Travel Features > Up the Ulu

Visiting Longhouses

People to See ­ Major Ethnic Groups and Their Longhouses

The Iban

The Iban, the largest ethnic group in Sarawak, were also known as Sea Dayaks. Formerly a warlike and expansionist people, they were famous pirates and headhunters. Their traditional lifestyle is based on shifting cultivation of dry rice, and the rice planting and harvesting cycle is the focus of their belief system. Although the majority of Ibans have converted to Christianity, rice continues to play a powerful social and spiritual role. Nowadays many Ibans grow cash crops such as pepper, rubber, cocoa and oil palm, as well as hill rice. Many others live in Sarawak's town and cities, but maintain strong ties to their ancestral longhouses.

To the Iban, the longhouse is not merely a home - it is a way of life. It is always built next to a river, which is both a transport route and a source of water. The size of a longhouse is calculated by the number of doors, or pintu, which can vary from half a dozen to almost a hundred, although the modern norm is around 20 plus. Each door is the entrance to an apartment or bilik with a combined living room and bedroom, a kitchen at the rear and an attic which is used to store rice. Opposite the bilik is a covered verandah, or ruai, which is used for ritual functions, making handicrafts, entertaining guests or just relaxing with friends in the evening. Outside the ruai is an open verandah, the tanju, which is used for drying pepper and rubber.

A well-established, prosperous longhouse will be made of belian (ironwood) and other high quality hardwoods, and roofed with belian shingles or zinc sheeting. Pioneer longhouses in new areas are often made of bamboo and tree bark, with attap roofs. As the community becomes more established, the longhouse will gradually be improved and upgraded.

The Iban are a very democratic and egalitarian people. All adults have a full say in the way the community is run, and the tuai rumah of a modern longhouse does not inherit his position, but is chosen by the residents for his leadership qualities and understanding of adat or customary law.

The Bidayuh

The Bidayuh, also known as Land Dayaks, are the second largest indigenous group in Sarawak. Like the Iban, their economy and belief system are both based on the growing of dry rice. Former opponents of the Iban, they too developed longhouse living for protection in times of war. For the Bidayuh, the longhouse has less ritual importance, as the focus of the community is the Baruk, or head-house, an elaborate circular or octagonal building with a conical roof, where enemies' skulls were kept.

The construction of the Bidayuh longhouse is similar to that of the Iban, but without the external verandah. The Bidayuh are masters in the art of building with bamboo, using this strong and versatile material for building both their homes and their irrigation systems. Unlike the Iban longhouses, many Bidayuh longhouses are built at the foothills of remote mountains, a few hours walk from the nearest road or river. Therefore the individual rooms are often put together like a set of steps rising up the hillside.

The Bidayuh longhouse is also largely democratic, with all members having a say in the running of the community, but the headman is generally chosen from amongst the sons of the former headman. However, only a small minority of Bidayuh still live in longhouses, most preferring the open space and relative freedom of the village or kampung.

Many Bidayuh women still produce exquisite and practical rattan basketware, and they are particularly famed for their woven backpacks and baby carriers, as well as tough and decorative rattan and bamboo mats. In the remoter areas, many older women still wear dozens of brass rings around their legs, reaching from their ankles to their knees. Bidayuh men are skilled bamboo carvers, producing all manner of artefacts and works of art from simple bamboo stems. Like the Iban, they produce good tuak, but they are famous for their excellent fruit wines, including tuak tebu (sugarcane wine), tuak tampui (wild mangosteen wine) and tuak apel (cider). Visitors are sure to be offered a sample.

Orang Ulu

The term Orang Ulu means "upriver people" and covers a host of smaller tribes from Sarawak's interior. Travellers are most likely to visit the longhouses of the Kayan, Kenyah, Punan, Kajang, Kejaman, Kelabit and Lun Bawang. Whilst all of these peoples have widely differing cultures and languages, they also have many factors in common.

Orang Ulu longhouses are broadly similar to those of the Iban in construction, although they are often larger, and may frequently possess two stories. They are far more ornately decorated than those of the Iban and Bidayuh, and feature large 'tree-of-life' murals and ornate woodcarving and detailing.

Unlike the Iban, the Orang Ulu tribes are hierarchical, with a class of traditional aristocrats known as maren. The tuai rumah and his family will live in a very large apartment at the centre of the longhouse, surrounded on either side by their aristocratic neighbours, whilst the commoners live further away from the centre. Social status was traditionally determined by a person's distance from the tuai rumah's apartment, although nowadays this distinction is becoming less important in everyday life.

Most Orang Ulu are dry rice farmers, although the Punan and Kajang prefer to grow sago, whilst the Kelabit have an extensive network of irrigated wet rice fields, the only indigenous people in Sarawak to do so. All these groups also live from their rubber, pepper and oil palm smallholdings, and livestock rearing. Many Orang Ulu work in Sarawak's towns and cities, and in the timber and oil industries, returning to the longhouse only during public holidays and harvest season, and outside these periods the longhouse can seem very quiet.

Visitors to Orang Ulu longhouses, particularly those of the dominant Kayan and Kenyah, cannot fail to be impressed by the artistic and musical talents of the people. Many Orang Ulu are master woodcarvers, producing superb statues, masks and klirieng (burial poles) from tough jungle hardwoods. Most spectacular are the guardian figures that use the aso or dog motif. The longhouse are frequently brightly decorated with large murals rendered in the traditional "tree of life" style. Orang Ulu women produce beautiful beadwork, with which they adorn everything from sun-hats to baby-carriers.

Orang Ulu are also very fond of personal adornment. Many older women have their hands, arms, legs and feet covered in dense black tattoos, and even today many younger women elongate their earlobes with heavy brass rings. These tattoos and elongated earlobes are marks of great beauty amongst the Orang Ulu. Men decorate themselves by piercing the upper part of the ear, through which a boar's tusk or leopard's claw is inserted for ceremonial occasions.


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