A Peep into the Lifestyle of the Bidayuh Community

Sarawak, most fondly known as the Land of the Hornbill, is situated in the northwest of Borneo. At 124,451 km2 and being the biggest state in Malaysia, Sarawak is home to about 2.6 million people of diverse backgrounds of colour, culture, language, lifestyle, and values.

Among the ethnic groups that make up this number, are the Iban who are approximately 720,000 in population and the Bidayuh, who have almost reached 200,000 in population. These tribes are indigenous communities formerly known as the Sea Dayak and the Land Dayak respectively, by the First White Rajah of Sarawak, James Brooke.

As different as they are from each other, they do share some common values, beliefs, and attitudes derived from natural elements. This is especially true with the older generations who remain in their kampung (village) of origins — or settlements, as we call it, and continue their traditional practice and allow these natural elements to influence their belief systems. For the younger generations, however, and those who have migrated to the urban areas, these old customs are slowly dying out as more and more of them are heading towards a modernised lifestyle in the city to provide their families with better living conditions.

Modern Enhancement to the Traditional Longhouse

Fortunately, there are some who have it in their hearts to preserve most of the customs and tradition handed down by their ancestors from years back. I had to mention ‘most’ because not all their customs are practical today or even legal — like headhunting, for instance. Let’s go on a cultural journey with one of these tribes: the Bidayuh, who has a community that still lives in the oldest Bidayuh settlement in Sarawak.

The Annah Rais settlement was set up 300 years ago by the ancestors of the present community after moving from one hilltop to another in search of a safe land to build their homes in. Bidayuh communities had to ensure that their village was safe from threats that came in the form of the Iban hunters or the Malay pirates. Unlike now, centuries later, all the

Grating Bamboo as Firestarter

Sarawakian tribes are able to live in harmony with one another. Despite the change of times where the younger generations have migrated to the urban areas, this Bidayuh community still preserves a large part of their history and have not strayed very far away from the authenticity of their customs.

Situated 60 km from the Kuching city, Annah Rais houses 80 families, some of which would provide homestay programmes for guests to stay over, sharing meals and participating in tours around the longhouses and their farm land. Through these programmes, visitors get to experience the Bidayuh lifestyle, including gardening, farming, hunting, fishing, and rafting.

Being the oldest Bidayuh settlement, Annah Rais also has the oldest Bidayuh longhouses in Sarawak. They are built on Belian timber — a hard wood, which is able to withstand all kinds of conditions without losing its strength. The pillars of these longhouses are also made of Belian. It is no wonder then, that they could last for three long centuries and still stand tall at present. Large bamboo strips tied together with woody vines make the floors of the living area and the verandah of the longhouses. The irregular gaps between the bamboo strips allow the interior to be more ventilated, staying cool even on the hottest of days. Placing a rattan mat over the bamboo floor would make a simple and comfortable sleeping base. As there are 80 families, there are also 80 doors. The living space includes the kitchen, dining and sleeping areas, and attic for storage of handicrafts like tambok (baskets woven out of bamboo or bemban reed to carry jungle produce) and rattan mats.

Traditionally, the livelihood of the Bidayuh community revolved around agriculture; from cultivating paddy, hunting with the use of sumpit (blowpipes) and lembing (spears), and fishing, to picking jungle produce for food. They lived as one unit, helping one another and working together, especially when it came to building a longhouse, which is their shared home. The community is made up of close-knit groups that come together to guard their area, keep their premise clean, take care of their common needs, and prepare for big celebrations like the harvest and thanksgiving festivals.

Bamboo Flooring of the Verandah
Festival Valu Dongga, August 10-14th 2018 in Central Sulawesi

Various researches and studies show that the Bidayuh are a conservative lot who were often oppressed by other tribes. They are not inclined to leave the land of their inheritance no matter how crowded they become or how badly deteriorated their soil has become. Their attitude towards life is vastly influenced by their ancestral sentiments, causing them to be laidback and not have the tendency to oppose whatever has been passed down to them. They are neither adventurous nor ambitious, as it takes time for them to adjust to anything new.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the community, as they are one of the few ethnic tribes that are presently still active in agriculture — an essential contribution of food source to the people as a whole. And with how society is moving towards the individualistic culture, the Bidayuh community remains the symbol of solidarity and the ability to work together as a united entity in their daily life, supporting one another and doing things together for the good of the members of their community. Sharing is an important part of their life. When someone returns from hunting, fishing, or picking jungle produce, whatever they bring back is to be shared among the people closest to them. This practice strengthens their bonds and brotherhood.

A very eminent proof of their unity is the ceremonial house, known as the panggah or the baruk, built for the gathering of the people where the Bidayuh rituals are held. In Annah Rais, each longhouse has one panggah. This is a sacred place to the community even to this very day. As the tribe was one of the greatest clan of headhunters in the past, the skulls of the enemies are kept in the ceremonial house. The number of beheaded enemies and the heads brought back to the kampung show how courageous the community is.

Rituals are held before sending the warriors out to tribal wars or headhunting, to welcome the warriors back from an expedition, to perform healing of illnesses that could not be cured by traditional medicine, and — as with all other ethnic tribes — to perform mourning rituals for the dead.

Whenever a ritual is performed, the residents of the longhouses are to keep themselves indoors and not allowed to go out fishing, hunting, farming, or even to put out their laundry. Failure to observe this panting (taboo) could lead to terrible things happening to them.

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Traditional Sugar Cane Juice Extractor

The village would be closed to all visitors when a healing or mourning ritual is in progress, in case they are followed by bad spirits which could harm the villagers, especially the sick, when they enter. A sign would be placed at the access to the village to prevent outsiders from entering during this period, which usually takes place for seven days.

The Bidayuh tribe believe that there is a spirit living in everything, animate or not, called semangat. The absence of this spirit will cause illness, while the total departure of the spirit will cause death. Illnesses are the work of an evil spirit called the mundua. Members of the tribe who are sick and could not be cured by traditional medicine would stay in the panggah and given ritual treatment performed by the chieftain.

As per their belief in spirits, the mourning ritual is to invite the spirits of their close relatives to come and help bring the spirit of the dead with them to sidanah, a version of their purgatory where the adult souls would linger for four years before they considered entrance into their heaven, also known as sibayan. During this ceremony, the dead is presented with food and entertainment as prayers are offered to God for their forgiveness and so they would be allowed to go to heaven. In Annah Rais, however, this ritual is no longer practised as the villagers have all converted to Christianity. Of course, rituals that involve celebrating the headhunting warriors are also not a practice today just as headhunting is no longer a part of their livelihood.

As mentioned above, visitors are not allowed to enter into the village whenever a healing ritual is being held. But this wasn’t the only custom that involve visitors before. Years ago, any outsiders who wished to come into the village could not do so without the permission of the village chief or the head of the longhouse. This is because dropping by and crashing into another person’s home was viewed as an act of disrespect towards the entire community living in the village. Upon being allowed entrance into the village, the visitor could only step into the residence they intended to visit if the head of the house invited them in. And once a visitor became the guest of a household, the visiting rights would govern almost everything they did in the house, from they way they sat, the food served to them, and whether or not they were allowed to stay overnight. Only the village chief had the power to grand permission to the visitors to stay over at the longhouse, while the head of the household had the power to determine their stay within his family’s living space. All these customs were to be observed with respect by the guests towards the Bidayuh community they were visiting.
Traditional Kitchen
The Headhouse of Panggah
The Headhouse of Panggah
Skulls - Headhunter Trophies
Skulls - Headhunter Trophies
Marriage customs have always been a big part of any race. As with all cultures, betrothal and arranged marriage are a thing of the past. For the Bidayuh, the wedding itself would take the awkwardness of an arrange marriage to a different level than most other race. This is because the Bidayuh community were not very particular about the way they dressed, and when the bride and groom showed up in their everyday attires — topless with a sarong for her and only a loincloth for him, that was the end of the days of ‘blind’ marriages. Today, there are still occasions where parents would arrange for their children’s marriage to a potential candidate. But both the man and the woman have the right to choose whom they want to spend the rest of their lives with.

These are just a small portion of the customs and practices of the Bidayuh community in Sarawak. While there are smaller clans within the tribe itself where some of their traditions may differ one from the other, their common values, beliefs, and attitudes derived from natural elements are what shape them into the identity they carry as members of the Bidayuh community. Their spirit of solidarity, togetherness, and unity, and their attitude towards prioritising bonding among their people are a huge encouragement for the society of today to look back on the importance of working together and supporting one another as a community.

The residents of Annah Rais are always open to visitors who wish to experience the Bidayuh way of life. Spend a little time with the community and take back with you an enriching encounter of the unique tribal culture of the Land Dayak.