Tag Archives: Central Kalimantan

Tumbang Korik

After our visit to Tumbang Anoi, the next destination on our ‘Tur Tiga Betang’ (our ‘Three Longhouse Tour’) was to the longhouse known as ‘Betang Damang Singa Kenting‘ in the Dayak (Ot Danum) village of Tumbang Korik. Like the Betang Damang Batu in Tumbang Anoi, it’s located in the upper reaches of the Kahayan river system, in the district of Gunung Mas, Central Kalimantan.


It’s a really interesting place, a well preserved betang in a beautiful forested setting – with spectacularly tall pantar poles out in front. But visitors aren’t common. We think we found out why.


But first: our base for the trip to Tumbang Korik was the larger village of Tumbang Miri*, on the upper Kahayan River. At around $3 each per night, there are no sheets or bedspread on our beds at the local losmen. But the bedcovers are emblazoned with cartoon penguins playing soccer, and the big captions: “I love you QQ”, “Happy Valentines Day” and (oddly) “Who was the original owner of this house?”

Bright, colourful, friendly and strange – we really liked them. Saccharine cuteness and bizarre English language slogans are something of an art form in southeast Asia, but this fabric really achieved a new level of weirdness and incomprehensibility. (We now know that ‘QQ’ is a popular Chinese instant messaging service, and the penguin is their logo. But, still…!)

*You may (or may not…) be wondering why so many villages in Central Kalimantan are called ‘Tumbang…’ . It’s because ‘Tumbang’ indicates that the village is located at the junction of a small tributary river (e.g. the Anoi, Korik, or Miri rivers) with a larger river.

Map Upper Kahayan_1

You can go all the way from Miri to Korik by klotok (longboat), but the boat hire is expensive and the journey is long, so Dodi drove us as far as Tumbang Tajungan. That way we’d only need to use klotok for the last part of the journey. The first stages of the dirt road to Tajungan were very rough – and then it steadily deteriorated through the remainder of the trip.


There was (variously) deep mud, deep channels in the road surface, broken bridges, and several sequences of rollercoaster hills. (But fortunately no fallen trees). Ominously, we could see some bike tyre tracks in the road surface, but no car tracks. The road – if we may call it that – has clearly not benefited from any maintenance work in recent years. And this area receives a LOT of rain (nearly 7 metres of it annually) so it’s perhaps not surprising that the surface is a bit eroded.

The upside to this is that we passed through some of the best and least disturbed stands of forest that we saw anywhere in the district of Gunung Mas, and we were rewarded by some lovely views of the Schwaner Mountains which separate Central and West Kalimantan.


Our arrival in Tumbang Tajungan was greeted with some surprise. We were told that ours was the first car to arrive since December (four months previously!) It seems that we had at last found “The Road Less Travelled”! During the wet season some motorbikes still make the road journey, but most transport is by boat on the Kahayan River. We can understand why.

A willing klotok owner was soon found, and we were soon heading upstream on the lovely Miri River towards Tumbang Korik. We passed only a few other klotok along the way, and one gold mining dredge (above) which was moving slowly downstream. One man stood on the bow with a long bamboo pole to check the river depth so as not to run aground, while another man sat beside him… fishing.


We saw kingfishers and macaques in the trees which hung over the river. At one point we heard a voice and looked up to see a man directly above us, sitting WAY up on the overhanging branch of a large tree, and laughing. He was collecting fruit of some sort. He must have really wanted them, because he seemed to be quite precariously perched up there, and it was a long fall into a shallow river if he lost his balance.


The Betang Damang Singa Kenting, built around the mid-19th century, and repaired several times since, faces the river in Tumbang Korik. Its founder was Kenting, who earned the extra title of ‘Singa’ (Lion) because of his authority in the Dayak community. He was heavily involved in the 1894 gathering of Dayak chiefs at Tumbang Anoi which agreed to end the practices of headhunting and slavery. His wife was the sister of Damang Batu (who was the chief at Tumbang Anoi).

Like other betang, it is constructed from kayu ulin (ironwood), and it sits on top of tall ulin posts (known as tiang). There is almost always only one way in, some rickety steps culminating in a steeply angled log with steps cut into it (hejan). The idea is that this affords some protection for the occupants from what the Museum Balanga euphemistically describes as ‘wild animals and bad-mannered people’ (i.e. headhunting raids by warriors from other tribes).

There were previously three betang in Tumbang Korik, but the other two (Betang Jaga Kamis and Betang Jaga Jahan) now lie in ruins nearby. It’s sad to see, because it’s highly unlikely that any new ‘real’ longhouses will be built (in Central Kalimantan, at least). Apart from the near-disappearance of kayu ulin from the forests of KalTeng, people simply don’t want or need to live in large communal housing structures like that any more.


We were shown around by Pak Ringkai Rumpoi, 66 years old and a sixth generation descendant of Singa Kenting.

Inside there is little furniture, and plenty of light comes in through the gappy planks in the walls.The timber surfaces are all smooth and well seasoned. (It reminded me a little of an old Australian shearing shed).

One tiang pillar in the middle of the room is adorned with a sangkalang with four weapons (a duhung, two luju, and a mandau). Beside the tiang is a drum. This particular kind of ceremonial drum is called sumbu tutung in the Ot Danum language (and a gandung in Dayak Ngaju), and the skin is from kulit bajung (a type of deer). Buffalo skulls from a 1998 Tiwah ceremony hang from other posts.


The interior walls are made from sheets from bark of kayu pendu. In another room is a really old (and somewhat corroded) set of bronze gongs, and the barrel of a small (presumably Dutch-era) canon.


Out in front of the betang stand some spectacularly tall poles known as pantar panjang. They are erected (alongside the usual carved sapundu poles) to commemorate the life and death of someone held in particularly high regard. One (the one on the right above) has a balanga (Chinese jar) mounted way up near the top.

We would have liked to stay longer at Tumbang Korik, but Dodi was looking uneasily at storm clouds gathering in the sky, and worrying about the return journey back down the river and along the ‘road less travelled’ to our lodgings in Tumbang Miri. As it turned out, the weather stayed dry, and the road journey back was not complicated by fresh mud – which would certainly have made it impassable!


Just next to Tumbang Miri is the village of Dandang. While walking around there the next day, we met Ibu Nila (above) sitting on her verandah making sun hats known as tanggui layah (at least, that’s what they are called by the Dayak Ngaju of the Kahayan River). These hats are still commonly worn, particularly when working in the ladang (gardens in forest clearings). She collects the reeds of daun kajang from a nearby wetland/lake area, then trims and dries them before weaving them into the inner and outer shapes of the sunhat.

Daun kajang, which comes from a variety of pandanus (I think) is also used to make panels of roofing material.


A little way downstream, in Tumbang Haboan village, we visited the home of Pak Willi Inin, because he is well-known as a maker of fine mandau (traditional Dayak swords). He’s now 84 years old, but still working. He said that the blade of the mandau above was actually forged out of metal from a chainsaw.

He also makes and plays the three-stringed (or sometimes two-stringed) Dayak instrument known as kecapi. The strings are nylon, but in the old times they were made of a particular kind of rattan. Pak Willi Inin played and sang some really nice traditional tunes – it’s amazing what you can do with just two or three strings if you know how.


We visited another house in Tumbang Habaon because we heard that they make mandau, but ended up buying some old manik-manik (beads) from them. Pak Berlin now works at gold mining instead of making mandau. His wife Ibu Anie said that, while working over soil on the riverbank at the site of an old betang, they found a number of old beads amongst the flecks of gold and other heavy debris that gets sifted out.

Manik-manik beadwork is still popular, and is prized and traded by Dayak people. Beads are often made of glass or ceramic, but most valued are those made from lilis lamiang (carnelian), which is considered to have special power of panekang hambaruan (“strengthening the soul”). The basir and pisur shaman will usually wear a string of lilis lamiang beads around their neck and/or wrists and, for some ceremonies, it is essential. The two broken orange beads in the photo above are lilis lamiang.

I read somewhere that, when the first European visitors came to Borneo in the 1500s, and travelled upriver into the interior, they were understandably amazed to find Venetian Murano glass beads (as well as beads of Chinese glass and Indian agates). Through what lengthy and complex chain of trade routes would Venetian glass have made it from western Europe to the interior of Borneo in the 16th Century? If only those beads could speak!


Tumbang Anoi

After we left the Tiwah at Kuala Kurun, we continued northwest, up to the last villages near the headwaters of the Kahayan River.


The population is largely Dayak – Ngaju and Ot Danum – and mostly quite religious, with Christian churches and Kaharingan animist structures (sapundu, pantar, and sandung) side-by-side, and seemingly around every corner.

As is usually the case in Kalimantan, the journey was as much of an adventure as the destination. This part of Gunung Mas regency is really interesting, rich in culture, history – and full of challenges for the traveller. We had the good fortune to be accompanied by our guides and friends Dodi and Jonathan, both Dayak, who have deep knowledge of the area.


The road up to the Upper Kahayan (Kahayan Hulu) sub-district is asphalt in parts, but is mostly dirt, sand or more often (at this time of year) mud. We encountered the road closure above while running repairs were being made to a small bridge. Chainsaw, hammer, and some six-inch nails soon made it usable again, though other drivers got us to cross first in our sporty red Land Cruiser, before chancing it themselves.


Further down the ‘highway’ were a number of steep and/or muddy patches. The motorbike rider above had chains around his rear wheel to try and get some traction through the mud. That’s Dodi walking behind him in the white t-shirt. He’d gone back down the road to retrieve a mud flap that got torn off our Land Cruiser when we came through. By the end of the day we had hauled out a couple of vehicles which had become bogged in deep mud.


We arrived and Tumbang Anoi after dark, and settled in for our stay at the famous longhouse. The next morning, our 4WD got a much-needed wash and some running repairs.


The longhouse (betang) at Tumbang Anoi was built in the late 1800’s by Damang Batu. But unfortunately it is no longer habitable, and we stayed in the ‘new’ betang built adjacent to the site of the original one. It’s still an impressive structure, built entirely from kayu ulin (Borneo ironwood). It sports modern conveniences such as running water, but currently the pump is not working, so buckets of water were carried up those steep steps each day so I could wash at the mandi (and we could flush the toilet). Karen, more considerately, chose to bathe in the Anoi river behind the betang.


The sandung and sapundu in front of the betang are beautifully carved, and in a style unlike what we’ve seen elsewhere.


All that remains of the of Betang Damang Batu is some of the wooden framework. The site is overgrown with weeds now, and it looks a little forlorn, but for three months in 1894 it was the centre of the Dayak world, and events there helped shape the subsequent course of Borneo history.

Before that time, fighting between the many and various Dayak tribes of Borneo was chronic, and (perhaps due to the disrupting impact of the Dutch and British colonial powers) was getting worse. Headhunting raids led to revenge raids led to more raids, and the cycle was accelerating. One ongoing war between Dayak Ngaju of Central Kalimantan with Kenyah from the Mahakam River in East Kalimantan had led to many deaths on both sides – and no victor.

At a meeting convened by the Dutch Resident from East Kalimantan in Kuala Kapuas in June 1893 it was decided to hold a grand council of all the leaders of all the Dayak tribes of Borneo. 152 were invited. Damang Batu, the 73-year-old Ot Danum chief from Tumbang Anoi, was widely respected by all, and he offered to host the meeting in the following year.


The meeting, a photo of which is above, was a great success. It lasted three months, and the catering reportedly included 100 buffalo, 100 cattle, and countless pigs and chickens. By the end, there was agreement to immediately:

  • cease hostilities between the tribes, specifically the ‘3H’ practices of Hakayou (raiding parties), Hapanu (killing each other) and Hatekek (the taking of heads);
  • cease the practice of human slavery; and
  • enforce the rule of customary law, including payments in the event of someone killing a member of another tribe.

The council of Dayak chiefs also found time to consider and rule on some 300 previously unresolved disputes and criminal cases.


In front of the betang – and in front of just about every Dayak Kaharingan home is a plant known in this part of Kalimantan as Daun Sawang (or Dawen Sawang) [Cordyline fruticosa]. The leaves of this locally sacred plant are used in a number Kaharingan rituals, where they may be used to splash water (or blood of sacrificed animals). Hung from a line suspended between poles the leaves can indicate the perimeter of a ceremonial area.


Tumbang Anoi has an official population of 418 (in 116 families). But this is possibly exceeded by the population of carved sapundu figures that stand mutely throughout the village. Some looked as though they could start speaking at any moment.


Buei Tiung (the ‘Keymaster’ of the betang, standing in front of the group above) walked us around the village and tried to explain some of the history and culture. He introduced us to many of the locals along the way, including Buei Raden Sawang, the village elder at the left of the photo above.


The kids were unusually shy, perhaps because it is rare for them to see people like us in Tumbang Anoi. The cry goes out: “Ada bule di kampung! Bule di sini!” (“There are white-skinned people in our village!”) These kids just ran away at first, then got curious and approached us slowly from behind, running away again every time we turned to face them. Eventually they tentatively agreed to pose for a photograph, but even then they clung to each other for courage.


We went upriver by klotok longboat to the hospitable villages of Karetau Sarian and Tumbang Mahuroi, which are the last (or first, depending on how you look at it) villages on the Kahayan River. With peaks of the Schwaner Mountains in the background, this is real ‘Heart of Borneo’ country.


The traditional crafts are still practiced in places like this. The lady above is making a small basket, while a half-complete woven mat can be seen at the back of the room.


Some children’s games seem to be just about universal. These boys were expert marbles players.


A juvenile Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) was being kept as a pet in Karetau Sarian village. These birds are the smallest and most widespread of the hornbills, and unlike some of their larger cousins, are not considered to be under threat. But this beautiful little bird looked like he would rather be free in the forest than a captive in the village.


The main industry of the upper Kahayan appears to be (illegal) gold mining. Floating dredges are used to sift alluvial gold from river sand (as is common practice in our own area along the Rungan River), but there are also mining sites dotted along the river banks. These operations pump high pressure water into the sand/soil mix of the river banks, forming a suspension of muddy gold-flecked water which is then filtered in the same way as used on the alluvial dredges.

With the steady disappearance of the forests, changing social values, and the collapse in rubber prices, the money that comes in from gold mining is keeping whole villages afloat economically. But… this activity also causes massive damage to the river banks, and causes the rivers to be even muddier and siltier than they would otherwise be. A particular problem results from the miners’ use of mercury to extract the gold flecks from the dirt and sand etc. A proportion of the mercury ends up in the rivers, whose fish all now have high levels of mercury contamination.


Captive hornbills, and toxic gold. As so often in Kalimantan, the sublime and the tragic sit side-by-side. Some further reading about Tumbang Anoi;

  • http://humabetang.web.id/artikel-dayak/2013/perjanjian-dayak-tumbang-anoi-1894/1
  • http://kulturdayak.blogspot.co.id/2015/07/dokumentasi-perdamaian-tumbang-anoi-1894.html
  • http://gerdayakjakarta.blogspot.co.id/search?q=anoi

Bangkal tiwah

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.

Bukung & sababuka

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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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Some of the masks were large and quite elaborate, and would not have looked out of place at Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

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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!)

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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.

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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…

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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They looked quite stunning and other-worldly in the relatively early morning light.

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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.

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The Sapundu of Bangkal village

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Here’s a list of “things I didn’t know about orangutans before I came to Kalimantan”. To be honest, it was pretty easy to put together a fairly long list, because I didn’t know much about them before moving into their neighbourhood. They make interesting neighbours…


Orangutans are native to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Since 1996 these have been regarded as two distinct species: Pongo pygmaeus in Borneo and the Sumatran species Pongo abelii. The two species may have diverged about 400,000 years ago.


Population estimates are not reliable, but there are perhaps 55,000 Bornean orangutans and only 6,000 Sumatran. That makes the Borneans ‘endangered’, and the Sumatrans ‘critically endangered’. Numbers of Bornean orangutans have halved over the past 60 years, and Sumatran orangutans are now only found in an isolated area of Aceh province. Their numbers have dropped by 80% over the last 75 years.


The main reason for population decline is loss of habitat. Peat swamp and other lowland forests continue to be rapidly cleared for oil palm plantations and forestry, but also for construction of roads and clearing of land for housing and small scale agriculture.


Orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans. They are amongst the most intelligent of primates, having split off from the evolutionary line that led to homo sapiens about 17 million years ago, after the gibbons, and before only gorillas and chimpanzees.


Orangutans are susceptible to all of the same diseases as humans.


The subfamily of used to include other species which are now extinct. They include species that lived in Thailand, India, Vietnam and China. One of these, the Giantopithecus, was (as the name suggests) really big, in fact the largest primate ever, and it only disappeared from the fossil record about 100,000 years ago.They could be 3 metres tall and over 500kg in weight.


Orangutans have long toes and an opposable big toe, allowing them to grasp things (e.g. branches!) equally well with their feet as their hands.


They are almost entirely arboreal, and are the largest tree-dwelling mammal. Their long limbs and curved toes and fingers make them a little awkward when walking on the ground.


Dominant adult males grow large cheek flaps, usually by the age of 20, which no doubt the females find irresistible.


An adult male orang-utan stands about 140cm tall, weighs around 75kg or more, and and has an arm span of TWO METRES! Adult females are about half that weight, and about 20cm shorter.


Orangutans will wade – but they do not swim. That’s why individuals being prepared for return to the ‘wild’ are held by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) on three islands in the Rungan River (just a few km from our home). There’s no danger of them escaping from the islands.


They eat fruit – lots of fruit, comprising around three-quarters of their diet. They will also eat some young leaves, shoots, bark, insects and ants, honey and birds eggs.


Apart from mothers and their babies, orangutans tend to be fairly solitary – more so than gorillas or chimpanzees.


Babies stay with their mothers until at least the age of seven, and sometimes into their teenage years.


In the wild females won’t become pregnant until their previous baby is at least seven years old. This is the longest inter-birth period of any primate.


They sleep at night in a nest made high in a tree from bent and interwoven branches and a mattress of leaves. Usually a new nest is made each night. Nest-making is a learnt skill, usually learnt from the mothers by the age of three. The orphaned orangutans at BOSF go to ‘Forest School’ where they learn nest-making from their human teachers.


When angered, an orangutan will suck in air through its pursed lips, making the ‘kiss squeak’ sound.


Rescue, rehabilitation and re-release of orphaned orangutans is both worthy and worthwhile – but it’s not going to be nearly enough to counter the rapid decline of the populations due to loss of forest habitat.

As the ecologist Dr Erik Meijaard, from Borneo Futures, has observed: “The balance in orangutan conservation is not right. In the past decade we lost some 25,000 wild orangutans and we rehabilitated a few hundred. Very few are investing in on-the-ground orangutan conservation. It’s like fighting a war with hospitals and nurses only.”

Extinction in the wild within a generation remains an appalling possibility.

Manugal 2015 at Tewang Rangkang

For two years in a row, we’ve had the pleasure of attending and helping with the planting of rice in the Dayak Ngaju village of Tewang Rangkang, on the Katingan River a couple of hours drive to the northwest of our home. It’s the kampung of our dear friend Lelie, who seems to be related to almost everyone in the village!


When I wrote about our previous visit I described the rice planting process, and so I won’t repeat the detail now. In summary, family and community members get together for a ‘working bee’ (gotong royong) to plant rice for dry cultivation in a newly cleared and burnt field (ladang) in the forest. The event, which incorporates many traditions and procedural requirements from the Kaharingan religion, is known as Manugal. It takes place right at the end of the dry season, around the last week of October.


Lelie is now away studying at Gajah Mada University in Jogjakarta, but we were invited back by her family, and stayed overnight in the home of her aunt and uncle, Tante Hentie and Om Indra. That’s them with their ces canoe above.


In the evening before Manugal, we walked out to revisit the sandung (family ’tomb’) where the remains of Lelie’s grandparents are interred. It was one year to the day since we had attended Nenek’s Tiwah funeral ceremony. The two white sapundu pillars to the right of the sandung have since been relocated there from their previous location beside the road, where they had served as the tethering posts for the buffalo and cow sacrifices during the Tiwah.


On the way back we chanced upon this large and quite beautiful toad, who was kind enough to pose for some close-ups.


In preparation for feeding everyone at the next day’s Manugal, a pig was slaughtered and cooked, beginning with a very basic singing process. Another pig looked on, understandably looking rather disturbed. “Gerald, what have they done to you?!”


The next morning, after a disturbingly early start, everyone crossed the river by ces canoe, and travelled up a tributary stream to a spot where we could disembark and walk through the forest to the ladang rice field. The first wet season rains had only arrived a few days previously, but the water level was a lot higher than it had been the year before, obviating the need for a lot of muddy hiking.


When we reached the ladang, there was still some smoke and flames rising from the clearing fires. The ladang is actually the same field as was used last year, as they get a few years’ use before the soil fertility becomes too low for cropping (This is very simple agriculture – no cultivation of the soil, no fertilisers, no irrigation or pesticides). The area still contains many felled tree trunks from the original forest. Since last year they have built a stilt hut (pondok) for temporary accommodation while working at the ladang.


A line of men and boys work their way down the length of the ladang, making shallow holes in the soil with the pointed end of the staff that each carries. Some of the staves (the black ones in the photo) were prized pieces of kayu ulin (ironwood) that they keep for use from year to year.


In some areas the smoke was still thick, but no-one seemed to be deterred.


Meanwhile the seed rice is carefully scooped into handmade (mostly rattan) baskets (kusak dare), ready to be planted. There were several varieties including red rice, all saved from the last year’s harvest.


No two baskets are the same. Some of them are really finely made, and most show evidence of many years’  use.


The women and girls follow in a line behind the men, dropping a small number of rice grains into each of the newly made holes. There is a lot of chatting, laughter and tom-foolery in the process.


With so many people helping, the sowing was all finished within a few hours. Time then for a big communal meal: plenty of rice of course, plus eggplant and other veggies, and babi ketjap (pork). “Hullo again, Gerald!” Little cakes wrapped in palm leaf, sweet coconut rice and coffee followed.


Om Rudi and his daughter Jesica sat nearby at the edge of the ladang, sharing a plate.


With the morning’s work finished, and the heat and humidity approaching the daily peak, we all headed back over the river to Tewang Rangkang.


We are very interested in the weaving of rattan (or rotan, they call it), and later we went to visit Ibu Linie, who is possibly the only person in the village who still makes kusak dare baskets and sapuyung hats from rattan.


She explained the many and complicated technical steps involved, from selecting the best rattan vines from the forest to preparing them and fashioning the cut canes into useful and attractive objects. After lengthy equivocation, she agreed to part with the basket above, and we established a mutually agreeable price. It now adorns our hall table – but sadly it may never be used for sowing rice at Manugal.

Kuda Lumping II

Not long after we first arrived in Central Kalimantan, I wrote about a Kuda Lumping ‘performance’ in the village of Suka Mulya, just a kilometre or so from our home. Several months later, we were delighted to hear of another performance which was to be held in conjunction with a wedding ceremony, in the same village.

The Kuda Lumping (also known as Jatilan) is a Javanese tradition, and the people of Suka Mulya are predominantly trans-migrants from Java, mainly East Java, though many have been in Kalimantan for two or three generations. It will be interesting to see if the Kuda Lumping in Kalimantan diverges over time from the ‘original’ versions of Kuda Lumping  and Jatilan as performed in Java. Perhaps that is already happening…


With the formal parts of the wedding ceremony completed, a crowd of several hundred people, of all ages, began to gather around the area which had been prepared for the Kuda Lumping performance. It was essentially just a cleared area of bare dirt. At one end small stage was erected for the musicians, and vendors of snack foods, sweet drinks and souvenirs set up business. Spongebob Squarepants or Hello Kitty balloons anybody?


During the Kuda Lumping, a number of people – predominantly young men from the village – go into a trance state where they are possessed by the spirits of horses (kuda in Bahasa Indonesia). Its origins are obscure, and its precise meaning is unclear, but there is no doubting its popularity or the powerfully spooky impact that it has on all who witness it.

It begins quietly enough, with traditional music from the small orchestra consisting of drums, woodwinds and gamelan instruments. The activities of the trance dancers are presided over by several shaman, who ensure that none of the trance dancers are injured or fail to return to their normal state of consciousness. The senior shaman looks out from backstage, to confirm that all is ready to begin.


The first dancers to come out are teenage girls, each one astride a two dimensional toy horse.


Their dancing is quite structured and formal. For a time, the performance has quite a graceful and elegant feel to it.


The girls are joined by a group of adult males, dressed as warriors, each one also riding on a toy horse. The music is gradually getting louder by the minute, especially after another character with a monstrous red head appears in their midst.


The warriors take up whips and flay the intruder mercilessly.


From this point on, the performers – along with a large number of people from the audience – go into a state of trance. For the next hour or so everything seems to spiral wildly out of control, with ever more people going into trance, prancing around like horses, eating grass and dirt, and appearing to be in a wild ecstatic state of consciousness. It’s mayhem.


Meanwhile the bride and groom sit on thrones in the nuptial pavilion, looking smooth and refined, and greeting a line of well-wishers congratulating them on their marriage. But just outside the pavilion, guys are turning into monkeys and climbing up trees.


One of the trance dancers loops a batik cloth around the bride and groom, and leads them out into the open area where there are now perhaps 20 people in trance, doing crazy stuff.


I didn’t see exactly what happened, but there was a commotion and the bride suddenly went limp and collapsed in a heap. Family members who were serving as attendants picked her up and carried her away from all the hubbub to a place of safety where she soon recovered.


She wasn’t the only one to collapse. Some of the dancers also appeared to be overcome, and fell to the ground, frequently in strained and contorted positions.


One guy managed to wriggle on his belly across to where one of the shaman had prepared a smoking pot of charcoal and herbs which seemed to revive him somewhat.


But he still looked like he didn’t know whether this was Borneo or Tuesday.


At no point did we see any of the dancers drop the mask of trance and revert to their normal selves. Although it is hard to believe that they had become possessed by the spirits of horses, there can be little doubt that they themselves felt that they had been transported to another realm, and taken on a quite altered state of consciousness.


From time to time the shaman would get out a tiny bottle from his pocket, pull the cork from the top, and offer a sniff to one of the dancers. I didn’t find out what was in that little magic bottle, but whatever it was the dancers were pretty keen to get at it, and seemed to be energised afterwards.

Take these ones below, for example.







Eventually things started to wind down. One by one, each of the dancers would be selected by the shaman and their helpers, and brought back from the state of trance. Different techniques were used. Some would be whipped several times until they collapsed, others would get a gentle flick to the forehead after which they would fall backwards into the waiting arms of the helpers.


Each one appeared dazed and confused, and would spend some time looking around apparently trying to work out where they were and how they got there. Then they would be helped out backstage, where they would sit for a time drinking water and collecting themselves before returning to the audience.


And finally, after all the adults had left to go home, and there was almost nobody left to witness it, the young boys would have their turn. Complete with mini whips and mini toy horses, they seemed every bit as enthusiastic as the adults. It would appear that the tradition of Kuda Lumping will survive and continue – at least for one more generation.