Writing down Kayan epics

By Patricia Hului


HAVE YOU EVER HEARD of Homer? No, not Homer Simpson from The Simpsons, but Homer, author of Iliad and Odyssey and regarded by ancient Greeks as the first epic poet ever.

Although his actual existence is sometimes debated, Homer is still known as the author of Europe’s first known literature by putting oral tradition down on paper.


A Man on a Mission


Ding (left) with two men from Uma Aging, Belaga.

Ding (left) with two men from Uma Aging, Belaga.


Fast forward to 1970s in Mendalam, West Kalimantan, Borneo where a Kayan man known as Pastor Aloysius Johannes Ding Ngo began his own mission to record Kayan traditions, myths and tales into books.

Ding was Dutch-educated and the first Dayak to be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest.

He began to work with Lii’ Long, a fellow Mendalam native and expert singer to jot down Kayan oral tradition, just as Homer did for ancient Greek literature.


Lii'Long and his wife Ipui Lahe.

Lii’Long and his wife Ipui Lahe.


Ding wanted more so he managed to make three expeditions to the Kayan regions of Borneo.

First in 1974 where he traveled to Baram, Tubau and Balui (Belaga) in Sarawak then from Kapuas to the Mahakam of East Kalimantan and down to Samarinda in 1977 and Apo Kayan in 1980.

For each trip, he recorded his journey in a part journal and part ethnography photo-illustrated book and sent it to friends and colleagues.

He interviewed Kayans that came his way especially those knowledgeable in oral traditions and recorded his findings in notebooks.

Ding was a polyglot; he was able to read and write in six languages including Kayan, Dutch, Latin, Indonesian, German and English.


Ding (right) with women of Uma Pako, Tubau.

Ding (right) with women of Uma Pako, Tubau.


The highlight of Ding’s work was Takna’ Lawe’ or Adventures of Lawe’, based on a Kayan epic.

Lawe’ was considered a hero to Kayan Mendalam but the story was also known by the Kayan from Balui, Baram, Mahakam and Apo Kayan.

But in Balui, Lawe’ was known by the name Belawan.

Ding started transcribing the Takna’ Lawe’ himself before the singer, Lii Long took over and wrote it all.

He also wrote History of the Kayan People which is over 900 pages long and a Kayan-Indonesian Dictionary -a 1,090 page book including poetic and old words found in the epics, now only known to a few.

When he died after several strokes, Ding was halfway through his autobiography based on journals he had kept in Dutch and Indonesian language since the 1940s.

Ding passed away on June 6, 1995 in Sintang, 10 months before his 80th birthday.


Continuing the Legacy


Stephanie Morgan

Stephanie Morgan


Carrying on Ding’s literary work today is Stephanie Morgan, an American anthropologist.

Morgan first heard of Sarawak in a class taught by Tom Harrisson just after he left the Sarawak Museum, and she went there on his recommendation in 1969 to edit papers by Curator Benedict Sandin.

“When I came there (Mendalam) in 72’, I talked to Pastor Ding about what he was doing and I found that he had been working on translating, editing, making editorial decisions to turn the handwritten texts by Lii Long, the original singers into books,” she said.

“But none of this actually happened. It was not published. It was not translated. This was discouraging,” she shared.

The only manuscripts that were ever officially published was Takna’ Lawe by Gadjah Mada University Press in 1984-85 with 250 copies called ‘Syair Lawe’ which are now out of print.

Other books were handmade, passed around in carbon copies and photocopies among local Kayan.

After Ding died, the Bishop of Sintang authorised Morgan to gather his work and carry on.

Now at the age 70, Morgan embraced modern technology by digitising manuscripts and old letters by Ding, Lii’ Long and other specialists in Kayan myth and history before uploading them online.

According to Morgan, with modern technology and digitisation, there is no reason for anthropologists to keep photos and manuscripts to themselves and not make them available to the public.

“I am very serious in giving back to the people and I believe that technology has come such a long way that there is no excuse to keep their research in a box that people cannot see,” she said.

“As you know fungus eats photos, silverfish eat paper. The solid things of history are not permanent in tropical climates. They fade, they dissolve, they get lost and memories also change,” Morgan stated. “I collected, I kept and I have preserved. I will take care of these things and I will make all available to everybody in digital form because we can do that these days.”

Some of the manuscripts are Takna’ Idaa’ Beraan and Takna’ Kabuk Buaang both by Juk Linge and Lii’ Long, Takna’ Bakung Dawing from the Mahakam, and Lung Jalivaan Hajaang both by Lii Long together with about 22 Kayan folktales.

These manuscripts are all now available online at www.box.com.

“Only now I think if we work hard we can make something permanent that will last for hundreds of years, out of the breath of human voices and the faces we’ve seen.”

Although most of these manuscripts have been digitised and are available freely online, Morgan is raising funds to publish them on paper for those who cannot easily read them on the Internet.

She also added there will be a need for more funding available to digitise research and for online training.

Morgan also needs some practical help, “I really need somebody to become passionate about reading old manuscripts, translating them, and tidying them up.”

For now, she is using Shoebox to provide an interlinear word for word translation into Indonesian and English so there are some errors in the final texts.

Her biggest challenges in continuing Ding’s legacy she shared, are money and health.

“The people (in Kalimantan) are wonderful; they want to read the books, they are fascinated by Pastor Ding. They want to continue his work but for the things I can do, my health and if I’m having enough funds is important.

“Other than that, I would be so glad to turn these over to them,” she shared.

To know more about Morgan’s work or learn how you can assist her in her work, write in to [email protected]

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