Behind ‘Ngoncong’, a one-of-a-kind Selako thanksgiving ceremony
By Patricia Hului
In the most western part of Sarawak live the Selako. Classified as part of the Bidayuh group, linguistically and geographically, there are approximately 70,000 of them living in Lundu.
Even though most Selako are practicing Christians, they still have a strong grasp of their roots, which is most noticeable in the practice of their little-documented ‘ngoncong’ ritual.
According to Siru Bidin, the customary chief or Ketua Adat of Kampung Biawak about two hours’ drive from Kuching, the legend behind ‘ngoncong’ begins with a widow grieving for her husband.
As she was mourning his loss, a mystical being suddenly appears from a tree the Selako call ‘kayu idu’.
“Why are you so sad?” asks the mystical being, appearing to her as a man.
“I miss my late husband so much,” the woman answers.
The ‘man’ then asks the woman to follow him, promising to take her to her husband.
To her delight, her husband is brought back to life. She is so thankful to be reunited with her husband that she creates the ‘ngoncong’ ceremony, which is not just for thanksgiving, but is also a healing ritual and for entertainment.
Nowadays, the ceremony is also performed during weddings, thanksgiving events and when moving into a new house.
There are many key players during the ngoncong such as the panade’ – the vocalist or prayer leader who recites the mantra.
Lobo Biakoh, a panade’, said the essential part of the ceremony were the offerings, which is called ‘babuis’ in Selako.
“It is made up of one whole chicken, glutinous rice, sugar and oil,” he said, pointing out that each of these items were essential to ensure that their prayers were answered.
Lobo explained that the mantra for each ‘ngoncong’ was different depending on the purpose of the ceremony.
“Sometimes, the chant just comes out of me as if I was in a trance. If you were to ask me to repeat what I sang before, I would not able to do it.”
Besides the panade’, there are also tuha koncong (lead dancer), dara koncong (female dancers), pangesek bilola (violin player), tukang panoko’ agukng (the gong player) and tukang ganakng or panuma’ (percussionist).
The number of dara koncong varies from one to seven.
The dancers move elegantly around the ‘babuis’, their bodies slightly angled and their eyes focused on their hand movements.
Their feet hardly leave the ground as they move around in small, almost imperceptible steps.
Tadiuse Kenis Kastrong, 47, who takes the role of violin player, explained that there were three parts to the ritual.
“First, the panadok would dance around the crowd to draw their attention.
“During the second part of the ritual, the panade’ and the dancers would start to joget or batanda’ .
“Then the third part of the ceremony would have the panade’ ‘serve’ the spectators whom they called the panyondok.
These panyondok are seated on chairs usually encircling the ngoncong area.
“During the ‘serving’ process, the panyondok would have their hair symbolically combed. The dancers would also offer them cigarettes and drinks.”
Ordinary onlookers who are not panyondok are not allowed to participate in the batanda’.
At the end of the ngoncong there is the kajantera where guests must contribute some monetary token to the dancers by putting the money between the fingers of their outstretched hands while they are still dancing.
“Some of the guests would tease the dancers by slipping the money under the dancer’s collars. The dancers cannot feel offended.”
According to Tadiuse, some of the dancers would be given more money than others, depending on whether this particular dancer had more admirers than the others.
Back in the olden days, the ceremony could be so grand that it could last for three nights in a row.
Even though times change, Tadiuse believed that the ritual still need to be handled delicately and with great respect.
“Not everyone can simply dance and participate in the ritual. Even though you can learn the steps of the dance, it takes more than that for your offerings and prayers to be answered during the ritual.”
Be that as it may, Tadiuse was optimistic that the ngoncong ritual would be carried on by the next generation.
“I have taught my children about this ritual. As long as the ritual continues to be performed, the young people of this kampong will remember it.”
According to him, the Selako people on the Kalimantan side of the border also practice this ritual still.
As for now, only time can tell if this ngoncong ceremony derived from legend will continue on in this age of modern technology and fast-paced lifestyles.
Nonetheless, it is a ceremony that should be appreciated and preserved together by Selako and non-Selako alike.