Nature: Closeness can be enmity

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The ancients often believed a celestial event like an eclipse to be a bad omen, that the sun or the moon vanishing from the sky was a harbinger of disaster, a sign of devastation or destruction to come.

—  Jenna Wortham, American journalist

There is still some remnants of paganism in the Iban community, especially those in the remoter parts of Sarawak hinterland.

Members of this group still believe in the existence of unseen spirits around them as they are still very close to nature, to the rivers, forests and insects, wild creatures (snakes and reptiles included) as well as mountains, believed to be the abodes of the spirits, including Iban folklore heroes and heroines from Panggau Libau (Raised World) and Gelung respectively.

Foremost among them are Keling, the epitome of prowess and strength and his partner Kumang, the highest embodiment of beauty and femininity.

For example, in Krian’s Tengalat Range, there is a ‘telaga Kumang’ (Kumang’s pool) half-way to its peak. There exists a similar pool at Bukit Semuja in Serian too — which was just a short distance from our scout camp site in 1987. But mind you, only a selected few are able to see or ‘allowed entry’ to this special site.

Three of my scouts got lost but returned safely to camp when they wanted to look for the pool at Semuja last time. In Tengalat, only two or three persons thus far found the pool — and had dreams of Kumang later, sources said. That was in the early 60s when we were small kids.

In fact, three of us teenagers in 1970 during a school break started off from our Kedap longhouse around 8am and were ready for an overnight stay in the jungle during the excursion. We managed to get to Kelalis hills about three hours journey on foot through jungle trek from our longhouse. That was only half-way to Tengalat.

Despite being Christian converts, we still believed in the ways of the forests and as such, adhered to their standard order, including the sound of omen birds and animals (especially muntiacus munjak, also known kijang or barking deer) and even snakes (crossing the path).

In traditional Iban belief, when hearing the bark of kijang from behind one’s trek, it means it is asking you to go back (due to bad weather and other dangers or constraints ahead).

A sound of the chief omen bird Ketupung (Sasia abnormis), believed to be eldest of the farming deity Sengalang Burung’s son-in-laws, is a warning. Any trip, be it en route to the farm, a cockfight, a gawai visit or warring trip, must stop immediately.

Its brief one ‘tick’ and abrupt sound is rare but considered as a final warning. All trips must be stopped or deferred.

Regarding our journey, in Kelalis, the three of us heard the kijang behind us around 11am.

We camped but returned around 2pm after a good rest.ut a tiger spirit coming from Tengalat after an iconic quarrel over a cockfight between our uncles (first cousins) whereby they threw the beras kuning (yellow rice).

The spirit allegedly came to be the “judge and executioner”. Two weeks later, one of the quarrelling cousins died.

Fights of birds and snakes crossing paths ahead of a jungle travel also have significances in Iban animistic beliefs. For example, a bird’s flight from our right to left is called ngeraup (signifying collecting gains) and is considered good omen.

However, the flight seen coming from the opposite way is named mimpin (losing or not gaining) and is a bad omen when going to war, cockfight, hunting or fishing trip. This is also observed closely during a journey involving marriage ceremonies.

The same goes to the slither of a snake or monitor lizard seen ahead of one’s trek.

It was for this reason that during the marriage of my youngest sister-in-law (then an air hostess) at our Bejait longhouse in Kanowit in 2004, the bridegroom and his party’s journey on foot over two kilometres was accompanied by the sounds of gongs all the way (from the original longhouse of Tan Sri Datuk Amar Leo Moggie Irok).

This was to avoid hearing any sound (of birds or animals) en route to the bride’s home.

Nothing happened along the way.

In a bizarre incident that happened to another longhouse along the KJD (Kuching-Julau-Durin) road in the late 80s, it changed their lives totally. An omen bird was seen flying inside the longhouse from the gallery of the first room or bilik through to the last and flew out using the main entrance — on a Sunday and seen by all.

They did consult the elders on it but before acting accordingly, two persons died within days of each other. So they considered the longhouse as angat (literally hot) and should be abandoned urgently. So they left the abode and built temporary shelters; I saw with my own eyes as I was serving in Julau then.

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