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In with the Iban


Borneo, the world’s third largest island after Greenland and New Guinea, is a place of unexplored wilderness and mystery. Many different tribes with different and interesting cultures and traditions live on this island of Borneo, which gives it a different look. It is just amazing how these local tribes live lives to the fullest keeping up with all their old traditions and moving on with today’s world.

Malaysia is one of the three nations of Borneo and Sarawak is one of Malaysia’s major states. Although the Iban tribe first settled down at the Kapuas River, later they expanded their vigorous and massive population throughout Northern and Southern Sarawak. The Iban people, also known as the Sea Dayaks, are the non Muslim inland farmers who were once well known by the early European commentators for their fine physical features. The Iban society is unlike the other Borneo societies where the young men show physical courage and endeavor and where the traditions, beliefs and customs are very important. These people truly believe in legendary heroes and deities, story telling, bird omens, annual festivals, traditional costumes, dancing and drinking of rice wine.

The Iban people live in “longhouses,” which are up to three hundred meters long and 12 meters high. They build their house on posts and share it with about hundred families, taking part in each other’s happiness and helping each other face the difficulties in life. Each family has a separate room for privacy and there is a large communal area where all the social activities of the group take place. The walls of these longhouses are decorated with colorful posters of Hollywood and Bollywood film stars and the young teenagers keep themselves busy listening to music and watching TV. Besides their social relationships with each other, the Iban people also carry out their traditional duties and thus they change their longhouse after a few generations as they believe their house gets haunted by spirits. Although the interiors of some longhouses today have a more modern appearance with televisions, refrigerators and imported goods, the customs and traditions are still followed by the Iban people. They are very hospitable in welcoming everyone, who goes to the longhouse, with rice wine and in fact whenever someone from outside visits a longhouse it is considered a special occasion.

The inland farmers have different traditional religions but they generally believe in the existence of the good and evil spirits. They don’t let tourists take pictures of children under the age of two as they believe it is a sin and it takes the child’s spirit away. They also have faith in omens and think the calls and movements of certain wild birds give warnings about the actions to be taken. Wood carvings and head hunting are closely tied to their religious beliefs as well but today these practices are not carried out as much as they were before.

Besides all the religious beliefs and their friendly nature, the Iban people are also very famous for their ornamental tattooing. Nowadays although it is greatly in fashion in the western world, it has been the custom from the past for both men and women to decorate their bodies with tattoos. After undergoing several painful hours of tattooing, the young males and females get the decorative designs on the different parts of their bodies as the tattooists use needles to punch in ink, made from a mixture of soot and dammar, which is hard, crystalline tree resin. According to the Iban tribe, this symbolizes bravery and increases the beauty of women. It is also said that in the past a person’s social standing had to be recognized before tattooing was allowed.

Ethnic dances are performed on special occasions or perhaps when parties are thrown in the longhouses. These performances are very symbolic because they portray the great warriors. The dancers wear their war dress and dance with swords in their hands and make loud noises in between their performances. Singing accompanies the dancing, with music played on traditional instruments such as gongs and drums.

It is just incredible, how the Iban people, who live in the deepest parts of the jungle, move along in today’s life with their old customs. From my personal experience, besides, exploring the other parts of Malaysia, I would like to recommend the travelers to see and learn more about the Iban tribe themselves as “Tis a good rule in every journey to provide some piece of liberal study to rescue the hours which bad weather, bad company, and taverns seal from the economist.”

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