Thursday, November 1, 2012


In this post I’m going to share all readers about the Iban also known as the most popular Dayak community in Sarawak for their bravery as the headhunters in Borneo during the ruled of the White Rajah Sir James Brooke in the past 200 years ago, whose are still having their pagan religion and most of them are staying in the longhouse upriver far away from the town and need to be reach for many hours either by boat or by the land transport. It can’t be reach by plane as there have no air field in the nearby area.

The Iban have no special form of worship, nor do they build any temples in honour of their gods, and yet they certainly have a religion of their own. They believe in certain gods and spirits, who are supposed to rule over different departments of their life, and they have certain religious observances which may be classed as follows :
  1. The killing and eating of fowls and pig offered in sacrifice, of which a portion is set aside for their gods.
  2. The propitiation of gods and spirits by offering of food.
  3. The use of special omens and augury.
  4. The singing of long incantations called “Mengap”, “Renong”, “Pelian”, “Besudi”, “Bebayoh”, “Sabak Bebuah”, “Bebiau”, to communicate with the gods and the spirits on certain occasions.

The Iban have only one word to name their god that is “Petara”, to denote the deity, and there is no literature to appeal to in order to explain in detail about this word. The readers have to depend upon what the Iban can tell us themselves, and also upon what the readers can gather from the different “Pengap” that is a long incantations from “Mengap” made on such semi-sacred occasions as the offering of sacrifices at feasts. These “Mengap” are handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth and never been written alphabetically as its too long and only the “Lemambang” themselves can remember the long incantations to communicate with the god. Some Iban have a very good memories especially the “Lemambang” and the “Manang” which is their witch doctor and are able to learn and repeat the long incantations for about two days without any mistakes according to what they learned without any modern technology.

The general idea is that there are many “Petara”, but the whole subject is one upon which the Iban have very hazy ideas. They cannot give a connected and kucid account of their belief. They all admit, however that the “Petara” are supernatural beings, who are invisible and have superior powers.

But Their conception of gods is a very low one, and this is not to be wondered at because as it is well known the grosser the nature of a people, the grosser will be their conception of a denty or of deities. We can hardly expect a high and spiritual conception of gods from the Iban in their present intellectual condition. Their “Petara” are most human-like beings. They are represented as delighting in a “feast of rice, and pork, and venison, cakes and the rice wine,” just as the Iban themselves do, and yet they are the beings who can bestow the highest blessings the Iban can desire.

Although the conception of “Petara” is not an exalted one, yet he is a good being, and no evil is attributed to him. He is always on the side of justice and right. The ordeal of diving is an appeal to “Petara” to help the innocent and overthrow the guilty. He is supposed to be angry at acts of wickedness, and I have often heard an Iban say that he dare not commit some particular crime because he fears the displeasure and punishment of “Petara”. He may be able to hide his wickedness from the eyes of man, but not from the “Petara”.

There are a large number of gods mentioned by name in the Iban incantations but the following are the most important deities :
“Sengalang Burong” takes the highest position in honour and dignity and is thev ruler of the spirit world. He stands at the head of the Iban pedigree, and they trace their descent from him, for he is believed to have once lived on earth as a man. It is doubtful what the word “Sengalang Burong” means “the bird chief” . The Iban are great observers of omens as is noticed in their religion. And among their omens the cries and fight of certain birds are most important. All these birds are supposed to be manifestations of the spirit son-in-law of “Sengalang Burong” who is himself manifested in the white and brown hawk which is known by his name.

“Sengalang Burong” is also the god of war, and the guardian spirit of brave men. He delights in fighting, and the head taking is his glory. When the Iban have obtained a human head, they make a great feast in his honour and invoke his presence. He is the only god ever represented by the Iban in a material form. It is a carved, highly coloured bird of grotesque shape. This figure is erected on the top of a pole thirty feet or more in height, with its beak pointing in the direction of the enemy’s country, so that he may “peck at the eyes of the enemy.”

Next in importance to “Sengalang Burong” is “Sempulang Gana”. He is tutelary deity of the soil and presides over the rice farming. He is an important power in the Dayak Iban belief, and to him offering are made and incantations are sung at during the “Gawai Batu” which meant the “Stone Feast”, which take places before the farming operations of their paddy field in May begin, and also at during the “Gawai Benih”, the “Festival of the Seed”, just before the planting of the paddy. Upon his good-will, according to the Iban belief is supposed to depend their supply of the staff of life. His history is given in a myth handed down from ancient times according to the Iban legends history.

“Sempandai” is the maker of men. He hammers them into shape out of clay and forms the bodies of children to be born into the world. There is an insect which makes at night the curious noise “kink-a-clink, kink-a-klink”. When they hear this, they say it is “Sempandai” at his work. The story goes that he was commanded by the gods to make a man. And he made one of the stone but it could not speak, and so was rejected. He set to work again and made one of the iron, but neither could that speak, so the god refused it. Then the third time he made one of the clay, and this had the power of speech. The gods, “Petara” were pleased and said to him “The man you have made will do well. Let him be the ancestor of the human race and you must make others like him.”

And “Sempandai” began forming human beings, and is forming them now at his anvil, using his tools in unseen regions. There he hammers them out, and when each child is formed it is brought to the “Petara” who asks : “What would you like to handle and use ?” If it answer, “A sword,” the gods pronounced it a male; but if it answer, “Cotton and the spinning-wheel”, it is pronounced a female. Thus they are born as boys or girls, according to their own wishes. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground”. In this respect Iban tradition corresponds with the Biblical account.

There is a word which is often used by the Iban called “Mali” which means “Taboo”. It is difficult to find an exact English equivalent to the word. We may say it means “Sacred” or “Forbidden”, but none of these seems to be the right word to convey the full force of the word “Mali”. To the Iban mind, to do anything “Mali” is to incur the displeasure of the gods and spirits, and that means not only misfortune in this world but for all time. Even the children seem to dread the word and the little boy who is willful and disobedient will at once drop what he has in his head if he is told it is “Mali” for him to touch it or doing it. There are many things which they say it is “Mali” to do. Often they can give no reason for it except that it has always been so from ages past.

Most races of mankind believe in the existence of a class of beings intermediate between deity and humanity. The Iban is no exception, and he believes that innumerable spirits, or “Antu” which mean “Ghost” or “any bad spirit of an evil” inhabit the forest, the rivers, the earth, and the heavens: but whereas among other races the spirit seem to act as mediators between the gods and mankind, this is not the case among them, because they believe that their gods are actually present in answer to invocations and sacrifices, and that they visit those human regions and partake of the food given them. With them the distinction between spirits – antu – and gods – Petara – is very vague. There are both good and evil spirits. The former assist man, the latter do him injury. Of the gods no evil id predicated, and so it comes to pass that the good spirits are closely identified with their gods.

Any unusual noise or motion in the jungle, anything which suggest to the mind some invisible operation, is at once attributed by them to the presence of some spirit, unseen by human eyes, but full of the mighty power. Though generally invisible, these spirits sometimes vouch-safe to mankind a revelation of themselves. The form they assume in these manifestations is not anything very supernatural, but either a commonplace human form, or else some animal – a bird, or a monkey – such as is often seen in the forest. There is, however the chief of evil spirits named “Antu Gerasi” who, when been seen takes the form of a giant about ten times the size of a man, is covered with rough shaggy hair, and has eyes as big as a saucers, and huge glittering teeth.

There are innumerable stories told by the Iban of their meeting with the spirit of the jungle and sometimes it speaking to them. Such stories generally relate how the man who sees the spirit rushes to catch him by the leg – he cannot reach higher – in order to get some charms from him, but he is generally foiled in his attempt, as the spirit suddenly vanishes. But some men, it is believed, do obtain these much coveted gifts. If they gets a good harvest of paddy, it is attributed to some magic charm he has received from some kindly spirit. Also if he be successful on the warpath, he is credited by his fellows with the succour of some mysterious being from the spirit-world.

The spirit rove about the jungle and hunt for wild beasts, as the Iban do themselves. “Antu Gerasi” already mentioned is specially addicted to the chase, and is often to be met with hunting in the forest, and when seen assumes which roam about in pecks in the jungle, and are called by the Iban as “Pasun” which means a little dog used by the evil spirit “Antu Gerasi” to hunt for the human being. These are supposed to be the dogs that accompany the spirits when they are out hunting, and they attack those whom the spirits wish to be kill. Only seldom man ever seen one of these animals, but to judge from the description of them, they seem to be kind of  small jackal. It’s the same size as a squirrel but the hair have many colours. It move in group, and they will follow and bark at men, and from their supposed connection with the evil spirit “Antu Gerasi” are greatly feared by the Iban, who generally run away from them as fast as they can.

There a story that some Iban in Banting, Lingga, Sri Aman solemly told that one day when he was out hunting, he met the spirit in human form sitting upon a fallen tree. Nothing daunted, he went up and sat upon the same tree, and entered into conversation with him, and asked him for some charm. The spirit gave him some magic medicine which would give his dogs pluck to attack any wild pig or deer so long as he retained possession of it. Having given him this, the spirit advised the man to return quickly, for his dogs, he said, would be back soon, and might do him harm. This advice he willingly followed, and hurried away as fast as he could.

There are some more wonderful stories related about meeting the demon “Antu Gerasi”. It is said that a man once saw this terrible spirit returning from the hunt, carrying on his back a captured the man whom he recognized. Strange to relate, the man died the same day on which he was seen  carried by the evil spirit.

The spirit are said to build their invisible habitations in trees, and many trees are considered sacred as being the abode of one or more spirits, and to cut down one of these trees would provoke the spirits vengeance. The wild fig-tree also known as “Kayu Kara” is often supposed to be inhabited by spirits. It is said that one way of testing whether the “Kayu Kara” is the abode of spirits or not is to strike an axe into it at the sunset direction, and leave it fixed in the trunk of the tree during the whole night. If the axe be found on the next morning in the same position that meant there no spirit in there, but if the axe was found has fallen to the ground that meant the evil spirit is there and has displaced the axe.

The tops of the hills are favourite haunts for spirits. When they fell the jungle of the larger hills, they always leave a clump of trees at the summit as a refuge for the spirits. To leave them quite homeless would be to court certain disaster from them. According to their belief the evil spirits far out number the good ones. There are many strange customs connected with the Iban belief in spirits. As all illnesses are caused by the spirit, it is necessary that these be propitiated. When there is any great epidemic in the country – when cholera or smallpox is killing its hundreds on all side – one often notices little offering of food hung on the walls and from the ceiling, animals killed in sacrifice, and blood splashed on the post of the houses. When one asks why all this is done, they say they do it in the hope that when the evil spirit, who is thirsting for human lives, comes along and sees the offering they have made and the animals killed in sacrifice, he will be satisfied with this things, and not take the live of any of the people living in their longhouses or villages.

As a matter of fact, this offering of sacrifices to the evil spirits is a frequently recurring feature in their life. The gods are good, and will not injure them, and so they worship them at their own convenience, when they wish to obtain any special favour from them. But the evil spirits are always ready to do them harm, and to take the lives of victims, and therefore sacrifices must constantly be made to the spirits, who will accept sacrificial food as a substitute for the lives of human beings.

From what has been said it will be seen that the spirits are to them not more apparitions which come and go without any special object, but have definite power, and can either bestow favours or cause sickness and death. Therefore they rule the conduct of the Iban, and receive religious homage. They are indeed a constituent and important part of their religion.

 The sacrifices offered by the Iban are known as two kinds called the “Piring” and “Genselan”. The “Piring” is an offering composed of sticky rice cooked in bamboos, cakes, eggs, sweet potatoes, plantains, or other fruit, and sometimes a small live chickens. If the offering be made in the house these things are put on a brass dish called “Tabak”. If the occasion of the sacrifice requires that it be offered elsewhere, a little platform is constructed, consisting of pieces of wood tied together with cane, and fixed on four sticks struck in the ground. This platform is known as “Para Piring” or the “altar of sacrifice”, and the offering is laid on it. It is covered with a rough roof of palm leaf, and looks like a miniature native house, and is decorated with white flags. It is the most flimsy thing imaginable, and soon tumbles to pieces. The god or spirit is supposed to come and eat the good things provided, and go away contented. It is no use arguing with them that he can see for himself that his offering is eaten up by fowls, or pigs, or boys, who are full mischief, and have no fear of spirits. They says the spirit eat the soul or spirit of the food; what is left on the altar is only its outer husk, not its true essence.

In one occasion done at Temudok, Saratok where the Iban put up a little shed, with offerings of food, at the landing place on the river bank. There was an epidemic of cholera at that time, and the spirits of disease were supposed to eat these offering and go away contented. Among the offering was a little live chicken, that was tied to the “Para Piring” but which managed to get loose. Some of the school boys stand behind me asked if they might catch the chicken which was running about in the grass and rear it. I did not like to allow them to do this, because I though they would resent the boys interfering with their sacrifice. But my friend a catechist told me that they had done their duty in making the offering and what happened afterwards to the things offered did not matter. So the boys caught the chicken and reared it. I spoke to them about it afterwards, and they did not seem to mind their “altar of sacrifice” being disturbed and robbed of its offering.

In the “Genselan” occasion there is always some animal slain, and the blood of the victim is used. The person on whose behalf the offering is made is sprinkled or touched with the blood to atone for any wrong he may have done, and the house or farm upon which the blessing of the gods is desired is also sprinkled with the blood. This kind of sacrifice is very often offered on behalf of their farms, and they think their paddy field will come to maturity without some application of blood. The fowl is waved in the air over the farm, then it is killed, and the blood sprinkled over the growing paddy. When there is an epidemic, the “Genselan” is often offered to the spirits of disease, and blood is sprinkled on the post of the house and on the ladder leading up to it.   

On most occasion the victim of the sacrifice be it pig or fowl, it is afterward eaten. But if the sacrifice be to given for the “Sempulang Gana” at the commencement of the farming, the pig and other offering are conveyed with the beating of gongs to the land prepared for receiving the seed. The pig is killed, its liver and gall examined for divination, the body and other offering put in the ground, and some “Tuak” the local Iban rice wine was poured upon them, a long invocation is then made to the “Sempulang Gana” the god of the land. If a fowl to be sacrifice for adultery, its body is thrown away in the jungle. For all ordinary sacrifices a fowl suffices, but on great occasions a pig being the largest animal the Iban domesticates is killed.

Anyone may offer these sacrifices. There does not seem to be among the Iban any priestly order whose duty is to officiate at religious ceremonies. Any man who has been fortunate in life, or known the form of address to be used to the deities on these occasions, may perform the sacrificial function. All that the Iban hopes to get by his religious ceremonies is material benefits – good crops of paddy, the heads of his enemies, skill in craft, health, and prosperity. Even when there is some idea of the propitiation for sin, as in the slaying of a victim after an act of adultery, the idea of the Iban is not so much the cleansing of the offender as the appeasing of the anger of the gods, because in their anger the gods may destroy their crops or otherwise give them trouble. There is no idea of seeking for pardon for the offenders. It is merely a compensation for wrong done, and a bargain with the gods to protect their material interest.

The longing to communicate with the supernatural is common to all races of mankind. The Iban has a special means of bringing this about; they has the custom which is called “Nampok”. To “Nampok” is to have a sleep on the top of some mountain, or other lonely place, in the hope of meeting some good helpful spirit frpm the unseen world. A cementery is a favourite place for them to do the “Nampok”, because they think there is great probability of meeting spirits in such places. The undertaking requires considerable pluck. The man must be quite alone, and he must let no one know of his where abouts. The spirit he meets may take any form ; he may come in human form and treat him kindly, or he may assume a hideous form and attack him.

The Iban man are doing the “Nampok” for one or two reasons. Either he is fired with great ambition to shine in deeds of strength and bravery, and to attain the positon of a chief, and hopes to receive some charm that they called “Pengaroh” from the spirits, or he is suffering from some obstimate disease, and hope to be told by kindly spirit what he must do in order to be cured. It can easily be understood how the desire would in many cases bring about its own fulfillment. The unusual surrounding, the expected arrival of some supernatural being, the earnest wish acting upon a credulous and superstitious imagination in the solemn solitude of the jungle – all would help to make the man dream of some spirit or mythical hero.

The Iban has no temple erected in honour of some god to which, like the ancients of the Western World, he can make a pilgrimage. He has no altar before which he can spend the night in order to receive revelations in dreams, but he goes instead to the lonely mountain top, or the cementery where so many heroes of the past have been buried, and makes his offering and lies to rest beside it. The circumstances are different, but the spirit and the object in both cases are the same. The story often told of a miraculous cure is also similar in each case.

There are certain rocks in different parts of Borneo which are called by the Iban as “Batu Kudi” by means “The stones caused by the wrath of the gods”. A story is related in connection with each. The following are some of those mythical stories :
  1. In the bed of the Sesang River, next to Kabong town in the Kalaka District there is a rock which is only visible at the lowest of the ebb-tide. It is called the “Batu Kudi Sabar”. The story goes that in olden days the inmates of the Iban house tied to a dog’s tail a piece of wood, which they set alight. They all laughed at the sight as the dog ran off in fright, dragging after him the burning torch. Suddenly there was darkness, and a great storm came on. There was thunder and lightning, and torrents of rain, and the house and its inmates were turned into this large rock. A family consisting of three person managed to escape. They did not join in the laughter at the dog, but ran out of the house and hid in a clump of bamboo. They saw all that happened, and told the tale.

  1. On the bank of the Krian River in Saratok, the Kalaka District just above the Temudok longhouse is a large rock called “Batu Kudi Siap”. It is said that the people in an Iban  longhouse held a feast to which many invited guests came. An old woman who was living alone in a farm hut, and had not been asked to the feast, dressed up a cat in finery, “like a young damsel going to afesat,” tied a piece of wood to her tail, and placing her before the people said : “Here is a girl come to you to ask for a light.” The people laughed at the cat. Instantly there were darkness and a terrible storm, and the house and all the inmates were turned to stone. A similar tale is told of “The Batu Kudi” at Selanjan.

  1. There are “Batu Kudi” in the Gerenjang River, in Saratok, the Kalaka District, as well as in the Undup and Batang Ai Rivers , in the Lubok Antu District, of which the following tale is told : Two girls were standing in the water catching fish with a fishing basket that they called “Pemansai”. A small fish that they called “Empelasi” has jumped out of the basket, and hit the breast of one of the girls. She laughed, and said : “Even my lover would not dare to touch my breast as you do.” Her companion also laughed at the fish. There was a storm accompanied by lightning and thunder, and both girls were turned into rocks.

  1. In the Saribas River in the Betong District, there is a “Batu Kudi”, of which the following tale is told : Some men and boys were watching a monkey crossing the river on a creeper which hung low down over the water. The tail of the monkey touched the water, and one of them laughed, and said : “The end of his waist cloth that they called “Sirat” is wet; why was he so foolish as not to tie it round his waist ?”  At this remark all of them laughed, and a terrible storm came on, and they were turned to stone.

There is a similarity about all these stories. In each some animal is made fun of and laughed at by human beings. This incurs the displeasure of the gods, whom anger is shown in the same way – a terrible storm, thunder and lightning, and the turning of the offenders into stone.

There are, however, other “Batu Kudi” of which different stories are told, but these are not so common. For instance, in the Skrang River there are two large black boulders which are said to be a brother and sister who were guilty of the crime of incest : and in the Sebuyau River there is a collection of rocks said to be the inhabitants of a whole village, who were guilty of a serious breach of the law of hospitality, and refused to give food and shelter to some travellers. The moral of these mythical tales is good. All sin is displeasing to the gods, and will meet with deserved punishment, but specially are they angry when they see human beings ill treat and ridicule dumb animals. These “Batu Kudi” are not worshipped. Offering of food are sometimes seen hanging near them, but these are not made to the “Stone os Wrath”, but to the gods of whose displeasure they are the testimony.

The Iban belief in a future life was mentioned in the Burial Rites. But it is no gloomy Tartarus, nor in a happy Elysium, that lies before him. It is simply a prolongation of the present state of things in a new sphere. The dead are supposed to build houses, make paddy farms, and go through all the drudgery of a labouring life in that other world. This future life does not, in the mind of the Iban, mean immortality. Death is still the final and inevitable destiny of a man. He may live many lives in different spheres – he may die as often as seven times – but in the end he becomes annihilated, and absorbed into air, or earth, or certain jungle plants.

To sum up, the Iban worships his gods. There are good spirits ready to help him, and evil spirits eager to harm him. He has omens and divination and dreams to encourage or warn him. The traditions of his ancestors, handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, are his authority for his beliefs. He makes sacrifices to the gods and spirits, and invokes their help in long incantations. He believes he has a soul which after death will live in another world a future life differing little from his existence in the flesh.


  1. Isn't the Iban Dayak religion called Kaharingan as here in

  2. Qoute:
    "The Iban have no special form of worship" Unqoute

    Why did you say no special form of worship?

    I thought all those biau, sampi, pengap (chants) and various types of gawai are the special form of worship to all the Petaras by the Iban Dayaks?

  3. Qoute:
    But Their conception of gods is a very low one, and this is not to be wondered at because as it is well known the grosser the nature of a people, the grosser will be their conception of a denty or of deities. We can hardly expect a high and spiritual conception of gods from the Iban in their present intellectual condition. Their “Petara” are most human-like beings. Unqoute

    Why did you say the conception of God is very low one? What would be the very high conception of gods?

    I thought Bible also says God created men in his own form. This appears to jive with your statement that "Their “Petara” are most human-like beings". So what is the difference?

    Is this article written to compare the Iban religion/Petara with other religions like Christianity?

    Why did you say the grosser the nature of the people, the grosser their conception of a deity or deities? I thought Ibans are famous for adat basa, penyiru tanda basa agai urang, Iban customary law and adat main asal. Even antu apal endang dipebasake bala. Can refer to Iban Cultural Heritage.

  4. Qoute
    The “Piring” is an offering composed of sticky rice cooked in bamboos, cakes, eggs, sweet potatoes, plantains, or other fruit, and sometimes a small live chickens. Ubqoute

    Nama kabuah senupat nadai disebut diak?