Warriors at Heart
Photo: Sarawak Tourism Board
They were once a tribe whose fearsome culture of headhunting, piracy and territory wars sent chills down the spines of many. Today, the Iban are still a powerful presence, albeit for a different, more innocuous reason – they are the largest ethnic group, indigenous or not, in Sarawak. They are considered as a branch of the Dayak lineage, even earning the nickname ‘Sea Dayaks’ from British colonists in the past. As is the case for their native brethren from other tribes, the Iban have an illustrious spread of culture and tradition that dates back centuries, making them an indispensable piece of Sarawak’s heritage.
When it comes to extracting the history of the Iban, an interesting fact emerges. Early members of the Iban tribe used a novel way to create a historical record, reminiscent to the methods employed by other ancient cultures in the world. They captured the information by scribbling on boards, known in the native lingo as papan turai.
These boards are a veritable treasure trove of information about the Iban. Perhaps the most fascinating of these records are comprehensive genealogical documentation pertaining to the tribe. The data, which comprise marriages and births, typically stretches back fifteen generations – with some extending another ten generations further in the past.
The members of the Iban tribe are known as the endemic inhabitants of Borneo Island – and if oral records are to be believed – the Iban made the journey from Indonesia into Western Sarawak in 1675. Certainly the journey was an unromantic one, due to the violent territorial conflicts the Iban encountered en route with local tribes, with whom the Iban put their warring skills to use.
Apart from indulging in the brutal activities that founded their fearsome reputation, the first Iban were also involved in farming, hunting and gathering – much like their contemporaries on the same land. Skills and knowledge are passed down from generation to generation, including hand-created art. These make an appearance in many forms, such as intricate body tattooing, wood carving and the weaving of cloth, basket and mats.
Although the majority of these people have subscribed to other religions such as Christianity and Islam, traditional tribe members are animists. No matter their chosen religion, age-old festivals are still celebrated with gusto. Gawai Dayak, the rice harvesting festival, remains the pinnacle festival for the tribesmen, while other festivals such as the bird festival Gawai Burong and the spirit festival Gawai Antu are also significant dates on their calendar. Gawai Dayak takes place at the end of the harvest season in honour of a revered deity, and is a blur of merrymaking and home-to-home visiting.
Music and dance are also make a large part of the Iban heritage. Their signature dance is called the ngajat, and is performed to the rhythm of taboh and gendang, the traditional music of the tribe. The ngajat consists of different interpretations – women perform the dance with graceful, soft movements, while the men’s version is more aggressive, aping war-like actions.
Musical instruments are richly varied, including a percussion setup comprising large hanging (suspended or held in hand) knobbed gongs. In the Iban tongue, these are called engkerumungs (arranged together in a series and played like a xylophone), a tawak (bass), a bendai (which acts as a snare) and also a set of ketebung (one-sided drum). Sape, a guitar like instrument, is another traditional implement played by the Ibans.
Photo: Sarawak Tourism Board
The Iban traditional woven cloth, Pua Kumbu, has many applications in the tribe’s culture, appearing during special events such as births, marriages, funerals, healing ceremonies and farming rituals – although its captivatingly detailed motifs and patterns also make it a favourite decorative piece.
The largest tribal population in the state does not disappoint the curious bystander nor the seasoned anthropologist; offering a vivid collection of culture and customs that is steeped in history. A trip to a longhouse – the ubiquitous staple of Sarawakian tribal dwelling – occupied by these amazing people is guaranteed to be a unique, soul-enriching experience to treasure for years to come.
You can’t go wrong by inserting the Iban in your itinerary, be it via a tribal-themed gala dinner featuring Iban headhunters, or a comprehensive tour of their lifestyle at the Sarawak Cultural Village or Batang Ai.