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Iban people

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Iban people
Sea Dayak / Heban
COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Portret van Iban Dajaks waarvan de man in krijgskleding in de garnizoensplaats Long Nawan TMnr 60034030.jpg
A traditional Iban family, circa 1920–1940.
Total population
approximately 1,052,400
Regions with significant populations
 Malaysia (Sarawak, and small diaspora in Sabah, Labuan, and Peninsular Malaysia)745,400[1]
West Kalimantan
Iban, Indonesian/Malaysian; most notably the Sarawak Malay dialect of the Malaysian language
Christianity, Animism, some minorities Islam
Related ethnic groups
Kantu, Dayak Mualang, Semberuang, Bugau and Sebaru

The Ibans or Sea Dayaks are a branch of the Dayak peoples of Borneo, in South East Asia. Most Ibans are located in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It is believed that the term "Iban" was originally an exonym used by the Kayans, who referred to the Sea Dayaks in the upper Rajang river region when they initially came into contact with them as the "Hivan".

Ibans were renowned for practicing headhunting and tribal/territorial expansion, and had a fearsome reputation as a strong and successful warring tribe in the past. Since the arrival of Europeans and the subsequent colonisation of the area, headhunting gradually faded out of practice although many other tribal customs and practices as well as the Iban language continue to thrive. The Iban population is concentrated in Sarawak, Brunei, and in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan. They traditionally live in longhouses called rumah panjai.[4][5]

Ibanic Dayak regional groups

Iban men complete with traditional attire, spears, Ilang and Klebit Bok.

Although Ibans generally speak various dialects which are mutually intelligible, they can be divided into different branches which are named after the geographical areas where they reside.

  • The majority of Ibans who live around the Lundu and Samarahan region are called Sebuyaus.
  • Ibans who settled in areas in Serian district (places like Kampung Lebor, Kampung Tanah Mawang and others) are called Remuns. They may be the earliest Iban group to migrate to Sarawak.
  • Ibans who originated from Sri Aman area are called Balaus.
  • Ibans who come from Betong, Saratok and parts of Sarikei are called Saribas.
  • The original Iban Lubok Antu Ibans are classed by anthropologists as Ulu Ai/batang ai Ibans.
  • Ibans from Undup are called Undup Ibans. Their dialect is somewhat a cross between the Ulu Ai dialect and the Balau dialect.
  • Ibans living in areas from Sarikei to Miri are called Rajang Ibans. This group is also known as "Bilak Sedik Iban". They are the majority group of the Iban people. They can be found along the Rajang River, Sibu, Kapit, Belaga, Kanowit, Song, Sarikei, Bintangor, Bintulu and Miri. Their dialect is somewhat similar to the Ulu Ai or lubok antu dialect.

In West Kalimantan (Indonesia), Iban people are even more diverse. The Kantu, Air Tabun, Semberuang, Sebaru, Bugau, Mualang, and many other groups are classed as "Ibanic people" by anthropologists. They can be related to the Iban either by the dialect they speak or their customs, rituals and their way of life.


The Iban language (jaku Iban) is spoken by the Iban, a branch of the Dayak ethnic group formerly known as "Sea Dayak" who live in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan and in Brunei. It belongs to Malayic languages a Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family, and is related to Malay, more closely to Sarawakian Malay. It is thought that the homeland of the Malayic languages is in western Borneo, where the Ibanic languages remain. The Malayan branch represents a secondary dispersal, probably from central Sumatra but possibly also from Borneo.[6] The Iban language is also a subject tested in PMR and SPM, the Malaysian public examination for Form 3 and Form 5 students respectively. Students comment that questions from these exams mostly cover the classic Iban language, making them a daunting task for many who are more fluent in the contemporary tongue. The language is mostly taught to students in rural areas with a majority Iban population, including Baleh (Kapit), Betong, Sri Aman, Saratok, Lubok Antu, Pelagus (Kapit), [[Pakan,

Sarawak|Pakan]] and Julau. The Iban speaks more or less one language with a variation in intonation according to the region from which each comes from. They have a rich oral literature, noted by Freeman[citation needed], who stated: "The Iban probably has more oral literature than the Greek." There is a body of oral poetry which is recited by the Iban depending on the occasion.

Iban ritual festivals and rites

An Iban head feast.

Significant traditional festivals, or gawai, to propitiate the above-mentioned gods can be grouped into seven categories which are related to the main ritual activities among the Iban Dayak:

  • Farming-related festivals to propitiate the deity of agriculture Sempulang Gana,
  • War-related festivals to honor the deity of war Sengalang Burong,
  • Fortune-related festivals dedicated to the deity of fortune Anda Mara,
  • Procreation-related festival (Gawai Melah Pinang) for the deity of creation Selampandai,
  • Health-related festivals for the deity of shamanism Menjaya and Ini Andan and
  • Death-related festival (Gawai Antu or Ngelumbong) to invite the dead souls for final separation ritual between the living and the dead.
  • Weaving-related festival (Gawai Ngar) for patrons of weaving.

For simplicity and cost savings, some of the gawai have been relegated into the medium category of propitiation called gawa such as Gawai Tuah into Nimang Tuah, Gawai Benih into Nimang Benih and Gawa Beintu-intu into their respective nimang category wherein the key activity is the timang inchantation by the bards. Gawai Matah can be relegated into a minor rite simply called matah. The first dibbling (nugal) session is normally preceded by a miring offering ceremony of medium size with kibong padi (paddy's net) is erected with three flags. The paddy's net is erected by splitting a bamboo trunk into four pieces along its length with their tips inserted into the groud soil. Underneath the paddy's net, all the paddy seeds in baskets or gunny sacks are kept before being distributed by a line of ladies into dibbled holes by a line men in front.

With headhunting banned and with the advance of Christianity, only some lower ranking ritual festivals are often celebrated by the Iban today such as Sandau Ari (Mid-Day Rite), Gawai Kalingkang (Bamboo Receptacle Festival), Gawai Batu (Whetstone Festival), Gawai Tuah (Fortune Festival) and Gawai Antu (Festival for the Dead Relatives) which can be celebrated without the timang jalong (ceremonial cup chanting) which reduces its size and cost.

It is common that all those festivals are to be celebrated after the rice harvesting completion which is normally by the end of May during which rice is plenty for holding feasts along with poultry like pigs, chickens, fish from rivers and jungle meats like deer etc. Therefore, it is fitting to call this festive season among Dayak collectively as the Gawai Dayak festival which is celebrated every year on 1 June, at the end of the harvest season, to worship the Lord Sempulang Gana and other gods. On this day, the Iban get together to celebrate, often visiting each other.

Culture and customs

Religion and belief

Religions of Ibans (Malaysia only)[7]
Religion Percent
Folk religion-Animist
Other religions
No religion / Unknown

For hundreds of years, the ancestors of the Iban practiced animistic beliefs, although after the arrival of James Brooke, many were influenced by European missionaries and converted to Christianity. Although the majority are now Christian; many continue to observe both Christian and traditional ceremonies, particularly during marriages or festivals, although some ancestral practice such as 'Miring' are still prohibited by certain churches. After being Christianized, the majority of Iban people have changed their traditional name to a Hebrew-based "Christian name" such as David, Christopher, Janet, Magdalene, Peter or Joseph, but a minority still maintain their traditional Iban name or a combination of both with the first Christian name followed by a second traditional Iban name such as David Dunggau, Kenneth Kanang, Christopher Changgai, Janet Jenna or Joseph Jelenggai. There are several reasons why some Iban and other Dayaks convert to Christianity:

  • Observing the various penti pemali (prohibitions) and superstitions dictated by the traditional augury can make life complicated and introduce delays that will slow down one's progress with life and work.
  • The healing (pelian) offered by the manangs is not effective in curing many diseases, e.g. smallpox, cholera (muang ai), dengue, etc.
  • Christianity is considered a new branch of knowledge to be adopted and adapted to the traditional customs and way of life, leading to the realization that bad old practices such as headhunting are self-destructive to the survival of the Dayak race as a whole.[citation needed]
  • Christianity comes with Western education, which can be used to seek employment on sojourns and upgrade one's standard of living to escape poverty.
  • Defeats of Dayaks at the hands of Europeans with better weapons, such as guns and cannons against traditional hand-held weapons such as swords, shields, spears and blowpipes, despite strict adherence to traditional augury practices.
  • Some Ibans consider Christianity an extension of human knowledge because it can accommodate some of their traditional practices, e.g. some the ritual festivals can be celebrated in the Christian ways.
  • Some churches and pastors prohibit Christian Iban to practice their ancestors' traditional customary ceremonies to honour the Petara (gods), spirits and ancestors but they somehow replace the ceremonial procedures with Christian prayers and practices which propiate the Christian God and thereby still retaining the ceremonial title with the same purpose and function. (However, there is a certain degree of flexibility regarding individual observance).

For the majority of Ibans who are Christians, some Christian festivals such as Christmas, Good Friday, Easter are also celebrated. Most Ibans are devout Christians and follow the Christian faith strictly. Since conversion to Christianity, some Iban people celebrate their ancestors' festivals using Christian ways and the majority still observes Gawai Dayak (the Dayak Festival), which is a generic celebration in nature unless a gawai proper is held and thereby preserves their ancestors' culture and tradition.

Despite the difference in faiths, Ibans of different faiths do help each other during Gawai and at Christmas. Differences in faith are never a problem in the Iban community.[8][dubious ] The Ibans believe in helping and having fun together. Some elder Ibans are worried that among most of their younger Iban generation, their culture has faded since the conversion to Christianity and the adoption of a more Western style of life. Nevertheless, most Iban embrace modern progress and development.


Pansoh or lulun is a dish of rice or other food cooked in bamboo cylindrical sections (ruas) with one top end cut open to insert food while the bottom end remains closed and uncut to act as a container. A middle aged bamboo tree is normally chosen because its wall still contain water compared to the old, matured bamboo tree which is dryer and thus get burnt by fire more readily. The bamboo also imparts the famous and addicting, special bamboo taste or flavour to the cooked food or rice. Glutinous rice is often cooked in bamboo for routine diet or during celebrations. It is believed in the old days, bamboo cylinders were used to cook food in the absence of metal pots.

Kasam is preserved meat or fish. In the absence of refrigerators, often jungle meats from wild games or river fish are preserved by cutting them into small pieces and mixed with salt before being placed into a ceramic jar or glass jar nowadays. Therefore, ceramic jars were precious in the old days as food, tuak or general containers. The preserved meats can last for at least several months.

An Iban family serving guest tuak.

Tuak is an Iban wine traditionally made from cooked glutinous rice (asi pulut) mixed with home-made yeast (chiping[disambiguation needed]/ragi) for fermentation. It used to serve guests, especially as a welcoming drink when entering a longhouse. Nowadays,[when?] there are various kinds of tuak, made with rice alternatives such as sugar cane, ginger and corn. However, these raw materials are rarely used unless available in large quantities. Tuak and other types of drinks (both alcohol and non-alcoholic) can be served on several rounds in a ceremony called nyibur temuai (serving drinks to guests) as ai aus (thirst quenching drink), ai basu kaki foot washing drink), ai basa (respect drink) and ai untong (profit drink). Another type of a stronger alcoholic drink is called langkau, which contains a higher alcohol content because it is actually made of tuak which has been distilled over fire to boil off the alcohol, cooled and collected into containers.


Iban music is percussion-oriented. The Iban have a musical heritage consisting of various types of agung ensembles - percussion ensembles composed of large hanging, suspended or held, bossed/knobbed gongs which act as drones without any accompanying melodic instrument. The typical Iban agung ensemble will include a set of engkerumungs (small agungs arranged together side by side and played like a xylophone), a tawak (the so-called "bass"), a bendai (which acts as a snare) and also a set of ketebung or bedup (a single sided drum/percussion instrument).

There are various kinds of taboh (music), depending the purpose and types of ngajat, like alun lundai.[clarification needed] The gendang can be played in some distinctive types corresponding to the purpose and type of each ceremony with the most popular ones are called gendang rayah and gendang pampat.

Sape is originally a traditional music by Orang Ulu (Kayan, Kenyah and Kelabit). Nowadays, both the Iban as well as the Orang Ulu Kayan, Kenyah and Kelabit play an instrument resembling the guitar called the sape. Datun Jalut and nganjak lansan are the most common traditional dances performed in accordance with a sape tune. The Sape (instrument) is the official musical instrument for the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It is played similarly to the way rock guitarists play guitar solos, albeit a little slower, but not as slow as blues.[9][10] One example of Iban traditional music is the taboh.


A 19th century Iban carving of a hornbill.

Traditional carvings (ukir) include hornbill effigy carving, terabai shield, engkeramba (ghost statue), knife stilt normally made of deer horn, knife scabbard, decorative carving on the metal blade itself during ngamboh blacksmithing e.g. butoh kunding, and frightening mask (India guru). Another related category is designing motives either by engraving or drawing with paints such wooden planks, walls or house posts. Even the traditional coffins will be beautifully decorated using both carving and ukir-painting.

The Ibans like to tattoo themselves all over their body. There are motifs for each part of the human body. The purposes are to protect the tattoo bearers or to signify certain events in their life. Some motifs are based on marine lives such as crayfish (rengguang), prawn (undang) and crab (ketam) while other motifs are based on dangerous creatures like cobra (tedong), scorpion (kala), ghost dog (pasun) and dragon (naga). Other normal motifs include items which Iban travellers meet during their journey such as aeroplane on the chest. Some Ibans call this art of tattoing as kalingai or ukir. To signify that an individual has killed an enemy (udah bedengah), he is entitled to tattoo his throat (engkatak) or his upper-side fingers (tegulun). Some traditional Iban do have piercings on the penis (called palang) or ear lobes.

An Iban woman prepares cotton for spinning.

Woven products are known as betenun. Several types of woven blankets made by the Ibans are pua kumbu, pua ikat, kain karap and kain sungkit.[11] Using weaving, the Iban makes blankets, bird shirt (baju burong), kain kebat, kain betating and selampai. Weaving is the women's warpath while kayau (headhunting) is the men's warpath. They pua kumbu do have conventional or ritual motives depending on the purpose of weaving it. Those who finish the weaving lessons are called tembu kayu (finish the wood) [[12]]. Among well known ritual motives are Gajah Meram (Brodding Elephant), Tiang Sanding (Ritual Pole), Meligai (Shrine) and Tiang Ranyai.[13]

The Iban call this skill pandai beranyam (skilful in plaiting) various items namely mats (tikai), baskets and hats. The Ibans weave mats of numerous types namely tikai anyam dua tauka tiga, tikai bebuah (motived mat),[14] tikai lampit made of rattan and tikai peradani made of rattan and tekalong bark. Materials to make mats are beban to make the normal mat or the patterned mat, rattan to make tikai rotan, lampit when the rattan splits sewn using a thread or peradani when criss-crossed with the tekalong bark, senggang to make perampan used for drying and daun biruto make a normal tikai or kajang (canvas) which is very light when dry. The names of Iban baskets are bakak (medium-sized container for transferring, lifting or medium-term storage), singtong (container for raping ripen paddy worn at the waist), raga (small container), tubang (cylindrical backpack), lanji (tall cylindrical backpack) and probably selabit (almost rectangular shaped backpack). Another category of plaiting which are normally carried out by men is to make fish traps called bubu gali, bubu dudok, engsegah and abau using betong bamaboo splits except bubu dudok is made from ridan which can be bent without breaking. The Iban also makes special baskets called garong for the dead during Gawai Antu with numerous feet to denote the rank and status of the deceased which indicates his ultimate achievement during his lifetime. The Iban also make pukat (rectangular net) and jala (conical net) after nylon have ropes become available.

Iban also have their own hunting apparatus which include making panjuk (rope and spring trap), peti (bamboo blade trap) and jarin (deer net). Nowadays, they use shotguns and dogs for animal hunting. Dogs are reared by the Ibans in longhouses especially in the past for hunting (ngasu) purposes and warning of any danger approaching. Shotguns can be bought from the Brooke government. The Ibans make their own blowpipes, and obtain honey from the tapang tree.

The Ibans also can make their boats. The canoes for normal use is called perau but big war boats are called bangkong or bong which is probably fitted with long paddles and a wind sail made of kajang canvas. It is said that bangkong is used to sail along the sea coasts of northern Borneo or even to travel across the seas e.g. to Singapore.

Besides that, the Ibans make various blades called nyabur, ilang, pedang, duku chandong, duku penebas, lungga (small blade), sangkoh, jerepang, Beirut, and mata lanja sumpit. Although silversmithing originates from the Embaloh, some Ibans became skilled in this trade to make silverware for body ornaments. The Iban always buy brasswares such tawak (gong), bendai (snare) and engkerumong tabak (tray) and baku (small box) from other peoples because they do not have the skills of brasssmithing. The Iban makes their own kacit pinang to split the ereca nuts and pengusok pinang to grind the split pieces of the ereca nut. They also make ketap (finger-held blade) to reap ripen paddy stalks and iluk (hand-held blade) to weed.

Agriculture and economy

Ibans plant rice paddies once a year with twenty seven stages.[15][16] Other crops planted include ensabi, cucumber (rampu amat and rampu betu), brinjal, corn, lingkau, and cotton before commercial threads are sold in the market.[citation needed]

For cash, the Ibans find jungle produce for sale in the market. Later, they plant rubber, pepper and cocoa. Nowadays, many Ibans work in the town areas to seek employment or involve in trade or business.[citation needed]


Two highly decorated Iban Dayak soldiers from Sarawak in Malaysia are Temenggung Datuk Kanang anak Langkau (awarded Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa)[17] and Awang anak Raweng of Skrang (awarded a George Cross).[18][19] So far, only one Dayak has reached the rank of general in the military, Brigadier-General Stephen Mundaw in the Malaysian Army, who was promoted on 1 November 2010.[20]

Malaysia’s most decorated war hero is Kanang Anak Langkau due to his military services helping to liberate Malaya (and later Malaysia) from the communists. Among all the heroes were 21 holders of Panglima Gagah Berani (PGB) which is the bravery medal with 16 survivors. Of the total, there are 14 Ibans, two Chinese army officers, one Bidayuh, one Kayan and one Malay. But the majorities in the Armed Forces are Malays, according to a book – Crimson Tide over Borneo. The youngest of the PGB holder is ASP Wilfred Gomez of the Police Force.

There were six holders of Sri Pahlawan (SP) Gagah Perkasa (the Gallantry Award) from Sarawak, and with the death of Kanang Anak Langkau, there is one SP holder in the person of Sgt. Ngalinuh (an Orang Ulu).

In popular culture

An Iban family living in a longhouse in Betong.
  • The episode "Into the Jungle" from Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations included the appearance of Itam, a former Sarawak Ranger and one of the Iban people's last members with the entegulun (Iban traditional hand tattoos) signifying his taking of an enemy’s head.
  • The film The Sleeping Dictionary features Selima (Jessica Alba), an Anglo-Iban girl who falls in love with John Truscott (Hugh Dancy). The movie was filmed primarily in Sarawak, Malaysia.
  • Malaysian singer Noraniza Idris recorded "Ngajat Tampi" in 2000 and followed by "Tandang Bermadah" in 2002, which are based on traditional Iban music compositions. Both songs reached popularity in Malaysia and neighbourhood countries.
  • Chinta Gadis Rimba (or Love of a Forest Maiden), a 1958 film directed by L. Krishnan based on the novel of the same name by Harun Aminurrashid, tells about Iban girl Bintang who goes against the wishes of her parents and runs off to her Malay lover. The film is the first time a full-length feature film has been shot in Sarawak plus the first time an Iban woman has played as a lead character.[21]
  • Bejalai is a 1987 film directed by Stephen Teo, notable for being the first film to be made in the Iban language and also the first Malaysian film to be selected for the Berlin International Film Festival. The film is an experimental feature about the custom among the Iban young men to do a "bejalai" (go on a journey) before attaining maturity.[22]
  • In Farewell to the King, a 1969 novel by Pierre Schoendoerffer plus its subsequent 1989 film adaptation, American prisoner-of-war Learoyd escapes a Japanese firing squad into hiding in the wilds of Borneo, where he is adopted by an Iban community.
  • In 2007, Malaysian company Maybank produced a wholly Iban-language commercial commemorating Malaysia’s 50th anniversary of independence. The advert, directed by Yasmin Ahmad with help of the Leo Burnett agency, was shot in Bau and Kapit and used an all-Sarawakian cast.[23]

Notable people

See also


  1. ^ "State statistics: Malays edge past Chinese in Sarawak". The Borneo Post. Archived from the original on 15 April 2016. Retrieved 15 April 2016.
  2. ^ "Iban of Indonesia". People Groups. Retrieved 2015-10-03.
  3. ^ "Iban of Brunei". People Groups. Retrieved 2015-10-03.
  4. ^ "Borneo trip planner: top five places to visit". 2013-07-21. Archived from the original on 2015-10-16. Retrieved 2015-10-03.
  5. ^ Leo Sutrisno (2015-12-26). "Rumah Betang". Pontianak Post. Archived from the original on 2015-12-29. Retrieved 2015-10-03.
  6. ^ The Austronesians: historical and comparative perspectives. Peter Bellwood, James J. Fox, Darrell Tryon. ANU E Press, 2006. ISBN 1-920942-85-8, ISBN 978-1-920942-85-4
  7. ^ "2010 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia" (PDF) (in Malay and English). Department of Statistics, Malaysia. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 March 2015. Retrieved 17 June 2012. checked: yes. p. 108.
  8. ^ Tamara Thiessen (2008). Bradt Travel Guide - Borneo. Bradt Travel Guides. ISBN 18-416-2252-4.
  9. ^ Mercurio, Philip Dominguez (2006). "Traditional Music of the Southern Philippines". PnoyAndTheCity: A center for Kulintang - A home for Pasikings. Retrieved 21 November 2006.
  10. ^ Matusky, Patricia. "An Introduction to the Major Instruments and Forms of Traditional Malay Music." Asian Music Vol 16. No. 2. (Spring-Summer 1985), pp. 121-182.
  11. ^ "Pua Kumbu – The Legends Of Weaving". Ibanology. Retrieved 2016-08-22.
  12. ^ "Pua Kumbu – The Legends Of Weaving". 8 April 2013. Retrieved 5 February 2018.
  13. ^ "Restoring Panggau Libau: a reassessment of engkeramba' in Saribas Iban ritual textiles (pua' kumbu')". 23 April 2013. Retrieved 5 February 2018.
  14. ^ See examples here,
  15. ^ Iban Agriculture by JD Freeman
  16. ^ Report on the Iban by JD Freeman
  17. ^ Ma Chee Seng & Daryll Law (2015-08-06). "Remembering Fallen Heroes on Hero Memorial Day". New Sarawak Tribune. Retrieved 2016-08-22.
  18. ^ Rintos Mail & Johnson K Saai (2015-09-06). "Ailing war hero may miss royal audience this year". The Borneo Post. Retrieved 2016-08-22.
  19. ^ "Sarawak (Malaysian) Rangers, Iban Trackers and Border Scouts". Winged Soldiers. Retrieved 2016-08-22.
  20. ^ "Stephen Mundaw becomes first Iban Brigadier General". The Borneo Post. 2010-11-02. Retrieved 2016-08-22.
  21. ^ "Wanted: a jungle belle who knows about love". The Straits Times. 3 September 1956. p. 7. Retrieved 28 March 2017 – via NewspaperSG.
  22. ^
  23. ^ coconutice (4 September 2007), Maybank Advert in Iban, retrieved 27 March 2017


  • Sir Steven Runciman, The White Rajahs: a history of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946 (1960).
  • James Ritchie, The Life Story of Temenggong Koh (1999)
  • Benedict Sandin, Gawai Burong: The chants and celebrations of the Iban Bird Festival (1977)
  • Greg Verso, Blackboard in Borneo, (1989)
  • Renang Anak Ansali, New Generation of Iban, (2000)

External links