The first phase of the Dayak Benuaq’s ceremony: A report from the village

offerings to ancestorsRUWI AND I JUST RETURNED LAST WEEK FROM BORNEO, where we participated in a number of the rituals leading up to the large and festive pig feast, which was just held a few days ago and included hundreds of people from neighboring villages. At the phase of the ceremony which we attended, the rituals involved only the core group of host families as they prepared the spiritual ground and attended to the extensive physical preparations needed for the larger gathering to come.

BelianOn the night we arrived, we attended the last session of the Tinak Torugk ritual, where specific ancestor and earth guardian spirits were notified of the intention to hold the larger ceremonies. People gathered and chatted well in advance, sitting together in the main room of Asuy’s house near the Belian Longan, which serves as a kind of “altar” — the sacred center of the ceremony during this phase. Altar implies table, but the Belian Longen is actually a kind of room within a room — a structure built of bamboo. From it’s “ceiling” hang bundles of natural materials, offerings, fruits and ritual objects. Some ritual objects are stored on the platform that forms its ceiling. The rest sit on the floor in a beautiful arrangement of jars, folded fabrics, plates of offerings, and sacred objects.

The ritual began with the shaman’s chant, and as he sang, the women chose ceremonial skirts to put on over their street clothes. When the drum and gamelon began to play a steady, hypnotic rhythm, the people gathered in a line, holding staffs. They danced in simple relaxed steps, tapping their staffs in unison as part of the music, moving toward a basket at the far side of the room. When they reached the basket, they all put their staffs inside and held them there, then moved in a line to the basket at the other end of the room and did the same, circling through the Belian Longan. Each of these movements from one basket to the other was a symbolic journey to important rivers and hills — upstream, downstream and to the sea. At each stop, the features of that place were honored and remembered as they symbolically notified the spirits of the place of their intentions to hold the ceremony.

dance 72 The use of the word “symbolic” is a bit of a misnomer, as what many westerners think of as “symbolic” has less import than “actual” and doesn’t really exist. But for the Dayak, it is clear that the ephemeral version of a place that resides in dream, memory and imagination — what the Tibetan Buddhists would call Sambogakaya form and the Dayak call the land of the ancestors — is as important to engage with as the physical place. In fact, the point of the ceremony is to bring these two realms closer together — ephemeral and visible, spirit and matter — so that they are in harmony with one another. One of the elders, Singko, said that the music serves as a vehicle to take us to that ephemeral realm, just as we’d get on a motorbike to go to the river. In one sense, this ritual helps the people to share a unified, collective dream and intention for the places they inhabit together. The use of objects that are infused with spirit through metaphorical actions is the language of this ephemeral realm — the language of dreams — and infusing the physical with the invisible is like filling a place with our deep love and intention for it, binding the inner and outer world into a unified whole.

When the people reached each of the baskets, they paused to smear rice paste on one another’s skin with laughter and playful spirit. Some came around to smear those of us who were watching the dance, and we were marked with rice paste on forehead, cheeks and arms. One of the elders said that the rice paste is meant to bring cleansing and freshness, much as you would repaint a room with fresh paint.

When the music stopped, the women removed their ceremonial skirts and returned to their street clothes. Food was served in small bowls that got passed around and shared: little dumplings filled with palm sugar, sticky rice that had been cooked in bamboo over an open fire, salty dried fish, coffee and tea. Everyone ate together, chatted, rested amiably. Some stretched out to sleep on the floor, while others left for home. The shaman slept in the Belian Longan under a small mesh tent that he unrolled each night, then tied up in a bundle each morning. During the ceremony, it hung against the wall like a large cocoon.

women make preparationDuring the time we were there, a similar pattern was followed every day: Dawn is announced by the heartbeat of a drum and the shaman’s chant. He sings the story of the tribe, mantras and prayers. The women spend much time preparing the day’s food while the men gather firewood and other materials from the forest for the days’ offerings, as well as for the construction of ceremonial platforms and objects that will be used in future rituals. Work with the materials happens amidst relaxed conviviality, punctuated by meals of rice, fish, broth and sweet potatoes. This goes on until it is too hot to do anything, and then some people rest until the sun moves lower in the sky. Throughout the day and into the evening, visitors come and go from the house, gathering around the Belian Longan, which is daily replenished with offerings that are rich in symbolism. The main rituals happen at night, once preparations are complete and it has cooled off.

For the days following the Tinak Torugk ceremony, they held Aarank Tunau, which is a cleansing ritual. This includes a similar line dance as the one described above, only the people hold bundles of curly, shaved wood that they shake like pom poms as they dance, cleansing the landscape and atmosphere of negativity and confusion in all the important places they had visited in the last ritual. You can get a taste of the dance in this video:

pesengket ritualNormally, the four days that follow are called Aarank Tunau, where they keep the connection strong between spirit, people and place, but because of the bulldozing and the urgency of the situation, the shaman petitioned the ancestors to shorten this period, and the participants skipped this part and went directly to a second Pesengket ceremony — a cleansing ritual that involves bathing in a flower bath. After the Pesengket ceremony, they began Lamaak Lehoa — the preparation rituals that precede Nalin Tauten, the pig festival, where they hosted many guests from neighboring villages, which I will share with you in the next update.

While traditionally, the ceremony goes on for 64 days, these are “spiritual days,” which means that because of the scale of the ceremony and the number of people invited, they may at times need a number of days to prepare for a ritual. In such a case, it as though the clock has stopped while preparations are made, and then it starts again when the ceremony can proceed. For this reason, the ceremony may continue beyond 64 days. In fact, when we arrived, we were spiritually on day 14 of the ceremony, while the calendar would tell us we were well beyond that.

More on the ceremony, the tribe, and ways to join in.
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