BIRDS play very significant roles in the life of rural Ibans, particularly those who still practise animism. In our traditional society, some birds are ‘revered’ as omen messengers or errand media of Iban augury practice. Our practice of beburung – burung is a noun term for bird in Iban – centralises on the observation and interpretation of bird sounds, flights and certain noticeable behaviour.
Added to these are interpretations of dreams that are usually done by bird elders.
These would help guide them in their daily farming, hunting and travelling schedules. In the past they also seek the advice of bird elders before going on a war party or, on the lighter side of life, before going for a cockfight or prior to a marriage proposal.
While there is so much to say about Iban practice of augury and belief in omens, this article is written with special reference to an article about Sampit, Kalimantan’s Dayak belief of a mythical bird spirit commander since late 90s up till now. He is said to be in his early 70s.
Dayaks of Kalimantan comprise some scores of indigenous tribes including Ibans. And these Ibans also speak the same language, namely Iban. After all, our forefathers migrated from Kalimantan’s Kapuas basin to Sarawak’s Batang Ai some centuries ago. Stories are that before leaving their Kapuas longhouse, the first batch of Iban migrants left a big china porcelain plate ‘pinggai’ on the branch base of a mangosteen as a token.
Strangely, this tale of the mythical bird spirit may relate to the existence of a real-life or living Panglima Burung, an Iban with special supernatural war prowess. This person, whose real name has not been told to me, is a resident of the Badau district in Kalimantan.
My uncle Musa Giri who once owned an extensive oil palm plantation in Badau and Putus Sibau, met and later befriended this famed bird warrior Panglima Burung. Examples of his war prowess and supernatural strength included the attack and total slaughter of Madurese who fled strife-torn Kalimantan in a ship in the 1996 Dayak-Madurese clash, Musa said. They knew it was Panglima Burung who did the total slaughter as they found his signature token, a black bird feather placed strategically amidst the fallen bodies.
This was later discovered when the ship was found grounded without a living soul aboard by the Indonesian navy, said Musa. According to Musa, Panglima Burung could render himself invisible and could move very fast and could ‘fly’ like a bird. This probably explains the alleged attack on the ship at the middle of the sea.
Small built – Musa said he was about the size of my late warrior uncle Ngauh ‘Lelayang Mandi Pukul Lapan’ (swiflet who bathes at eight) – this Panglima Burung could just appear by your side without prior notice, thereby making his adversaries taken totally unprepared, even causing jitters among colleagues.
Musa said this bird warrior could communicate with the birds but most of the time he is feared by them as many a time birds would fly away his vicinity unless he stretches his left hand to call them. Tales are that only the eagles have been seen landing on his outstretched left hand.
This leads to speculations that Panglima Burung is helped or guided by the eagles, known as Lang or Menaul in Iban. Coincidentally, Lang is revered as the ‘king of birds’ in Iban mythology. We refer to him as Aki Lang Sengalang Burung, Aki Jugu Menaul Tuntung.
That is why Sengalang Burung the farming and war deity is considered as the most important name in Iban augury beburung pertaining to agricultural practice as well as warfare. Under his charge are his six son-in-laws whose sounds and sightings are observed as carrying certain messages or clues. For Panglima Burung, according to Musa, the eagle seems to be the only species of bird that would dare to approach him. Other birds usually fly away or escape his presence.
Musa also said it is a taboo for this person to harm or kill birds. Panglima Burung could also choose to appear as a bird and be among birds, except that other birds besides the eagles would fly away or escape from him. Musa said he had never seen him appear in bird form.
In a rare outing with this Panglima Burung, Musa drove his four-wheel Pajero through the rough jungle road. With two others, they were forced to stop at one point of the road as a big tree was struck by lightening and fell across the middle of the road rendering it impassable. Panglima Burung came out in an instance and used only his right hand to push the big mess of a tree aside, a task which looked even impossible for fifteen or twenty men or even a tractor to remove. Musa, who has adopted a nickname Remaung Raras Entegah Antara Menoa (leopard which roars at the border), is himself a self-styled warrior but has refused now and again to elaborate on his rendezvous with Panglima Burung pertaining to clashes with the Madurese back in 1996. His guardian spirit is the Cobra that regularly appears at his residence in Kuching. A graduate in Public Administration from Torquay, England, Musa served the Sarawak Government in many capacities, and as Chairman of Housing and Development Commission being his last..
Born to Giri and Jelenggai, Musa is the grandson of the late warrior Subong a.k.a ‘Kala Nyepit Naka Pemisa-misa, Bunga Parapenit Ka Dujong Indu Dara’ (most poisonous of scorpions, scented flowers for ladies hairdo), known for his war prowess and numerous head trophies. Subong was the cousin of my great grandfather and namesake Tawi a.k.a ‘Lanang Kasih Sayang Bedindang Madang Rutan, Tawi Berani Ati Pemudi Kayan’ (jolly bachelor who sings among the rotan creepers, Tawi who scares his enemies), after whom I was named at birth. Musa, 73, makes regular trips back to Badau.
Since my last meeting with him was about two months ago, there is no confirmation whether he is still in contact with Panglima Burung, who is said to be in good health. Just like the Iban of Sarawak, our Kalimantan counterparts still believe in mythical beings and this Panglima Burung, who has mythical connection to a male bird spirit is believed to have given the Iban there hope for a better future pertaining to peace and security. They say that the mythical spirit is there to give them protection in times of need.