Shamanism is a kind of universal spiritual practice with indigenous cultures around the world, and one important element of it is taking care of spirits.– Daniel Pinchbeck, American author
There were some interesting cases pertaining to the fast disappearing unique group of Iban traditional faith healers or shamans.
Known as manangs, some of them were equated with the ancient high priests in African society, the Amazon shamans and many other equivalents elsewhere.
According to Iban belief, the practice of bemanang (faith healing using manang) originated from the Iban farming deity “Sengalang Burung” who was worldly embodied in the brahminy kite (Haliastur indus) also known as the eagle.
Sengalang Burung, also known as Aki Lang (Eagle Elder), was married to Balun Kupak @ Indai Kechendai.
During their early years of marriage, Balun Kupak was always sickly. No one knew what caused her sickness – her body turned yellowish.
At that time, there wasn’t any practice of faith healing or bemanang or using bards. The Iban society had yet to practise healing by shamans or by chants of bards.
And as such, they were in great quandary because Aki Lang’s wife was gravely ill.
That was when Aki Lang thought of initiating his own brother Raja Menjaya to become manang bali, meaning a male becoming or transformed into a female shaman. Menjaya became known as Menjaya Manang Bali Menyadi Sengalang Burung (Transformed Shaman Menjaya Sibling of Sengalang Burung).
Menjaya held a healing act and succeeded in cleansing the sister-in-law of her sickness. Balun Kupak’s name was changed to Endu Sudan. She and husband were blessed with eight children.
When I was about 13 years old, there was such initiation ceremony held for manangs at Munggu Embawang longhouse in Melupa, Saratok.
Quite a number of wannabes were initiated in the ceremony but I remember two of them, namely my uncle Ujih and another elder Lagat never became shamans.
Leading the act was an established shaman Manang Chundiof the same longhouse and a good buddy of my father Salok, who was lead bard for Melupa area.
Other shamans involved were Manang Lembang of Mendas longhouse, Manang Numpang of Munggu Embawang and Manang Embas of another nearby longhouse Sungai Belung.
I saw these manangs doing the healing. Both Embas and Lembang were good in terms of healing but it was Chundi who was considered the master healer and was very much sought after.
He was friendly and most of all, had a great sense of humour. Numpang only performed the betubar, namely healing by massage and puchau (utterance of incantations to get rid of spell and sickness). Other manangs usually did the belian (sing-song chants performed overnight) as healing attempts.
Among them, I was more inclined towards Chundi who in 1966 performed a belian on me. It was done after my mom was told in her dream that I was to have a short life.
So dad invited his friend Manang Chundi to perform a belian in the evening.
Prior to the chanting process, Chundi asked me to stretch my right middle finger over a special bamboo buluh bala and was marked. This was later positioned at a secured place.
After the five-hour chanting was over, Chundi asked me to stretch the same finger over the mark and my stretch was about an inch longer and now 54 years later, I am able to share with readers such mystery that I still consider a miraculous episode.
At our Kedap longhouse in Saratok, there lived a weird shaman called Manang Imong aka Apai Intih who had died when I was born.
Imong was scared of water and seldom bathed. At night, he would go “hunting” with unseen “colleagues” who were actually demons or giants (antu gerasi) and that their “hunting” would end up with a casualty among the sick in any nearby longhouse except for Kedap.
Imong’s wife would find their bed covered with sand and debris upon her husband’s return from the trips.
Sometimes, Imong would tell her about their victim or “game” caught for the night and next day, she would hear about the demise of a sick individual at another longhouse.
There was another shaman, Manang Sigan, in Bintangor known for his magical tricks.
Sigan used to put on a special headgear, namely a woven hat to which he attached three or four empty bottles.
Once, he was said to have sold a bulk of rubber sheets to a Bintangor shopkeeper and was paid quite handsomely for the product.
But after a few hours, the rubber sheets turned into used newspapers. By then, Sigan had left the scene.
I was told this in 1979 when serving in Bintangor’s Rajang Teachers College.