Tag Archives: Isen Mulang

Isen Mulang – Jukung Hias

Last year I wrote (here and here)  about the wonderful Dayak cultural festival that’s held every year (mid-May) in Palangka Raya – the capital of this Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan. The festival is known as Isen Mulang – which translates from the Dayak Ngaju language as ‘Never retreat’, or ‘Never surrender’. (Isen Mulang is also the motto of the province).


There are dozens of events held over the days of Isen Mulang – from dance and music competitions to traditional cooking, woodchopping, fishing (by hand!), blowpipe target shooting, and a massive Mardi Gras-style parade through central Palangka.

This year we were again amazed at the near-total absence of foreign tourists. Apart from around 10 expats (including us), there were literally 10 other foreigners that we could see – almost all part of a tour group led by David Metcalf. Meanwhile almost 4 million tourists visit Bali each year Yes, Bali is lovely! But the difference in visitation numbers is unfathomable.

One of the highlights again this year was the procession of brightly decorated ‘dragon boats’ (actually known as Jukung Hias, meaning ‘decorated boats’) along the Kahayan River, through the centre of the city.


As with almost all of the events held during the week-long festivities of Isen Mulang, it’s actually a competition between the 14 districts (13 kabupaten and one kota) which make up the Province, with one vessel representing each district.


Points are awarded to each competing jukung according to the quality of its decoration, the performance of the traditionally attired warriors, dancers and musicians aboard each one.


The sight of all the brightly bedecked boats lined up down the river really was spectacular.


Points are also won for any special effects they might employ – such as fireworks or water spouts from the dragons’ mouths.


Competition is fierce, and the results are spectacular.


The performers seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the spectators. And they looked wonderful, all decked out in traditional Dayak costumes, with clothing made from bark (kulit pohon nyamu) and batik, headdresses made out of the beaks, casques and feathers of a hornbills and tail-feathers of the Great Argus (Argusianus argus).


Some of the performers appeared to be heavily tattooed wth traditional Dayak motifs, but the tattoos are (in almost every case) temporarily applied for the event, because few of the local Dayak people have extensive tattoo decorations as in the past. (In some other regions e.g. amongst the Dayak Iban of West Kalimantan, tattooing is more common).


We were fortunate to be out on the water as the flotilla arrived – on board one of the very comfortable vessels of Wow Borneo (as well as buzzing around amongst the jukung on a little kelotok longboat).

But along the banks of the river, a large  (by Palangka Raya standards) crowd was assembled to watch proceedings.


There were a number of other spectator vessels out on the river. The passengers on this one were all civil servants, wearing the special blue KORPRI (Korps Pegawai Republik Indonesia) batik uniform that may only be worn on the 17th of each month, and on special occasions such as this.


All of the best vantage points were chock-a-block full of spectators. As is often the case in Kalimantan, the spectators were as interesting as the spectacle.


Some opted for an aerial view of the show from the Kahayan River bridge.


Children found some creative ways to get a good view.


Others took a more relaxed approach to viewing proceedings.


Some were quite excited – particularly when they caught the attention of bule (white skinned foreigners).


While still others were out in the ‘back yard’ of their floating homes, practising their heavy metal hand gestures.


And others just got on with the serious business of skylarking.


The Isen Mulang Festival was once again a great experience, and if we get the opportunity we will certainly be back again next year!


Isen Mulang competitions

A while back I wrote about the wonderful parade that kicks off Central Kalimantan’s week-long Dayak cultural festival, known as Isen Mulang (“Never give up” in the Dayak Ngaju language). But, grand though it is, there is a lot more to Isen Mulang than just the opening parade. And much of Isen Mulang is quite unique.

Many of the events take the form of competitions between the 13 Kabupaten (districts) plus one Kota (city i.e. Palangkaraya) that make up the province of Central Kalimantan (Kalimantan Tengah, usually referred to as KalTeng). There are music and dance performances (traditional and contemporary), presentations of produce and cooking, and a number of ‘sporting’ events – but unlike the sports that we are accustomed to. For example, there is football – but played at night-time, barefoot, with a flaming coconut for a football (sepak sawut). There is a fishing contest, where the (female) competitors stand waist-deep in a small muddy dam and catch the fish – with their bare hands (mangaruhi).


And there is target shooting – with blow-pipes (sumpitan, or sepit). Hunting with the traditional blowpipe, with poison-tipped bamboo darts, used to be the preferred method for stalking game in the forests of Kalimantan. It is a stealthy and remarkably effective way to hunt, and those little darts can easily be propelled tens of metres (even reputedly up to 200 metres), with surprising accuracy.


But rifles (often home-made) are pretty good for hunting too. So nowadays the blowpipe is (mostly) employed for sport, shooting at archery targets rather than at deer, birds, pigs – or enemies.

The pipes are around 2 metres long, and very straight. Ideally they are made from kayu ulin (ironwood), but other timbers are also used. There’s a narrow (about 0.5cm) barrel running the length of the pipe. Each competitor has five darts, each about 20cm long, with a sharpened point at front end, and a little cone (to catch the ‘blow’) attached to at the tail end. With the dart inserted and your lungs full, you hold the pipe as steady as you can, slowly lowering the tip till the target lines up, and then… blow. You don’t even need to blow particularly hard to propel the dart with considerable speed.


Each district team of competitors was decked out in traditional clothing of their area – though sometimes traditions were re-interpreted a bit… There were vests made of bark, satin, velvet, cotton; elaborately beaded garments, and lots of the swirling amoeba-star shapes that are amongst the most common of Dayak motifs. Finished off, in most cases, with running shoes (this is after all a sporting event).

There were simultaneous competitions for men and women, with the women’s targets 10 metres from the firing line, and the men’s targets five metres more distant.


As the only foreigners in attendance, we got a lot of attention, and got some private coaching and practice in between the rounds of the competition. We managed to hit the target each time – and Karen scored better than me! It was fun… but you must always remember to take the deep breath BEFORE putting the loaded blowpipe up to your mouth.


The Lawang Sakepang is a stylised dance/fight between two ‘warriors’. They stand on either side of an archway, with magical strings suspended across the arch, adorned with flowers. They ‘fight’ without ever actually coming into contact with each other, mirroring each other’s movements, and the bout is complete when the string between them is broken, and they swap sides of the barrier.

In times past, the ritual of Lawang Sakepang was performed whenever a visitor sought entry to another village. He or she would have to prove their martial prowess before being admitted. Now it is performed as a competitive event between two-person teams, but we have also seen it performed when the groom arrived at the beginning of a Dayak Ngaju wedding ceremony in Palangkaraya.


The teams were clearly well trained, and their moves were thoroughly choreographed, because they were perfectly synchronised across the barrier that separated them. The audience gave them rapt attention, and loudly gasped and cheered whenever a particularly impressive move was made.


From combat to the kitchen: one of the buildings at the Museum Balanga (where Karen works) was given over to displays of produce and food preparation, featuring local ingredients and favourite foods of the Dayaks – from the forests, the rivers and the home gardens.


All was presented in elaborate displays which reminded us – although the actual ingredients were rather different – of displays and competitions at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney. Clipboard-wielding judges roamed around the hall, taking notes and asking questions of the chefs and ‘food stylists’ (all of whom were female).

We didn’t stay till the end of judging, so we don’t know the result, but I rather hope that the food-filled longboat above won first prize for its creativity.


Also a bit reminiscent of an agricultural show in Australia was the wood-chopping competition (maneweng). But the axemen had to use traditional handmade axes, which slowed them down considerably.


Chopping through the log is only the first part, after which another member of the team has to split the cut logs neatly, while a third member trims and stacks them into a pile to dry. All very interesting and practical, but it’s not really one of the great spectator sports…


But the spectators were there in droves (whatever ‘droves’ are) later that day down by the Kahayan River. For a couple of kilometres, on both sides of the river, it was standing room only.


We had the best vantage point, being guests (in fact the only guests!) on a luxury river cruiser (the Rahai’i Pangun). At first the river was quiet, just its usual muddy self, with the occasional klotok (canoe) passing by.

The fellow at the front of the klotok in the photo above is Putu, our friend and river guide. The Kahayan River bridge in the background is the only crossing for several hours travel upstream or downstream, and locals are very proud of it. The bridge, opened in 2002 by then-President Megawati Soekarnoputri, seems to feature in just about every tourism photograph of Palangkaraya.


And then, from under the bridge, they started to appear: Dragon Boats! The boats (actually known as jukung hias, or ‘ornamental boats’) are in competition too, with prizes for the best decorated boat, and for the boat with the best traditional costume, music and dance performances on board.


One by one they arrived and joined the procession on the river, each boat with its own complement of costumed crew.


As the dragon boats passed by, other vessels would lean over for a better look.


It was quite a spectacle when they all assembled!


On board each of the boats, dancers and musicians strutted, posed and danced to entertain the onlookers.


They seemed to be enjoying the occasion as much as we were. Note the Dayak motifs in the leg tattoos above, the bark vests, wild boar tusks and Hornbill casques worn by the male warriors, and the enormously long feathers of the Great Argus pheasant. (And yes, it’s an endangered species).


Some of the warriors looked quite fearsome. This fellow above made an excellent figurehead for his boat. Note the mandau (bush knife) clasped between his teeth, more (temporary) tattoos, and the Hornbill feathers in his headdress.


Some of the costumes were splendid enough for Mardi Gras. This headdress has feathers of both the Great Argus pheasant (the feathers with the many ‘eyes’)  and the Hornbill (the white ones with the black band)


After the excitement of the dragon boats, our own boat chugged up river. We anchored for the night, and slept at an isolated stretch of the river, with the (mostly tranquil but sometimes weird) sounds of the forest all around, and prepared to spend the next couple of days with a Japanese film crew, looking for orangutans. But that’s another story…

More photos from the Isen Mulang Festival can be viewed on my website.

Isen Mulang parade

No story this time, just some faces from the opening parade of the Isen Mulang Festival, which was held in Palangkaraya 18-24 May. The festival is an annual celebration of Central Kalimantan cultural diversity – but most particularly Dayak culture. Isen Mulang means ‘Never give up’ or ’Never retreat’ in the Dayak Ngaju language. It is the motto of the province of KalTeng (Central Kalimantan).

The festival program is chock-a-block with performances and competitions between the 13 kabupaten (districts) and one city that make up the province. Dragon boats, dance, music, blow-pipe target shooting, cooking, wood-chopping, night-time soccer using flaming coconuts – it’s diverse, a bit like a Royal Easter Show, even including sample bags from each district. The Festival has strong local support, but seems to be little known outside of Central Kalimantan. We attended many (but by no means all) of the events, and saw no more than perhaps a dozen foreign tourists during the entire week.

The Festival was opened by the Governor Agustin Teras Narang, signalling the start of a three hour parade around the Bundaran Besar (the ‘Big Roundabout!) which is the centre of Palangkaraya. And what a unique parade it was!