Crocodiles, men and an unbroken pact

“I feel uncomfortable looking at the photo of a crocodile stomach being dissected for human remains on our New Sarawak Tribune inside page yesterday. However, it is necessary to solve a puzzle,” said an official of Sarawak Forestry Corporation.

The Iban community of Krian, Saratok have lived in peace with the river kings for quite a while until recently when there were attacks by crocodiles in Seblak River, a tributary of lower Krian in Roban.

In fact it was also in Seblak’s tributary, Sungai Anak, in 2012 when a young Iban woman was attacked and killed by the reptile. Her body was found some hours later on the same day (at night) not far from where she was dragged underwater by the seemingly angry creature, a local daily reported.

 ” Nevertheless, my family members are always at peace with the reptiles. We have never disturbed each other, especially after our maternal ancestor Manang Belabun,  a shaman of old, made a pact with crocodiles. “

Thus far, it has not been known in upper and middle Krian of any such attack though the reptiles are said to be in abundance now that the river is almost free of speedboats and longboats with engines – the gasoline is said to inflict pain on the creatures’ eyes.

There is a common saying in the Iban language about the abundance of crocodiles in middle Krian that reads, “Nyelam Lubuk Gagam, pansut Lubuk Mamut (Dive in Lubuk Gagam, emerge at Lubuk Mamut).”

For the readers’ information, Gagam Pool, just above the Krian Bridge is said to be the abode of a huge crocodile whose back has plants and grasses fully growing on it. Overlooking this deep and frightening looking pool with a bird’s eye view is the lumbung (funerary home with unburied coffin) of my maternal great-grandfather Penghulu Bungin Anya.

That part of our ancestral land has been entrusted to me. It is presently accessible by tarred road through the Kaki Wong feeder road. Mamut Pool, above Gagam is another frightening looking lubuk that I had passed a few times enroute – by boat on paddles or powered by engine – to Kawit longhouse or Kabo longhouse further up the Krian, respectively the homes of my late sister, aunty and their families.   

Nevertheless, my family members are always at peace with the reptiles. We have never disturbed each other, especially after our maternal ancestor Manang Belabun, a shaman of old, made a pact with crocodiles.

During the days when the Iban people were still close and in oneness with nature there were many weird rendezvous between men and nature, including its creatures. So one day, Belabun, who lived many generations ago, was visited by two gentlemen fully attired in Iban warrior costumes, while he was mending his bamboo fish trap at the open gallery of his longhouse.

“We need your immediate service to cure our sick sister. Please kindly come with us,” one of the young men told Belabun.

 ” During the days when the Iban people were still close and in oneness with nature there were many weird rendezvous between men and nature, including its creatures. “

So without any hesitation, typical of a responsible shaman, Belabun packed his lupung (medical kit) and within minutes was ready for the journey. When they were at the tanju (open platform) prior to leaving the longhouse the spokesperson for the two visitors told him to close his eyes which Belabun did.

When he was told to open his eyes again he found out he was already at the tanju of a strange longhouse. From where he stood Belabun could hear the cries of pain of a young sound.

When he entered the longhouse from the tanju he was asked to be seated at the open gallery ruai. Apart from his two good looking visitors, there were some other people around, young and old, men, women, boys and girls. One of the elderly looking men told him that his daughter had been sick for a while and he requested Belabun to cure her.

Just minutes later a few of them brought Belabun, then in his 50s, to the room where the crying sound came from. Upon entering the room, Belabun was taken aback by the sight of a crocodile with a harpoon stuck to its side.

Nevertheless, he managed to maintain his composure and told the others to leave the room as he could not perform his curing ritual being seen by anyone – in fact he did not want anybody to see him freeing the harpoon from sick creature.

When they were all out of the room, Belabun pulled out the harpoon from the body of the reptile that turned immediately into a beautiful young woman.  She stopped her cries of pain and managed a smile and thanked him for curing her. Upon pulling the harpoon earlier, Belabun quickly discarded it through the space in between the bamboo flooring.

After spending a few minutes dressing the wound and putting herbs over it, Belabun called the others to the room. By this time, all the longhouse residents remained in their human forms.

“Thank you so much for curing our beloved daughter Manang Belabun. We are really grateful. Let it be known that we are actually crocodiles and not humans though we can appear in human forms. You, Manang Belabun, have done such a noble act for us crocodiles by curing one of us.

“From now onwards, all your generations after you and all future crocodile generations shall not harm or disturb each other. You are forbidden to consume the meat of crocodile and likewise crocodiles will leave all your descendants in peace. This is our pact,” the crocodile spokesman told Belabun and presented him with a guchi jar, one of the most priced jars of old. It is just the size of a coffee mug.

Presently, the jar is being kept by my distant cousin at Ensawa longhouse further up the Krian. Though I haven’t seen the jar as I have never been to Ensawa, I know it is a token of the pact between our ancestor Belabun and kings of the river which are now aplenty in Melupa River, where our Kedap longhouse is situated. Melupa is a tributary of middle Krian with its estuary just 500 metres down the Krian Bridge, about 1.5km from the Gagam Pool further up.

According to my late grandmother Kejuang who lived no less than five generations after Belabun, while in a river never call the reptiles baya (Iban word for crocodile) but refer to them in one’s conversation as Datu or Raja (King).

“If you sight one while on the river, just say, ‘anang ngachau kami uchu Belabun’ (please don’t disturb, we are descendants of Belabun),” my grandma used to say.

I tried this once while on a fishing trip (casting fish net jala) using a boat powered by 40hp Johnson engine on Krian River below Saratok town in 1985.  Upon seeing us approaching the reptile speedily crept into the water from the river bank and seemed to be heading towards us.

Without hesitation I uttered: “Anang ngachau kami uchu Belabun.”  Surprisingly the creature never emerged again.

My friend, the late “Saudagar” Tom Chula was too busy with the net to notice. Or he probably just pretended not to notice. Little did he know that his two children and my distant niece Sawai were also Belabun’s descendants and were part of the reptilian pact.