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The Iban

Introducing the Iban

Sarawak’s largest and probably most famous ethnic group, the Iban number approximately 700,000 and form 30% of the state’s population. They are found throughout Sarawak, with some in Brunei, Sabah and West Kalimantan, but are mostly concentrated in the Batang Lupar River Basin and Middle Rejang River areas. Also known as Sea Dayaks because of their expert seamanship, they are famous for their headhunting past, and were formerly Borneo’s most fearsome warriors.

The Iban arrived in Sarawak from the Kapuas River Basin in Kalimantan towards the end of the 15th century AD, and proceeded to carve out vast swathes of territory, driving out the existing inhabitants or assimilating them. Their aggressive expansion was brought to an end by a number of military campaigns during the reigns of the first and second Rajahs, and they became loyal subjects of the Brookes, forming the backbone of their military forces. The Iban of today are a peaceful and hospitable people, but remain fiercely proud of their warlike past.

The majority of rural Iban still choose to live in longhouses, whole villages under one roof, and their culture and way of life is focused on the growing of hill rice, although they also grow cash crops such as pepper, rubber, cocoa and oil palm. Although the majority are nowadays Christian, many traditional rituals are still practised, including the Gawai Dayak (harvest festival), Gawai Kenyalang (hornbill festival, Rajang area) and Gawai Antu (festival of the dead, Sri Aman area). The traditional Iban religion is a fusion of animistic and Hindu-Buddhist beliefs, and they worship a triumvirate of gods under the authority of Singalang Burung, the bird-god of war.

Iban women are superb weavers, using the backstrap loom, while Iban men are excellent woodcarvers and silversmiths, and are famous for their colourful ngajat dance and their exquisite tattoos. The Iban have a strong tradition of hospitality, and are also expert brewers of tuak, the local rice wine, so a longhouse visit is invariably an enjoyable and unforgettable experience.

Iban Links

Iban Cultural Heritage: Blogger Greg Mawar traces his descent from Singalang Burung, the Iban bird-god of war, and offers some wonderful insights into Iban history, legend and tradition.

Iban Customs & Traditions: An Iban blogs about his people and culture.

Kumang Saribas: Veeky Leonora blogs about Iban costume, fashion and textiles.

Recommended Reading

Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O’Hanlon: This description of a failed attempt by two middle-aged academics to find an albino rhino in the Borneo rainforest is one of the finest – and funniest – examples of modern travel writing.

Report on the Iban by Derek Freeman: This monograph sets a gold standard to which other anthropologists aspire, and is as valid today as when it was written in 1948. Don’t be put of by the purchase price, as you should be able to find it in any good social science library.

Wild People by Andro Linklater: A British journalist’s insightful description of his travels amongst the Iban.

Iban Longhouse Chief