The remnants of a headhunting culture
The Dayaks are well known for the headhunting tradition once practiced by their ancestors long ago when it was considered prestigious to acquire heads. It was also believed that the souls of the heads taken would protect the household from enemies.
In the olden days, the Bidayuh community used to hold the nyobeng ceremony to welcome warriors back from headhunting trips, but since headhunting was banned by the first White Rajah, it became instead a time to conduct a ritual bathing and feeding of the skulls captured by their ancestors to appease the spirits so that they would not harm the people of the village.
According to Customary Chief Dr Patau Rubis, the nyobeng ceremony was revived in the villages in Krokong, Bau a few years ago after a sudden and mysterious death took place within the area. After the second death occurred, the villagers started to worry that more would follow and decided to consult him.
After much discussion among themselves, they agreed to conduct the nyobeng ceremony to appease the spirits, retrieving the seven skulls captured by their ancestors left at the Christian cemetery.
“After much discussion, we decided to move the skulls to a much cleaner place, because the spirits did not want to be among the ghosts at the cemetery,” said Dr Patau.
With a budget of under RM6,000, the fellow villagers hastily built a Baruk or head house, a circular house with a cone-shaped roof within eight days. According to the Dayak Bidayuh National Association (DBNA) website, the first nyobeng ceremony was conducted at Kampung Gumbang in 2011.
Currently, the Baruk houses 10 human skulls. While seven of them were those retrieved from the cemetery the other three are from the village itself. There are also two deer head skulls in the Baruk.
Besides protecting and healing the community within the area, it is believed that the spirit of the skulls also serve as village guardians against seen and unseen enemies. Dr Patau spoke of a time during the Brooke era when several raids from other villages had been unsuccessful.
“Our ancestor appealed to our guardians to leave six to seven alive. Out of 30 to 40 people who came to raid our village, only six managed to get back to their own village alive. But they died of sickness on their way back,” said Dr Patau.
The village was saved again when, during the Second World War, Dr Patau said that the Japanese army turned back from their village because they felt uncomfortable the first time they tried to raid their village.
The second time however, the leader of the Japanese platoon died as soon as he crossed the river to their village.
“After that, they did not dare cross the river to our village,” added Dr Patau.
On February 27 and 28, the residents of Kampong Blimbin hosted this year’s Gawai Nyobeng at Bau, inviting healers and shamans from West Kalimantan to take part in the ritual to appease the spirits of the skulls.
During the welcoming ceremony, dressed in traditional Bidayuh clothes, the healers from West Kalimantan arrived at the predetermined rendezvous point awaiting their hosts from Krokong, Bau. Once both parties arrived at the meeting point, they gave out cries of greeting.
The welcoming ceremony continued with the head shaman murmuring a chant while distributing rice grains to each person before sprinkling it around as others copied his gestures.
Later, the head shaman and their fellow healers stood in a circle. To test the sincerity of their friendship, the head shaman threw a puppy into the air which they all slashed and pierced with their parangs.
After that, the visitors were escorted to the Baruk to be greeted by the rest of the villagers and served local rice wine by the women.
On the second day of the Gawai Nyobeng ceremony, the bathing and feeding of the skulls took place. The healers danced and chanted around the makeshift altar before they proceeded to dance inside the Baruk, while the head shaman staying behind by the altar.
Then, one of the healers retrieved the skulls from the Baruk. One by one, each skull was passed to the head shaman, who bathed them in crushed lime and coconut water and fed them with rice and egg before being returned to the Baruk and hung from the ceiling.
Gawai Nyobeng is usually held before the paddy is harvested because it is believed that the spirit or souls or the skulls would be more volatile and aggressive after the harvest season.
“If the ceremony is conducted after the paddy is ripe, then the spirits would be more vigorous and they would demand for more heads,” said Dr. Patau of the fascinating and intriguing practice.
The Skull Festival still goes on in Kampung Sibujit, Indonesia
Kampung Sibujit is home to Dayak Bidayuh in West Kalimantan of Indonesia.
Long time ago, they hailed from Kampung Gumbang, Krokong before some of the residents moved to land some eight-hours walk away from their ancestral village. Their new settlement became separated by the political border between Malaysia and Indonesia.
Unlike their Malaysian counterparts, this Indonesian village is still practicing their traditional ritual called Gawai Nyobeng or skull festival annually on June 15.
The ceremony is usually held at Rumah Adat, a house where the skulls have been properly stored for many generations.
During that festival, The Borneo Post SEEDS was fortunate enough to have met Pak Amin, the customary chief or Ketua Adat of Kampung Sibujit or in Indonesian Malay Desa Sibujit.
With his 33 year-old daughter Yuliani Amin, Pak Amin explained the process of Gawai Nyobeng celebrated in Sibujit and how it is still widely practiced by Dayak Bidayuh there.
Pak Amin was also supposed to take part in the nyobeng ceremony at Kampung Blimbin this year, but due to some miscommunication between the organising team and himself, he was unable to participate in the skull festival this year and was only able to attend and observe.
In the letter he received from the organiser, Pak Amin was invited alone to Kampung Blimbin. Hence he came without his ‘anak buah’ or followers.
For Pak Amin, he believed that if he did not conduct the ritual in a proper manner and without complete tools such as his own ancestral parang and without his ‘anak buah’, sickness might come upon him.
“I cannot participate in this ceremony as I pleased. I must be well-prepared. I did not bring my tools and my entourage this time. The slightest mistake in the ritual may mean that our prayer would not be accepted,” Pak Amin shared.
Pak Amin continued to explain that his entourage would take at least a week to prepare if they were to perform the ceremony outside Sibujit.
“If I knew I was called to take part of the ceremony, I would have brought at least 30 people with me including women,” he said.
He also highlighted that his entourage must be properly welcomed in a traditional ceremony if they went to a foreign kampung.
If Kampung Sibujit were to come and participate in Gawai Nyobeng at Kampung Blimbin, Yuliani explained that their entourage must be properly received by the host village otherwise harm might come to her father as the leader of the visiting group.
The entourage would require a specific type of leaf called ‘daun manang’, lemang cut into seven pieces, seven chicken eggs, one ‘kampung’ chicken and a puppy during the receiving ceremony.
The leaves and lemang would be part of the offerings while the chicken and puppy served as sacrificial purposes during the welcoming ceremony.
Yuliani added that the women from the host village would also throw eggs at the guests during the welcoming ceremony. If the eggs broke, it meant the visitors came with sincerity.
While the receiving ceremony were performed when headhunters came back from their trip, now it was also performed in Kampung Sibujit during Gawai Nyobeng when visitors came to the village.
“In Sibujit, the festival starts at five in the morning where the drum will be sounded seven times,” he said. According to Pak Amin, all residents of Kampung Sibujit participated in the festival regardless of their ages.
Yuliani also highlighted some of the necessary items required during the skull bathing ceremony in Sibujit: “For us we must have liquor and ‘lemang’ (glutinous rice). But not just any lemang; the lemang must be cooked in bamboo alone without the leaves wrapping.”
Pak Amin also shared that in Kampung Sibujit, they were quite particular about the attire to be worn during the ceremony.
“The women would wear full traditional costumes with accessories and men would wear nothing but their underwear with red cloth tied around them and accessories,” Pak Amin said, explaining that red was the traditional colour for Bidayuh.
His daughter added, “The men used to wear pants made of tree bark but we couldn’t find the material so the modern underwear would do.”
Pak Amin is also a traditional healer, but Yuliani explained that only believers would be able to heal through her father’s consultation.
“Only those who believe will be relieved from their sickness but those who have doubts,” she said, shaking her head, “will not be healed.”
Gawai Nyobeng in Kampung Sibujit is certainly not a dying tradition; according to Pak Amin, even the younger generation is well-versed in the rituals.
He believed that it was important to keep this tradition alive as he himself is the eighth generation of shamans that perform the significant part of the nyobeng ceremony. As the customary chief, he is the only one empowered to sing the ritual chant and bathe the skulls.
The 65-year-old father of seven, Pak Amin let his children observe this ritual since they were young.
Yuliani said that although she may not know as much of the ritual as her father, she is continuously learning from him.
“My father is getting old and his hearing is getting worse. Somebody needs to help him to explain when people ask him about the elements of this ceremony.”
Yuliani also mentioned, “Even now more children in our kampung know about this ritual. They were taught by their parents not to forget their roots. It does not matter if you live in any part of Earth, even if you’re at the other end one must not forget their roots.”
Yuliani stated that all are welcome to visit Kampung Sibujit to observe the celebration of Gawai Nyobeng on June 15 every year, and that their village has received visitors from many different nationalities over the years.
She explained that those interested could go to Pasar Serikin located at the Malaysian-Indonesian border and ask the Indonesians to hitch a ride to Kampung Sibujit.
“Just say that you want to go to Pak Amin’s house at Kampung Sibujit,” Yuliani said.
On top of that, every year the villagers of Kampung Gumbang will go on a pilgrimage to Kampung Sibujit, walking eight hours through the jungle to get there.
She explained, “If you want to be more adventurous, get in touch with anybody from Kampung Gumbang and follow them to walk to our village. They are more than willing to take you.”
Watch the nyobeng ceremony below: