Contest to seek justice

Truth never damages a cause that is just.

– Mahatma Gandhi, anti-colonial nationalist

Disputes, especially pertaining to land ownerships among the Ibans of old were usually settled by a contest called “kalam ai”. This literally means “submerging in water”.

Many districts in the state decades ago still resorted to this method of settling disputes, including in Saratok. Nevertheless, this has not been done since the 80s in our area Melupa, a Krian tributary.

Ibans then attributed this method of solving disputes and seeking justice from a famed fight between a dog and a crab. This quarrel started when one dog kept on making loud noise due to being bitten on its external organ by a crab. This happened when the poor canine was lying down on the kerangan (extended and dry riverbank full of pebbles). Its organ was bleeding but the dog could not retaliate as the crab returned to the river soon after the bite.

This was when the Ibans were very close to nature, including the animals, other creatures and the spirits as well as various deities.

There were many people who responded to the predicament of the injured dog. Many wished they could find the crab and give it some kind of punishment. But none was able to look for the culprit as it had returned to its abode deep in the pool.

Finally, Raja Seragindah (Earth Deity) made a decree asking an otter to look for the crab. Immediately the otter (or ringin in Iban) jumped into the pool where the crab was hiding. In no time it found the guilty crab and brought it out from the water and putting it next to the victim (dog) which was still making noises of pain.

The dog was trying its best to bite the crab as well as stepping on it. Later the otter said to the dog, “As I have helped you, from now onward you must refrain from barking at us otters and our descendants in the future.”

On hearing that the dog pledged to stop barking at otters. It also sent a message to other dogs to obey. Those of us from the ulu have never seen the dog barking at otters for the simple reason that otters are rarely seen. But the marks of otters are usually seen along jungle paths, near rivers or streams, namely their faeces of crab shells. Dogs would be the first to run away from the very smelly faeces of the ringin. This shows the animosity between otters and crabs is there to stay — crabs remain one of otters’ favourite food, apart from small mammals, insects, frogs and others. 

Many men could not believe the dog-crab-otter saga. Some wondered how such a small animal (otter) was able to find the crab down the deep pool. But others said, no matter how big or small you were, if you were guilty, you would be found.

Nevertheless, the men around the area of the incident could not stop their arguments. As such Raja Saragindah told them that the ringin was able to find the crab due to the latter being guilty.

“Wherever you are, if you are guilty, you will be found,” said Raja Seragindah who might not be aware that otters could dive to 60 feet deep and swim a quarter mile before coming up for air.

However, there were still some who refused to accept the fact that the otter was able to locate the crab. So, after a long argument Raja Seragindah decreed that they do the “kalam ai”.

This was when they asked the Ikan Semah (an aquatic inhabitant) to represent those saying the guilty acts could stay hidden while the ringin (a creature staying on land) was to become the rep for the opposite camp.

Prior to the start of the contest to seek justice, a lead bard was asked to perform the chant aimed at seeking justice with the help of the various river deities. And that whoever represented the truth would thrive or prevail.

After quite some time under water, it was Ikan Semah that came out first.

“There you are,” said Raja Seragindah. “Semah the king of fishes has lost because it represents untruth and lies. The ringin is proclaimed the victor here because, despite not an aquatic creature it remains under water longer because it symbolises the truth and justice.”

He then continued: “From today, those of you who cannot settle your quarrel or dispute by means of the existing laws, you must hold a “kalam ai” contest and let Petara or King of Deities conduct justice amicably.”

This became the starting point of such event to seek justice.