Once in a lifetime,
a celebration of the dead
Once in a lifetime,
a celebration of the dead
The Iban secondary rites for the dead are still practised, but conversion to Christianity is seeing community ties and culture taking precedence over faith in the cosmology. This day of the dead requires re-imagining if it is to survive.
Rumah Gensurai stands on the banks of the Layar river, just a short five-minute drive from Betong Junction with its enormous petrol station and various kopitiam and convenience stores, accessed after a not so short, bone-aching seven-hour drive along the pitted road that snakes up through Sarawak from Kuching. The construction work on the Pan Borneo highway was in full swing and giant potholes were now plentiful on the original road, made infinitely worse by December’s seasonal rains. Yet, the tarmacked lane down to the modern brick longhouse, two storeys high and 33 households long, was lined deep with muddy 4x4s and rain-soaked motorbikes – it seemed everyone had come home for these once in a lifetime festivities.
It had been 25 years since this community held its last Gawai Antu, the traditional
ritual for the dead under the Adat Lama, and much had changed. In 1993, the former longhouse still stood, not far from the current site, made of belian and bamboo. At that time, although Christianity had been known to and present in the community for well over a century, the Adat Lama retained a central place in the lives and imaginations of the community. The Saribas area, despite being home to some of the earliest converts to the new faith during the nineteenth century, had equally held its traditions close in which the human world and the spirit world coexist amongst the signs and symbols of the nature that still surrounds the longhouse.
The Gawai Antu is the culmination of the traditional Iban funeral rites. It fetes every member of the community who has died (Orang ke Parai) since the previous one.
These souls have been ‘lost in the forest’, sent to Sebayan (the spirit world) alone and unprepared. But, with the Gawai Antu, they are called back to the longhouse to be given food and representations of their own longhouse, their possessions and achievements so that they can be lead back to Sebayan, this time strong and fully equipped with the status they earned in life so that they can live there in comfort with, in the words of the anthropologist, Clifford Sather, ‘a self-sufficient existence independent of the world of the living’. For the living, Gawai Antu is a chance to remember the dead, to celebrate their lives and, of course, to draw the community together, along with a multitude of visitors, in one giant, glorious week-long event.
It is, indeed, a massive undertaking, usually held only once in a generation. In the Layar area, a Gawai Antu can only be performed when the whole longhouse is in agreement, making it truly a cast of thousands. It can take years of preparation and saving and Gensurai was going all out. Families had returned from around the world and the final day would see visitors from ten longhouses rubbing shoulders with visiting dignitaries, who would include the current Chief Minister of Sarawak and his entourage, as well as every culture vulture with a connection to the community, determined to experience this unique event in the sneaking knowledge that this might well be their last chance.
The reality is that most members of the longhouse are now staunch Christians. Only 5 pagans, as they are described, remain in the community and so the likelihood of a Gawai Antu for them seems slim. The Adat Lama is sadly dying out. But, this time, the community was determined to honour their fathers and their mothers in the old ways that they followed. For some, especially the older generation, it remains an act of faith, but for many it is a matter of family, of community and, most importantly, of culture.
Edward Anding sat on the committee for both this Gawai Antu and the last in 1993. “As far as I am concerned, what my mother wanted me to do, I am compelled to do. That was her wish,” he shared. “Based on what the pagans believe, if you do not hold a Gawai Antu for those who have passed away, they will not have a proper life in the afterworld. They will not be accepted into the community of those who have already settled there.” He is himself a dedicated Christian, converted while he was studying at the Mission School, but has reconciled the two belief systems, even though, in his mind, he must face the reality that he will not be reunited with his parents in the afterlife. They must take their path and he will take his. “When I embraced Christianity,” he said, “knowing that my mother did not, then I had to accept that.”
In December 2018, the wide ruai (communal area) was fully tiled, lined with startling red linoleum and flooded with fluorescent light. In the late afternoon, it was fairly empty but outside each bilek (household room) was a small group at a table next to a collection of objects – flowers, a lantern, a piece of clothing – and a picture of the family member being remembered. A longhouse is an intricate web of family connections and in Edward Anding’s family, two sisters from one longhouse married two brothers from Gensurai and so their pictures were up in front of neighbouring rooms. Strapped to a pillar was the rugan, a bamboo pole split at the top to form a basket with a small jar balanced inside it – an offering to the spirits – and next to it a palm frond.
Each was hung with a collection of brightly coloured woven totems, trailing jaunty streamers or even tinsel like comets. All these objects had been erected the previous weekend, during the Ngayam (opening ceremony). This weaving, each piece representing an aspect of the deceased’s life and status, had been crafted by family members who still practice the art and are the means by which the spirits can transfer their lifetime achievements and their possessions to Sebayan. This is a long tradition in the making, the number and type of totems decided by the community during each funeral as part of their eulogy under the Adat Permati. A little further down the ruai was a collection of gongs, hung outside the room of the Tuai Gawai (Gawai elder), the head of the household with the oldest Orang ke Parai.
At 6pm, the gongs began to resonate throughout the longhouse and family members poured out of the bilek to process down the tempuan, the narrow passage running in front of all the bilek at the edge of the ruai. Acrid smoke filled the air from the burning wood carried by each family group and eyes welled with tears until they burst out into the open air and progressed through to the edge of the forest. Here was the series of small sungkup (ritual huts), one erected for each family member during the opening weekend, and each family offered their favourite foods – sweet coffee, soft pandan cake – and, of course, staples of yam and tapioca. There was an air of celebration as families tended to their duties, friends mingled and young children banged gongs before returning to the longhouse for the long slow evening of reunions around the legendary Iban hospitality of infinite beers and barbecue.
For the next few days, preparations were endless. Chopping and cooking continued in every household. Three cows had been donated and these were ceremoniously sacrificed in the pouring rain before being portioned out amongst the families. This was real rural life, with pigs and chickens butchered in every back area and then briefly barbecued before being passed on to the kitchen for cooking. It was hot and heavy work, fuelled by the occasional shot of langkau (distilled rice wine) and copious babi panggang (barbecued pork) to give them the strength to carry on. Nothing was wasted – meat, intestines, even ears and brains (actually a great delicacy) – were put to use. There would be many hungry mouths to feed. Gensurai would have to entertain the guests from 10 longhouses on the final day.
As the cool of the evening drew in, the gongs began again. This time, the community moved down to the banks of the Layar, each with a plastic pail of beras pulut (glutinous rice). This was soaked in the river, the starch stretching away from the banks in a white cloud meant to inform the spirits and downriver communities that Gensurai was preparing for a Gawai Antu. The following morning saw that pulut turned into lemang (rice cooked in bamboo) on a long line of open fires set up on the banks of the river. Everyone was in attendance and many hands poured the rice into the
bamboo, plugged the top with pandan leaves, tended the fires and roasted the lemang in the intense heat and smoke. Most of the families were now complete and all that remained was to await the flood of visitors on the next day over a wild night of karaoke and competing music from each bilek, a cacophony of Indonesian dangdut, Youtube chart topper Despacito and raucous Iban pop songs coming from every direction. Drifting through the noise was the sound of the traditional funeral cry from several bilek, almost lost in the din.
Despite little sleep, dawn brought a flurry of activity. All the family members got dressed in their finery, a colourful sea of sarong kebaya, batik shirts and Iban traditional dress. The air was filled with the jingling of bells, the tinkle of silver crowns and the rustle of feathers as everyone prepared for the ultimate display. Family members who were not officially resident at the longhouse ceremoniously left the building to witness the welcoming ritual (ngelalu penabang) before joining the long line of visitors in the mid-morning sun, basking in the downdraft from an incongruous drone observing the activities from overhead. Meanwhile, every guest processed along the entire length of the ruai to be plied with a shot of tuak (rice wine), sometimes whisky or an even more welcome soft drink at each door. With 33 doors and thousands of visitors, this was a real feat of endurance, taking several hours in the blazing heat to complete. But then food was served and the feasting began. The conversation flowed with the whisky, the music started up and the whole ruai began to shake with the bass and thousands of feet dancing a modern joget, the traditional Malay dance done to a Portuguese beat.
A giant cavalcade of costume, community and colour; feasting, dancing and drinking; laughter love and remembrance
The visitors had all left by 6pm, exhausted and perhaps a little inebriated from the feast, and the ruai was cleared for the final procession out to the sungkup. After the high spirits of the preceding week, this final feeding at the edge of the forest was a stark reminder of the true purpose of this festival. This goodbye was subdued and tears were in evidence as the families felt the final stages of this act of remembrance. One man whispered quietly out into the forest, his back turned on the throng. All that was left now was to lead the spirits back to Sebayan in a long night of carefully conducted rituals that would end only in the early morning.
In this passage of the Gawai Antu, the traditional strata of animist Iban society are made clear in an interplay of warrior, weaver and spiritual guide. The Iban are the headhunters of old for whom collecting heads was a way of increasing strength and status and weaving was a spiritual act to protect from the power of the head. As Edward Anding says: “The process of the Gawai has been established during previous Gawai. We just had to follow the steps and rituals learned from the elders.”
A mat was laid in front of every room and each mat was occupied by a ritual tray and an elderly man, all tough and weathered with ornately feathered headdresses. These are the Bujang Berani, brave bachelors, who form a conduit to the spirit world. Each has taken a life or been present when a life – it is their courage that can open the passage to Sebayan. At one time, every community would have had its pick of young warriors from their own ranks but, in the modern world, many had been called in from neighbouring longhouses because of their service in the armed forces. At least one of the Bujang Berani, now in his seventies, had performed this ritual for various communities more than 20 times, his position in increasing demand as young Ibans exchange the blowpipe and the parang for a university education and a career in accountancy. Every explanation of their role contained a slight ripple of discomfort at the mention of killing as part of the uneasy reconciliation between the old Iban ways of warfare and the modern ideas of a warrior. But for this generation at Gensurai, while the old braves remain, the traditional view had been taken and the old ways respected; the difficult debate of bringing the practice into a world of the politics of peace left for another time and the next Gawai Antu. These Bujang Berani had earned their place.
our religion, but
this is our
A mournful, intoned chant struck up. Down the centre of the ruai, a troupe appeared, all in matching modern dress following a carefully choreographed dance of steps and turns to the rhythm of the chant. The leader circled slowly, a small china bowl in his hand wrapped tightly in a cloth. These were the Lemambang, the poet bards, and their chants would guide the spirits on their journey. Another troupe appeared and another until the whole length of the longhouse was filled with their slow passage up and down, a study in perpetual movement that would continue until the early hours of the morning. They bobbed their heads politely to each other as they passed in a brief recognition of their shared role. The rest of the community watched in silence, exhausted from the days of
festivities and stilled by the solemnity of this dance for the spirits.
Around 2am, the audience rose as one. The family members reappeared from every bilek dressed in their finery and completed three turns of the ruai in slow procession. The moment had arrived for the timang ai jalong. Each of the Bujang Berani must drink rice wine from the bowl carried through the evening by the Lemambang. This is a test of their truthfulness and their courage as it is said that any Bujang Berani who has claimed the role without proper reason will sicken and die before morning. But they each drank deeply and, with the climax of the ceremony, the whole longhouse fell quiet for a short period of rest or subdued conversation.
For at 6am, the gongs sounded again. The offerings outside each bilek were hurriedly dismantled to be taken out to the sungkup by the Bujang Berani and returned to the forest. The spirits that supposedly thronged the ruai the previous evening had gone back to Sebayan and their honours would follow them. Only one final ritual remained as the families processed once more round the ruai three times to finally end in front of a select group of the Bujang Berani. These are the bravest of the brave, those Bujang Berani who have drunk the ai jalong on several occasions, and they must drink the ai buloh, rice wine from a bamboo cup. Their final act complete, they walked backwards down the length of the ruai, returning themselves to this world and closing the passage to Sebayan as they go.
At last, the longhouse fell silent as most retreated into their bilek, many now cooled by air-conditioning. Coffee was served up from gas stoves and soon family members would climb into their cars and begin the long journey back to Kuching and beyond after a final visit to the graveyard. But for now the many generations of multiple families mixed quietly. The elders had fulfilled their role in the rituals and the younger had fulfilled their role to them. This Gawai Antu was complete and all that was left was to rest and recuperate.
The future of this ritual is precarious. As Edward Anding reflects: “Even for this
Gawai, not everyone was willing initially. They don’t see the necessity. This last Gawai, I can see the changes in the way people celebrate it. Spending is lower than in 1993 and the sentiment attached to it is different already.” With the coming of Christianity, he does not see the need anymore and does not believe that there will be another. The changes are clearly felt across the Layar area. He tells that in 1993, there was one visiting longhouse for each household to entertain. But this time, many were unwilling to accept the invitation in case they became indebted to Gensurai with no Gawai Antu of their own to repay their hosts.
But this is a cultural practice in transition. As one observer put it: “Christianity is our religion, but this is our culture.” At the very least, as Edward Anding says: “The youngsters don’t really observe the Gawai as it used to be, they just go out and enjoy themselves.” But what better reason can there be for a Gawai in this day and age – a chance to bring together multiple longhouses and 33 families in a giant, joyful celebration and commemoration of their community, both living and dead? Perhaps the spirit can still live on.