Tag Archives: Kahayan

Kuala Kurun tiwah

Last month we made a very interesting 10 day journey up-river from here, into the district (kabupaten) of Gunung Mas (literally, ‘Gold Mountain’). We wanted to visit three famous betang (longhouses) – at Tumbang Korik, Tumbang Anoi, and Tumbang Malahoi. We wanted to see how much primary Borneo forest can still be found up around the headwaters of the Kahayan and Rungan rivers, close to the ‘heart of Borneo’ (The short answer? Much less than we’d hoped for).

But first, we wanted to attend another Dayak Tiwah funeral ceremony at Kuala Kurun (the capital of Gunung Mas), the key days of which coincided with our visit.


Every Tiwah we’ve attended (this was our fifth so far) has had the same basic purpose. That is, to send the souls of one or more deceased people on their journey through the Upper World to the ‘Prosperous Village’ of Lewu Tatau, and to help them on that journey. Many of the complex ritual practices, derived from the Kaharingan religion, have been (almost) the same in each Tiwah.  However, in other ways each Tiwah has been different, with special and unique features.

In Kuala Kurun the really outstanding features were the bukung figures (like the one in the above photo) and the Laluhan – arrival of visitors from the village of Petak Bahandang on board a massive bamboo raft. I’ve written about the bukung  previously.


We arrived just as the central area of the Tiwah was being prepared. The sankaraya, with its bamboo poles, brightly coloured flags above and offerings below, was erected. Two large sapundu had been carved from kayu ulin (Borneo ironwood) and painted. Each was carried in on the shoulders of a group of men, who then placed it in a hole and secured it upright. It needs to be secure, as this is where the buffalo are tethered and sacrificed.


This Tiwah was a ‘secondary funeral’ for six people who had passed away during recent years. Their remains were exhumed from their graves, the bones cleaned, then re-interred in family ossuaries, known as sandung. Each wooden sandung may contain the bones of a number of related family members, sometimes spanning a number of generations. But at this Tiwah, at least one of the sandung was new, so new in fact that it was still being carved and constructed during the Tiwah.

In the photo above, the framework of the sandung can be seen behind the craftsman, who is carving Dayak motifs into one of the side panels. He first draws the designs onto a sheet of paper, then cuts out the template and traces the design onto the timber before carving.


He was also finishing work on carved human figures, animals and objects that would adorn the supporting pillars of the sandung. All are constructed of kayu ulin, timber of the Borneo ironwood tree, which has spiritual power for the Dayaks, as well as practical attributes of being resistant to weather, insects and fungi, hard and strong, and with fine even grain much favoured by sculptors and carpenters. Unfortunately it’s also very slow-growing and has nearly disappeared from the forests of Kalimantan.


As a large and important Tiwah, there were no less than seven basir in attendance. These men (and they are always men) are experts in the complex rituals of the Kaharingan religion, its prayers and chants, all conducted in the sacred Sangiang language, which is only ever used during Kaharingan ceremonies.

Each of the basir accompanies his singing/chanting/praying by playing a special little drum (katambung). Each sits with his feet placed on a gong. Their ‘songs’ (prayers?)  have a slightly hypnotic repetitious structure, and are mostly fast paced, and pleasingly melodic. The basir seated in the middle would lead off with a verse – the precise melody of which would vary according to the number of syllables in it – and the three other basir on each side would respond with the chorus in unison. Some songs contained dozens of ‘verses’.


The katambung are themselves quite beautifully made and engraved. Like the bronze gong, they are imbued with spiritual power for the adherents of the Kaharingan faith. (At another time I’ll write about a visit we made to a gong foundry/workshop).


In front of the basir are placed many offerings to delight the spirits and entice them to descend to the Tiwah. Amongst the offerings above are hornbill feathers, uncooked rice, cigarettes, money, bowls with blood of sacrificed animals (chickens, pigs, cows and buffalo), rice wine (baram), flower petals, and sirih – consisting of betel leaf, areca nut and slaked lime (calcium hydroxide).

The case of Bintang beer in the background is not there for the spirits to consume.


Outside, two buffalo were tethered to the sapundu with a halter and rope made of rattan. The animals’ horns and tails were decorated with ribbons and coloured fibres, and they were given plenty of tasty fodder and water. Their spirits need to be in good shape so that they can accompany the souls of the deceased humans on their journey to the ‘Prosperous village’ of heaven. But we imagined that the poor beasts were somehow aware of the fate that awaited them the next morning.


As always at a Tiwah, almost everyone joined in the Ngangjun (called the Manganjan on the Katingan River), a sort-of-a dance where a circle of people proceed anti-clockwise around the sankaraya, and the sapundu where the buffalo stands. They move slowly to the sound of the gongs, raising and lowering their arms as one, then taking one step to the left and repeating. In the night, with just a few sources of illumination, it was quite beautiful.


The next day was Tabuh 1, the biggest day of the Tiwah, beginning shortly after dawn with the Laluhan – the arrival of guests from the downstream village of Petak Bahandang.  These villagers came with gifts of food, money, rice wine etc, in response and gratitude for similar assistance provided to them several years earlier during a Tiwah of their own.

Dozens of them arrived on board a large bamboo rakit raft constructed specially for the occasion, brightly adorned with flags attached to long bamboo poles. The whole thing was towed up-river by two klotok (motor-powered longboats). Bukung figures buzzed around the rakit on other klotoks, and the whole procession did three circuits up and down the river before coming in to the docking platform.


On the floating dock, basir and senior community leaders waited to greet the arrivals. In the middle stands Pak Bajik Simpei, who turns out be the father of Yoppie, one of Karen’s workmates at the Museum Balanga in Palangkaraya. They stood armed with mandau sabres, spears … and handphones and video cameras.


As the rakit pulled in to the floating dock, there was loud gong music, and firework rockets sounded almost continuously. Buckets and hoses were used to spray people on both sides, and volleys of straight branches (of kayu suli) were thrown, spear-like, towards the people on the raft. It was a mock battle – but conducted with great good humour (and without injury.)


The whole crowd then surged up the narrow laneways to the place where the Tiwah was being conducted. (Can you spot Karen?)


At the Tiwah grounds, there was a gate with a log (pantar) across it to prevent their entry. They were questioned about their purpose in coming to Kuala Kurun, and their leaders spoke (eloquently, it would appear) about their gratitude for the help provided to them during their own Tiwah, and their earnest desire to reciprocate. The speeches were clearly warm and heartfelt on both sides, and there were some tears.

They were allowed to chop through the barrier log with a mandau, and all entered, accompanied by much consumption of baram rice wine – and shot glasses of spirits (Johnny Walker!)


Inside the Tiwah grounds, everyone (the two bule foreigners included) received a liberal pasting of talcum powder to their cheeks. We are not sure of the purpose of this (which has occurred at other Tiwah also), but it does look rather fetching don’t you think?


Then the crowd gathered, handphones at the ready, for the sacrificial spearing of the buffalo (kerbau). We stood on the back of a 4WD utility belonging to the Bupati (the ‘regent’ of Gunung Mas district) to get a better look at the throng.


The actual killing of the kerbau (as well as a number of pigs and chickens) was done mercifully quickly.


Bowls of fresh blood were added to the other offerings. Blood of sacrificed animals is regarded as cleansing and a symbol of life-force and strength.

The urn on the right of the photo above is a balanga. These jars are highly valued, and may be passed down through generations as family heirlooms. Some balanga are regarded as possessing great spiritual power, and may even be dangerous. Most were originally made in China or Vietnam (though in later years they have also been made by Chinese pottery businesses in northwest Borneo). They were traded repeatedly, and can be found in some of the most remote villages in the very heart of the island of Borneo. Dayak people may be unaware of their Chinese origin, and consider them to be ‘divine jars’.


The songs and prayers of the seven basir resumed, with a special session to thank bestow blessings onto the visitors from Petak Bahandang village.


The mood was warm, friendly and celebratory, as it was throughout the parts of the Tiwah that we witnessed (the full ceremonies went on over a period of three months!) Liberal distribution of baram and Bintang beer (as above) probably helped.

A Dayak funeral is not an occasion for grief and mourning; this is partly because the Tiwah may occur months (or even many years) after the actual death, but also because the spirit of the deceased may not want to leave the village on its journey to the Prosperous Village of Dayak heaven if it sees family members unhappy.


The Tiwah ceremonies continued over subsequent days, but we headed off by 4WD and klotok canoe to the villages up near the headwaters of the Kahayan River. But those stories can wait for another time…

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.