Updated January 1, 2018.
Swinging a long curved pedang sword, the Iban Headman (chief) held his terabai (shield) in front of himself as he moved–“ayahhhh” he screeched with each whirl, as if issuing a challenge. I glanced at his hand to see if it was tattooed, which would have meant he’d taken a head.
There wasn’t one.
Tattoos did run up and down his back though, over skin remarkably toned for his 87 years. Musicians, mainly women, played a number of instruments that sounded like bells tolling each step of his dance.
Woven mats and artwork covered the walls of the Longhouse behind him, while other costumed dancers waited their turn. The children sat quietly, attentive to the dancer.
I sat too, although the bamboo mat offered little padding to my western way of thinking. Here though, in the Iban village of the Serubah Longhouse in Sarawak, Borneo (Malaysia), I was honored to be a guest in the home of this traditional clan of people.
Click on the arrow in this YouTube video I uploaded to see the performance I recorded during the watching part of my visit–my turn to dance came later!
My visit to the Iban people began at the Batang Ai Longhouse Resort, where I’d spent the previous night. After a journey in the jetty, we’d moved to flat bottomed longboats, driven by members of the Iban village, for a 20 minute ride on the Lemanak River.
The water was low, since I’d visited just before the rainy season, but the jungle still crowded in on the river with overhanging branches and tree roots upended in the water. It seemed very much like a scene from the Louisiana Bayou.
It was easy to know when we reached the village, as there were several women washing clothes in the river water. Women’s chores, it seems, are much the same the world over even if the technology is different!
The riverbank was steep, worn away by decades of use. A path led from the river to the central point of the village–the longhouse. This one was relatively new we were told, just 60 years old in the oldest parts. Some parts were newer, as when the population grows another section is simply added.
We entered through a work room and kitchen area that had running water, so we were able to use a western-styled flush toilet that had was provided for visitors. I hadn’t expected to find that on this jungle expedition! While I waited my turn, I watched women preparing a community meal, made mostly of vegetables and some fish, over a propane stove.
We, however, had been invited to participate in an Iban cultural dancing event, so we continued on to the activity hall, or long open area of the longhouse. In a longhouse each family has its own private sleeping room that opens off this hall–it’s designed like a very long mobile home with a wide covered front veranda where everyone interacts.
FAQ about the Iban Headhunters of Borneo
- The Iban people, while portrayed as the fearless and brutal headhunters of Borneo in the past, have always had an egalitarian society that respects the equality of all.
- In the past, headhunting was considered a duty during a time of war, as a way to show courage and the ability to rise above all challenges. Men who had demonstrated this ability were honored at festivals and in religious rituals by other members of their society.
- Headhunting was banned in Borneo in the early 1950s.
- Today, Iban people may live a traditional longhouse, communal lifestyle; farm and live independently; or have an urban lifestyle in cities.
- Iban clans living together in a longhouse community require 600 square km of land to make a living in Borneo.
- Here’s an online resource describing the many intriguing aspects of Iban culture and history: http://gnmawar.wordpress.com/
The longhouse was beautiful, finished with natural woods from the jungle. I respectfully slipped my shoes off on the mat at the entrance, and proceeded to sit down at the window side of the activity hall.
Our guide advised me that local etiquette required I cross my legs–luckily for me that’s a comfortable position for enjoying a performance! So, legs crossed, I accepted a small glass of tuak, a glass of rice wine that’s part of Iban ceremonies. It had a strong flavor similar to Sake, which is a Japanese rice wine served in North American restaurants.
The dancing began with young performers, so I turned on my camera. A quick glance around the room told me there weren’t any babies to avoid with my picture taking. An old Iban belief is that if a baby has his picture taken with no teeth, that he won’t grow any, so I wanted to be respectful.
I truly enjoyed the lyrical music and was pleased to be handed a headdress and invited to dance with the Headman when his performance ended. The dance took the form of a circle, with each participant dancing independently rather than holding hands as I’ve seen done on some occasions.
The one thing that stood out for me was the enthusiasm the Chief showed in sharing this activity with North American visitors–both leading the dance and in having his picture taken with each of us!
The ceremony ended as each of us presented gifts of appreciation to the community for letting us share in their culture. While it was just a small insight into the traditional lifestyle of the Iban, this experience was memorable for me, putting it at #7 on my 2012 Staycation list of experiences I’ve had in previous years.
How to Visit the Serubah Longhouse in Borneo
Visitors to the Serubah Longhouse must be accompanied by a guide. You can book a tour through: