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Sea Dayak

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Subject: Longhouse, Gawai Dayak, Malayic languages, Ibanic languages
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Sea Dayak

A traditional Iban Family
Total population
600,000 (Sarawak only)
Regions with significant populations
Sarawak, Brunei & West Kalimantan
[Bahasa Melayu & Iban language]
Related ethnic groups
Kantu, Mualang, Semberuang, Bugau & 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 [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.

Iban History

The origin of the name is a mystery, although many theories exist. During the British colonial era, the Ibans were called Sea Dayaks. Some believe that the word Iban was an ancient original Iban word for people or man. The modern-day Iban word for people or man is mensia, a totally modified Malay loan word of the same meaning (manusia) of Sanskrit Root.

The Ibans were the original inhabitants of Borneo Island. Like the other Dayak tribes, they were originally farmers, hunters, and gatherers. Not much is known about Iban people before the arrival of the Western expeditions to Asia. Nothing was ever recorded by any voyagers about them. The history of the migration of Iban people traces back to China where historians believe that the original Iban people migrated from Yunnan, a province in rural China.

The Ibans were unfortunately branded for being pioneers of headhunting. Headhunting among the Ibans is believed to have started when the lands occupied by the Ibans became over-populated. In those days, before the arrival of western civilization, intruding on lands belonging to other tribes resulted in death. Confrontation was the only way of survival. When the early migrated from the northen Kapuas basin around the Danau Sentanum Lake, they might have started fighting any local tribes inhabiting the areas that resisted their migration or in conflict with them. It was written by Benedict Sandin, a former Sarawak Muzeum Curator, that an ancient Iban chief Serapoh started headhunting after informed of the death mourning rules by a spirit Puntang Raga and one of the rule is to use a fresh human head to open the mourning jar in order to end the mourning period.

In those days, the way of war was the only way that any Dayak tribe could achieve prosperity and fortune. Dayak warfare was brutal and bloody, to the point of ethnic cleansing. Many extinct tribes, such as the Seru and Bliun, are believed to have been assimilated or wiped out by the Ibans. Tribes like the Bukitan, who were the original inhabitants of Saribas, are believed to have been assimilated or forced northwards as far as Bintulu by the Ibans. The Ukits were also believed to have been nearly wiped out by the Ibans.

The Ibans started moving to areas in what is today's Sarawak around the 15th century. After an initial phase of colonising and settling the river valleys, displacing or absorbing the local tribes, a phase of internecine warfare began. Local leaders were forced to resist the tax collectors of the sultans of Brunei. At the same time, Malay influence was felt, and Iban leaders began to be known by Malay titles such as Datu (Datuk), Orang Kaya, Nakhoda and "Panglima". The other titles of Dayaks are Tuai Rumah, Tuai Menoa, Tuai Burong, Tuai Bumai, Manang, Lemambang and more modern titles include Pengulu, Pengarah and Temenggung.

In later years, the Iban encountered the Bajau and Illanun, coming in galleys from the Philippines. These were seafaring tribes who came plundering throughout Borneo. However, the Ibans feared no tribe, and fought the Bajaus and Illanuns. One famous Iban legendary figure is known as Unggang Lebor Menoa from Entanak, near modern-day Betong, fought and defeated the Bajaus and Illanuns. It is likely that the Ibans learned seafaring skills from the Bajau and the Illanun, using these skills to plunder other tribes living in coastal areas, such as the Melanaus and the Selakos. This is evident with the existence of the seldom-used Iban boat with sail, called the bandung. This may also be one of the reasons James Brooke, who arrived in Sarawak around 1838, called the Ibans Sea Dayaks. For more than a century, the Ibans were known as Sea Dayaks to Westerners.

After the death of Unggang "Lebor Menoa", the Iban overall leadership transferred to Orang Kaya Pemancha (OKP) Dana "Bayang" of Padeh who led the Saribas and Skrang Ibans in raid (ngayau) expeditions to areas around the mouth of Kapuas River in Kalimantan, Indonesia now. Following the death of OKP Dana "Bayang", the Ibans of Saribas and Skrang were defeated by the Brooke force with the surrender of some of their Iban leaders, the death of Aji Apai Limba (the third son of OKP Dana "Bayang"), the defeat of Mujah "Buah Raya" of Kanowit and Libau "Rentap" at Mount Sadok. The Malay shariffs of Patusin in Batang Lupar and the Malay chiefs of Buling in Batang Saribas were also defeated by the Brooke force. Later, it appears that the Iban's paramount leadership is provided by the Ibans from Hulu Batang Rajang i.e. whenn an Iban chief Koh was appointed a Temenggung by the Brooke government, who was replaced by Temenggung Jugah after his death. Despite having no western education at all, Temenggung Jugah went on to sign the agreement to form Malaysia together with Sabah (then North Borneo) and Singapore which was expelled later on by Malaya.

Religion, Culture and Festivals

Religions of Ibans[1]
Religion Percent
Folk religion-Animist
Other religions
No religion / Unknown

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.

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

The Iban religion can be briefly summarized as follows:

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

The main seven petaras (deities or gods) of Iban Dayaks who are the children of Raja Jembu are:

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

In addition to these gods, there are mtyhstical people namely the orang Panggau Libau and Gelong which help the Iban Dayaks often 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 or cause sickness or even madness.

Significant traditional festivals to propitiate the above mentioned gods can be grouped into four categories which are related to the main activities among the Iban Dayaks i.e. the rice planting festivals, the war-related festivals, the health-related festivals and the luck-related festivals.

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 Reactivation Festival), Ngelaboh Padi Pun (Planting of the Main Paddy), Gawai Ngemali Umai (Farm-healing Festival), Gawai Matah (Harvest-starting Festival) and Gawai Bersimpan (Rice-Keeping) Festival.

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

The war-related festivals include the bird festival (Gawai Burung) with nine succeeding stages and Gawai Kenyalang (Hornbill Festival) which is meant to pray and propitiate Sengalang Burong for guidance and assistance during the headhunting expeditions. Since headhunting has been prohibited and ceased, the bird festival can be used for magical healing purposes and to be held as Gawai Mimpi (Dream Festival) when told by spirits to do so.

The Gawai Burung (Bird Festival) and Gawai Kenyalang (Hornbill Festival) are held in honour of the war god, Sengalang Burong (Sengalang the Bird which is magnifested as the Brahminy Kite). This festival 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 ceremony.

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. Two more festivals related to health and longevity are Gawai Betamabah Bulu (Hair Adding Festival) and Gawai Nangga Langit (Sky Staircasing Festival).

The luck-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.

After death, the last ritual is called the spirit festival (Gawai Antu) for the dead.

For marriages, sometimes the wedding ceremony is called Gawai Lelabi (River Turtle Festival). Here the god invoked is Selampandai for fertility and procreation purposes.

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.[2]

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 deers 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.

Pua Kumbu, the Iban traditional cloth, is used to decorate longhouses. There are various types of buah (fruit) 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.

Tuak, which is originally made of rice and home-made yeast for fermentation, is a wine used to serve guests. Nowadays, there are various kinds of tuak, made with rice alternatives such as sugar cane, ginger and corn. Tuak and other types of drinks 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)

The recitation of pantun and various kinds of leka main (traditional chants by poets) is a particularly important aspect of the festival.

According one Iban scholar,[3] 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 accompanied with piring (ritual offerings) to appease the gods called.

The Iban leka piring (number of each offering item) is basically according to the single odd numbers which are piring turun 3, 5, 7 and 9 leka and agih piring (portion 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 genselan (animal offering) is normally made in the form of a chicken or a pig depending on the scale of the ceremony.

The augury system for the Iban Dayaks depends on several ways:

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

The omens can be either purposely sought via dreams during sleep, nampok or betapa (isolation) or langkau burong (bird house), or received unexpectedly especially the animal and bird omens e.g. while working or walking.

The omen birds of Iban Dayaks are seven in total namely Ketupong also known as Jaloh or Kikeh (Rufiuos 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 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.

There are several reasons why many 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 small pox, cholera (muang ai), etc.
  • Christianity is considered as new branch of knowledge to be adopted and adapted to the traditional customs.
  • Christianity comes with western education which can be used to seek employment and upgrade living standard or 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 Chirstian 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 practiced Hari Gawai (Harvest Festival) and preserve 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. The Ibans believe in helping and having fun together.

Among the main sections of customary adat of the Iban Dayaks according to Benedict Sandin [4] 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

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 synchronization. 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.[5][6] 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.

There are about four categories of Iban traditional ngajat dance according to their respective functional purpose as follows:[7]

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 (ranyai tree).

B) Ritual dance

  • ngajat Panggau Libau as a group of men with a sword and isang leaves.
  • ngerandang jalai (pathwat-clearing), ngelalau jalai (pathway fencing)
  • Berayah pupu buah rumah (longhouse contribution collection)
  • Ngeliling pun sabang 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 lari maya ngasu (Running scared of animals while hunting)[8]
  • Ajat ngelusu berapi, beribunka anak ngau nutok (Lazy woman dance)
  • Ajat pama (Frog dance)
  • Ajat gerasi tunsang (Upside down huntsman dance)
  • Ajat tempurung (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,[9] 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 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.

As from time immemorial, the people of the longhouse have been skilled in playing all kinds of gendang music. 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.

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.

The ngajat dancers will usually wear their traditional costumes.

Iban Man Costume comprises: - 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)

Iban Lady Costume includes:[10] - 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

One Iban writer briefly describes the rhythms of taboh music played the Iban's brass band ochestra[11] 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).

Branches of the Iban People

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.
  • 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.

Cultural references

  • 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.
  • Malaysia's Ethnic Pop Queen, Noraniza Idris recorded Ngajat Tampi in 2000 and followed by Tandang Bermadah in 2002 which is based on Ibanese tribe music composition. Both songs became a fame in Malaysia and neighborhood 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

  • Libau "Rentap" (Iban Dayak rebel leader in Sarawak)
  • 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)


  • 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

  • A website created by an Iban from Sarawak called CyberPenom. All infos on the Iban longhouse
  • A Westerner's view on the peoples of Borneo
  • A forum for Ibans. In English and Iban
  • A forum for Ibans. In English and Iban
  • . In English and Iban
  •, an Iban Encyclopedia
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