net) and jala (conical net) after nylon ropes available.

Types of Iban hunting apparatus[edit]

These include making panjuk (rope and spring trap), peti (bamboo blade trap) and jarin (deer net). Nowadays, they use shotguns and dogs for animal hunting. Dogs are reared by the Ibans in longhouses especially in the past for hunting (ngasu) purposes and warning of any danger approaching.

The Ibans make their own blowpipe.

The Ibans obtain honey from the tapang tree.

Later shotguns can be bought from the Brooke government.

The Iban boat or perau making[edit]

The Ibans can make their boats. The canoes for normal use is called perau but big war boats are called bangkong or bong which is probably fitted with long paddles and a wind sail made of kajang canvas. It is said that bangkong is used to sail along the sea coasts of northern Borneo or even to travel across the seas e.g. to Singapore.

The Iban blacksmithing or ngamboh[edit]

The Ibans make various blades called nyabur, ilang, pedang, duku chandong, duku penebas, lungga (small blade), sangkoh, jerepang, beruit and mata lanja sumpit.

Although silversmithing originates from the Embaloh, some Ibans became skilled in this trade to make silverwares for body ornaments.

The Iban always buy brasswares such tawak (gong), bendai (snare) and engkerumong, tabak (tray) and baku (small box) from other peoples because they do not have the skills of brasssmithing.

The Iban makes their own kacit pinang to split the ereca nuts and pengusok pinang to grind the split pieces of the ereca nut.

They also make ketap (finger-held blade) to reap ripen paddy stalks and iluk (hand-held blade) to weed.

Iban traditional possessions[edit]

Head Skull[edit]

The Ibans used to regard human skulls (called antu pala) obtained during headhunting raids (ngayau) as their most prized trophy and possession.


The Ibans treasure jars which are called benda or tajau which include, pasu, salang-alang, alas, rusa, menaga, ningka, sergiu, pereni and guchi. Possession of these jars mark someone's wealth and any fines may be paid using benda or tajau in the old days and presently used nowadays as part of upah (pay) for bards and shamans.


Iban strived to own a full set of brass musical instruments which comprises a tawak (gong), bendai (snare), engkurumong (small gong) and bedup (drum).


Getting a lot of paddy used to be highly regarded and perhaps an indication of wealth.

Shaman and bard[edit]

Having a manang shaman and lemambang bards is also regarded necessary possession with the Iban riverine community. This practice used to be to have one set per river tributary, if not per a longhouse. Nowadays, obtaining educational degrees is foremost in the Iban minds e.g. the target is to have a degree graduate per family bilek within a longhouse.


The Iban aims to own land as much as possible via berumpang menua (jungle clearing) before when fresh jungles were still available in abundance. Therefore the Ibans were willing to migrate to new areas. Before the arrival of James Brooke, the Iban had migrated from Kapuas to Saribas and Skrang, Batang Ai, Sadong, Samarahan, Katibas, Kapit and Baleh in order to own fress tracks of jungles among the reasons. Some Ibans participated in Brooke-led punitive expeditions against their own countrymen in exchange for areas to migrate to.


Nowadays, of course the Ibans build beautiful and permanent longhouses just like terraced houses in town areas. Many Iban still believes in the necessity and importance of living in longhouses rather single-houses within a kampong village e.g. during gatherings, meetings, farming and festivals.

Traditional Costume[edit]

Each Iban aim to have a set of a traditional costume called ngepan for both sexes.

Defence weaponry[edit]

Each Iban males will have a set of war weaponry which include a knife, a terabai shield, a blowpipe, a sangkoh spear and a baju gagong (tough animal skin shirt). In addition, the Iban will look for charms called pengaroh, empelias, pengerabun, etc.


Each Iban family will own at least one long boat for transportation along rivers.


Normally, the Iban will rear at least chickens and pigs besides any pets of wild animals.

The Iban agriculture and economy[edit]

The Ibans plant paddy once a year with twenty seven stages.[18][19] Other crops planted include ensabi, cucumber (rampu amat and rampu betu), brinjal, corn, lingkau and cotton before commercial threads are sold in the market.

For cash, the Ibans find jungle produce for sale in the market. Later, they plant rubber, pepper and cocoa which prevail to this day. Nowadays, many Ibans work in the town areas to seek employment or involve in trade or business.

The Iban Calendar[edit]

The Iban calendar is one month ahead of the Roman calendar as follows:

First month - called Bulan Pangka Di Labu which is December when paddy starts to ripen.

Second month - called Bulan Empalai Rubai which is January.

Third month - called Bulan Emperaga / Empikap which is February when harvesting starts.

Fourth month - called Bulan Lelang which is March when sojourn or journey begins.

Fifth month - called Bulan Turun Panggul which is April when farming (manggul) is initiated.

Sixth month - called Bulan Sandih Tundan which is May during which felling commences.

Seventh month -simply called bulan tujuh which is June.

Eighth month - called Bulan Belanggang Reban which is July which is the drying season.

Ninth month - called Bulan Kelebun which is August when burning and dibbling start.

Tenth month -called Bulan Labuh Benih which is September when dibbling continues.

Eleventh month - called Bulan Gantung Senduk which is October when most Iban finish paddy or rice.

Twelfth month - called Bulan Chechanguk which is November when weeding is completed.

Cultural references[edit]

An Iban family living in a longhouse in Betong
  • The episode, Into the Jungle from Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations included the appearance of Itam, a former Sarawak Ranger and one of the Iban people's last members with the Entegulun (Iban traditional tattoo design) (hand tattoos) signifying his taking of an enemy’s head.
  • The Iban were featured on an episode of Worlds Apart on the National Geographic Channel.
  • The movie The Sleeping Dictionary features Selima (Jessica Alba), an Anglo-Iban girl who falls in love with John Truscott (Hugh Dancy). The movie was filmed primarily in Sarawak, Malaysia.
  • Malaysia's Ethnic Pop Queen, Noraniza Idris recorded Ngajat Tampi in 2000 and followed by Tandang Bermadah in 2002 which is based on Iban tribe music composition. Both songs became a fame in Malaysia and neighbourhood countries.
  • Love of a Forest Maiden(CHINTA GADIS RIMBA) is 1958 film (Chinta Gadis Rimba) directed by L.Krishnan .It is based on the novel (the 1st time Malay film has been adapting from a novel) .Chinta Gadis Rimba by Harun Aminurrashid and the main cast by S.Roomai Noor,Narang and M.Amin. The film is about Bintang, the Iban girl who goes against the wishes of her parents and runs off to her Malay Lover.The film also the first time a full length picture has been shot in Sarawak and the first time an Iban girl has played the lead in film.
  • "Bejalai" is a 1987 film directed by Dr Stephen Teo (currently a research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, and a senior associate of RMIT University) and Starring (Dick Isaac as Rentap) Salome Kumpeing, Chiling Nyanggai. This film is the first to be made in the Iban language in Sarawak, and it features good English subtitles and also the 1st Malaysian film to be selected for the Berlin Film Festival (in 1989) is an experimental feature about the custom among the native Iban community of Sarawak for young men to "bejalai" (go on a journey) before attaining maturity.
  • Farewell to the King a 1989 film written and directed by John Milius. It is based on the 1969 novel L'Adieu au Roi by Pierre Schoendoerffer. The film is marketed with the tagline "In the midst of war, one man vanished into the jungle, and emerged as king". The plot taking place during World War II, American deserter Learoyd escapes a Japanese firing squad. Hiding himself in the wilds of Borneo, Learoyd is adopted by an Iban People (Sea Dayaks of Borneo).
  • the 1st TV Ads in Iban Language and directed by Late Yasmin Ahmad with help of Leo Burnett.For Malaysia’s 50th anniversary celebration, Maybank came up with a unique commercial that tickled Malaysians. The scenes were shot in Bau and Kapit, using a Sarawak cast.

Notable Figures[edit]

  • Orang Kaya Pemancha Dana "Bayang" (perhaps the first Iban raja berani chief of the Saribas region who was the mentor of Libau "Rentap" during war expeditions and with whom James Brooke (the Rajah of Sarawak) tried to sign on the Saribas Peace Treaty)
  • Libau "Rentap" (The famous Iban Dayak rebel leader in Sarawak of the Skrang region who proclaimed to be the Raja Ulu (King of the Interior) resisted the Brooke government of Sarawak until defeated at Sadok Hill after three successive punitive expeditions by the Brooke government)
  • Temenggong Koh Anak Jubang (The first Iban appointed as Temenggong by Rajah Charles Brooke)
  • Tun Temenggong Jugah anak Barieng (Second Paramount Chief of the Iban people and the key signatory on behalf of Sarawak to Formation of the Federation of Malaysia)
  • Tun Stephen Kalong Ningkan (Sarawak First Chief Minister)
  • Datuk Temenggong Kanang anak Langkau (National Hero of Malaysia)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "2010 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia" (in Malay and English). Department of Statistics, Malaysia. Retrieved 17 June 2012.  p. 108
  2. ^ Raja Burong by Benedict Sandin
  3. ^ Gawai Burong by Benedict Sandin
  4. ^ https://digitalcollections.anu.edu.au/bitstream/…/Masing_J.%20J._1981.pdf
  5. ^ Saribas Ibans' rite of paddy storage by Prof Clifford Santher)
  6. ^ Leka Main: Iban Folk Poetry - An Analysis of Form and Function by Dr Chermaline Usop
  7. ^ Iban Adat and Augury by Bendict Sandin
  8. ^ Mercurio, Philip Dominguez (2006). "Traditional Music of the Southern Philippines". PnoyAndTheCity: A center for Kulintang - A home for Pasikings. Retrieved 21 November 2006. 
  9. ^ Matusky, Patricia. "An Introduction to the Major Instruments and Forms of Traditional Malay Music." Asian Music Vol 16. No. 2. (Spring-Summer 1985), pp. 121-182.
  10. ^ The role of Dayak Cultural Foundation in preserving the Iban traditional ngajat dance by Jerry Hawkin Anak Suting
  11. ^ http://bizniz87.wordpress.com/2008/04/28/ngajat-iban/
  12. ^ http://gnmawar.wordpress.com/main-asal-iban/ajat-enggau-gendang-iban/
  13. ^ http://veekyleonora.blogspot.com/2011/09/kumang-iban-of-various-tribes-hence.html
  14. ^ http://ibanology.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/ngajat-iban/
  15. ^ https://ibanology.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/pua-kumbu-the-legends-of-weaving
  16. ^ https://ibanology.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/restoring-panggau-libau-a-reassessment-of-engkeramba-in-saribas-iban-ritual-textiles-pua-kumbu
  17. ^ See examples here https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.269499373193118.1073741835.101631109979946&type=3,
  18. ^ Iban Agriculture by JD Freeman
  19. ^ Report on the Iban by JD Freeman


  • Sir Steven Runciman, The White Rajahs: a history of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946 (1960).
  • James Ritchie, The Life Story of Temenggong Koh (1999)
  • Benedict Sandin, Gawai Burong: The chants and celebrations of the Iban Bird Festival (1977)
  • Greg Verso, Blackboard in Borneo, (1989)
  • Renang Anak Ansali, New Generation of Iban, (2000)

External links[edit]