Dance to the Dead: A Festival Among the Dayaks of Borneo



ONE afternoon we were returning down-river by sampan to Putussibau, a thousand miles up the Kapuas, when we saw the Dayak house. It stood high on the bank among groves of rubber trees. Our guide, the Demang of Putussibau, one of the ranking officials of the entire district and himself a Dayak who understood not only his own people but grasped the idea of the sort of things we wanted to see which would make our journey into the interior an adventure, said it was one of the oldest houses of that region, and well worth our stopping a while to visit it.

It was going to rain, and although it was not yet five, here under the trees shapes were already growing so dim that the straight length of the house, almost fading into the forest, appeared all the greater.

We moored, and were soon making our way along a pier, with no water under it now, toward the entrance steps leading high up to the house. It was an astonishing feat of engineering. Its floor was raised six yards above the ground on heavy timbers, which at front and back rose even higher to support a lofty and very strong framework for the thatch. The floor was made of thick beams laid with planks on which in turn were spread tikar mats. The house comprised twenty rooms for twenty families, and it was a good two hundred yards long. All doors opened on to a five-yard-wide veranda, which was where the people worked and played. Here the women plaited beautiful tikar from ivory-yellow rattan with inserted patterns in black; here the children played, the fowls and dogs quarreled; and here also the great dance festivals were held.

Four girls were stirring something with wooden ladles in two large earthenware pots. They were naked save for a very short cloth reaching from below the navel to above the knee; but around their heads was tied from front to back a red cloth stuck full of feathers of the male hornbill. Thus their heads were more covered than any other part of their bodies.

A drizzle began to fall, and it became quite dark among the rubber trees.

The girls told us that the sweetmeat they were preparing was for a traditional ceremony, held only twice a century, which would take place in three days’ time. They laughed to my young companions, Saleh and Purbadi, and, continuing to stir the sticky mixture, invited us to attend the festival.

We accepted, and an afternoon three days later, our sampan was nearly there. Before we rounded the last point, our ears were assailed by the sound of gongs and drums. The landing stage and the long pier were decorated with arches of young coconut-palm leaves and with bunting and Hags. Off to one side of the pier a plot of ground had been fenced off with poles, enclosing the beasts to be slaughtered: four cattle, four swine, and four goals. From the pier we were taken directly to this place. There a ritual dance was winding round and round the enclosure. Seven times a. day the people had to go through this dance, on each occasion circling seven times round the sacrificial animals penned so tightly in the enclosure that they could hardly move.

Leading them all danced a little man, white from skin disease and bent with age, whose right, hand held a head-hunter’s sword — ihe terrible mandau, its hilt decorated with human hair—and whose left hand bore a green skull. Into the nose hole of the skull young coconut leaves had been stuffed, giving it a grotesquely terrifying appearance, as if upon those dry old bones there had newly sprouted a long luxuriant mustache.

Behind the old man clustered the younger people, some of them clad in bark loincloths and a silvery head covering adorned with feathers, while others wore their everyday clothes; trousers with either singlet or pajama jacket. Behind the men danced the women, the foremost of whom was a prophetess, a withered old crone blind in one eye. Her short wrapped skirt and long bolero were woven of red and yellow glass beads, the pattern outlined in black. These bright colors made her age and the spareness of her frame all the more striking. She sang supplications in a high feeble voice, a woman soon to be dead praying to those dead long since. From time to time the men raised a clear-toned scream and brandished on high their fearsome swords, while the rhythm of the dance quickened. The beasts in the corral made startled movements, and a goat bleated in fear.

Standing next to me was the Tumenggung. A Tumenggung is the head of a Dayak village, and in him resides all of the wisdom of the ages which each village collects, and he not only answers for his people but his memories are a kind oF living history book for the villagers. He finally spoke, saying casually: “In the old days we sacrificed, not animals, but slaves and captives.”

A sense of the unbearable overcame me—not from fear of any real danger, but from the festival’s strange atmosphere. The ceremonial praying, the music, and the dancing brought to this living afternoon all the dead and the dead past.

The Demang, beside me, stood silent, unmoving, and untouched. But my two young colleagues seemed, like me, to be affected by the spell. I heard one whisper to the other: “There really are many ghosts around.” And so I felt less alone.

When the seventh round was completed, the dancing stopped, and the old woman ceased her supplications. The music continued; but it became less awesome. Several dancers whom we had met on our first visit came up and spoke to us. Then the Demang motioned us into the house.


Now that we were officially invited guests, we were required to split a tree trunk and to take two sips of arrack from narrow bamboo tubes. At the end of the long veranda, chairs had been set about two round tables. Several girls brought us cakes and palm wine. The Tumenggung, who sat with us. explained that usually people did not drink much until the ritual visit to the graves was over; for otherwise they might become drunk, and, by not behaving dutifully and respectfully, arouse the anger of the spirits. Only when they had returned from the cemetery might they celebrate as much as they pleased in the joy of the festival. For then the spirits would have been reconciled, and the living and the dead would be in the very best of moods.

I began to wonder about the age of the Tumenggung. He was quite old, but his eyes were still clear and he wore thin whiskers which gave him the semblance of a sly mouse.

“How old are you, Pa’ Tumenggung?” we asked.

“In the year 1 married, Ivrakatao erupted, and a. rain of ash fell here,” he replied.

That was more than seventy years ago, we calculated; and the prophetess must be even older. We asked about this, and it was true. At the time of the eruption, she had a child who could already walk.

“You certainly must have been to many festivals and gone through many tribal battles,” I said.

“Many festivals and many battles,” he agreed.

He told us how in former times all houses were enclosed for defense, their fences equipped with bamboo stakes. And how on the river banks they made tiger traps, with more bamboo stakes inside, concealing the pits with layers of grass and shrubs. When he was young he surely must have gone headhunting many times against the enemy. Now he sat there on the chair beside us and told us stories about the old wars without the least emotion. I glanced at Saleh and Purbadi and their eyes had opened wider than usual, and I vaguely sensed a chill of nameless, somehow unidentifiable, terror coursing through my body.

While we were talking, everything was being made ready for the great feast. Along each side of the veranda two banks of gongs were lined up. Before each gong were placed great heavy copper bowls containing rice and side dishes. Men and women joined in celebrating, each using a gong as a seat. Here and there gasoline pressure-lamps were hung from the rafters supporting the thatch, and copper lamps as high as Chinese candles were set on the floor. They burned kerosene and gave off a red light from a tongued flame.

The old woman began to sing and other voices accompanied her. She presented the food as an offering to the spirits. We did not clearly see how this was done, for the old woman sat at the far end of the veranda.

Plates of rice and small dishes of pork were placed on our table. There was river fish for the Muslims. And then we were invited to eat. It was evident from our hunger that the day was now far advanced. Outside we could hear the rain falling. We dined and talked.

Suddenly two men were standing on the veranda facing each other. Their heads were covered with rattan cloth into which feathers of a giant hornbill had been inserted; over their pajama jackets they wore armor of panther skin also decorated with feathers. Both were equipped with the terrible Dayak sword, carried in a scabbard of bark so treated that it looked like leather, with leather’s dark color and gloss. The scabbards, slung with tassels of beads, were also bound round with rattan designs.

Theirs was a war dance whose movements were at once fast and fine. The rhythm of drum and gong was accentuated by the dancers with stamping feet and piercing cries. Their movements often simulated a bird’s flight, sometimes swooping like a hawk upon its prey.

There followed a dance by the women. This was slow, with small steps, the foremost foot beating out a rhythm on the rattan mat. It was simpler, but technically more difficult, especially the movement of the feet, which was wonderfully supple.

Then a strong old man began to chant while the others sang an accompaniment. This was an old legend, the Demang explained. He translated for us;

“By the banks of a certain river there lived a great king. His house was very rich: every pillar was adorned with the heads of dogs, tigers, and crocodiles. Whoever glimpsed his house longed for wings to fly above it. Whoever went down the river leaned on his oars to gaze upon the house. So large and beautiful was that house.”

It seemed that they all knew the legend and the song swelled as more and more voices took it up. This kind of song is supposed to awaken magic powers, and is therefore chanted to this day when these people work in the rice fields. In former days, when they were raided by a head-hunting enemy, the women would sing this legend while their menfolk fought.

During the rainy season when communication is cut off between one house and another, when people can no longer work in the rice fields, and when the path to the far-off school is impassable for the children, the old people teach the young ones the ancient songs and dances.

All at once a small boy was dancing in front of us, a child of about six; it was the dance of a bird, with very graceful and supple movements. The lessons given during the long days of rain were plainly well learned.

But the most impressive was a group dance performed by twenty men. It was descended from that given in former days when they came home from a successful raid with the heads of their enemies. Only two of the dancers had feather decorations on their heads and wore full armor (from which the long sleeves of their pajamas laughably stuck out). The other dancers wore their everyday clothes. In olden times, of course, all had worn battle dress. But even with these comical modern clothes, merely patched up with the traditional ornaments, this dance still produced a frightening effect.


THE better to watch it, I stood in the dark across the veranda leaning against the low fence of roughhewn planks. Outside the rain fell and sprayed against my neck. There was a great downpour, though the sound of it could not be heard over the boom of gongs and the great, single-headed drum beating out its tremendous counter-rhythm. After each five or six steps the dancers let forth a longdrawn wail lasting for several seconds, a cry with great volume of sound in which victory and fear blended in something more penetrating and alarming than the merely human voice. The foremost dancer, a man of stern boldness, flourished a drawn mandan in his right hand, while in the other he carried a whiskered skull. Several other dancers also carried skulls in a kind of coconut-leaf sling. Finally, a group of women began dancing at the same time as the men, and the contrast of their grace with the brave fearsomeness of the warriors intensified the mood that had fallen over the evening.

They had forgotten to pump up the gasoline lamps. Thus there was almost no light left save for the old copper lamps which still burned like torches, tongues of flame darting here and there, blown by the night wind.

The Demang was sitting in a chair beside the aged Tumenggung. I could not see the face of the old man, only that of the Demang leaning over him in the chair, smoking a cigarette. I went over to sit beside him.

“Where are Saleh and Purbadi?” I asked him.

“Perhaps over there,” he replied calmly.

“How long will this dance go on?”

The boom of the gongs drowned all sense of time. Certainly the night was already far advanced. Many dancers were sleeping, yet several of these would suddenly start awake and begin to dance again. Just then I saw Purbadi, fallen asleep in a chair, being lifted by several men and laid down on a mat.

The group of dancers gradually became smaller and smaller, while more and more slept. Saleh came and sat at our side; he wore a Dayak headdress and had joined in the dancing.

Those wild cries had ceased now. There were no more women dancing, and there were those who kept glancing at the doors of their rooms. I felt very weary and drowsy. Then only about ten men were still dancing, to a rather calm rhythm. The rest, wherever they happened to have been in that broad space, had dropped where they were and fallen asleep.

Could I sleep in one of the rooms, I asked the Demang. lie went to arrange it. Someone came to ask if I’d like a mosquito net, but, since experience had taught me how many vermin like nets, I chose the mosquitoes. In a quarter of an hour everything was in readiness. Several women led me to a room. Within it about twelve nets had been put up in two rows, and in an open space between, a mattress with sheet and pillows had been placed. On each side of it a tall copper lamp burned with a dancing red light.

I lay down on the mattress like a body laid out.

Translated by Molly Bondan