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Iban people

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Title: Iban people  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Dayak people, Sibu, Sarawak, Sarikei, Bidayuh
Collection: Dayak People, Ethnic Groups in Indonesia, Ethnic Groups in Malaysia, Ethnic Groups in Sarawak, Headhunting, Iban, Iban People, Indigenous Peoples of Southeast Asia
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Iban people

Iban people
Sea Dayak
A traditional Iban family.
Total population
c. 875,000
Regions with significant populations

 Malaysia (Sarawak)

 Indonesia (West Kalimantan)


Iban, Malay, Indonesian
Christianity, Animism, some minorities Islam
Related ethnic groups
Kantu, Dayak Mualang, Semberuang, Bugau and Sebaru

The Ibans are a branch of the Dayak peoples of Borneo. In Malaysia, most Ibans are located in Sarawak, a small portion in Sabah and some in west Malaysia. They were firstly but now formerly known during the colonial period by the British as Sea Dayaks especially in the Saribas and Skrang regions which are near the coastline and thus they had gone on expeditions along the coastline up to the Kapuas river delta in the south and the Rajang river delta in the north. However, those Ibans that had migrated and lived inland to upper Rajang river region was further upriver and did not really go downriver to the sea as often but they became into contact with local tribes such as the Baketan, Ukit and Kayan.

It is believed that the term "Iban" originates from the Iban's own formidable enemy, the Kayan who call the Sea Dayaks in the upper Rajang river region that initially came into contact with them as "Hivan". The Kayan mostly lives in the central Broneo region and migrated into the upper Rajang river and thus went logger-head with those Ibans who migrated from the upper Batang Ai/Lupar region and Katibas river. In fact, those Sea Dayaks in the Saribas and Skrang regions initially resisted being called Iban and insisted to be called Dayak but somehow the term Iban increasingly becomes popular later on after the European starts to frequently uses this term.

Ibans were renowned for practicing headhunting and tribal/territorial expansion, and had a fearsome reputation as a strong and successful warring tribe in the past. Since the arrival of Europeans and the subsequent colonisation of the area, headhunting gradually faded out of practice although many tribal customs, practices and language continue. The Iban population is concentrated in Sarawak, Brunei, and in the West Kalimantan region of Indonesia. They live in longhouses called rumah panjai[2].

Nowadays, most of the Iban longhouses are equipped with modern facilities such as electricity and water supply and other facilities such as (tar sealed) roads, telephone lines and the internet. Younger Ibans are mostly found in urban areas and visit their hometowns during the holidays. The Ibans today are becoming increasingly urbanised while retaining most of their traditional heritage and culture.


  • Ibanic Subgroup and Language 1
  • Religion, Culture and Festivals 2
    • Iban Religion and Pantheon 2.1
    • Stages of Iban propitiation 2.2
    • Gawai or Traditional festivals 2.3
    • The 'tuak', Iban rice wine 2.4
    • Leka Main or Traditional Poetry 2.5
    • Iban miring or ritual offerings 2.6
    • Iban Omens and Augury 2.7
    • Iban Conversion to Christianity 2.8
    • Adat Iban or customary law 2.9
  • Musical & Dancing Heritage 3
    • Types of Iban Ngajat Dance 3.1
    • Types of Iban gendang musics 3.2
    • Other Iban musical instruments 3.3
    • Traditional costumes 3.4
    • Rhythms of Taboh Music 3.5
  • Iban Arts 4
    • Types of Iban carvings or Ukir 4.1
    • Types of Iban pantang or kalingai (tattoo) 4.2
    • Types of Iban weavings or betenun 4.3
    • Types of Iban plaitings or beranyam 4.4
    • Types of Iban hunting apparatus 4.5
    • The Iban boat or perau making 4.6
    • The Iban blacksmithing or ngamboh 4.7
  • Iban traditional possessions 5
    • Head Skull 5.1
    • Jar 5.2
    • Brassware 5.3
    • Paddy 5.4
    • Shaman and bard 5.5
    • Land 5.6
    • Longhouse 5.7
    • Traditional Costume 5.8
    • Defence weaponry 5.9
    • Longboat 5.10
    • Livestocks 5.11
  • The Iban agriculture and economy 6
  • The Iban in Military 7
  • The Iban Calendar 8
  • Cultural references 9
  • Notable Figures 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12
  • Bibliography 13
  • External links 14

Ibanic Subgroup and Language

Although Ibans generally speak a dialect which is mutually intelligible, they can be divided into different branches which are named after the geographical areas where they reside.

  • Majority of Ibans who live around the Lundu and Samarahan region are called Sebuyaus.
  • Ibans who settled in areas in Serian district (places like Kampung Lebor, Kampung Tanah Mawang & others) are called Remuns. They may be the earliest Iban group to migrate to Sarawak.
  • Ibans who originated from Sri Aman area are called Balaus.
  • Ibans who come from Betong, Saratok & parts of Sarikei are called Saribas.
  • The original iban Lubok Antu Ibans are classed by anthropologists as Ulu Ai/batang ai Ibans.
  • Ibans from Undup are called Undup Ibans. Their dialect is somewhat a cross between the Ulu Ai dialect & the Balau dialect.
  • Ibans living in areas from Sarikei to Miri are called Rajang Ibans. This group is also known as "Bilak Sedik Iban". They are the majority group of the Iban people. They can be found along the Rajang River, Sibu, Kapit, Belaga, Kanowit, Song, Sarikei, Bintangor, Bintulu and Miri. Their dialect is somewhat similar to the Ulu Ai or lubok antu dialect.

In West Kalimantan (Indonesia), Iban people are even more diverse. The Kantu, Air Tabun, Semberuang, Sebaru', Bugau, Mualang & along with many other groups are classed as "Ibanic people" by anthropologists. They can be related to the Iban either by the dialect they speak or their customs, rituals & their way of life.

Religion, Culture and Festivals

Religions of Ibans (Malaysia only)[4]
Religion Percent
Folk religion-Animist
Other religions
No religion / Unknown
An Iban woman prepares cotton for spinning

The Ibans were traditionally animist, although the majority are now Christian; many continue to observe both Christian and traditional ceremonies, particularly during marriages or festivals. The majority of Iban people have changed their traditional name to a Hebrew-based "Christian name" such as David, Christopher, Janet, Sona, Cathy or Joseph but a minority still maintain their traditional Iban name or a combination of both with the first Christian name followed by a second traditional Iban name such as David Dana, Christopher Changgai, Janet Jenna or Joseph Jelaing.

The longhouse of Iban Dayaks are constructed in such a way to act as an accommodation and a religious place of worship. The first thing to be erected during the longhouse building is the tiang pemun (the main post) from which the pun ramu (the bottom of any tree trunks) is determined and followed along the longhouse construction. Any subsequent rituals will refer to the tiang pemun and pun ramu.

Iban Religion and Pantheon

The Iban religion involves worshiping and honouring at least four categories of beings i.e. the supreme god called Petara and his seven deities, the holy spirits of Orang Panggau Libau and Gelong, the ghost spirits (Bunsu Antu) and the souls of dead ancestors.

The supreme God is called Bunsu (Kree) Petara, sometimes called as Raja Entala or even Tuhan Allah Taala (Arabic defines the article al- "the" and ilāh "deity, god" to al-lāh meaning "the [sole] deity, God") in modern times.

There are seven main petaras (deities or gods or regents) of Iban Dayaks who act as the messengers between human beings and God. These deities are the children of Raja Jembu and the grandchildren of Raja Burong.[5] Their names are as follows:

  • Sengalang Burong as the god of war for protection and sustenance
  • Biku Bunsu Petara (female) as the high priest
  • Sempulang Gana as the god of agriculture along with his father-in-law Semarugah as the god of land
  • Selempandai/Selempeta/Selempetoh as the god of creation and procreation
  • Menjaya Manang as the god of health and shamanism being the first manang bali
  • Anda Mara as the god of wealth
  • Ini Andan/Inee (female) as the natural-born doctor and the god of justice

In addition to these gods, there are mystical people namely the orang Panggau Libau and "Gelong" with the most notable ones being Keling and Laja, and Kumang and Lulong who often help the Iban Dayaks to be successful in life and adventures.

Other spirits are called bunsu jelu (animal spirits), antu utai tumboh (plant spirits), antu (ghosts) such as antu gerasi (huntsman) and antu menoa (place spirits like hills or mounts). These spirits can be helpful, cause sickness or even madness.

The souls of dead ancestors are invoked by the Iban when seeking their blessings and showing respects for their souls usually during Gawai Antu (Festival for the Dead) and when visiting their graves.

Stages of Iban propitiation

Masing in 1981 and Sandin clearly categorise Iban's propitiation and worshiping into three main successive stages of increasing importance, complexity and intensity i.e. bedara (serving and distributing offerings), gawa (literally working) and gawai (festival).

Bedara can be divided into bedera mata (unripe rite) if the service is performed inside the family room (bilik) and bedara mansau (ripen rite) where it is carried out at the family gallery (ruai). Other specific miring rituals are called minta ujan (requesting for rain), minta panas (requesting for sunniness), berunsur (soul cleansing), mudas (omen appreciation), muja menua (praying to the region), pelasi menua (cleansing the territory), genselan menoa (smearing the earth with blood) or nasih tanah (paying land rent). Other bedara or miring ceremonies include makai di ruai/ngayanka asi (dinner at the gallery), sandau ari (mid-day ceremony) and enchaboh arong (head receiving reremony).

Gawa includes all the medium-sized rites that involve normally one day and one night ritual inchantation by a group of bards such as gawa beintu-intu (self-caring rituals) and gawa tuah (Fortune ritual). There are various types of gawa beintu-intu such as timang sukat (Life Measuring Chant), timang bulu (Human Mantle Chant), timang buloh ayu (Soul Bamboo Chant), timang panggang (Jar Board Chant), timang panggau (Wooden platform Chant) and timang engkuni (House Post Chant). As this category of rites involves mainly timang (chant), it is also normally called nimang (chanting). Gawa Tuah has two subgroups called nimang ngiga tuah (fortune seeking chanting) and nimang namaka tuah (fortune welcoming chanting).

Gawai comprises seven categories of festivals which mostly involve ritual inchantation by a group of lemambang bards that can last several to seven successive days and nights. These categories are namely gawai bumai (farming festivals), gawai amat/asal (real/original festival) or gawai burong (bird festival), gawai tuah (fortune festival), gawai lelabi (River turtle festival), gawai sakit (Sickness-healing festival), gawai antu (ghost or spirit festival) and gawai ngar (dyeing festival).

Gawai or Traditional festivals

Significant traditional festivals to propitiate the above-mentioned gods can be grouped into seven categories which are related to the main activities among the Iban Dayaks i.e. the Farming-related festivals to propitiate the deity of agriculture Sempulang Gana, the War-related festivals to honour the deity of war Sengalang Burong, weaving-related festival (Gawai Ngar) for patrons of weaving, the Fortune-related festivals dedicated to the deity of fortune Anda Mara, procreation-related festival (Gawai Lelabi) for the deity of creation Selampandai, the health-related festivals for the deity of shamanism Menjaya and Ini Andan and the death-related festival (Gawai Antu or Ngelumbong) to invite the dead souls for final separation ritual between the living and the dead.

Because rice farming is the key life-sustaining activity among Dayaks, the first category of festivals is related to agriculture. Thus, there are many ritual festivals dedicated to this foremost vital activity namely:

There is one important rite called mudas for strengthening any omen encountered during farming activity. Several of these festivals have been relegated to a simpler or intermediate ceremonies which mainly involves nimang (inchantation) only and thus no longer prefixed with the gawai word i.e. nimang benih in case of Gawai Benih, ngalihka tanah, ngemali umai by a dukun (healer) for minor or intermediate damage of paddy farm instead of a full-scale Gawai Ngemali Umai, matah and ngambi sempeli.

The rice planting stages start from manggol (ritual initial clearing to seek good omen using a birdstick (tambak burong), nebas (clearing undergrowth), nebang (felling trees), ngerangkaika reban (drying out trees), nunu (burning), ngebak and nugal (clearing unburnt trees and dibbling), mantun (weeding), ninjau belayan (Surveying the paddy growth), ngitang tali buru (Hanging the protective rope), nekok/matah (First harvesting), ngetau (harvesting), nungku (separating rice grains), basimpan (rice keeping) and nanam taya ba jerami/nempalai kasai (cotton planting).

With the coming of rubber and pepper planting, the Ibans have adapted the Gawai Ngemali Umai (Paddy Farm Healing Festival) and Gawai Batu (Whetstone Festival) to hold Gawai Getah (Rubber Festival) to sharpen the tapping knives and Gawai Lada (Pepper Festival) to avoid diseases and pests associated with pepper planting respectively.[6]

The next most activity among Iban in the past is headhunting (ngayau) to the enemy country. Hence, the war-related festivals collectively called Gawai Burong (Bird Festival) in the Saribas/Skrang region or Gawai Amat (Proper Festival) in the Mujong region or Gawai Asal (Original Festival) in the Baleh region is held in honour of the war god, Sengalang Burong (Hawk the Bird) which is manifested as the brahminy kite. This festival has some successive stages and is initiated by a notable man of prowess from time to time and hosted by individual longhouses. It originally honours warriors but during more peaceful times evolves into a healing or fortune seeking ceremony.

Gawai Burong which is mainly celebrated in the Saribas region comprises nine ascending stages as follows:[7]

  • 1) Gawai Kalingkang (Bamboo Pole)
  • 2) Gawai Sandong (Carved Trunk)
  • 3) Gawai Sawi
  • 4) Gawai Salangking
  • 5) Gawai Mulong Merangau (Weeping Palm) or Lemba Bumbun
  • 6) Gawai Gajah Meram (Brooding Elephant)
  • 7) Gawai Meligai (Upper Palace)
  • 8) Gawai Ranyai (Tree of life) or Mudur Ruruh
  • 9) Gawai Gerasi Papa (Demon Huntman)

Each celebrant-to-be will decide which stage fits his life achievement or success so far. Other festivals of this category are Gawai Ijok Pumpong and Gawai Sandau Liau.

In the Baleh region, the Ibans there celebrate a slightly different set of Gawai Amat (Proper Festival) as listed by Masing:[8]

  • l. Gawai Tresang Mansau (a red bamboo pole receptacle)
  • 2. Gawai Kalingkang (a bamboo pole receptacle with an inter-twined bamboo pan for placing piring offerings, attached at the mid-length of this post or a jar containing tuak wine is also attached here as its bungkong notch)
  • 3. Gawai Ijok Pumpong (Decapitating of gamuti palm ritual)
  • 4. Gawai Tangga Raja (Notched-ladder of wealth)
  • 5. Gawai Kayu Raya (Tree of wealth ritual)
  • 6. Gawai Kenyalang (Hornbill ritual)
  • 7. Gawai Nangga Langit (Notched-ladder to the sky)
  • 8. Gawai Tangga Ari (Notched-ladder of day).

Each celebrant will choose which level fits his lifetime achievement as the purpose of the celebration.

Recently, there is another list of gawai asal (original gawai) of Iban living the upper Batang Rajang with eight successive stages to be celebrated as follows:[9]

  • 1) Gawai Tresang Mansau
  • 2) Gawai Kalingkang
  • 3) Gawai Ijok Pumpong
  • 4) Gawai Sempuyung Mata Ari (a split bamboo cone to focus the sun ray into)
  • 5) Gawai Lemba Bumbun (Lemba split leaves which represent taken enemy's hairs)
  • 6) Gawai Kenyalang
  • 7) Gawai Sandung Liau (a wooden pole with a headhunting boat head statue (udu prau)
  • 8) Gawai Mapal Tunggul (Decapitating tree stump with erected three poles in series)

For all three groups of war-related festival above, as the stage of the celebration ascends the list, the level of the timang inchantation also increases, following the paddy farming stages with the first stage normally ends up to ngua (nursing) level. There are nine levels of the timang inchantation length with their respective end timing as follows:

  • 1. Ngerara rumah (Start of timang to discovery of Lang's absence)
  • 2. Ngua (Nursing the trophy head) - Afternoon second day
  • 3. Nyingka (end of forging) - Later afternoon third day
  • 4. Bedua antara (dividing the land) - Afternoon fourth day
  • 5. Nyulap (first rite of planting) - Morning fifth day
  • 6. Ninjau balayan (Surveying the padi) - Morning fifth day
  • 7. Nekok (first rite of harvesting) - Afternoon fifth day
  • 8. Nyimpan padi (Storing the padi) - Afternoon fifth day
  • 9. Nempalai kasai (Planting of cotton) - Morning seventh day

While the Iban man strives to be a successful in headhunting and wealth acquisition, the Iban women aims to be skillful in weaving as their warpath. For women involved in weaving, their ritual festival is called Gawai Ngar (Cotton-Dyeing Festival). This can perhaps be considered the third category of festivals among the Iban. Pua Kumbu, the Iban traditional hand-woven cloth and custome, is used for both conventional and ceremonial uses in many occasions. There are various types of buah (motives or patterns) of pua kumbu which can be for ritual purposes or normal uses. Both female and male Iban will be graded according to their own personal accomplishments in their lifetime during the rite of ngambi entabalu (widow/widower fee taking).

Seeking wealth and prosperity is another important activity of the Iban, naturally until today. Therefore, the fourth category of festivals is fortune-related festivals which include Gawai Pangkong Tiang (House Main Post Striking Festival), Gawai Tuah with three successive stages (Luck Seeking, Luck Welcoming and Luck Growing) and Gawai Tajau (Jar Welcoming Festival) to pray and to invoke Raja Anda Maraas the god of wealth. Some Iban people call Gawai Pangkong Tiang As Gawai Niat (Intention Festival) or Gawai Diri (Rising up Festival).

Furthermore, the Iban love to bear and raise many children to continue their descendancy (peturun), as a mean to acquire more land and wealth and perhaps to multiply in numbers as a natural defence against enemy tribes. So comes the fifth category of festival which is procreation-related i.e. Gawai Lelabi (River Turtle Festival) that is held for daughters to announce that they are ready for marriage and to call for suitable suiters. The wedding ceremony is called Melah Pinang (Areca/beetle nut splitting) which is celebrated with much funfair and ritual. Here the God invoked is Selampandai for fertility and procreation purposes to bear many children. In addition, if an Iban married couple could not bear any child after some years of marriage, they can decide to adopt via a Gawai Bairu-Iru (Adoption Festival) to declare that they have adopted someone which shall have the same rights as their own born child. Furthermore, Gawai Batimbang (Manutrition Festival) can be held to free ulun slaves (war captives) or selfs (debtors) to adopt them as children or siblings or relatives of their masters.

Just like other people, the Iban pay great attention to their health and well-being to have a long life (gayu). So the sixth category of festivals is health-related festivals which are Gawai Sakit (Sickness Festival), Basugi Sakit and Barenong Sakit to seek magical healing by Sengalang Burong, Menjaya or Ini Inda and Keling. Before employing these healing festivals, there are various types of pelian (healing ceremony) by a manang (traditional healer), pucau (short prayers) and begama (touching) by a dukun (medicinal healer) to be tried first. A candidate will become a manang (shaman) after an official ceremony called Gawai Babangun (Manang-Officiating Festival).

Failing the healing or comes death, the seventh category of festival by the Iban is related to death which is called the spirit festival for the dead (Gawai Antu) or Gawai Rugan (Dead Soul Altar Festival) or Gawai Sungkop (Tomb Festival) in the Saribas/Skrang region or Gawai Ngelumbong (Entombment Festival) in the Baleh region. This festival is used to be held once every 10 to 30 years per longhouse. This festival is the last honouring event in a series of morturial rites from nyengaie antu/rabat (death vigil), nganjong antu (burial), baserara bungai (soul separation) and ngetas ulit (morning termination).

There is an emerging category of gawai called dream festivals such as Gawai Lesong (Rice Mortar Festival) and Gawai Tangga (Notched Ladder Festival) and some newly innovated variants of the gawai proper as a result of dream by a person or several individuals. These are popular among the Iban in the upper Rajang region. It appears that the Iban people in this region distinguishes gawai asal (original/customary/traditional festival) from gawai mimpi (dream fstival). The original festival consists of the nine successive and ascending stages of major celebrations as listed by Dr. Robert Menua of Tun Jugah Foundation during an individual Iban man life as if he ascends the longhouse notched ladder rungs. This category of original festival can be celebrated by any Iban if it is deemed fit to do so as he ages during his lifetime, even without any dream. The Iban will hold a dream festival when told to do so in his dream which will instruct the type and sometimes even the procedure of the festival to be held and thus it is fittingly coined as dream festival. Some variants of the gawai lesong (mortar festival) and gawai tangga (Ladder festival) were inspired by dreams as mentioned in Dr. James Masing's PhD thesis so these can actually be considered as dream festival. However, these are called gawai amat (proper/real gawai) as the full, elaborate and complex procedure of an Iban festival is strictly followed and implemented during its celebration.l A good example to accompany this explanation is the hornbill festival which was held not only as an original festival but also as a dream festival with variations in its procedure of celebration. Several types of Iban festivals originate from its own epic stories like the hornbill festival from the story of Keling and Laja of Panggau making a hornbill statue for their resptive maidens Kumang and Lulong whom they courted for their famous wives from Gelong while the Gawai Kayu Raya (Massive Tree Festival) also originates from Keling's adventure to fetch the massive tree from overseas that can bear many types of nutritional fruits as if it is a ranyai (tree of life).

For simplicity and cost savings, some of the gawai have been relegated into the medium category of propitiation called gawa such as Gawai Tuah into Nimang Tuah, Gawai Benih into Nimang Benih and the Gawa Beintu-intu into their respective nimang category wherein the key activity is the timang by the bards. Gawai Matah can be relegated into a minor rite simply called matah.

With headhunting banned and with the advance of Christianity, only some lower ranking ritual festivals are often celebrated by the Iban today such as Sandau Ari (Mid-Day Rite), Gawai Kalingkang (Bamboo Receptacle Festival), Gawai Batu (Whetstone Festival), Gawai Tuah (Fortune Festival) and Gawai Antu (Festival for the Dead Relatives).

It is common that all those festivals are to be celebrated after the rice harvesting completion which is normally by the end of May during which rice is plenty for holding feasts along with poultry like pigs, chickens, fish from rivers and jungle meats like deer etc.

Therefore, it is fitting to call this festive season among Dayaks collectively as the Gawai Dayak festival which is celebrated every year on 1 June, at the end of the harvest season, to worship the Lord Sempulang Gana and other gods. On this day, the Ibans get together to celebrate, often visiting each other.

The 'tuak', Iban rice wine

Tuak is originally made of cooked glutinous rice (Asi Pulut) mixed with home-made yeast (Chiping/Ragi) for fermentation. It is a wine used to serve guests especially as welcoming drinks when entering longhouses. Nowadays, there are various kinds of tuak, made with rice alternatives such as sugar cane, ginger and corn. However, these raw materials are rarely used unless available in large quantities. Tuak and other types of drinks (both alcohol and non-alcoholic) can be served on several rounds in a ceremony called nyibur temuai (serving drinks to guests) as ai aus (thirst queching drink), ai basu kaki (Feet Washing drink), ai basa (respect drink) and ai untong (profit drink). Another type of a stronger alcoholic drink is called langkau which contains a higher alcohol content because it is actually made of tuak which has been distilled over fire to boil off the alcohol from the tuak, cooled down and collected into containers.

Leka Main or Traditional Poetry

The recitation of pantun and various kinds of leka main (traditional poetry) is a particularly important aspect of festivals. Any ordinary persons can recite poetry for entertainment and customary purposes but sacred inchantations to invoke deities are only recited by specialists which are either a manang (shaman) or lemambang (bard) or tukang sabak.

According one Iban scholar,[10] the leka main (poems, proses and folklores) for Iban Dayaks can be categorised into three major groups i.e. leka main pemerindang (for entertaining purposes), leka main adat basa (for customary purposes) and leka main invokasyen (for invocation purposes).

The entertaining leka main includes:

  • pantun
  • jawang
  • sanggai
  • ramban
  • entelah (riddle)
  • ensera (plain story)
  • kana (sung story)
  • pelandai ara
  • pelandai karong
  • wak anat mit (lullaby).

The customary leka main comprises:

  • jaku ansah (instroductory/invitational speech)
  • jaku geliga (rule and fine speech)
  • tanya indu (asking the lady for marriage)
  • muka kuta (ceremonial stockade opening)
  • muka kujuk (food coverage opening)
  • jaku karong (speech with hidden meanings)
  • jaku dalam (deep speech)
  • jaku sempama (exemplary speech)
  • jaku silup (speech with inter-twined meanings)
  • sugi semain
  • renong semain
  • renong sabong
  • renong kayau
  • renong ngayap etc.

The invocation leka main consists of:

  • sampi (prayer)
  • biau (cleansing)
  • denjang (blessing)
  • timang (chanting by a group of lemambang bards)
  • pengap (chanting by a group of lemambang bards)
  • sugi sakit
  • renong sakit
  • sabak bebuah or sungkop or rugan (dirge)

These invocatory inchantations must be accompanied with piring (ritual offerings) to appease the gods invoked during the restival. The inchantation can last the whole night of the festival and the next morning a pig is sacrificed for divination of its liver which is interpreted to forecast the luck, fortune, health and success of the feast host and his family in the future.

Iban miring or ritual offerings

The Iban leka piring which is the number of each offering item is basically according to the single odd numbers which are piring turun 3, 5, 7 and 9. Leka piring (Number of each offering item) and agih piring (set of offerings) is dedicated to each part of the long house bilek such as bilek four corners, tanju (verandah), ruai (gallery, dapur (kitchen), benda beras (rice jar), etc. as deemed fit and necessary.

The rule on how to choose the leka piring according to its purpose is as follows:

  • Leka piring 3 – piring ampun/seluwak (for apologies or economy)
  • Leka piring 5 – piring minta/ngiring bejalai (for requests or journey)
  • Leka piring 7 – piring gawai/bujang berani (for festivals or brave men)
  • Leka piring 8 – piring nyangkong (for including others)
  • Leka piring 9 – piring nyangkong/turu (for including others and any leftover offering items are placed together)
  • Leka lebih ari 9 (10,11,12, to 18) – piring turu (leftover offering items must be all offered and cannot be eaten)

The basic items for the piring offerings include at least the following items: betel nuts, sirih leaves, sedi leaves and kapu chalk, cigar leaves and tobacco, "penganan" (disc-shaped cake made from glutinous rice flour which is deep-fried in cooking oil), senupat (sacheted glutinous rice), sungkoi (wrapped glutinous rice), asi pulut pansoh (glutinous rice cooked in bamboo container), tumpi (flattened glutinous rice flour cake), asi manis (semi-fermented glutinous rice), hard-boiled chicken eggs, cuwan (flowery-shaped molded biscuit made from glutinous rice flour) and sarang semut (ant nest biscuit made of glutinous rice), rendai or letup (pop glutinous paddy) and tuak (alcoholic drink fermented from glutinous rice with yeast). All these ingredients are put onto plates or woven baskets made of bamboo or rattan.

The genselan (animal offering) is normally made in the form of a chicken or a pig depending on the scale of the ceremony. For small ceremonies e.g. bird omens, chickens will be used while bigger occasions such as animal omens, pigs will be sacrificed. The chicken feathers are pulled and smeared into the blood of the chicken whose throat has been slit and the chicken head may be put onto the main offering plate. For festivals, one or several pigs and tens of chickens may be sacrificed to appease the deities invoked and to serve human guests invited to the festivals within the territorial domain of the feast chief.

Iban Omens and Augury

The augury system for the Iban Dayaks depends on several ways to obtain indicative omens for decision making and action taking:

  • dream to present charm gifts or sumpah (curse) by spirits which normally has a long or life-time effect.
  • omen animals (burong laba) such as deer barkings which also has life-time effects.
  • omen birds (burong mali) which give temporary effects limited to certain activities at hands e.g. that year of farming.
  • pig liver divination (Betenong ati babi) at the end of certain festival to read the future luck.
  • nampok (seclusion) or betapa (isolation)

The omens can be either purposely sought via dream during sleep, langkau burong (bird hut), pig liver divination and seclusion/isolation or received unexpectedly especially the animal and bird omens e.g. while working at farms or walking to enemy country.

The omen birds of Iban Dayaks are seven in total namely:

Their types of calls, flights, places of hearing and circumstances of the listeners are factors to be considered during the interpretation of the bird omens.

The Iban Dayaks used to believe in having charms namely ubat (medicine), pengaroh (amulet), empelias (anti-line of fire) and engkerabun (blurredness) given by gods and spirits to help them to get things like rice and jars easily, to make them kebal (bullet proof), unseen to human eyes or to make them extraordinarily stronger (kering) than other men whose attributes are wanted for rice farming, headhunting and other activities. For ladies, the charms will help them to be skillful in weaving.

Iban Conversion to Christianity

There are several reasons why many Iban and other Dayaks turn to Christianity:

  • The traditional augury causes some complexity with many penti pemali (prohibitions), various omens, superstitions and delays in some works and progress of life.
  • The healing (pelian) by manangs are not effective in curing some diseases. In fact, the manangs cannot cure smallpox, cholera (muang ai), dengue, etc.
  • Christianity is considered as new branch of knowledge to be adopted and adapted to the traditional customs and way of life that led to realisation that old bad practices such as headhunting is self-destructive to the Dayak race survival as a whole.
  • Christianity comes with western education which can be used to seek employment on sojourns and upgrade living standard to escape poverty.
  • Defeats of Dayaks at the hands of Europeans with better weapons such as guns and cannons vis-a-vis traditional hand-held weapons such as swords, shields, spears and blowpipes despite strict adherence to traditional augury practices.
  • Some Ibans consider Christianity as an extension of human knowledge because it can accommodate some of their traditional practices e.g. some the ritual festivals can be celebrated in the Christian ways.
  • Some churches and pastors prohibited Christian Iban to practise their ancestor's traditional custom ceremony such as miring, ‘muja menua'-Miring ceremonies are performed to honour the ‘Petara’ (Gods), spirits and ancestors and always associated in atheism, therefore any form or ceremony that offering others God (besides the Christian God) is prohibited by Christianity but the people take it easily and mutual understanding between individual’s ethics is concerned.

For the majority of Ibans who are Christians, some Christian festivals such as Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and other Christian festivals are also celebrated. Most Ibans are devout Christians and follow the Christian faith strictly. Since Christianity conversion, some of the Iban people never celebrate their ancestor's festival such as Gawai Burong or Gawai Antu but majority still practises Gawai Dayak (Harvest Festival) which is generic in nature and preserves their ancestors' culture and tradition. The majority of Iban Christians had changed their name to English or Hebrew name and some will never celebrate Gawai Dayak (Harvest Festival) at all.

However, some Iban festivals can still be celebrated in the Christian (European-style) ways like Gawai Antu, Gawai Umai, Gawai Lelabi by offering prayers to their Ancestor's God (the original Dayak/Iban religion {Animist}) where traditional foods and drinks are offered and then traditional music and dance are played for merrymaking. The Ibans have no restriction in celebrating all customary and traditional Iban festivals.

Despite the difference in faiths, Ibans of different faiths do help each other during Gawais and Christmas. Differences in faith is never a problem in the Iban community. The Ibans believe in helping and having fun together. Some elder Ibans are worried that among most of their younger Iban generation, their culture has faded since the conversion to Christianity where they are too excited to follow the western way of life.

A modern Iban longhouse in Kapit Division

Adat Iban or customary law

Among the main sections of customary adat of the Iban Dayaks according to Benedict Sandin [11] which are used to maintain order and keep peace are as follows:

  • Adat berumah (House building rule)
  • Adat melah pinang, butang ngau sarak (Marriage, adultery and divorce rule)
  • Adat beranak (Child bearing and raising rule)
  • Adat bumai and beguna tanah (Agricultural and land use rule)
  • Adat ngayau (Headhunting rule)
  • Adat ngasu, berikan, ngembuah and napang manyi (Hunting, fishing, fruit and honey collection rule)
  • Adat tebalu, ngetas ulit ngau beserarak bungai(Widow/widower, mourning and soul separation rule)
  • Adat begawai (festival rule)
  • Adat idup di rumah panjai (Order of life in the longhouse rule)
  • Adat betenun, main lama, kajat ngau taboh (Weaving, past times, dance and music rule)
  • Adat beburong, bemimpi ngau becenaga ati babi (Bird and animal omen, dream and pig liver rule)
  • Adat belelang tauka bejalai (Journey or Sojourn rule)

Iban's tunggu (Fines) with tajau = Value:

  • One uta = $0.25
  • One menukol = $0.50
  • One jabir = $1.00
  • One panding = $2.00
  • One alas = $4.00
  • One alas ngerang = $5.00
  • One alas barejang = $6.00
  • One alas betandok = $7.00
  • One rusa = $8.00
  • One menaga = $16.00
  • One ningka = $32.00

Types of 'tunggu' with the weight of paddy (catty) = Dollar equivalent before 1980s = Dollar equivalent now:

  • 5 catty = $3.60 = $5.00
  • 10 catty = $7.20 = $10.00
  • 20 catty = $14.40 = $20.00
  • 30 catty = $21.60 = $30.00
  • 1 picul or tam = $28.80 = $100.00

Musical & Dancing Heritage

Iban music is percussion-oriented. The Iban have a musical heritage consisting of various types of agung ensembles - percussion ensembles composed of large hanging, suspended or held, bossed/knobbed gongs which act as drones without any accompanying melodic instrument. The typical Iban agung ensemble will include a set of engkerumungs (small agungs arranged together side by side and played like a xylophone), a tawak (the so-called 'bass'), a bendai (which acts as a snare) and also a set of ketebung or bedup (a single sided drum/percussion).

The Iban music called taboh is made by playing a set of the four musical instruments namely engkerumong, tawak, bebendai and ketubong or sometimes called bedup which are respectively played by each person in synchronisation. There are various kinds of taboh depending the purpose and types of ngajat like "alun lundai".

The gendang can be played in some distinctive types corresponding to the purpose and type of each ceremony with the most popular ones are called gendang rayah and gendang pampat.

Sape is originally a traditional music by Orang Ulu (Kayan, Kenyah and Kelabit). Nowadays, both the Iban as well as the Orang Ulu Kayan, Kenyah and Kelabit play an instrument resembling the guitar called Sape (instrument). Datun Jalut and nganjak lansan are the most common traditional dances performed in accordance with a sape tune. The Sape (instrument) is the official musical instrument for the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It is played similarly to the way rock guitarists play guitar solos, albeit a little slower, but not as slow as blues.[12][13] One example of Iban traditional music is the taboh.

The Ibans perform a unique traditional dance called the ngajat, "kajat" or "ajat". The word kajat or ajat originates from the word "engkajat" which means "jumping on the spot". The Ibans perform the many kinds of dances accompanied by the music of gongs and drums. These dances include the ngajat, bepencha, bekuntau, main kerichap, main chekak.

The ajat dance is attributed to a spiritual being, Batu Lichin, Bujang Indang Lengain, who brought it to the Iban many generations ago. Another story says that the ajat dance originates from warriors who happily dance e.g. at the head of their war-boats after successfully obtain trophy heads during headhunting raids and the practice is continued until today. Today there are many kinds of ajat dances performed by the Ibans.

It serves many purposes depending on the occasion. During Gawai, it is used to entertain the people who in the olden days enjoy graceful ngajats as a form of entertainment. Iban men and women have different styles of ngajat. The ngajat involves a lot of graceful movements of body, hands and legs, shouts or war-cries and sometimes precise body-turning movements. The dancers sometimes use hand-held weapons. The ngajat for men is more aggressive and depicts a man going to war, or a hornbill walking (as a respect to the Iban god of war, "Sengalang Burong"). The women's form of ngajat consists of soft, graceful movements with very precise body turns and sometimes uses the traditional "pua kumbu" or handkerchief. Each ngajat is accompanied by the taboh.

Types of Iban Ngajat Dance

There are about four categories of Iban traditional ngajat dance according to their respective functional purpose as follows:[14]

A) Showmanship dance

  • ngajat ngalu temuai (welcoming dance) by a group of females,
  • ngajat indu (female dance),
  • ngajat pua kumbu (a female dance with a woven blanket which is most likely woven by herself),
  • ngajat lelaki (male dance),
  • ngajat lesung (rice mortar dance),
  • ngajat pinggai ngau kerubong strum (dance with one rice ceramic plate held on each palm while tapping the plates with an empty bullet shell inserted into the middle fingers of both hands),
  • ngajat bujang berani ngena terabai ngau ilang (warrior dance with full costume, a shield and sword),
  • ngajat bebunoh (hand combat dance normally between two male dancers),
  • Ngajat nanka kuta (fort defence dance)
  • ngajat semain laki ngau indu (dance by a group of men and ladies),
  • ngajat niti papan (dance by a group of men and ladies on a raised up wooden plank)
  • ngajat atas tawak (dance on top of gongs by ladies with gentlemen in the background)
  • ngajat ngalu pengabang (dance by a man with several ladies behind who lead the procession of guests during festivals)

These types of dance can be performed either on an open space or around the pun ranyai which is the tree of life.

B) Ritual dance

  • ngajat Panggau Libau as a group of men with a sword and isang leaves.
  • ngerandang jalai (pathway-clearing), ngelalau jalai (pathway fencing)
  • Berayah pupu buah rumah (longhouse contribution collection)
  • berayah ngelilingi pun sabang ngau tiang chandi gawai (dancing around the festival ritual pole)
  • Naku antu pala (Welcoming human heads)
  • Naku pentik kenyalang (Welcoming hornbill statue)

C) Comedial dance

  • Ajat kera (Monkey dance)
  • Ajat muar kesa (Stinging Ants' nest collection)
  • Ajat Matak Wi (Rattan pulling dance)
  • Ajat Nyumpit (Blowpiping dance)
  • Ajat Bekayuh (Paddling dance)
  • Ajat Mabuk (Drunk dance)
  • Ajat bunyan baka lari maya ngasu (Running scared dance e.g. scared of animals while hunting)[15]
  • Ajat ngelusu berapi, beribunka anak ngau nutok (Lazy woman dance)
  • Ajat pama (Frog dance)
  • Ajat gerasi tunsang (Upside down huntsman dance)
  • Ajat tempurung nyor (Coconut shell dance)
  • Ajat turun tupai (Squirrel going down dance)
  • Ajat jelu bukai (Other animal mimicking dance)

D) Self-defence dance

  • Bekuntau (Self-defence dance)
  • Bepenca (Martial art dance)
  • Main kerichap
  • Main chekak

According to one Iban writer,[16] when a warrior performs the ajat bebunoh dance with the music of a gendang panjai orchestra, he does it as if he is fighting against an enemy. With occasional shouts he raises his shield with one arm and swings his ilang knife with his other arm as he moves towards the enemy. While he moves forward he is careful with the steps of his feet to guard them from being cut by his foe. The tempo of his action is very fast with his knife and shield gleaming up and down as he dances.

The man dance has various unique moves such as minta ampun (apologising to guests first), showing skills of playing with the sword and the shield, biting the sword in the mouth for affirming his strength, balancing the sword over his shoulder while still dancing, engkajat (fast foot movement to distract the attention of the enemy), running forward with the sword pointed towards the enemy and shouting war cries to strike the enemy and finally the glory of holding the enemy's freshly chopped head. The enemy head may be symbolised by a coconut which is hung beforehand on the tree of life and the ending move is apologising to the guests again.

The performance of ajat semain is done in slower tempo and with graceful movements. The dancer softens his body, arms and hands as he swings forward and backward. When he bends his body the swinging of his hands is very soft. The performance of ngajat nanggong lesong dance is more or less like the ajat semain dance. Only when the dancer bites and raises the heavy wooden mortar (lesong) with his teeth, does he use extraordinary skill. It is not an attractive dance, although his audience enjoys seeing his trick of biting and raising a heavy mortar and then placing it carefully again on the floor.

When the dancers take the floor to dance, the musicians beat two dumbak drums, a bendai gong, a set of seven small gongs (engkerumong) and a large tawak gong. The music for the performance of ajat bebunoh dance is quicker in tempo than the music for the ajat semain and ajat nanggong lesong dances, as in the dance itself.

Types of Iban gendang musics

As from time immemorial, the people of the longhouse have been skilled in playing all kinds of gendang musics. Another important music performed by the Ibans is called gendang rayah. It is played only for religious festivals with the following instruments: 1. The music from a first bendai gong is called pampat 2. The music from a second bendai gong is called kaul 3. The music from a third bendai gong is called kura 4. As the three bendai gongs sound together, then a first tawak gong is beaten and is added to by the beating of another tawak gong to make the music.

Last but not least, is the music played using the katebong drums by one or up to eleven drummers. These drums are long. Its cylinder is made from strong wood, such as tapang or mengeris, and one of its ends is covered with the skins of monkeys and mousedeer or the skin of a monitor lizard. The major types of drum music are known as follows: 1. Gendang Bebandong 2. Gendang Lanjan 3. Gendang Enjun Batang 4. Gendang Tama Pechal 5. Gendang Pampat 6. Gendang Tama Lubang 7. Gendang Tinggang Batang 8. Singkam Nggam All these types are played by drummers on the open air verandas during the celebration of the Gawai Burong festival. The Singkam Nggam music is accompanied by the quick beating of beliong adzes. After each of these types has been played, the drummers beat another music called sambi sanjan, which is followed by still another called tempap tambak pechal. To end the orchestral performance the music of gendang bebandong is again beaten.

The ordinary types of music beaten by drummers for pleasure are as follows: 1. Gendang Dumbang 2. Gendang Ngang 3. Gendang Ringka 4. Gendang Enjun Batang 5. Kechendai Inggap Diatap 6. Gendang Kanto

When a Gawai Manang or bebangun festival is held for a layman to be consecrated as a manang (shaman), the following music must be beaten on the ketebong drums at the open veranda (tanju) of the longhouse of the initiate: 1. Gendang Dudok 2. Gendang Rueh 3. Gendang Kelakendai 4. Gendang Tari 5. Gendang Naik 6. Gendang Po Umboi 7. Gendang Sembayan 8. Gendang Layar 9. Gendang Bebandong 10. Gendang Nyereman

Gendang Bebandong also must be beaten when a manang dies and is beaten again when his coffin is lowered from the open air verandah (tanju) to the ground below on its way to the cemetery for burial.

Other Iban musical instruments

In addition to playing music on the above-mentioned instruments, Iban men enjoy the music of the following instruments:

  • Engkerurai (bagpipe)
  • Kesuling (flute)
  • Ruding (Jew's harp)
  • Rebab (guitar with two strings)
  • Balikan (guitar with 3 strings)
  • Belula (violin)
  • Engkeratong (harp)

The women, especially the maidens, are fond of playing the Jew's harp while conversing with their visiting lovers at night, with the tunes from the ruding Jew's harp, the girls and their boyfriends relate how much they love each other. In past generations, there were very few Iban men and women who did not know how to converse with each other by using the ruding Jew's harp. Today very few younger people know how to play this instrument and the art is rapidly dying out.

Traditional costumes

Three corsets worn by native Iban Dayaks and Bidayuh Dayaks.

The ngajat dancers will usually wear their traditional costumes.

The male costume consists of the following: - Sirat (loincloth) - baju burong (bird shirt) - baju buri (bead shirt) - baju gagong (animal skin cloth) - Engkerimok - Unus Lebus - Simpai Rangki - Tumpa Bala (five on both sides) - Labong Pakau or lelanjang (headgear)

The female costume includes:[17] - Kain Batating (Petticoat with decorated bells at the bottom end) - Rawai Tinggi (High Corset with Rattan Coils inserted with small Brass Rings ) - Sugu Tinggi (High headgear) - Marik Empang (Beaded Chain) - Selampai (Long Scalp) - Lampit (Silver Belt) - Tumpak (Armlet) - Gelang kaki (Anklet) - Antin pirak (Silver stud earrings) - Buah pauh purse

Note: Both marik empang and selampai are not originally belong to the Iban traditional costume but added to cover the chest of Iban ladies. There are variations of the Iban female costume as per the reference above.

Rhythms of Taboh Music

One Iban writer briefly describes the rhythms of taboh music played the Iban's brass band ochestra[18] which translates as "The number of musicians to play taboh music is four ie one playing the bebendai (small gong) which is beaten first of all to determine the rhythm of the taboh, responded to by the gendang or dedumbak drum, followed by the tawak (big gong) and finalized by the engkerumong set."

To the laymen's ears, the rhythms of taboh music for ngajat dance is only two i.e. fast or slow but actually it has four types namely Ayun Lundai (Slow swing), Ai Anyut (Flowing water), Sinu Ngenang (Sad remembrance) and Tanjak Ai (Against the water flow). The first three taboh types are slow to accompany the ajat semain (group dance), ajat iring (accompanying dance) and ajat kelulu (comedial dance). The fourth rhythm of taboh is fast which is suitable for the ajat bebunoh (killing dance). Other rhythms of taboh music are tinggang punggung for ngambi indu (taking the bride for wedding) and taboh rayah (rayah music) for ngerandang and ngelalau jalai (pathway clearing and fencing dance).

Iban Arts

A 19th century Iban carving of a hornbill.

Types of Iban carvings or Ukir

These include hornbill effigy carving, terabai shield, engkeramba (ghost statue), knife stilt normally made of deer horn, knife scabbard, decorative carving on the metal blade itself during ngamboh blacksmithing e.g. butoh kunding, and frightening mask (India guru).

Another related category is designing motives either by engraving or drawing with paints such wooden planks, walls or house posts.

Even the traditional coffins will be beautifully decorated using both carving and ukir-painting.

Types of Iban pantang or kalingai (tattoo)

The Ibans like to tattoo themselves all over their body. There motives for each part of the human body. The purposes are to protect the tattoo bearers or to signify certain events in their life.

Some motives are based on marine lives such as lobster (rengguang), prawn (undang) and crab (ketam) while other motives are based on dangerous creatures like cobra (tedong), scorpion (kala), ghost dog (pasun) and dragon (naga). Other normal motives include items which Iban travellers meet during their journey such as aeroplane on the chest.

Some Ibans call this art of tattoing as kalingai.

To signify that an individual has killed an enemy (udah bedengah), he is entitled to tattoo his throat (engkatak) or his upper-side fingers (tegulun).

Some traditional Iban do have piercings on the penis (called palang) or ear lobes.

Types of Iban weavings or betenun

Several types of woven blankets made by the Ibans are pua kumbu, pua ikat, kain karap and kain sungkit.

Weaving is the women's warpath while kayau (headhunting) is the men's warpath.

The pua kumbu do have conventional or ritual motives depending on the purpose of weaving it. Those who finish the weaving lessons are called "tembu kayu" (Finish the wood) [[19]].

Among reknowm ritual motives are Gajah Meram (Brodding Elephant), Tiang Sanding (Ritual Pole), Meligai (Shrine) and Tiang Ranyai [[20]].

Using weaving, the Iban makes blankets, bird shirt (baju burong), kain kebat, kain betating and selampai.

Types of Iban plaitings or beranyam

The Iban calls this skill pandai beranyam (skilful in plaiting) various items namely mats (tikai), baskets and hats.

The Ibans weave mats of numerous types namely tikai anyam dua tauka tiga, tikai bebuah (motived mat),[21] tikai lampit made of rattan and tikai peradani made of rattan and tekalong bark.

Materials to make mats are beban to make the normal mat or the patterned mat, rattan to make tikai rotan, lampit when the rattan splits sewn using a thread or peradani when criss-crossed with the tekalong bark, senggang to make perampan used for drying and daun biru to make a normal tikai or kajang (canvas) which very light when dry.

The names of Iban baskets are bakak (medium-sized container for transferring, lifting or medium-term storage), singtong (container for raping ripen paddy worn at the waist), raga (small container), tubang (cylindrical backpack), lanji (tall cylindrical backpack) and probably selabit (almost rectangular shaped backpack).

Another category of plaiting which are normally carried out by men is to make fish traps called bubu gali, bubu dudok, engsegah and abau using betong bamaboo splits except bubu dudok is made from 'ridan which can be bent without breaking.

The Iban also makes special baskets called garong for the dead during Gawai Antu with numerous feet to denote the rank and status of the deceased which indicates his ultimate achievement during his lifetime.

The Iban also make pukat (rectangular net) and jala (conical net) after nylon ropes available.

Types of Iban hunting apparatus

These include making panjuk (rope and spring trap), peti (bamboo blade trap) and jarin (deer net). Nowadays, they use shotguns and dogs for animal hunting. Dogs are reared by the Ibans in longhouses especially in the past for hunting (ngasu) purposes and warning of any danger approaching.

The Ibans make their own blowpipe.

The Ibans obtain honey from the tapang tree.

Later shotguns can be bought from the Brooke government.

The Iban boat or perau making

The Ibans can make their boats. The canoes for normal use is called perau but big war boats are called bangkong or bong which is probably fitted with long paddles and a wind sail made of kajang canvas. It is said that bangkong is used to sail along the sea coasts of northern Borneo or even to travel across the seas e.g. to Singapore.

The Iban blacksmithing or ngamboh

The Ibans make various blades called nyabur, ilang, pedang, duku chandong, duku penebas, lungga (small blade), sangkoh, jerepang, beruit and mata lanja sumpit.

Although silversmithing originates from the Embaloh, some Ibans became skilled in this trade to make silverwares for body ornaments.

The Iban always buy brasswares such tawak (gong), bendai (snare) and engkerumong, tabak (tray) and baku (small box) from other peoples because they do not have the skills of brasssmithing.

The Iban makes their own kacit pinang to split the ereca nuts and pengusok pinang to grind the split pieces of the ereca nut.

They also make ketap (finger-held blade) to reap ripen paddy stalks and iluk (hand-held blade) to weed.

Iban traditional possessions

Pala Antu, a headhunting trophy skull of the Ibans, photographed in an Iban longhouse in the Betong Division in Sarawak, Malaysia. The skull is about 100 years old.

Head Skull

The Ibans used to regard human skulls (called antu pala) obtained during headhunting raids (ngayau) as their most prized trophy and possession.


The Ibans treasure jars which are called benda or tajau which include, pasu, salang-alang, alas, rusa, menaga, ningka, sergiu, pereni and guchi. Possession of these jars mark someone's wealth and any fines may be paid using benda or tajau in the old days and presently used nowadays as part of upah (pay) for bards and shamans.


Iban strived to own a full set of brass musical instruments which comprises a tawak (gong), bendai (snare), engkurumong (small gong) and bedup (drum).


Getting a lot of paddy used to be highly regarded and perhaps an indication of wealth.

Shaman and bard

Having a manang shaman and lemambang bards is also regarded necessary possession with the Iban riverine community. This practice used to be to have one set per river tributary, if not per a longhouse. Nowadays, obtaining educational degrees is foremost in the Iban minds e.g. the target is to have a degree graduate per family bilek within a longhouse.


The Iban aims to own land as much as possible via berumpang menua (jungle clearing) before when fresh jungles were still available in abundance. Therefore the Ibans were willing to migrate to new areas. Before the arrival of James Brooke, the Iban had migrated from Kapuas to Saribas and Skrang, Batang Ai, Sadong, Samarahan, Katibas, Kapit and Baleh in order to own fress tracks of jungles among the reasons. Some Ibans participated in Brooke-led punitive expeditions against their own countrymen in exchange for areas to migrate to.


Nowadays, of course the Ibans build beautiful and permanent longhouses just like terraced houses in town areas. Many Iban still believes in the necessity and importance of living in longhouses rather single-houses within a kampong village e.g. during gatherings, meetings, farming and festivals.

Traditional Costume

Each Iban aim to have a set of a traditional costume called ngepan for both sexes.

Defence weaponry

Each Iban males will have a set of war weaponry which include a knife, a terabai shield, a blowpipe, a sangkoh spear and a baju gagong (tough animal skin shirt). In addition, the Iban will look for charms called pengaroh, empelias, pengerabun, etc.


Each Iban family will own at least one long boat for transportation along rivers.


Normally, the Iban will rear at least chickens and pigs besides any pets of wild animals.

The Iban agriculture and economy

The Ibans plant paddy once a year with twenty seven stages.[22][23] Other crops planted include ensabi, cucumber (rampu amat and rampu betu), brinjal, corn, lingkau and cotton before commercial threads are sold in the market.

For cash, the Ibans find jungle produce for sale in the market. Later, they plant rubber, pepper and cocoa which prevail to this day. Nowadays, many Ibans work in the town areas to seek employment or involve in trade or business.

The Iban in Military

Two highly decorated Iban Dayak soldiers from Sarawak in Malaysia are Temenggung Datuk Kanang anak Langkau (awarded Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa) and Awang Anak Rawing of Skrang (awarded a George Cross).[57][58][59] So far, only one Dayak has reached the rank of a general in the military that is Brigadier-General Stephen Mundaw in the Malaysian Army, who was promoted on 1 November 2010.[60]

Malaysia’s most decorated war hero is Kanang Anak Langkau due to his military services helping to liberate Malaya (and later Malaysia) from the communists. Among all the heroes were 21 holders of Panglima Gagah Berani (PGB) which is the bravery medal with 16 survivors. Of the total, there are 14 Ibans, two Chinese army officers, one Bidayuh, one Kayan and one Malay. But the majorities in the Armed Forces are Malays, according to a book – Crimson Tide over Borneo. The youngest of the PGB holder is ASP Wilfred Gomez of the Police Force.

There were six holders of Sri Pahlawan (SP) Gagah Perkasa (the Gallantry Award) from Sarawak, and with the death of Kanang Anak Langkau, there is one SP holder in the person of Sgt. Ngalinuh (an Orang Ulu).

The Iban Calendar

The Iban calendar is one month ahead of the Roman calendar as follows:

  • First month - called Bulan Pangka Di Labu which is December when paddy starts to ripen.
  • Second month - called Bulan Empalai Rubai which is January.
  • Third month - called Bulan Emperaga / Empikap which is February when harvesting starts.
  • Fourth month - called Bulan Lelang which is March when sojourn or journey begins.
  • Fifth month - called Bulan Turun Panggul which is April when farming (manggul) is initiated.
  • Sixth month - called Bulan Sandih Tundan which is May during which felling commences.
  • Seventh month -simply called Bulan tujuh which is June.
  • Eighth month - called Bulan Belanggang Reban which is July which is the drying season.
  • Ninth month - called Bulan Kelebun which is August when burning and dibbling start.
  • Tenth month -called Bulan Labuh Benih which is September when dibbling continues.
  • Eleventh month - called Bulan Gantung Senduk which is October when most Iban finish paddy or rice.
  • Twelfth month - called Bulan Chechanguk which is November when weeding is completed.

Cultural references

An Iban family living in a longhouse in Betong
  • The episode, Into the Jungle from Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations included the appearance of Itam, a former Sarawak Ranger and one of the Iban people's last members with the Entegulun (Iban traditional tattoo design) (hand tattoos) signifying his taking of an enemy’s head.
  • The Iban were featured on an episode of Worlds Apart on the National Geographic Channel.
  • The movie The Sleeping Dictionary features Selima (Jessica Alba), an Anglo-Iban girl who falls in love with John Truscott (Hugh Dancy). The movie was filmed primarily in Sarawak, Malaysia.
  • Malaysia's Ethnic Pop Queen, Noraniza Idris recorded Ngajat Tampi in 2000 and followed by Tandang Bermadah in 2002 which is based on Iban tribe music composition. Both songs became a fame in Malaysia and neighbourhood countries.
  • Love of a Forest Maiden(CHINTA GADIS RIMBA) is 1958 film (Chinta Gadis Rimba) directed by L. Krishnan. It is based on the novel (the first time Malay film has been adapted from a novel) Chinta Gadis Rimba by Harun Aminurrashid and the main cast by S. Roomai Noor, Narang and M. Amin. The film is about Bintang, the Iban girl who goes against the wishes of her parents and runs off to her Malay Lover. The film also the first time a full-length picture has been shot in Sarawak and the first time an Iban girl has played the lead in film.
  • "Bejalai" is a 1987 film directed by Dr Stephen Teo (currently a research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, and a senior associate of RMIT University) and Starring (Dick Isaac as Rentap) Salome Kumpeing, Chiling Nyanggai. This film is the first to be made in the Iban language in Sarawak, and it features good English subtitles and also the 1st Malaysian film to be selected for the Berlin Film Festival (in 1989) is an experimental feature about the custom among the native Iban community of Sarawak for young men to "bejalai" (go on a journey) before attaining maturity.
  • Farewell to the King a 1989 film written and directed by John Milius. It is based on the 1969 novel L'Adieu au Roi by Pierre Schoendoerffer. The film is marketed with the tagline "In the midst of war, one man vanished into the jungle, and emerged as king". The plot taking place during World War II, American deserter Learoyd escapes a Japanese firing squad. Hiding himself in the wilds of Borneo, Learoyd is adopted by an Iban People (Sea Dayaks of Borneo).
  • the 1st TV Ads in Iban Language and directed by Late Yasmin Ahmad with help of Leo Burnett. For Malaysia’s 50th anniversary celebration, Maybank came up with a unique commercial that tickled Malaysians. The scenes were shot in Bau and Kapit, using a Sarawak cast.

Notable Figures

  • Orang Kaya Pemancha Dana "Bayang" (perhaps the first Iban raja berani chief of the Saribas region who was the mentor of Libau "Rentap" during war expeditions and with whom James Brooke (the Rajah of Sarawak) tried to sign on the Saribas Peace Treaty)
  • Libau "Rentap" (The famous Iban Dayak rebel leader in Sarawak of the Skrang region who proclaimed to be the Raja Ulu (King of the Interior) resisted the Brooke government of Sarawak until defeated at Sadok Hill after three successive punitive expeditions by the Brooke government)
  • Temenggong Koh Anak Jubang (The first Iban appointed as Temenggong by Rajah Charles Brooke)
  • Tun Temenggong Jugah anak Barieng (Second Paramount Chief of the Iban people and the key signatory on behalf of Sarawak to Formation of the Federation of Malaysia)
  • Tun Stephen Kalong Ningkan (Sarawak First Chief Minister)
  • Datuk Temenggong Kanang anak Langkau (National Hero of Malaysia)
  • Datuk Joseph Entulu Belaun, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department and Member of the Malaysian Parliament for Selangau, Sarawak

See also


  1. ^ "Sea Dayak of Malaysia". People Groups. Retrieved 2015-10-03. 
  2. ^ "Iban of Indonesia". People Groups. Retrieved 2015-10-03. 
  3. ^ "Iban of Brunei". People Groups. Retrieved 2015-10-03. 
  4. ^ "2010 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia" (PDF) (in Malay and English). Department of Statistics, Malaysia. Retrieved 17 June 2012.  p. 108
  5. ^ Raja Burong by Benedict Sandin
  6. ^ Saribas Ibans' rite of paddy storage by Prof Clifford Santher)
  7. ^ Gawai Burong by Benedict Sandin
  8. ^…/Masing_J.%20J._1981.pdf
  9. ^ Adat Gawai by Dr. Robert Menua Abak Saleh and Walter Ted Anak Wong
  10. ^ Leka Main: Iban Folk Poetry - An Analysis of Form and Function by Dr Chermaline Usop
  11. ^ Iban Adat and Augury by Bendict Sandin
  12. ^ Mercurio, Philip Dominguez (2006). "Traditional Music of the Southern Philippines". PnoyAndTheCity: A center for Kulintang - A home for Pasikings. Retrieved 21 November 2006. 
  13. ^ Matusky, Patricia. "An Introduction to the Major Instruments and Forms of Traditional Malay Music." Asian Music Vol 16. No. 2. (Spring-Summer 1985), pp. 121-182.
  14. ^ The role of Dayak Cultural Foundation in preserving the Iban traditional ngajat dance by Jerry Hawkin Anak Suting
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ See examples here,
  22. ^ Iban Agriculture by JD Freeman
  23. ^ Report on the Iban by JD Freeman


  • Sir Steven Runciman, The White Rajahs: a history of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946 (1960).
  • James Ritchie, The Life Story of Temenggong Koh (1999)
  • Benedict Sandin, Gawai Burong: The chants and celebrations of the Iban Bird Festival (1977)
  • Greg Verso, Blackboard in Borneo, (1989)
  • Renang Anak Ansali, New Generation of Iban, (2000)

External links

  • A website created by an Iban from Sarawak called CyberPenom. All infos on the Iban longhouse
  • A Westerner's view on the peoples of Borneo
  • A forum for Ibans. In English and Iban
  • A forum for Ibans. In English and Iban
  • . In English and IbanThe House Of Sengalang BurongA forum for Ibans on
  •, an Iban Encyclopedia
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