With the headhunters of Borneo

Continuing our series on journeys with a religious theme, we go upriver with the animists in Sarawak To the Ibans, a head was the ultimate aphrodisiac. Women would fight to get close to a man who came home with a fresh ly cut head

Andro Linklater
Sunday 15 January 1995 00:02 GMT

THE SKULLS looked down through their hollow sockets and bared their yellow teeth. As a welcome to a strange village deep in the jungle of Sarawak, in northern Borneo, it should have been unnerving except that they hung suspended from the rafters in the sort of net bag that holds onions and resembled grey fibrous footballs rather than anything-that once was human. All the same, I gave them a deferential nod of my own suddenly fragile head.

It was not just a matter of manners. This was, after all, the land of the headhunters, where until little more than a century ago the acquisition of heads such as these was one of the central ambitions of Sarawak's native people, the Ibans. I felt like aforeign tourist wandering round an English country house and coming across portraits of the pop-eyed periwigged ancestors who had laid the foundations of the family's prosperity: there could be no more quintessentially typical artefact of the land I wasvisiting. And I was inclined to congratulate myself on finding it, for to reach a place where tradtional values were sufficiently intact for dead heads still to be taken seriously had not been easy.

These days Sarawak has become deeply ambivalent about the practice of headhunting. Less than a century ago, the state was still the personal fiefdom of Sir Charles Brooke, greatest of the White Rajahs of Sarwak, who saw himself as the protector of the Ibans' way of life. Although he led ferocious punitive expeditions to eradicate headhunting, he did everything he could to preserve the Ibans' local customs and animist beliefs. Now Sarawak is part of the Malaysian Federation, whose buoyant economy is dominated by Malay politicians and Chinese businessmen, and there is a tendency to discourage a distinctive Iban identity. Despite being situated on the island of Borneo almost 400 miles away from the mainland, it is marketed to the West with the country's other tourist attractions like the beaches of Penang or the golf courses of the Cameron Highlands on the Malay peninsula.

Aware of its melodramatic appeal to Western visitors, most holiday brochures refer to headhunting as an historical curiosity, something to add an agreeable chill as one lies in the steamy tropical heat of the beaches at Sematan sometimes touted as rivalsto Thailand's. In Kuching, the capital city, Chinese-owned souvenir shops sell postcards and T-shirts of skulls, even plastic replicas, which can be taken home with gaudy rugs and carvings of the exotic hornbill bird. Malay-operated tours from the city offer the chance to visit a longhouse - the single line of houses built side by side in which Ibans traditionally lived - where ceremonies supposedly associated with headhunting are performed to the lightning flash and whizz-click of


For the Ibans themselves, however, the matter is more complex. In the cool shadows of Kuching's exclusive Sarawak Club, whose dress code frowns on any kind of T-shirt let alone one decorated with a skull, university-educated Ibans will joke about ancestors who lopped off the heads of unsuspecting neighbours and carried them back in triumph to their villages. But these are the privileged few. Most of their compatriots live outside the city in government settlements on the lower reaches of the rivers which carve through Sarawak, and there headhunting is not to be dismissed so easily. Some regard it as a reminder of a dark past, or as one newly Catholic Iban said to me, "Headhunting was a mortal sin, and no one should take pridein such relics. They ought to be given a proper burial." More common was the opinion of a young boy returning from a school to his family who lived near the source of the river deep in the jungle. For him, the skulls were a reminder of the past that gave his people their identity."If they tried to take away the heads, they would be stealing part of what made us Iban. We would never let them do that."

In Brooke's account of the people and their practices, he makes it clear that a head was the ultimate aphrodisiac to the Ibans, an object which not only made the murderer irresitible but ensured the fertility of his land and the wealth of his household. It did not matter who it originally belonged to, man, woman or child, once a head had been lopped off its spirit then became the property of the hunter, and like the genie in Aladdin's lamp, it had to work for him. In his memoirs, Brooke desc r ibed how women would fight to get close to a man who returned to his village holding a freshly struck off head, and he spent most of his life organising expeditions to punish such men.

"Cutting off someone's head is like winning your football pools" one of the Sarawak Club sophisticates explained "The person's spirit becomes yours and that makes you extra powerful - just as though you had suddenly won a million pounds "

Even now the excitement is not entirely a matter of history. In the last 10 years, the logging which has obliterated almost one-quarter of Sarawak's forests has gone a long way towards destroying the way of life in which these beliefs flourished. With i t is going an animist religion in which each animal and tree has its own spirit, and every moment is filled with omens and echoes of the other world.

Although most Ibans have some tattoos, usually on the back or legs or more painfully on the throat, one still occasionally sees elderly men who have blue-black squiggles scored into the backs of their hands - the sign that they have taken a head. They were able to do so legally during the Japanese occupation in the Second World War, when stray soldiers were periodically decapitated, and in the 1960s when Indonesian troops tried to invade Sarawak. In the 1970s it was alleged that some of the Korean workers shipped in to labour in the logging camps also fell victim to an old tradition.

And in a comfortable house in an Iban village barely 50 miles from Kuching, I met Inyang, a middle-aged woman with grey hair who also had a headhunter's tattoos on the back of her hands. Her right to them, however, was earned by her skill as a weaver, for traditionally a blanket woven with unusual skill has been thought as effective in capturing the spirit of the person incorporated into its design as decapitation.

To catch a flavour of what is left of these traditional beliefs, the best starting-point is probably Sarawak's second city, Sibu, which is situated on the mighty river Regang. At the dock, river ferries barge impatiently into the quay like piglets tryingto get at a sow's teats, to be boarded even more impatiently by a cross-section of mostly Chinese, Malay or Iban farmers, merchants, soldiers and loggers, before thundering off up the river. It was at Song, a small town a day's journey upriver from Sibu, that I made the acquaintance of a group of Iban who were on their way to a festival at a longhouse on a tributary of the Rejang. One of them, Langga, who had spent several years working in a logging camp and spoke some English, assure d me that I wouldbe welcome though I should be prepared to offer some suitable gift.

At the suggestion of the Sarawak Club, I had brought Biros and cassettes of Malay music, but Langga advised adding a bag of sugar as well as making a contribution to the group's fuel costs. The next day I saw why. We travelled in a large canoe powered byan outboard which for hour after hour roared upstream carrying us from farmland through scattered trees to forest and into heavy jungle. Eventually a small fleet of canoes pulled up on the bank indicated where the festival was taking place and we landed.

The longhouse itself had been built on the side of a hill about 20 feet above the river, but the slope was so steep that although the back of the building was on the ground the platform which ran along its entire length at the front had to be supported on stilts. Inside there was a long covered gallery in front of the houses which seemed to be filled with groups of bronze-skinned muscular men dressed in sarongs and batik-patterned shirts and elegant women with long black hair either talking or preparingfood and drink. The festival, or gawai, had evidently started before we arrived and it was still going strong when I hitched a lift with another party going back downriver the following day.

It was the skulls hanging outside the house of the family organising the festival I noticed first when Langga brought me along to meet them. "Very good, very powerful," he said with a grin, noticing my glance.

They must have been, for throughout my time at the longhouse, there seemed to be no let up in the music provided variously by cassette players, gongs or chanting or in the supply of white rice beer provided in litre-sized bowls or, best of all, in the sheer zest of the hospitality they extended even to their uninvited guests.

There was always someone at hand to indicate where I could unroll my sleeping bag or to invite me to share a meal or some beer. Periodically, girls in short dresses hung with silver coins appeared carrying plates of rice and eggs which were offered to the various spirits of the house or the river. And once my host, stripped to the waist and wearing a headress decorated with black and white feathers paraded the effigy of a hornbill bird along the covered gallery, pausing while people pushed cigarettes ormoney into the gap in its bill to ensure his prosperity.

My pink face must have stood out amid these ceremonies but the only time I was made to feel an outsider was in the course of one of the offerings. The accompanying prayers rarely interrupted the chatter of gossip but on this occasion something was said that caused people to turn round and look at me. Langga was one of them and his grin almost split his face. "What did he say?" I asked anxiously.

"He was praying the white spirit would bring the family wealth," Langga said. "That's you."

A little later I sidled up to the hornbill effigy, and while no one was looking pushed as many folded up notes as I could fit into its bill. Perhaps it was the effects of the hospitality or perhaps of the prayers but who was I to duck my ressponsibiliti e s. If the spirit of the heads on the rafter could bring my host prosperity, my spirit could surely do its bit as well.

TRAVEL NOTES GETTING THERE: STA Travel(071-937 9962) offers return trips to Borneo, either Kuching or Kota Kinabalu with a stopover in Singapore for £519. Travel Warehouse (071 414 8808) flies to Kota Kinabalu for £610, flying out on a Saturday: this offer lasts until 25 March.

ORGANISED TOURS: Asean Journeys (071-437 4404) will tailor-make holidays to Borneo. Tours include trekking and nature reserves; the prices vary according to what the holiday entails. For example, a 14-day trekking holiday starts from £1,200, with return

flights from London to Kota Kinabalu. Explore Worldwide (0252 319448) operates several different itineraries to Sarawak: the 16-day Headhunters' Trek is a jungle expedition, costing £1,189 including flights, half board, transport and tour leader. Cricke t er Holidays (0892 664242) offers an 18-day trip for £1545 based in the city of Kuching and Dami Beach on the South China Sea: excursions are made into the jungles and to tribal vilages.

OTHER INFORMATION: Hepatitis and typhoid vaccinations are recommended, Malaria tablets are strongly advised; innoculations for rabies and meningitis are also advisable, particularly for those going off the beaten track. The Malaysian Tourist Board, 57 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DU (071-930 7932), will provide further information on Sarawak, including details of places to stay and visit.

GETTING AROUND: Sarawak is best known for its waterways - there are express boat services at all main towns. There is also a bus service which operates regular services within town centres and in certain rural areas.

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