Tag Archives: Dayak Ngaju

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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Tiwah Kampuri

The rains have arrived, the fires and smoke have gone for another year, and life has returned to what passes for normal here in Central Kalimantan (KalTeng). In fact the wet season storms arrived with such gusto that they demolished much of the power line from South Kalimantan. As a result, KalTeng has had little or no electricity, telephone service, internet or even piped water for the past few weeks. Normal service appears to have been resumed the past couple of days, and so now we await further unexpected developments. Meanwhile…

I’ve previously written about the Tiwah (Dayak funeral ritual) that we attended back in November last year, and about another very large Tiwah in August this year. Both were quite extraordinary. When we heard that another mass Tiwah was being held in the village of Kampuri, we quickly made arrangements to attend. Kampuri is a village of around 600 families, in the Gunung Mas region of Central Kalimantan, about three hours drive to the northeast from where we live. It’s on the Kahayan River, whereas the two earlier ceremonies were on the Katingan River to the west of here. We were very interested to see how different the Kaharingan religious practices might be.

By a happy coincidence, my workmate (and our friend) Ibu Andarini is from Kampuri, and she very kindly provided us with transport, accommodation and great company for the main ceremonial days (Tubuh Basir Muduk and Tubuh Ngarahang Tulang) of the Tiwah. We were the only non-Indonesians there.

When we first arrived, the ceremonial site had been prepared, but things were pretty quiet, so we drove an hour north to the district (Kabupaten) capital of Kuala Kurun, and stayed overnight with members of Andarini’s family there – who made us very welcome.

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Back in Kampuri early the next morning, the crowd was gathering. Musicians had started playing the gongs and drums that continued for most of the next two days. The food, snack and drink vendors had set up their temporary warungs. No less than eight gambling operations had started business – but, being (technically) illegal, they were located a discreet distance away amongst the trees behind the main proceedings. “No photos!”

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Seventeen tall painted wooden sapundu were erected, one for each of the deceased. The poles were securely planted in deep holes in the ground. On top of each one was carved a stylised representation of the deceased. One man who had served in the army, for example, was depicted in khaki and carrying a rifle. The sapundu are used to tether the buffalo and cattle that will be sacrificed during the tiwah.

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The rituals of Tiwah are part of the Dayak Kaharingan religion. Adherents of this animist faith believe that the spirit of someone who has died will stay around the village that was their home in life, and will not be able to make the journey on to the ‘Prosperous village’ (i.e. Heaven) without assistance and encouragement.

So there are prayers, music and offerings to get the assistance of beneficial spirits (and to repel the malevolent ones). Chickens, pigs, cattle and buffalo are sacrificed, and the animals’ spirits will also accompany the deceased and support them when they arrive at the ancestral spirit village.

The gods and spirits are very finicky about protocol, and the complicated rituals must be performed exactly if they are to be successful. So one or more basir, experts in the minutiae of Kaharingan ritual and the sacred language of Sangiang, are required to preside over proceedings and to keep it all on track. At Kampuri, there were nine of them, mostly wearing rattan caps with the word ‘basir’ woven in so there could be doubt of their role and status. They were an amiable group, keen to try and explain things to us whenever time and our limited bahasa language skills allowed. And, like all Indonesians, they were ready to pose for photos at the drop of a (rattan) hat.

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There weren’t nearly as many prayers and songs as we had seen at the Tiwah on the Katingan River, but the ones that did occur were quite beautiful, in an extended, hypnotically repetitive cycle of solo voice and chorus responses. The little drums (katambung) that they play are significant, and their use is one of the things that distinguish the basir of the Kahayan from the pisur of the Katingan. Their prayers, chants and music went on well into the night.

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By day, the crowd was generally more boisterous than those we saw on the Katingan. There were frequent outbreaks of hujan tanah (literally, ‘raining dirt’) where clods of soil (perhaps later mixed with some buffalo faeces and blood…) would be picked up and lobbed across the heads of the crowd. After I got targeted and pelted a couple of times, including one quite solid missile that hit me square in the glasses, I expressed my clear displeasure and invited the throwers to come over and discuss the matter in more detail. That seemed to be the end of it.

More benign were the people who moved through the crowd, applying white rice flour paste to the faces of all present. We are not certain of the ritual significance of this paste, but the lady below made a fine advertisement for its beautifying effect.

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On each day, the first animals to be sacrificed were the pigs (babi). Unlike on the Katingan, where the pigs were slaughtered very quickly and relatively painlessly by a knife to the heart, the largest babi Kampuri were speared while held in a bamboo enclosure. Each family member took a turn, and so it took a little while, and the squeals of the indignant pigs were heartbreaking to hear.

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The mass Tiwah was held for the souls of some 17 people, and there was a major sacrifice – usually a buffalo (kerbau), but sometimes a cow (sapi) – for each one. The buffalo can cost up to nearly the equivalent of AU$1000, so it is a very major expense for each of the families that provide them. The decorated animals are brought out one by one, and tied to the appropriate sapundu with a halter (saluang) made from rattan.

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Disconcertingly, they would frequently fix their gaze on me, as if imploringly asking for help

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The basir and key family members formed a ring around the sapundu, each one now with a buffalo attached, and performed the slow dance of Ngangjun, Pakai selendang, which invites the spirits to descend to the village and take up temporary residence in the sapundu.

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The family members then take turns to spear the buffalo. The spear (tombak) is long and decorated with red fabric and pink and white chicken feathers. Afterward, the spearer was given a glass of rice wine (or beer), which was downed quickly then he (or she) would face east, raise their head and let out a loud ‘Woooo!!!’.

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The spearing continues until the beast can no longer stand up, at which point a wooden block is placed under the beast’s head, and its throat is cut. Unlike the Katingan Tiwah, there was less interest in collecting the spilt blood, or washing hands and feet ‘clean’ in it.

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A batik cloth is thrown over the animal, the family members all gather and squat down around it, and a basir waves a clump of leaves over their heads.

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Small pieces of the rattan that had tied the buffalo to the sapundu, or even bits of the animal itself (lips and nose) were collected by people to take away as good luck talismans. At the completion of ceremony, the animal is hauled away, for butchering, distribution and cooking. Not an easy task.

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Its even harder to load onto the back of a ute. But, like most things in Indonesia, it can be accomplished if you have enough people, a couple of basic bits of equipment, and a lot of shouted advice.

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The heads were taken away to be stored and displayed at the main ceremonial area.

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The Tiwah is a ‘secondary funeral’. That is, it is held for people who had died and had been buried some time previously – often many years earlier. The bones of the deceased are exhumed from the site of burial, carefully cleaned and placed on fine cloth in small wooden trays or coffins. They are then taken to the specially built wooden structures (sandung) where they join the bones of other family members who had pre-deceased them. All going well with the performance of the Tiwah, their souls join the ancestors in the ‘Prosperous’ village’.

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Our understanding and appreciation of the Kampuri Tiwah was greatly assisted by Pak Goldison (2nd from left below), who was the basir chiefly responsible for the organisation of the Tiwah. He was a very busy man, but he went out of his way to ensure that we were comfortable, well informed and well supplied with drinks and food throughout our stay.

And of course without Ibu Andarini (3rd from right) we probably wouldn’t have got there at all. She ensured that we had a place to stay (there is no commercial accommodation in Kampuri), that we didn’t miss any of the key events, and that we were made welcome by her family and friends in the village.

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And when it’s all over, it’s time to go back home. Five on a bike? No problem.

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More of my photos of the Kampuri Tiwah here.

Dayak wedding ceremony

We’ve been to a fair number of wedding receptions over the past year in Kalimantan. Actually, Karen counts 11 that she has attended – Dayak, Banjar, Javanese (she’s a couple ahead of me…) – and we’ve been invited to even more. Interestingly, in no case have we met the Happy Couple before showing up at their wedding.

In a reversal of usual practice in Australia, the wedding reception is open to almost anyone who has some kind of connection to the wedding families (one wedding we attended had around 2000 guests), but the actual ceremony is usually a relatively private affair, attended only by family and close friends.

So we were delighted when our friend Lelie asked us to accompany her and her mother to the traditional Dayak wedding of two old friends of hers friends in Palangkaraya one recent evening. Lelie went to high school with Mensie (Mensie Martha Lovianie) and Alben (Briptu Alben Olandi Lambung). Although held in the capital city of the province, it was conducted as if it was held in a village, and as if the groom Alben  was coming from another village.

So, first the warriors of the village assemble and greet each other.


While awaiting the groom’s arrival, there’s time to make some wardrobe adjustments. Note the hornbill skulls and feathers in the headdresses.


There’s time also to limber up and practice a few dance moves with an attentive and proud teacher.


Soon everyone is ready. The gong orchestra is playing, and everyone looks down the road for the groom.


Then the groom arrives, flanked by his parents and an entourage of family members. But entry through the gate to the village is blocked (by some magic but flimsy-looking strings with flowers suspended from them) and, more convincingly, by a fierce-looking warrior in full war regalia, armed, poised and ready to fight.


This is the beginning of the Lawang Sakepeng ceremony. A male visitor to the village must prove his worthiness by fighting and defeating a local warrior at the gate. Only then will he be welcomed in – assuming that he is still alive and standing up. Nowadays it is all ritualised; the arrivee can nominate someone to fight on his behalf (presumably a better pugilist), and the fighting is a stylised dance, with no actual contact between the two ‘combatants’.


They circle around on either side of the entrance gate, gradually working in closer to each other, and to the magical strings that separate them. The music from the gong orchestra gets louder and faster, and the onlookers start calling out encouragement and cheering any impressive moves.


Then they engage in the hand-to-hand battle (without actually touching each other!), in the course of which the strings are torn down, the two fighters swap sides and the visitor, now proven to be a good fighter (or at least to have one on his staff as his ‘best man’) is admitted and welcomed to the village.


A dance is performed to welcome and honour the visitor and his family. Having made it through the initial challenge, they are now treated with great courtesy and respect.



The groom is ushered in through all the wedding guests, to an inner room. He’s looking relieved – but his challenges aren’t over yet. There are  no less than 16 specific requirements that have to met before the wedding can occur. (This being 2015, all the proceedings are monitored on a video camera and screened in the courtyard outside for the guests to view.)


First up, once settled down inside, the groom’s and bride’s families exchange formal polite greetings and a number of gifts. The groom’s family give gifts of cash, a selendang, a gong, land (on which to build a house), and other things…

Then, down to business. The bride’s father asks: “Well, why have you come here?” And the groom (perhaps a little sheepishly) replies that he’s come to take a bride.

And so begins the process known as Pengantin Bayangan. Attendants come outside a locate an unmarried girl, seemingly at random, from amongst the guests and bring her inside. “Is this the one?” the groom is asked. He replies that no, she’s not the one. She’s not the right height, or the nose is wrong, or some such discrepancy. He apologises to her for embarrassing her in front of so many people, and gives her a gift of money. And the (no doubt relieved) girl is led back outside, and another is brought in for the same examination. This whole process was repeated three times, and caused much hilarity. We wished that we could have understood all of the exchanges going on (in Dayak Ngaju language, not Bahasa Indonesia) at this point.

Meanwhile, dancers helped the groom look for his bride-to-be, and entertained the small gathering of guests outside.


After a few errors, the ‘right’ girl is presented to the groom, who confirms that she is indeed Ms Right, and there are exchanges of vows and much celebration. No-one could tell us what would have happened if he chose the wrong fiancé, or if he rejected the right one – or if she rejected him at this point. They just looked horrified, and said that that simply doesn’t happen! It mustn’t actually have been too difficult for him to make the right selection, as his fiancé was wearing a matching outfit to his.

Both wedding costumes feature the motif of the batang garing (the Tree of Life), a central symbol for the Dayak Ngaju, complete with the four branches, spears and balanga (ceramic jar) at the base. (More about the batang garing at another time…)


More celebratory dancing, and then the warriors, reassured that they would not be called upon to fight, retired for the evening. (By this time the little warrior had already disrobed and disappeared. It might have been past his bedtime).

The bride is now introduced to all of the members of the groom’s family – a process known as Pakaja Manantu.


The next part of the ceremony was really interesting, and VERY different (and I have no photos…) Both families are active members of the Kristen (Protestant) Church. So, when the traditional ceremonies were over, a minister in conventional church attire presided over prayers, a sermon, and a number of hymns that we all sang from the hymn-sheets that were handed out. We sang Di Hatiku, ya Yesus (“In my heart, O Jesus”), Tiap langkahku (“My every step”), and Keluarga hidup indah (“Family life is beautiful”), amongst others.

The contrast between the two halves of the wedding ceremony was striking. But it was explained to us that the two parts are of equal importance: “The Lawang Sakepang ceremony is to show pride in our budaya and adat [culture and traditional customs]; the second part is our agama [religion]”. It’s a neat way to reconcile the two contrasting halves, but the distinction between adat and agama is not always so easily made – for example in the Tiwah funeral ceremonies. (But much more about that at another time…)

So then it was time for the obligatory series of group photographic portraits, a delicious buffet dinner – and then everyone went home. Sudah makan, pulang.


Tumbang Gagu


Last week, accompanied by our wonderful Dayak guide Dodi (and ’trainee’ guide Jonathan) we travelled up to see the longhouse (betang) at a little village called Tumbang Gagu, right up in the headwaters of the Sampit (or Mentaya) River. They don’t get a lot of foreign visitors there – we checked the guest registration book and last year they had one group of three French people in May, and … no-one else all year.

In part, that’s because it’s a bit of a journey to get there: a three hour drive to Tumbang Samba on the Katingan River, a six hour journey upriver from there via klotok (motorised canoe’ like the one above), and then a two hour walk through the forest to Tumbang Gagu.

In Tumbang Samba we stayed overnight in the Losmen Itah – the best (well the only) accommodation in town. From the upstairs balcony you can see Bukit Raya in the distance – it’s the highest mountain in the Indonesian part of Borneo. It’s even harder to get to – but one day we hope to make the 10+ day journey.

The walk through the forest was pleasant, and there was a chorus of birds all the way. Rattan vines hang over the path in places to create a little hazard, trying to grab on to your clothing or even remove your hat as you pass by. The forest here was mostly bamboo, and really muddy and slippery in places. We didn’t meet any other people along the way, and were more than a little steamy and sweaty by the time we arrived in the metropolis of Tumbang Gagu (population? “70 families”).

The betang at Tumbang Gagu was built in 1870 (though it took seven years to complete). It’s almost entirely built out of kayu ulin (ironwood – a wonderful hard, even-grained, decay-proof and termite-proof timber, which is so useful that it has now almost entirely disappeared from the forests).

The betang is 55 metres long and stands on pillars some 5 metres high. You get up to it by climbing a log with notched steps cut into it (hejan), which can be as hairy as it sounds. The steps can be pulled up and the betang becomes pretty much inaccessible. According to a label in the Museum Balanga, this design is intended to protect the occupants from “wild animals and bad-mannered people” – a nice euphemism for the former practice of head-hunting!

Inside it’s divided into several very large rooms (it originally housed six families). We stayed there four nights, and that’s our sleeping quarters in the photo above. It’s woody and creaky and supposedly full of spirits. But to me it felt for all the world like the inside of a big old shearing shed.

Only Lery (who as a trained nurse is the only medical care for five villages in the region) and her mother Ibu Silei live permanently in the betang. But other members of the broader family regularly stay there – one night there were a dozen or more sleeping there. The kitchen is in the typical simple Dayak style, but manages to produce a steady supply of meals from food grown in the slash-and-burn gardens or collected from the forest. Snack foods are about the only foods brought in from other places.



Out in front of the betang are several beautifully weathered wooden statues. Each one is about four metres high. These sapundu were constructed for some long-ago tiwah funeral ceremonies. They now stand with an austere grace like guardians watching over the river.

We had some really interesting excursions over the days we were there. One day we went out into a trackless part of the forest to check on several traps set for wild pigs (babi hutan). Didn’t get any, but we did learn how to make simple (but very effective!) animal traps. And on the way we got to sample some wild jungle fruits.

Another time we went out to an area where the family grows its rice and vegetables to see the harvest in process. (It was a nice followup to our trip back in October to help with rice planting at Tewang Rangkang.) Karen gave them some assistance (and much amusement) when she helped out with the harvesting (“Actually this is much harder than it looks!”)

We spent a couple of hours with a gentle man who wanted to show and explain his prized collection of Dayak weaponry, including a spectacular mandau (sabre) and various spears and a blowpipe and poison dart container. The mandau was particularly interesting. The various objects that hang off it give the wearer special powers and protections (including, handily, making you invisible to your enemies). There are bear claws, an orang-utan tooth, babi hutan tusks, a snake jaw, a jar of magical oil from his grandfather, and two tufts of human hair, apparently obtained during the Sampit ‘disturbances’ in February 2001, during which at least 500 Madurese were killed.

One day was spent going by canoe (klotok) for two hours up the Kalang River past the last village of Jembatan Kalang as far as can be navigated to the cascades at Maraku. There our crew (Rodi and Obi) used a net to catch some little fish which we barbecued for lunch, and then we cooled down under the waters of the cascade. There is some real Jurassic Park forest on the way up there, and we saw proboscis monkeys and hornbills in the trees above us. In other places however it is a landscape being badly scarred by the illegal gold dredging that continues unabated along all of these rivers.

On the way back we hit one rock too many in one of the rapids, and our klotok cracked all the way down one side and immediately started taking in lots of water. It only took Rodi and Obi about 20 minutes to effect repairs, using scavenged timber, plastic bags and bits of discarded clothing, a hammer and some recycled nails. We had to bail out a  few times, but they got us (and our cameras!) home safe and dry.

Back at the betang, Karen bonded with Lery’s one-year-old niece. Her family really liked seeing the two them smile at each other. The baby is to be christened next month. And the name that has been chosen for her? “Karen Meilin”. That’s good – the world needs more Karens.

Betang Tumbang Manggu

We were delighted when Sally came to visit last month. The three of us (plus our guide Indra and driver Pak Wondo) headed off on a three-day trip to the Dayak village of Tumbang Manggu, about four hours drive to the north-west of here, along the Katingan River.


The first hour’s travel is along the Trans-Kalimantan Highway (TKH), a mostly decent road built (in part, at least) by Russia in the late 1950’s. In return for their generosity, the Russians were given rights to all the forest for a kilometre on either side of the road. They clear-felled it, swamps and all, and much of it is now given over to oil palm plantations. (The guy in the photo above was moving at a fair clip, and making a lot of noise as the timber planks dragged along the road behind him).


A big proportion of the oil palms are cultivated by small-holders, who sell the fruit on to middle-men with trucks who take it to the processing plants around Sampit about two hours drive west of here. Most of the growers (like this guy, who had moved here from Flores to ‘make his fortune’ growing oil palms) seem to be pretty poor.


We stopped at a pineapple plantation along the TKH, and ate (and bought) some very fresh fruit from the friendly owners. They grow three varieties of pineapple here, with the sweetest and juiciest being the smallish nanas madu  (honey pineapples). In the plantation there were a few really weird mutant fruit like the one above.


As we left the TKH and headed north alongside the Katingan River, houses in the villages were mostly pretty basic, and rarely more than a single storey high. But in amongst the houses were peculiar multi-storey structures like the one above. These are built to house ‘swallows’ (actually swiftlets) for the edible birds nest industry. The nests used to be collected from limestone caves in Borneo, but over the last 20 years or so a huge industry has developed here and in Sumatra to harvest nests from these purpose-built high-rise birdhouses. They play recordings of birdcalls at high volume to attract the swiftlets to enter and build a nest, and 35 days later you’ve got a nest which can be removed, dried and sold to the Chinese, who believe (according to Wikipedia) that eating the nests confers benefits such as: “aiding digestion, raising libido, improving the voice, alleviating asthma, improving focus, and an overall benefit to the immune system”. Apparently they retail in China for around $2,500 per kilo…

Betang Tumban Manggu panorama

Eventually we crossed the Katingan on a two-vehicle ferry and arrived at the village of Tumbang Manggu, where we stayed two nights in the longhouse. The longhouse was built only recently by Bapak Syaer Sua, who wants it to be a centre for Dayak culture. It’s a massive, solid building, made from the traditional (and now rare and hugely expensive) ulin timber (‘Kalimantan ironwood’, Eusideroxylon zwageri). This wonderful timber is incredibly hard, smooth grained, lemon-scented, strongly resistant to weathering, water damage, termites and fungal attack. The catch: it’s hard to propagate, and VERY slow growing, with mature trees being many hundreds of years old. It’s now formally classed as a ”Vulnerable’ species.


The traditional betang (longhouse) is now very rare. It stands tall on high timber foundations, with only one or two steep narrow stairways for entry – even for longhouses that were the length of a football field. It’s a great place to play.


Inside it’s cool and nicely lit from the side windows. The walls are lined with gongs and drums, tanggui (Dayak hats) and tombak (spears), (carved wooden) deer heads, and framed photographs of family members, and local and national politicians. Along one of the long side walls are a series of closed-off areas for sleeping.


Ibu Emitha (Syaer Sua’ wife) (at left in the photo above) is a great host, with a livewire personality and a big laugh. In her ‘spare’ time she embroiders large ceremonial banners adorned with Dayak motifs.


Christianity and traditional Dayak Kaharingan religion sit side-by-side in most villages of Central Kalimantan. Around Tumbang Manggu there are a number of sandung bone-vaults like the one above, adorned with effigies of the deceased and various spirit protectors.


Carved ulin posts (sapundu) are usually found near to a sandung. When the tiwah funeral ceremonies are in progress, the buffalo or cattle to be sacrificed are tethered up to the sapundu. At other times the posts, which can be 5m or more high, just stand around looking mysterious and powerful, often half-concealed amongst vegetation at the back of homes.


The sapundu at above left incorporates three of powerful Dayak symbols: the balanga (Chinese jar), gong, and burung enggang (hornbill bird). And the symbolism of the crocodile at right? No idea…


The Indonesian Presidential election was held on the 9th July last year, but there are still a lot of banners and other promotional material around. And lots of people (mostly poorer people) wearing tee shirts promoting the candidates. There must have been millions of them distributed during the campaign. Interestingly, hardly anyone seems to be wearing tee shirts for Prabowo Subianto (the loser).


The main industry of Tumbang Manggu is logging. The logging company – PT Dwima – is (apparently) one of the better ones, although much of the country around the village appears to have been clear-felled. There is some preliminary milling done in town, and massive rafts of felled timber are assembled on the river and floated away to the big mills downstream. The company is the biggest employer in town and puts a heap of money into local schools etc.

We were taken out to a protected bit of forest on the three hills collectively named Bukit Bala, and climbed to the top through beautiful (but still mostly secondary) forest.


We were guided by a bloke from PT Dwima, who showed us wonders like the thick woody vine that releases massive amounts of lovely fresh drinking water when cut open, flowering tree trunks and huge fungi.


On the edge of the forest we came upon a huge convention of different species of butterflies all swarming around a patch of earth. They were  quite stunning, and we were only slightly put off when told it was a indication that someone had recently urinated at that spot!


The forestry roads are windy, steep and muddy in places. The logging trucks have absolute right of way, and they hurtle along, cutting across to the inside of every corner that they navigate along the road. Consequently there are arrow signs all the way telling other drivers which side of the road they must drive on. The sides can change frequently, pretty much with every bend that you drive around, so it’s important to pay attention!


On our second night in the longhouse a Dayak dance and music performance was staged for us. The dancers, and most of the musicians, were teenagers from the local high school, and they were led and trained by teachers from that school. And they were remarkably good, and the boy who was the chief dancer was truly scary as he slashed around with that big mandau bush knife.


On our last morning we accepted an invitation to visit the high school and meet with teachers and students. It was recess when we arrived, and the headmaster made an announcement over the PA that we would be visiting two specific classes. There were immediate loud cheers across the playground, and the students of those two class raced back into their classrooms. We talked to them for a while in our clumsy Bahasa Indonesia, and our even clumsier Bahasa Dayak. In fact, “Selamat hanjewu! Narai kabar?” (“Good morning. How are you?”) is about the extent of it. But they seemed to enjoy it, especially when Sally and Karen got the kids to stand and do a one-legged yoga pose!


The ‘traditional’ institution of marriage is very much alive and well in Indonesia. Wedding receptions are big happy noisy colourful affairs with crowds and amplified music spilling out onto the street, so it’s impossible to miss them. When we were returning to Palangkaraya from Banjarmasin recently (a four hour drive, much of it through sparsely inhabited swamplands) we passed ten wedding celebrations along the way.



The laws about marriage in Indonesia are interesting. Everyone in Indonesia must be registered as belonging to one of the six authorised religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism or Confucianism. This gets recorded on your national identity card – and agnosticism or atheism are not accepted. There is a prohibition on interfaith marriages; if a Muslim and a Catholic want to marry, for example, one has to convert to the other’s faith.


The national law is that the minimum age for marriage is 16 for girls and 19 for boys, but this is often ignored. UNICEF has estimated that 3% of Indonesian girls are already married by the age of 15. By law, anyone getting married at 19 or under is required to have written permission from both sets of parents. Having children outside of marriage is not acceptable. In Bali for example, neither mother nor child will be permitted to enter a temple – a significant sanction there!


There are three parts to a wedding: the religious ceremony, the official registration, and the celebration or reception. It seems that the social conventions are sort-of the reverse of those in Australia i.e. the ceremony is a small private affair, and the reception is open to just about anyone who shows up.


We have now been to six Indonesian wedding receptions, though we only had an invitations to two of them (and in only one case – Katie and Yoyok’s wedding back in 2009 – did we actually know the bride and groom!) Three were Javanese Muslim, one Banjar Muslim, and two Dayak Christian.


But at every wedding we have been made to feel like honoured guests – and not at all like the freeloaders that we actually are! In fact at a couple of weddings we have felt like celebrities, and wondered if we were getting photographed more often than the bride and groom!


Styles of clothing, food and entertainment vary, but they always have a similar structure. The reception may go on all day (or one case, all night!), and the guests come, pay their respects to the couple and their families, leave a gift of money, eat a meal, and then leave. People are coming and going all day, some only staying for a matter of minutes.


Outside, there may be specially made billboards, festooned with flowers, from well-to-do well-wishers. When you enter, your are greeted by numerous members of both families. They’ll be lined up in two rows, maybe 20 of them, and you run the gauntlet between them to get in. You are expected to shake hands with EVERYBODY, touching your right hand to your heart after each greeting.


You sign the guest register, and make sure everyone sees you deposit an envelope of cash into the gift box. Wedding presents are unusual, but a gift of cash, no matter how small, is expected. This helps to defray the significant costs of hosting a wedding.


The bride and groom sit enthroned on a dais or stage at one end go the hall or pavilion, possibly with their parents on either side of them. They will be dressed either in traditional wedding costumes – or in western-style white wedding attire. They may go through a couple of changes of clothing during the day.


Before any socialising or eating, you go up and congratulate the happy couple, and usually get photographed with them. There may be a queue waiting to pay their respects; at one particularly large wedding, there were hundreds of people lined up at one point waiting their turn.


Then it’s down to the serious business of eating. Because there is no set time for the wedding banquet, there are meals lined up ready to eat throughout the day. Good food – and plenty of it.


The entertainment will vary. There may be Dayak dancers and music. At a Javanese wedding there may be a wayang kulit (shadow puppet) or kuda lumping. Or else, for something more contemporary, that perennial Indonesia favourite: karaoke!


A little socialising, a few photographs – and then you leave. The well-known Indonesian expression: “Sudah makan, pulang” (After eating, go home!) applies here. So you run the greeting gauntlet in reverse, shaking hands with and thanking all of the family members on the way out.

Tiwah ceremony

Just two days after our November visit to Tewang Rangkang to help with the communal Dayak rice planting, our friend Lelie’s grandmother (Nenek) passed away at her home in the village, after suffering a stroke. The family decided to hold the full Tiwah funeral ceremony immediately, rather than waiting (often up to a year or more) as is usual in other places. We were honoured by being invited to attend, given food and accommodation for the three days that we were there, encouraged to participate in all ceremonies, to ask questions and to make lots of photos.

I put off writing about it because it was pretty intense, hard to try to summarise in a few words and photos (and I have exactly 999 photos to choose from). It was also – as well as a ceremony, a performance, and a party – a time of grief for a family that has been very kind to us, so I wanted to be sure they were OK with the text before sending. And, with the ritual slaughter of a buffalo, two cows, four pigs and a number of chickens, some of the details are …  a little grisly. So, rather than try to string together a narrative, here’s some selected pictures and a few words which try to explain them. (And I haven’t included the more disturbing pictures.)


The traditional religion of all the Dayak peoples is known as Kaharingan, though practices and beliefs vary across different groups and regions of Borneo. Officially, it’s called ‘Hindu Kaharingan’, because everyone in Indonesia must register as belonging to one of the government-recognised religions (Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Protestant, Catholic, Confucian). But apart from the name there’s not a lot that’s recognisably Hindu about it. It has more in common with the pre-Hindu and pre-Islamic beliefs of much of the rest of Indonesia.

It’s an animist faith, with a strong belief that the spirits of the dead need practical assistance to make the journey from earth to heaven, where they will live with their family members in ’the Prosperous Village’. The hugely complicated (and hugely expensive) ceremonies of the Tiwah are intended to help the soul on that journey, and supply them with food and supplies so they will be comfortable when they arrive. Officiating over the proceedings is a Basir (Babak, at the right of the picture above), a shaman who is an expert in the rituals of Kaharingan.


Nenek’s house is quite traditional in design and fitout. No chairs, tables or beds, but with a full set of gongs (five large, four small) and drums for performance of ritual music. The gongs played almost non-stop while we were there, day and night. The performers (all male) would change over regularly, with just about everyone, young and old (yes, even me) having a turn. It was strangely hypnotic and soothing in a clanging techno-rhythm kind of way, and the music is still bouncing around my head.


We were invited to become honorary members of the family for the duration of the ceremonies (and for the following week), a select group amongst the 250 or so people at the Tiwah. That required a short ritual with the Basir (and Lelie beside us), and a red band of fabric with a coin inside tied around the right wrist (“Don’t take it off until 4pm next Saturday!”)  It also meant that were expected to participate in all the ceremonies (including, we were surprised to find out later, the ritual spearing of the buffalo and cattle prior to their slaughter).


Two large wooden posts (sapundu) were erected in the yard. One unfortunate black chook was carefully placed at the bottom of the hole before the heavy ironwood post was dropped into place. Fresh-cut logs were lashed together with rattan to make a holding pen for the pigs, which were (yes) ‘hog-tied’, and several chickens were tied up outside. None seemed to be particularly pleased with the arrangements.

The cow and the (very expensive) buffalo (kerbau) were yoked to the poles, each held by a heavy collar made out of rattan. They were tied up there overnight, and given nice food, kind words, massages and offered prayers.


The family members (plus the basir and us) assembled on a number of occasions in a circle around the sapundu. With the gongs playing loudly, we would proceed, facing in towards the centre, repeating the same set of actions. It was my kind of dance: very simple.  You raise both hands over the head, lower the arms with palms facing downwards, then make a sort of sideways pelvic thrust motion, then take a long step to the right. Repeat for 20-30 minutes, with periodic pauses for two low chants and a loud falsetto ‘whoop’!


At one point in the circle, you stop for three women to attend to you; one puts an oily drop on your neck, chin and forehead, another sprinkles some coconut water and rice grains on the top of your head, and the third rubs two knives together over your head before putting one into your mouth (blunt side!) for you to bite on. You go through this routine many times, and end up with a lot of rice in your hair!


And then next morning the cow and buffalo were speared (on the left side only) by each member of the family in turn. Although it is an honour to be invited, we decided not to participate. When each poor beast collapsed, after 30 minutes or so, it was tied up and dispatched with a large knife.


Suffice it to say, there was a lot of blood. Sacrificial blood is considered to have great power and to have a very purifying effect, so a number of people were keen to collect it or to bathe their feet, hands or faces in it.


The complex logistics of keeping all 200+ attendees fed and comfortable over the days of ceremony must have been challenging, but as always seems to occur here, everyone just pitches in and divides up the work amongst themselves without any obvious project management. And meals kept being prepared and served up. In this photo our friend Lelie is doling out plates of fresh (VERY fresh) beef stewed in coconut milk.


There was rather a lot of tuak and baram (homemade rice wine) consumed during the ceremonies. Actually, a great deal of tuak. The tuak was carried around in a number of containers: kettles, tubs, and even this ‘Hello Kitty’ jug. But there were only a couple of glasses, which were refilled and passed around more-or-less continuously.


For some reason I was a very effective magnet for the intoxicated, and got befriended by a number of amiable and largely incomprehensible blokes. But there was never any hint of any anti-social behaviour.

The fellow on the left above was closely involved in the business of sacrifice (as his face and hand attest), and the other guy is a keen handphone photographer. They were both sometimes quite intense.


Nenek’s coffin remained in a room of her home until the third day we were there. During that time, she was brought meals and drinks of water and coffee, even sirih (betel), which were placed beside her a she lay in state. After the coffin was finally closed and carefully brought outside on the shoulders of family members, Berry (one of the grandchildren) was chosen to be hoisted up to walk the length of it and jump off the end (three times!) This signifies everyone ‘letting go’ of their attachments to the one who has died.


In a small clearing in the forest stands a little wooden ‘house’ (sandung), erected four years earlier to hold the coffin and remains of Nenek’s husband. Before Nenek joined him inside, a small ceremony outside prepared all the material objects that were to accompany her on the journey to ‘the Prosperous Village’ i.e. heaven. There was a little bag of her clothing, baskets and small household items, snacks and two glasses each of coffee, rice wine and water (one for her, one for her husband). Her other clothing and linen was piled up and burnt nearby, so that her spirit wouldn’t be tempted to come back home. The sacrificed animals would have already joined her in the spirit world.


The climax of the Tiwah ceremonies was over, but the ceremonies continued for at least another week (that we know about). Meanwhile there was still plenty of tuak and baram to share around.

The whole Tiwah process is really expensive and, like in Bali, it’s common for families to co-host Tiwah for a number of the recently deceased, so as to share the funeral costs. It’s also becoming less common as so many Kaharingan Dayak people have converted to Islam or (more usually) to Christianity. Interestingly, however, a lot of the converts will still hold or participate in Tiwah ceremonies, saying that it reflects their Dayak identity and tradition (adat), and is no longer a matter of religion (agama).