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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.