An exciting cultural extravaganza
By:James Alexander Ritchie
Date:

I believe that nothing should be taboo – no theory or prejudice should close one’s mind to a discovery.

Henry Moore, English artist

Aristocrat “Semagat” Jacobus was not only mentor of the small “Memaloh” tribe, but was involved in recording its disappearing culture.

Like high priest Onyang, Jacobus was descended from the leaders of the “Indu Banua” community who were the original people of Sungei Embaloh region before the arrival of the Iban.

Onyang said that they were a powerful tribe until they integrated with the Iban who came from the lower reaches of the Kapuas River, 1,000 miles away.

The Iban adopted the Maloh culture of making silverware such as the headgear of their womenfolk and belts made from silver coins which they brought with them after migrating over to Sarawak 400 years ago.

In 1886, Semagat Maling was installed as the first Temenggong (paramount chief) of the Embaloh river system by the Dutch.

After Maling died, in 1904 Nandung took over for 15 years until his demise in 1919.

Semagat Tali was the third Temenggong. Onyang said: “Our last Madu Buling was held in 1929. All the earlier leaders were accorded this grand send-off to the spirit world.

“After becoming Christians, our people ceased this ritual as it was associated with the head-hunting practices of our ancestors.”

However, in 1945, Panglima Timbang, who gallantly killed and beheaded the Japanese, revived the tradition.

But most of the Maloh had forgotten the ancient rituals and taboos!

During Jacobus’s visit, one phase of ritual was not performed according to the ancient rites and things went wrong, giving rise to strange happenings.

Just before midnight, our Memaloh guide Sawang Miut almost ran over a black cobra with his motorcycle near the village.

The following morning, Nicholas and I nearly stepped on another large black cobra curled behind a fallen tree as we were exploring the jungle behind the village.

On our return to the longhouse, we related our encounter with the snake and the experts said the two cobras represented the spirits of Nandung and Tali.

They also said we had nothing to worry about but I had my reservations.

The ceremony began with Jacobus “feeding” the spirits by throwing rice out into the yard.

He then led an entourage comprising villagers adorned in their traditional best, waiting on the banks of the Sungei Embaloh.

Tied across the 400-metre-wide river was a long rope to warn fellow villagers not to pass the river until the ceremony was over.

Onyang, who was on a gaily decorated boat ala Melanau “Pesta Kaul” style, had brought with him two statues – that of deities “Nandung” and “Tali”.

Like most “Gawai” Dayak festivals it is customary to use shotguns to fire into the air to appease the spirits.

In the old days the natives made thousands of homemade guns as well as air rifles fashioned from pipes.

However, accidents have often occurred and these illegal guns were banned.

As the Gawai Buling Madu proceeded, one celebrant who owned an ancient 150-year-old brass cannon fired the weapon, causing serious injuries.

It didn’t look good and seemed as if the man’s shattered arm would have to be amputated as he was rushed to Putussibau by speedboat.

After a short commotion it was business as usual as the ceremony had to go on.

Jacobus, who was wearing a Malay style “Tongkolok” headgear, then cut the rope linking the two banks of the river.

Onyang performed the final ritual by unveiling the two “Tambang” (deity) statues Nandung and Tali for them to “witness” the closing of the event.

 Jacobus said that the cutting of the rope meant severing the last link between the human and spirit world.

Now the Maloh community could bravely move forward towards the world of modernity.

After the ceremony, Onyang took the statues back to the burial ground to their “Kulambu” (royal mausoleum), located less than a kilometre away from the village.

After the last of the traditional rites, the community then held Christian prayers.

As the Gawai had ended it was time for me to take the long road home to Kuching.

What if the “Polisi” or Tentera Nasional Indonesia (TNI) soldiers stopped us and asked for our travel papers?

However, after mentioning we were guests of the meeting with the “Bupati” for the Gawai Madu Buling, the path was clear to return to Sarawak.

My car was parked at the home of an Iban not far from the Lubok Antu bazaar where there was an open-air “Ijok” palm toddy bar.

You could join the boys for a session by the river, but I was tired after the long journey so had a glass or two of the “Iban toddy” before taking the four-hour-drive back to Kuching, happy we were all safe and sound.

Part 3: In search of ‘Lost’ Kalimantan cavemen

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune. 

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