Sustaining Iban traditional costumes in modern era

THE CULTURAL SEEKERS... Members of the cultural seekers team are (from left) Victoria Lau Pick Ing. Wong Shu Min, Nuli Anak Christmas, Leong Pei Yen and Lau Mei Wen.
THE CULTURAL SEEKERS… Members of the cultural seekers team are (from left) Victoria Lau Pick Ing. Wong Shu Min, Nuli Anak Christmas, Leong Pei Yen and Lau Mei Wen.

By the Cultural Seekers

The “Sea Dayaks”, normally known as the Ibans, are the Dayak communities of Borneo populating traditionally the mid level hills and delta plains of Borneo, as stated by Jeffery Hays (2008) in his article, Borneo and Etnic Group in Borneo.

Historically, they are famous for their headhunting and tribal/territorial expansion in the past.

As a matter of fact, people perceived the Iban as one of the most fearsome and prosperous warring tribes. They speak the Iban language and in the old day, resided only in traditional longhouses.

In the past, the Ibans worshipped a triumvirate of gods under the authority of Singalang Burung, renowned as the bird-god of war.

The Iban men and women are fond of dressing up and wearing many ornaments. The traditional costume for the Iban women is known as ngepan indu Iban while for the men, it is ngepan laki Iban.

According to Vernon Aji Kedit, Information Chief and Communications Director of the People’s Justice Party and Iban researcher on cultural materials of Borneo Ibans, the original ngepan comprised of a traditional woven skirt (kain kebat), sugu, high corset (rawai tinggi), silver lampit belt, a pair of stud earrings, a modest set of silver bracelets (tumpak pirak) and lastly, silver necklaces.

The ancient ngepan was not as complicated as today’s ngepan.
The modern ngepan is encumbered by kilogrammes of gelang kaki or sementing buchai. There are also additional accessories like marik empang and selampai and others on the modern ngepan.

The creations of selampai and marik empang served the purpose of covering the women’s breasts while dressed in ngepan.

Two ladies wearing the modern ngepan.

The ngepan has evolved through time and now showcases the creativity of human beings on the Iban costumes.

In the past, the Iban men wore the loincloth (sirat) and nothing else underneath it.

“Nowadays, Iban men tend to wear short pants underneath the loincloth to cover the male parts and buttocks,” observed a young Iban.

There have been other changes in the male traditional costume with the designs of the baju burung and sirat evolving because of the unavailability of materials, such as rare feathers and animal fur.

In the olden days, the Iban traditional costumes were worn during important ceremonies and festivals like the Gawai Dayak and weddings.

During the Gawai Dayak, there is also a “Miring” (offering) ceremony to honour the gods, spirits and ancestors and pray for good fortune in life.

During the Gawai celebration, the Ibans will also choose a Kumang and a Keling, equivalent to prince and princess of the ceremony. There will also be ngajat dances.

Today, although the Ibans are assumed to have succeeded in preserving their tribal customs, rituals and traditional beliefs, which can clearly be seen during the harvest festival of Gawai Dayak, weddings, pua kumbu and Ngajat competitions, there is more that the younger generations can do to help preserve the identity of the Iban culture and traditions.

For instance, during the Gawai celebration or even other festivals, the Ibans today rarely don their traditional costumes when they go visiting or attend gatherings.

Today, the costumes are mostly worn only during special occasions such as dancing performances or competitions, Kumang and Keling contests, drama shows, etc.

Ancient Iban traditional costume.

The modern Ibans, engrossed in technology, are more comfortable in the latest fashion trends than in Iban traditional costumes.
These changes may influence and change the Ibans’ identity and their cultural traditions.

There are a few of suggestions to overcome these issues and help preserve the identity of the Iban culture and traditions.

Firstly, the government or private sector should take the responsibility to increase and diversify the cultural activities related to Iban costumes such as organising more traditional Iban activities during the Gawai Dayak celebrations.

Furthermore, the original cultural and traditional costumes should be introduced to the younger generations as a part of their education in school. This helps in cultivating their interest at a young age.

Last but not least, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture Malaysia should introduce and promote the traditional costumes in order to sustain the identity of the Ibans.

Hays, J. (2008). Borneo and Ethnic Group in Borneo: Iban. Retrieved April 16, 2017, from Fact and Details:
• Cultural Seekers comprises Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) students, Victoria Lau Pick Ing, Wong Shu Min, Nuli Anak Christmas, Leong Pei Yen and Lau Mei Wen who are completing their Bachelor Degree in Arts Management.



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