Tag Archives: Tewang Rangas

36 Views of Kalimantan (Part 1)

Here’s a somewhat random selection of my photos of Kalimantan, taken from 2014 – 2017. Loosely (very loosely indeed!) inspired by Hokusai’s landscape prints from 1830-32. In fact, his main inspiration, apart from the title, was that he was already in his 70’s when he produced that series – and at the peak of his talent and fame.

I’ve mostly excluded wildlife images from the selection. I might make a separate selection at a later time for them. Hope you like some of them – please comment!

36 Views of Kalimantan is published here in three parts. Click on these links to view Part 2 or Part 3.

Tangkiling 19-Feb-2015 (1/36)


Tewang Rangkang 2-Apr-2016 (2/36)


Tewang Rangas, Central Kalimantan (Bukung Tiwah) 8-Aug-2015 (3/36)


Lake Sembuluh 17-Mar-2016 (4/36)


Tewang Rangkang (Manugal) 1-Nov-2015 (5/36)


Sebangau 6-May-2016 (6/36)


Tanjung Puting 3-Sep-2017 (7/36)


Banjarmasin 13-Sep-2015 (8/36)


Tumbang Gagu 19-Mar-2015 (9/36)


Danau Sentarum 4-Apr-2015 (10/36)


Pontianak (Masjid Raya Mujahidin) 28-Mar-2015 (11/36)


Tumbang Malahoi 15-Apr-2016 (12/36)


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 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.