Tag Archives: Kaharingan

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.

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.

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.

Tiwah Tewang Rangas

The Dayak Tiwah ceremony that we attended back in last November was one of the most astonishing and powerful things that we have experienced in Kalimantan. So when we heard that another, much larger Tiwah Massal was to be held in the nearby Katingan River village of Tewang Rangas, we were determined to get there. Fortunately our dear and very knowledgeable Dayak friend Lelie was able to accompany us, and we were able to stay at the family home of Pak Damelson, who is one of Karen’s workmates at the Museum Balanga in Palangkaraya.

The Tiwah is a secondary funeral, sometimes held many years after death, which aims to help the soul of the deceased on its journey through the afterlife to ‘the Prosperous Village’ i.e. Heaven. ‘Good’ spirits, and the spirits of the ancestors, are invited down to the village to help in this task, and also to help protect the village from other, malign spirits that might be around.


The Tiwah ceremony is a big, complex and expensive affair, and it is increasingly common for a mass Tiwah to be held for a number of the recently (or not-so-recently) deceased. The Tiwah at Tewang Rangas village was large indeed, and was for some 57 people who had died between the years of 1945 and 2013. The government of the local district (the Kabupaten of Katingan) helped to fund the event, which involved ceremonies over a period of about six weeks. We attended for the main days, when the big ceremonies are held, a large number of animal sacrifices are made, and the remains of the deceased are reinterred in specially built wooden crypts (known as sandung, or pambak).


In the central square of the village, a number of kayu ulin (Ironwood) posts are erected, each with a carved and painted representation of one of the departed. A large circle of people move in a slow anti-clockwise dance around these sapundu, raising their arms and inviting the spirits, with every sideways step, to descend.


In the Dayak Ngaju Kaharingan religion, there are no priests as such, but the ceremonial proceedings are led and presided over by one of more basir – specialists in the complex and precise details of correct ritual procedure. The basir must have the gift of being able to communicate directly with the spirit world, and be adept in the ancient Sangiang language, which is the language of the Kaharingan spirit world, and is used for recitation of lengthy prayers.

At Tewang Rangas there were no less than seven basir (known locally along the Katingan River as ‘pisur’’). Chief amongst these was Babak (above), who comes from the nearby village of Tewang Rangkang, and was in fact the basir at the Tiwah we attended there. He was very busy throughout the Tiwah.


Three bukung characters were also busy throughout the days we were there. The role of these masked and costumed figures is to protect the village and participants in the ceremonies from any ‘malevolent’ spirits who might try to attend. They wander around more or less continuously clacking together poles of split bamboo, to scare them off. They also manage to terrorise small children around the village. Apparently the identity of the individuals inside the bukung costumes is a secret, and they are not even allowed to return home to sleep at night in case their human identities are revealed.


Over the two main days of the Tiwah, a large number of buffalo, cattle, pigs and chickens were sacrificed. The pigs (on the second morning alone there were some 17 slaughtered) are despatched to the afterlife very quickly and relatively humanely, with a single carefully aimed blow of the mandau (the short sword/bush knife universally worn by Dayak men) to the heart. In just a few seconds, it is over.


For the buffalo and cattle, the process is neither quick nor painless. Each beast is tethered to one of the sapundu, via a very strong rope and yoke of rattan cane. Selected family members have the ‘honour’ of taking turns to spear the animal (always on its right side). When the poor creature can no longer stand, it is then quickly finished off with a large knife. This last step is performed by a Muslim villager in proper halal manner, so that the meat can subsequently be shared with the Muslim members of the community. Ever practical and communal.




For the Kaharingan participants, the blood of sacrificed animals is considered to be pure and cleansing. It is collected and used in other offerings and in subsequent rituals. A drop is placed on the chest, neck, chin and forehead of participants. Mothers dip their infants’ feet in blood to give them strength and good fortune for years to come.


On the day before we arrived, the bones of the deceased had been removed from the graves where they had laid since burial. These were cleaned, wrapped in fine cloth and placed into coffins. These were all laid out in state on a large covered platform, where they stayed for two days until all the dances, prayers, sacrifices and offerings had been completed. One or more family members maintained a vigil beside each of them, day and night.


For one important ritual, one of the pisur sits in the doorway of the main ceremonial building, and begins a long prayer in the Sangiang language. At regular intervals he throws rice from a bowl placed in front of him. This invites and encourages the good spirits to come to the Tiwah. He seems oblivious to all around him, and you have to be careful to avoid getting showered with rice as you enter or exit the building.


As darkness comes, the bukung look even more otherworldly. Rice wine (baram) and beer having been freely consumed for some hours, the action on the street can get a bit ‘messy’. Nothing aggressive, in fact everyone was very good-humoured indeed – just a number of intoxicated people…


Next day, after all the preparations and sacrifices have been completed, rattan mats are spread in a large shaded pavilion, and a huge array of offerings and ceremonial objects are laid out. Babak and another basir conduct the prayers, and each of the offerings is bathed in smoke, touched by the mandau of the basir, and raised up into the air three times.


After the completion of the prayers, there is a long procession of family members carrying the coffins about 500 metres to the location of the newly constructed sandung crypts.


Each of the coffins is lined up outside the appropriate sandung, each covered with a batik cloth. Only the bones of blood relatives can be placed in the family sandung, as it is considered possible that anyone else (including spouses) could later turn out to have actually been evil spirits which had taken human form.


A gong orchestra is playing, there is much more baram  and beer consumed, and there are a range of strong emotions amongst the substantial crowd. There are people looking contemplative, there is hilarity, there is mourning, yahooing and singing. Family photographs are being taken everywhere – as well as photos with the four bules (foreign visitors) who were in the village.

And one by one, each of the coffins is passed through a little doorway into the sandung, and placed in its final resting place, ending a journey which for some of the deceased had taken 70 years since they passed away.


The woman above appeared to be hysterical, and I was told that the spirit of one of the deceased had entered and taken possession of her. After flailing around for a bit, she grabbed both of my hands while I said some inane soothing things to her. She did actually calm down, and proceeded to thank me profusely, before collapsing exhausted. The (blurry) woman on the left of the photo was concerned that the spirit might have transferred to me.


The friendliness and hospitality of the people of Tewang Rangas was amazing. We were welcomed and encouraged to witness – or participate in – all of the important parts of the ceremonies. We were invited into people’s homes and given several meals (which, not surprisingly, featured lots of buffalo meat, beef and pork!) They were as curious about us as we about them, and we literally lost count of the number of times we posed for photographs.


More photos from the Tewang Rangas Tiwah can be viewed on my website.

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).