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Preserving the Tribal Custom of the Ibans, Once the Headhunters of Borneo

  • Oshin Chin
  • 14 October 2012

Ibans are the native people of Sarawak and the dominant ethnic group in Malaysian Borneo. They make up 30 percent of Sarawak’s population, although some can also be found in Brunei and Indonesia.

Known as the ‘Sea Dayaks’ in the colonial era, the Iban people were famous for being the much-feared headhunters of Borneo. With their seafaring skills and fierce nature, they were reputed to be the strongest and most successful of the Dayak tribes. Many clans from neighbouring countries were believed to have been wiped out by the Ibans or forced to move as a result of brutal and bloody warfare.

Travellers admire a woman making a Pua Kumbu, the unique and sacred craft of the Iban. Photo courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board

Travellers admire a woman making a Pua Kumbu, the unique and sacred craft of the Iban. Photo courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board

Today, the headhunting days of the Ibans are long gone; modernisation has come to Iban culture. The Ibans have nevertheless succeeded in preserving many tribal customs, rituals and traditional beliefs. These are clearly visible during their harvest festivals, weddings and unique art and crafts such as Pua Kumbu, the Ngajat dance and the Iban tattoos.

With soft and graceful movements, pretty Iban maidens perform the Ngajat dance in a longhouse

With soft and graceful movements, pretty Iban maidens perform the Ngajat dance in a longhouse. Photo courtesy of Mr Awne Heet

Pua Kumbu – Traditional Cloth

Pua Kumbu is considered a sacred object and plays a significant role in the Iban community. The skills required to produce this handwoven textile that is often used in childbirth, marriage, funerals and in farming rituals are usually passed from mother to daughter via oral narration and hands-on practice. Young girls are guided through stages – from the preparation of materials to the selection of designs – and a ritual is performed at each stage to appease the spirits. A girl’s success depends on acceptance from the spirit world.

An Iban warrior performs the Ngajat Lesung dance, showcasing the strength of his teeth

An Iban warrior performs the Ngajat Lesung dance, showcasing the strength of his teeth. Photo courtesy of Sarawak Borneo Post

Pua Kumbu is made from locally grown cotton easily found around a community’s longhouse. The cotton is dried, put through a gin, threshed and then wound into a ball for dyeing. The Ibans use different natural botanical resources from their environment to produce rich and beautiful dyes with distinctive shades of colours. But remember: an excellent piece of Pua Kumbu does not depend solely on a weaver’s skill, knowledge and expertise; also in play is her relationship with the spirits. Pua Kumbu is a statement about the soul of the weaver and her relationship with the spiritual world.

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Ngajat – Traditional Dance

The Ngajat dance has been associated with the Iban tribe since the 16th century, but its origin is unknown. In ancient times, the Ngajat dance is believed to have been performed by warriors upon their return from a battleground. Today it is performed to welcome visitors to a longhouse – especially during the harvest festival known as Gawai Dayak.

The Ngajat involves precise body-turning movements. The male dancer moves aggressively with dramatic leaps of attack to depict a man at war, while the female dancer proceeds softly and gracefully with precise body turns. A Ngajat performance is typically accompanied by tribal musical instruments, usually percussion.

There are several types of Ngajat but the star attraction is the Ngajat Lesong, which showcases the strength of the male dancer. Ngajat Lesong is performed using a mortar that weighs as much as 20 kilograms and is held by the warrior dancer using his teeth!

The Iban were once the most feared headhunters in Borneo. Photo courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board

The Iban were once the most feared headhunters in Borneo. Photo courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board

Iban Tattoo

For the Ibans, a tattoo is not just artistic expression but an integral part of their ancient culture and the result of a ritual connected with spiritual beliefs. The Ibans believe that the power of animals, plants and humans can be illustrated using images from nature in their tattoos.

A traditional tattoo artist will usually consult the spirits for guidance in revealing a design. Then, before work on creating a tattoo can begin, a sacrifice (killing a chicken or other fowl) to the ancestor’s spirit must be made. After that sacred ritual, the artist embarks on a long and extremely painful tattooing process that can last from six to eight hours and sometimes even weeks.

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Iban tattoos are made from soot or powdered charcoal believed to ward off malevolent spirits. Some artists add ground shards of animal bone to make the tattoos more powerful. For the Ibans, tattoos symbolise a passing, as well as a new beginning and story.

For more information about Iban culture and what to see and do while travelling in Borneo, check in with the whl.travel local travel experts at MegaBorneo.

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Oshin Chin

Of Chinese descent and married to a Malay from Sarawak, Oshin Chin and her husband have been living the nomadic life for 10 years. They've resided in Australia, Holland, Malaysia and currently call Brunei home. Oshin recently joined MegaBorneo Tour Planner, where she works on media and PR. She's always staying active with swimming, running, cycling, trekking, marathons, duathlons and netball.
Oshin Chin
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Asia, fine arts, indigenous culture, local knowledge, Malaysia, personal experience, responsible travel, South-Eastern Asia, whl.travel,

2 Responses to “Preserving the Tribal Custom of the Ibans, Once the Headhunters of Borneo”

  1. My Iban friends tell me that a vertical black strip on the front of the neck denotes 5 heads per stripe. So a 10 header will have 2 stripes.

    Also I’m told that the great Maori nation are derived from the Sea Dayaks and is why so many customs, biulding carvings and tatoos are similar.

  2. Laurie says:

    Iban Tattoo is just more than putting ink on skin. Tattoos can really tell a interesting story.

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