More from the series 36 Views of Kalimantan – Random photos 2014-17. Hope you like some of them!
More from the series 36 Views of Kalimantan – Random photos 2014-17. Hope you like some of them!
We first heard about Danau (Lake) Sembuluh and the village of Bangkal while reading the journals of the Norwegian explorer, ethnographer and naturalist Carl Lumholtz (“Through Central Borneo; an Account of Two Years’ Travel in the Land of Head-Hunters Between the Years 1913 and 1917.”). He travelled to Sembuluh almost precisely one hundred years before us. He wrote about the “attractive” lake, and wrote a little about the Dayak Tamuan people from Bangkal village.
Actually Lumholtz never quite made it up as far as Bangkal, because the water level was too low for the Dutch steamer that he was travelling in to negotiate the lake. We thought that, travelling by road, we might complete the journey for him.
We travelled in company with our dear friend Gaye and our friend and guide Berdodi Martin Samuel (a.k.a. ‘Dodi’ or ‘Bucu’). Our main reason for the six-day trip was to attend a Tiwah ceremony (Dayak Kaharingan religion funeral), which I have written about previously (I’ve also written about some of the wonderful sapundu (funerary poles) of Bangkal village.) The Tiwah ceremonies beside Lake Sembuluh were beautiful, strange and fascinating.
But Lake Sembuluh itself, and the journey to get there, is worth a few words and pictures.
The Dayak village of Bangkal sits by the shore of Lake Sembuluh, the largest lake in Central Kalimantan. It’s about 300 km to the southwest of Rungan Sari in Sei Gohong village – which was our home at the time of our journey (back in mid-March). We’d been keen to visit the area since we first came to Kalimantan, and finally got the opportunity when we heard about the upcoming Tiwah.
Above is the GPS record of our road trip.
The five-hour drive to Bangkal stretched out somewhat with several unplanned stops along the way. Here we paused at a roadside collection of Dayak sapundu (funerary poles) and sandung (mausoleums). Karen is always keen to document such fine examples of the ‘material culture’ of the Dayak Kaharingan religion.
A little further down the road we came across a rotan (rattan) processing plant. The rotan is traditionally harvested from the forests, but with the forests rapidly disappearing, it is now more likely to be produced through small-scale plantation farming. The spiny outer layer of the rotan (which is actually a variety of palm, though it resembles a vine) is stripped off at the plantation, and then the bundles are then transported here for processing. Another outer layer is removed, and the canes are treated (twice) with sulphur, which bleaches out any colour. In this photo above the sulphur is being washed off prior to drying. It smelt like brimstone.
We were assured that the shirtless boy in the photo above had already put in a full day at school before starting work in the sulphur tank…
All the rotan from this plant is sent away for making cane furniture. Most of it goes to Java, but bundles of the best quality canes (such as those above) are exported to China.
Just a few kilometres to the southwest of the main road near Kasongan is an extensive area (maybe 50 sq km?) that has been thoroughly worked over by small-scale gold miners. You can see the result on Google Earth – it’s the big white area in the satellite image. I don’t know if any remediation was attempted afterwards, but it is now a wasteland of gravelly white sand – pits and mounds – and highly toxic (mercury-contaminated) ponds. Karen and our guide Berdodi decided against fishing or swimming there.
We stopped for a very nice lunch at Sampit – the biggest town along the road – and later walked around the newly beautified port precinct. Sampit is apparently the busiest timber port in Indonesia, and it’s also a major centre for processing of kelapa sawit (oil palm) fruit to produce Crude Palm Oil (CPO). Large numbers of yellow trucks can be seen heading to Sampit, loaded up high with the harvested oil palm fruit. We had hoped to visit one of the factories, but were unable to obtain permission (it’s difficult for foreigners…) prior to our arrival.
Outside of Kalimantan, Sampit is however best known for the kerusuhan Sampit (the ‘Sampit disturbances) of February 2001. Around 500 transmigrants from the island of Madura (and 13 Dayaks) were killed during several weeks of brutal violence, and tens of thousands of Madurese had to be evacuated from Kalimantan by Indonesian armed forces to prevent further massacres. The violence spread to other villages and cities, including Pangkalan Bun, Palangka Raya and Kuala Kapuas. It was a truly ugly episode, and one which is still fresh in the minds of the community here, since everyone over the age of 20 has memories of that time…
But fifteen years later, our biggest problem in the ‘ethnically cleansed’ town of Sampit was deciding which pineapples to buy.
We arrived in Bangkal a little before the sun set across the lake.
At the entrance to the village is a bilingual gate which spells out the values that the village aspires to – or perhaps it is a character test for visitors?
The children seemed quite pleased to meet us.
At the lakefront, a long jetty has been constructed for fishing, docking canoes, and recreational activity. We were there at the height of the wet season, and so the floor of the jetty was a little submerged.
Inundation of the jetty didn’t stop it being used. The children above are hauling a large fish trap out of the lake, from which they removed a number of (very small) fish.
Bangkal is one of the friendliest villages we have been to, and the kids – as always – were more than willing to pose for photos.
We had to wait a few days, until the Tiwah ceremonies were completed, to go out on the lake. A large number of behavioural and dietary prohibitions are enforced during the main days of the Tiwah. One of these – significant in a fishing village like Bangkal – is that you may not travel by boat.
When we did get out onto the water, we toured the northern part of the lake in a the usual klotok (canoe/longboat), with five of us sitting in a line. I got to sit up front.
A century ago, Carl Lumholtz remarked that the lake “looks attractive, though at first the forests surrounding the ladangs of the Malays are partly defaced by dead trees, purposely killed by fire in order to gain more fields.” The use of fire to clear land continues today, only on a far greater scale as the forests of Kalimantan are progressively converted to oil palm plantations.
Along most of the eastern edge of the lake, there is a thin strip of secondary forest, with the beginning of the oil palm plantations just behind. The sandy soil of the western side of the lake is not suited for cultivation of kelapa sawit, but instead is pockmarked and scarred from past gold mining, and burning to ‘clean’ the land.
So we were therefore (pleasantly) surprised to find that a moderate population of animals and birds still survive in this compromised landscape – including some large Proboscis Monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) like this one above.
At another part of the lake we were entertained by a pair of fighting (or courting?) Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis bubutus). These impressive large (48cm) cuckoos are found across Asia from Pakistan to southern China. In Kalimantan, they are regarded by some as a pest because they like to eat the fleshy parts of ripe oil palm fruit. I would have thought that there are more than enough oil palms to share some fruit with these beautiful birds.
They are known to the Dayak people as burring bubut (because their call sounds a bit like: “but.. but… but…”), and an oil which is extracted from the wing-bones of these birds is used as a treatment for broken bones – along with massage. This treatment was even recommended to me after my motorbike accident – but I opted for surgery.
Parts of the lake were quite beautiful, even these burnt pandanus had a starkly elegant beauty when reflected in a still patch of water.
Most houses in the district are firmly constructed on dry land, but some fishermen’s homes are built on floating platforms so they can move to different parts of the lake as conditions change between wet and dry seasons.
And then we were back to the jetty at Bangkal village, leaving the tranquillity of Danau Sembuluh for the challenges of the ‘Trans-Kalimantan Highway’ and the long journey back home.
Back in March we spent five days at a Tiwah (Dayak funeral ceremony) in the village of Bangkal, five hours west of here on Lake Sembuluh. I wrote previously about the marvellous sapundu (carved wooden pillars) of Bangkal, and about the variety of bukung figures that attended. The Tiwah ceremony itself was pretty interesting too…
As always, we were encouraged to observe, make photographs and ask lots of questions. The family (indeed the entire Bangkal village community) are kind and generous, and were keen for us to understand their Tiwah – which is the biggest and most important ceremonial event of the Dayak people here in Central Kalimantan.
Pak Popong Itek passed away in November, leaving behind his wife Ibu Mereka Lakau (2nd from the right in the photo above) five adult children – two sons (Bapak Yanto and Bapak Rasono) and three daughters (Ibu Enie, Ibu Eri, and Ibu Suri). As well as a number of grandchildren…
He was a respected elder and prominent member of Bangkal village, and the family chose to honour his memory, and to confirm the family’s place in the community, by holding a big Tiwah ceremony for the entire village (plus many people from other villages of the Dayak Tamuan) to attend.
However, the main purpose of the Tiwah, at least for adherents of the Dayak Kaharingan religion, is to equip the soul of the deceased, and help him along the difficult journey through the Upper World to the ‘Prosperous Village’ – the Dayak heaven of Lewu Tatau.
After he passed away, Pak Popong’s body was washed with tea, some ‘plumbing’ work was done and, dressed in ordinary clothes, he was placed in a coffin (runi in the Dayak Tamuan language) which remained in the communal area (lounge room, if you like) of the family home, for the following four months. Three times a day, at family mealtimes, he was brought food, coffee, baram (rice wine), cigarettes and sirih (betel).
His coffin featured a prominent carved naga (dragon) figure, which seems to be particularly significant in Bangkal, as we saw carved naga in many locations there. The coffin was draped with fine textiles, and it had an uninterrupted view of the television set. I don’t think he got to keep the remote.
A gong orchestra was set up at one end of the house, and complex syncopated rhythms were pounded out during all of he ritual activities of the Tiwah. There seemed to be an endless supply of men and boys (but no women or girls) ready and able to play. It’s thirsty work, and there was an equally endless supply of baram rice wine to refresh the musicians – served in glasses, plastic bottles – or kettles as above.
Many women of the village were engaged in making decorative katupat from daun kelapa (coconut palm leaves). These were later used to ornament the coffin, the sankaraya, and in offering bowls. There are seven different designs that they make (seven is a significant number to the Dayaks). Some of the designs are quite complex, but the women’s hands worked away without pause, almost automatically. Sometimes children would come and sit, watching and learning.
This kind of cooperative community effort is still very common in Dayak village communities – indeed in Indonesia generally. The Indonesians call it gotong royong, and are very proud of it as a national characteristic – even though it is becoming less common as communities fragment and ‘modernise’. The Dayaks also refer to it as habaring hurung, and a big, expensive and complex event like a Tiwah would be impossible without practical (and financial) assistance from many people.
Out the back of the house, under a temporary awning, was a big open cooking area. The big pots, mostly tended by men, contained rice, root vegetables, slices of the trunk of young kelapa sawit (oil palm!), and pork stew (babi ketjap). There was lots of easy conversation, laughter, and consumption of baram rice wine.
Nearby were the temporary bamboo pens which held the 18 pigs that were awaiting sacrificial slaughter and consumption, and this was also where the pigs, cow and buffalo were butchered after being slaughtered out in front of the house.
Back inside, the host family served food to everyone, and there were always people sitting and eating in the area next to the kitchen. Countless meals were served, and the kitchen was a scene of continuous cooking up, serving up and washing up. It all worked remarkably smoothly and efficiently, seemingly without anyone in particular being in charge.
On the other side of the road through the village, and down by the lakefront, Pak Komsi was putting the finishing touches to the three sapundu that he had carved for Pak Popong’s Tiwah. Some of the village children looked on – though they were more interested in the bule (white-skinned foreign) visitors in their village.
The sapundu were carved (as always) from kayu ulin (ironwood – Eusideroxylon zwageri), which they recover from fallen logs in the few remaining forest areas. Nowadays there are few of the valuable ulin trees growing in the region (or elsewhere in Kalimantan). The area surrounding Bangkal village is now almost entirely blanketed by oil palm plantations.
There are five villages in the region that are predominantly populated by Dayak Tamuan people, and large numbers of them came to the Tiwah, to pay their respects and to provide financial, material and practical aid. They call this sharing of resources bayar handep. And it’s essential; a large Tiwah like this costs around Rp100,000,000 (around AU$10,000) – beyond the resources of all but the wealthiest families.
As I wrote previously, many of them arrived in groups of masked bukung figures, with paper money attached to their masks. Each contingent of bukung was accompanied by a vehicle loaded up with pigs, chickens, drinking water, rice, baram and other provisions.
But the biggest group arrived en masse in a ‘formal’ part of the Tiwah known as the laluhan.
Well the laluhan starts out formal – and ends up bacchanalian. The group of outsiders marches up to where a log has been placed across the road to block their entrance to the village and the Tiwah. They are questioned about their intentions and, once granted access, then have to chop through the log with a large mandau bush knife. While this is happening, revellers on either side of the barrier shower each other with water, baram and talcum powder, and prodigious quantities of baram are consumed in a very short time.
It was on for young and old. The insistent rhythms of the gong music inspired some happy and enthusiastic dancing.
Around the sankaraya and sapundu which are the focal point of the Tiwah, the dancing was more restrained.
The manganjan dance is repeated a number of times over the days of the Tiwah, with a few variations. The circle of dancers proceeds slowly in an anti-clockwise direction around the kerbau (buffalo) which is attached by a rattan halter to the sapundu. The purpose of the manganjan is to ask permission of the spirits for the buffalo to be sacrificed – so that its spirit can accompany Pak Popong’s soul to heaven.
Members of the immediate family repeatedly approach the kerbau, wielding spears and mandau. Shortly afterwards the animal is sacrificed, speared in turn by each of the family members until it collapses. As we have seen at other Tiwah, the animal is finally killed by a Muslim villager in halal manner – so that all villagers (not just those of the Kaharingan religion) are then able to share in the meat.
A small temporary structure, enclosed with textiles, was constructed in the yard near the sankaraya. Pak Popong’s coffin was carried inside, and close family members and the ritual leaders (basir) entered and sat, the women facing away from the coffin, to listen to what seemed to be a series of eulogies for the deceased. Each speaker placed one foot on the coffin as they spoke.
The coffin was then carried through the village and up the small hill to the site of cremation. Women at the front of this procession threw handfuls of cooked rice.
A cremation tower had been constructed the previous day, and the coffin was placed up on top. Actually, the practice of cremation is unusual amongst Dayak followers of the Kaharingan religion. More commonly, the body is buried for some time (which may be for a year or for many years). The Tiwah is conducted subsequently, when the bones are disinterred, cleaned and placed in the family ossuary (sandung). And in some areas (such as the middle part of the Katingan River), the intact body may be placed, inside its coffin, directly into a family vault (known along the Katingan as a pambak).
With the aid of some accelerant, the flames quickly took hold, and the resultant ashes fell through the timber framework to form a pile below.
The fire having one its work, the ashes were hosed down until quite cool. Then came the most poignant part of the ceremony. Ibu Mereka Lakau squatted down and, quietly and methodically, picked through the ashes, removing the pieces of bone that she found and placing them into a glass jar. With some assistance, she continued until the jar was full.
That night, two new sapundu were erected beside the family ossuary (known as a sandung, in a forested area on the other side of the village. It was a rather eerie ceremony, conducted in an island of torchlight surrounded by near-total darkness.
On the following day, the immediate family gathered again at the cremation ground, and proceeded down to the lakeshore. As the basir recited prayers in the sacred sangiang language, and a single gong was struck every five seconds or so, Ibu washed the bones in the jar so they were clean and free of ashes.
Later that day, the top of the family sandung was opened up. The jar containing Bapak’s ashes, along with some personal effects, was carefully placed inside, and the sandung was sealed up again.
The main ceremonial activities of the Tiwah were now complete, and we left the next day. However other ritual observances were required over the following days and weeks to ensure that all was done properly. Even a small mistake in the performance of the rituals can have seriously adverse effects, both for the soul of the Pak Popong Itek on his journey through the Upper World to Lewu tatau – but also for those Bangkal residents still living by Lake Sembuluh, here in the Middle World.
For some time, I’ve wanted to write about the mysterious masked characters known as bukung, babukung or sababuka (depending on which part of Central Kalimantan you are in – and who you talk to).
But I’ve put it off because (a) I didn’t have many photos and (b) I couldn’t get much definite information about them.
While I’m still unclear of much about their origin, meaning, history and purpose – I do at least now have few photos to share…! (And if you have corrections or clarifications to any of the text below – please let me know!)
We first encountered them at a Tiwah Massal (a Dayak secondary funeral, with a complex series of ceremonies running over days, weeks or months) at Tewang Rangas village (September 2015). That’s on the Katingan River, where they are known as bukung.
There were just three of them, but with their ghostly, impassive face masks (topeng), their silent demeanour, and rough-cut hessian clothing, they were a ghostly and powerful presence.
Over the days that we were there, they were (just about) constantly wandering around the ceremonial area of the village. Each one carried a split piece of bamboo (a selekap) in one hand, sometimes one in each hand, which they would raise and shake to make a loud rattling clacking sound.
We were told that the appearance and sound of the bukung is an effective way to scare off any malevolent spirits that may come into the village and seek to disrupt the ceremonies of the Tiwah. They certainly succeed in scaring small children of the village.
There are many taboos associated with Tiwah, including some about the bukung. The identity of each person behind the topeng (mask) is treated as a secret, and if anyone does know who they are, they are not permitted to address them by name.
At night, the bukung are not allowed to return to their own homes. If they need to sleep they must go and lie down somewhere in the forest.
So, at this Tiwah (but not at others we have attended..) our understanding is that they functioned as a sort-of spiritual security squad. At night time, when a fair proportion of the male population was under the influence of baram rice wine, they may also have performed some civil security role – though the bukung themselves also partook freely of the baram – and the baram drinkers were all remarkably good-natured.
At the Tiwah we attended in Bangkal village (March 2016), on the shores of Lake Sembuluh on the Seruyan River, they were also known as bukung. But, in number, appearance, activities and function they were very different indeed.
At Bangkal there must have been more than a hundred bukung, who arrived from down the road in successive groups over the two main days of the ceremonies. Each group was quite different, and they were welcomed by gongs and drums, and a curious and admiring crowd. Each contingent of bukung brought gifts, and was accompanied by a utility vehicle or small truck, loaded up with rice, drinking water, baram, chickens and pigs to be sacrificed and consumed during the ceremonies.
The Bukung Santiau were the first to arrive. These marvellous and towering figures were each around three metres tall, with clothing and a carved painted wooden headpiece mounted over a conical frame made from bamboo, rattan, raffia and cardboard. The man inside has to be quite strong just to carry the frame and keep it upright as he walks (and dances!) through the village.
This style of bukung (which we thought resembled the large ondel-ondel puppets of the Betawi people of Java) apparently originates in the upper reaches of the Seruyan River. However these ones were commissioned and made by local people of Bangkal village.
The Bukung Bukus Kambe – ghost bukung – wear large masks, some almost lifelike human in appearance, and others wildly stylised. Their most distinctive feature, though, is their ‘clothing’, which is made entirely out of grass, and leaves from banana palms and other plants. Like the Bukung Santiau, they came from Bangkal village.
The Bukung Garuda came from the village of Pondok Damar (on the road to Sampit from Bangkal).
The Bukung Raranga came to Bangkal from many villages. The figures represented the forms of various creatures, including fish, monkeys, bears, frogs and toads. Raranga is Dayak word meaning roh (Bahasa Indonesia) or ‘spirit’.
Some of the masks were large and quite elaborate, and would not have looked out of place at Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
But not all of the bukung had elaborate masks or costumes. These ones above, although relatively simply attired, were some of the best and most impressive dancers. (Note that each of them carries a plastic bottle of baram rice-wine in his left hand!)
Many of the bukung arrived with cash gifts to help the host family with the considerable costs of the Tiwah (around 100 million Rupiah – or approximately AU$10,000). The blue headdress above, for example, has a million Rupiah pinned onto it.
At times there was a sizeable crowd of dancing bukung in the ceremonial area of the tiwah, in front of the house. There were even some ‘irregular’ bukung who joined in, such as the alien and the gorilla above…
Each of the arriving bukung was treated as an honoured guest (which they were). A small team of helpers from the host family would welcome them and provide them with baram rice wine, handfuls of cooked rice, cigarettes and sirih (betel).
However, since few of the bukung masks have operational mouths, some of the hospitality was a little wasted on them, and it could be a messy affair.
But human guests and hosts, such as our friend Pak Jaya (above right), also got to share in the baram and sirih – and managed to make rather better use of it.
The bukung bukus kambe, lined up in formation and clattering their poles of split bamboo in unison, were quite a formidable sight- sort of like a haka of forest ghost warriors.
One by one each bukung was summoned to approach the bamboo stairs up to the house and were admitted inside to where grandfather’s body was lying in state (as it had been for the previous four months).
The gongs and drums were located inside the house, and were really loud at times. The bukung danced for a while longer to where grandfather lay, and then lifted and (carefully and briefly) placed one foot on the coffin. Then the mask would come off, they became human again, and they sat down to share more baram, cigarettes and conversation.
Unlike the bukung of Tewang Rangas village, they made no attempt to conceal their identities, and they generally looked quite relieved to remove their hot and often heavy masks.
At Bangkal village (but not at the other Tiwahs), all the masks of the bukung were discarded after use, and many of them were carried to the cremation site where they were burnt along with the grandfather’s body. (The shirts of all the men who carried the coffin to the cremation site were also thrown into the fire, along with one very surprised chicken).
It was sad to see the topeng (masks) and the wooden heads of the bukung santiau, some of which were quite elaborate and beautiful, thrown into the flames of the funeral pyre.
Our third encounter was at a recent (April 2016) Tiwah, this time at Kuala Kurun on the Kahayan River up north of here in the district of Gunung Mas. But along the Kahayan we heard people calling them sababuka rather than bukung – (though this may have just been in reference to the mask, not the whole figure). Dressed in dried banana leaf clothing, and with grotesque white masks with big noses (like Europeans?) they looked like benign monsters.
An important part of the Tiwah is known as the laluhan, when honoured guests from another village arrive on board a massive bamboo raft (rakit), gloriously decked out with multicoloured flags. About a dozen sababuka accompanied the rakit on board a number of kelotok longboats, dancing (as best they could on a very narrow canoe) and waving their swords around.
They looked quite stunning and other-worldly in the relatively early morning light.
Our understanding is that these sababuka are the embodiment of spirits who could be malicious or dangerous, but who have chosen to support the Tiwah, and its function of helping the souls of the deceased on their difficult journey through the Upper World to the ‘Prosperous Village’ (Lewu Tatau) of Dayak heaven.
We recently travelled to the Dayak village of Bangkal on the Seruyan River, 300km to the southwest of our Kalimantan ‘home’, to attend a Tiwah – Dayak funeral ceremony. It was our fourth Tiwah – the previous ones were on the Kahayan River at Kampuri, and on the Katingan River at Tewang Rangkang and Tewang Rangas. Like the others, it was extraordinary and included many rituals unique to the local area.
But I’ll write about the Tiwah at another time – I haven’t yet figured out how to compress the five days and nights of ceremonies (not to mention my 2100 photos!) down into a manageable and meaningful narrative. In the meantime, I wanted to write a little about a related topic – the sapundu of Bangkal.
Sapundu are wooden poles, usually about 30-40cm diameter and 2 – 3 meters tall, with a stylised human figure carved at the top, and often various other objects, motifs, symbols and decorative elements carved below. In the ‘Hindu’ Kaharingan (Dayak animist) religion of Central Kalimantan, one or more sapundu is made for the important ceremony of Tiwah. The Tiwah is the biggest and most important ritual event in the Kaharingan religion, as it is when the soul of the deceased is helped on their journey from the mortal world to the ‘prosperous village’, the Dayak heaven of Lewu Tatau*.
* [Actually, Lewu Tatau is just a shorthand for the full name of the Kaharingan heaven in the sacred Sangiang language of the Dayak Ngaju, “Lewu Tatau Habaras Bulau, Habusung Hintan, Hasahep Bati Lantimpung, Hakarangan Bawak Lamiang, Hapasir Manas Marajan Bulau-Lewu Tatau Dia Rumpung Tulang Rundung Raja Isin, Dia Kamalesu Uhat”, which apparently translates marvellously as the “Prosperous Village of Gold Sand, of Diamond Beaches, Carpeted with Silk, of Jasper Pebbles, Heaps of Jasper Beads – Grand Place Where Bones Never Decay Carrying the Burden of the Glorious Flesh, Where the Muscles Never Tire”.]
The sapundu of Bangkal village are special because of their great variety and quality. And also because there are just so many of them – more than we’ve seen anywhere else, in front of dozens of houses in this village of 2,600 people.
A local artisan (a tukang kayu) will carve the sapundu. Often the figure carved will resemble the appearance of the deceased person. A man who had been soldier may be depicted in uniform, a proud mother may be holding a child etc. But the tukang kayu is free to carve whatever form they are inspired to, and the sapundu may not even be the same gender as the person it commemorates! (The sapundu in the photo above was not actually in Bangkal village, but was being carved in the village of Tumbang Manggu, on the Katingan River.)
During the Tiwah, buffalo and cattle to be sacrificed are tethered to the sapundu with a rattan halter. Nearby a sankaraya is erected out of tall bamboo, adorned with offerings for the spirits (of rice, meat, flowers, cigarettes, baram rice wine and sirih), gongs, spears and various other objects. In the photo above right, a second, smaller, sapundu can be seen lying on the ground.
The sapundu and the sankaraya are the focus of ceremonial dancing and other ritual activities during the Tiwah.
Sapundu are frequently located in front of, or adjacent to, the sandung containing the bones, ashes or body (depending on local practice) of the deceased. Often this will be one of the ‘secondary’ sapundu i.e. one that was not used for tethering sacrificial buffalo or cattle.
As one sandung may be used to hold the remains of a number or family members (sort of like a family mausoleum), the sandung can end up surrounded by a cluster of sapundu, of various styles, ages and states of repair.
A sapundu should be made from kayu ulin (Bornean ‘ironwood’, Eusideroxylon zwageri), a remarkable but now rare forest tree. Ulin is a dense timber with a fine and even grain, and is highly durable, being resistant to water, insects, fungi and bacteria. But a sapundu which has stood outside in the tough Kalimantan climate for a hundred years or more is going to show signs of decay, and to display an attractive patina of age as it starts to break up.
The timber cracks and gets colonised by moss and vines.
Families move or simply forget, and there may be nobody left who remembers the name of the person that the sapundu was built to commemorate.
Over time, they may be reclaimed by the forest.
At night, the impassive, staring faces of the sapundu evoke a very different mood.
With little artificial lighting, a moonless night in a Kalimantan village can be quite dark indeed. Locate the sapundu in a forest clearing, add in some rumbling sounds of wet season thunder, and it’s not difficult to start imagining the presence of ancestral spirits and jin, roh and hantu (spirits and ghosts).
Sapundu aren’t the only, or indeed the tallest Kaharingan ceremonial pillars to be found in a Dayak village. The very tall poles in the above left picture are pantar panjang. They are rarely built nowadays, but old ones are still to be found, usually with hornbill birds figured on top. They commemorate the Tiwah of some important or highly renowned person.
Equally impressive, though slightly less lofty, are the pantar sanggaran, like the one on the above right. They incorporate one or more Chinese jars (balanga), and have cross-bars in the shape of dragons (naga), with four upwards-pointing spears on each side. The pole itself may have figures of people or animals carved into it. At one such pantar (sporting three balanga) we were told that each balanga jar signifies a head taken by the owner – but we cannot vouch for the truth of that… and anyway – that’s another story.