And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.— John Muir, mountaineer
In 1993, I travelled by motorcycle across the Indonesian border to attend an ancient ceremony of the Maloh of West Kalimantan (Kalbar).
Called “Gawai Madu Buling” or the Great Mourning Festival, it was to appease the spirits of their ancestors who had been killed during the headhunting era.
It was organised by the “Bupati” or Resident of Putussibau — the largest residency in Kalbar — Semagat Jacobus E Frans.
I invited my Sea Dayak friend, Nicholas Bawin, along because the location was ‘Batang Kanyau’ his ancestral homeland.
About 1,000 years ago, Bawin’s ancestors had travelled from the Pontianak coast up the 1,100km-long Kapuas River and settled among the Maloh.
However, when the remote region was over-populated, large groups migrated across the border and made Sarawak their home.
It was like a homecoming for Bawin who later rose to become deputy president of Majlis Adat Istiadat — the state’s premier cultural body.
Jacobus had taken a whole day to travel 1,200km by road from Pontianak to Putussibau, the administrative centre of Kalbar’s remotest residency adjacent to Kapit.
My journey from Kuching to Putussibau was only about 300km.
For me, it was a journey of many firsts because it was the beginning of a learning curve about the world’s third largest island.
Bawin and I started in Lubuk Antu, with guide Tamat Radin, going through an oil palm estate by “ojek” (motorcycle taxi).
From Lanjak, we travelled by “kijang” (rural minibus) and continued to Ukit Ukit by sharing one motorcycle between the three of us.
We crossed two separate river crossings where we had to help carry the motorcycle onto a sampan.
We finally arrived at our destination, somewhat bruised after a few spills along the muddy path.
Even though Jacobus was not a headhunter, he was an accomplished warrior who had served Indonesia during the Confrontation and held a high position in the Governor’s office in Pontianak.
A lawyer, Jacobus was not only the “mentor” of his community but also actively involved in recording the dying cultures of the Dayak people in Kalimantan.
Jacobus’ ancestor Semagat (a term to denote royalty) Maling was installed as the first Maloh Temenggong in 1886.
After Maling died in 1904, Semagat Nandung took over for 15 years and after his demise, Semagat Tali took over.
One of Jacobus’ traditional experts, Onyang, said, “After Maling died, all the earlier leaders were accorded this grand send-off to the spiritual world. After becoming Christians, our people ceased this ritual as it was associated with the headhunting practices of our ancestors.”
However, in 1945, Panglima Timbang, who gallantly fought the Japanese, tried to revive the tradition but failed.
Onyang said, “The last time we broke some taboos and that is why we need to appease the spirits.”
He told us to be alert because the spirits could be looking for victims.
True to prediction, just before midnight, our motorcycle rider, Sawang Miut, almost ran over a black cobra near the village.
The following morning, Nicholas and I nearly stepped on another black cobra curled behind a fallen tree.
On returning to the longhouse, we related our encounter to the villagers and they said the two cobras represented the spirits of Nandung and Tali.
That morning, the ceremony began with Jacobus “feeding” the spirits by throwing rice out into the yard.
He then led an entourage comprising those adorned in their aristocratic best and villagers to the bank of Sungei Embaloh where a decorated boat awaited them.
Tied across the 400m-wide river was a long rope to warn fellow villagers not to pass the river until the ceremony was over.
While this was happening, another group at the longhouse prepared for the firing of an ancient cannon.
Unfortunately, misfortune struck when the 150-year-old brass canon exploded and injured one person who was rushed by speedboat to the nearest clinic two hours away.
The ceremony continued and after 15 minutes, the boat with Jacobus and his entourage returned. He cut the rope linking the two riverbanks, a gesture which meant that outsiders could now pass.
Onyang performed the final rituals, bringing out two “tambang” statues which symbolised the final link between the human and spiritual world.
The statues were then taken to the final burial ground called “Kulambu” (mausoleum).
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.