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English Couple Tie the Knot the Iban Way

Adapted from

English couple tie the knot the Iban way by Sharon Ling, Star Metro, August 25, 2003

and An Iban wedding for British couple by Zin Zin Ting, Sarawak Tribune Outlook, August 28, 2003

Ashley Hale and Rachel Holman, a British couple, were the first foreigners to undergo a traditional Iban wedding, complete with rituals, vows, and merry-making, in an Iban longhouse in Nanga Kesit, Lubok Antu, Sri Aman, Sarawak. The couple eschewed modern wedding ceremonies and decided on a traditional Iban wedding. For the newlyweds, it was a dream come true, as the memorable experience in an exotic setting was something to treasure for the rest of their lives.

Ashley, a school teacher in England, learned about Ibans when one of his Sarawakian students, whose mother is from Skrang River, told him stories about the Iban community, their rich customs and beliefs, headhunting history, Gawai celebrations, and of course, the colourful Iban wedding. Hale experienced a plethora of different ethnic cultures and loved being close to nature. That was when he first thought of an Iban-style wedding and proposed the idea to Rachel, who was equally thrilled by the prospect of a wedding extraordinaire, as any bride-to-be would be!

English Couple Ashley Hale and Rachel Holman chose to get married Iban-style at Nanga Kesit village on the Lemanak River. - Photo by Rapaee Kawi.

Rachel was doing research work in the Danum Valley in Sabah then, whereas Hale had never been to Asia and searched the Internet for more information on who could assist them with this unique experience, getting into contact with various travel agencies in Kuching to help them arrange and organise the special occasion. It was important for the couple for the marriage to be held like a genuine Iban-style wedding. Despite some earlier disappointments from other travel agents who suggested hotels, beaches, or Sarawak Cultural Village, they finally managed to tie up with Suntravel Sdn Bhd, who was the only travel agent willing to arrange the ceremony at a genuine longhouse, much to the relief of Rachel. The couple was very excited when informed that their ceremony would take place in a traditional Sarawak Iban longhouse rather than a modern one, as they had anticipated all along.

With the help of Suntravel's assistant manager and licensed tour guide, Rowena Ngumbang, wedding plans were made with the folks of Rumah Ran and Rumah Jampang at Nanga Kesit. Upon the arrival at Nanga Kesit, the inhabitants of Rumah Jampang and Rumah Ran performed a simple ceremony to welcome the couple. They were both adopted by the families of the two longhouse chiefs, as they had to stay in separate longhouses according to Iban custom. Rachel joined Tuai Rumah Ran ak Gong at Rumah Ran, a modern 15-door longhouse built in concrete, while Ashley went to the home of Joseph Jampang ak Guntam, headed by Tuai Rumah Jampang, a traditional wooden 23-door longhouse that still has several skulls dating back a hundred years hanging from a pillar. As the wedding ceremony would only begin in the late afternoon of the following day, Ashley and Rachel leisurely spent the morning and afternoon chatting with the local folks, eating, swimming, and immersing themselves in the cool, clear river. As in Iban's custom, the couple were not allowed to see each other until the next evening, so each retired to their respective home for the night.

READY TO GO TO THE BRIDE'S HOUSE: Headed by Melina, Ashley and his entourage make the trip to the bride's house. - Photo by Zin Zin Ting

The next day, the couple enjoyed a picnic lunch and a splash in the river before going back to their respective longhouses for a rest and to prepare for the wedding. As the afternoon lengthened, it was soon time for the pre-wedding niki ka air rite to begin. This rite, which means coming up from the water, was performed following an Iban custom whereby the groom must come to claim his bride. It was the start of an elaborate ceremony, including the procession. First, he underwent the process of 'Beradu’, or dressing, for the occasion of his marriage. Adorned with a beautifully woven red pua kumbu, complete with headgear, bangles on wrists and arms, and barefooted, the 'groom' made his way to the bride's dwelling in a longboat. He was accompanied by Melina ak Ngelambai (who represented the Tuai Rumah, or headman of the longhouse) and a few middle-aged ladies and children playing the gongs and drums for the ten-minute boat ride.


Upon arrival at Rumah Ran, two elderly men and two young girls performed the Ngajat, the Iban dance. Tuai Rumah Ran, accompanied by several elderly men and women, welcomed the groom and his entourage. Before entering the gate, the groom slaughtered a pig with a spear to chase away and cleanse evil spirits from him. In Buka Pintu, a pua kumbu was held across the entrance to the longhouse. Dowries to the bride were given, and there the groom received blessings in front of the entrance. Since the longhouse is given its name because of its length, Ashley was brought to walk the length of the longhouse three times, signifying a long and happy marriage, before he was brought to sit at the wedding chamber for 'Berandau’ (dialogue session) with Melina and Tuai Rumah Ran. As the bride was still not allowed to join the groom and crowd at this stage of the ceremony, Rachel's only consolation was a peep from the room to satisfy her excitement!

During the later part of the evening, the ladies started putting make-up on Rachel together with the costume and accessories in anticipation of the groom's arrival. After the dinner at Rumah Ran, accompanied by his foster sister Annie ak Jampang, Ashley returned to Rumah Jampang to get ready. He had tattoos drawn on his arms, legs, and neck before putting on the same costume and headgear, this time complete with more bangles on his arms and wrists. Upon his arrival, the bride, smiling shyly, slowly made her way from her room to the wedding chamber, accompanied by the groom. She wore a lovely pua kumbu costume, complete with a shiny silver belt and golden and silver headgear with shiny blue, red, and yellow decorations on it, with bangles on her arms and anklets on her ankles. Each step she took was accompanied by a tinkling sound from the costume, further accentuating the focus of attention on her that evening.

COOL TATTOOS: Ashley had his tattoos drawn on his arms, legs and neck with marker pens.

FINISHING TOUCHES: The ladies are putting the headgear, bangles and anklets on Rachel.

The couple then sat side-by-side on two brass gongs (tawak) under a pua kumbu canopy for the 'Bebiau', or blessing ceremony. First, the headman circled a rooster above the bride and groom's heads while chanting blessings on the couple. Then he cut a betel nut in half and threw it on the floor (Melah Pinang) until he managed to get them to turn one side up and one side down, as this was to indicate a long and happy marriage. Hale and Holman sportingly entered into the spirit of the wedding by serving tuak to their foster parents in a ceremony known as bambu isa. Similar to the Chinese tea ceremony, it signified that both sets of parents accepted their new son and daughter-in-law. In the days before written records. of weddings, this was done to ensure that everyone knew who the newlyweds were and thus avoid confusion over whose husband or wife they might be.

IMPORTANT PROCESS: In Melah Pinang, the betel nut is cut into half and thrown on the floor until it turns one side up and one side down as this is to indicate a long and happy marriage.

BLESSINGS FROM THE CHIEFS: Melina ak Ngelambai holds a rooster in his hands while the couple sits on gongs under a pua kumbu canopy for the "Bebiau" or blessing ceremony.

Then the couple, now deemed married, performed the final rite of nyadung ka air, or serving liquor to the rest of the longhouse, excluding children, as a gesture of appreciation for their attendance, and this is commonly referred to as the Nyadong, or wedding feast, as soon as everyone was joining in the evening's merriment of a plentiful supply of food and drinks, usually lasting till the early morning! More food and drinks were brought out, and with the tuak flowing freely, many guests were literally full of high spirits. As the longhouse folk performed the ngajat for them, Hale and Holman felt honoured to be married among the Ibans, who were literally full of high spirits. "I feel very privileged to be allowed to do this. The whole village opened up to us; it's fantastic," said Hale. "This is what we wanted—to be away from the city and meet lots of people in a longhouse."

IT'S WEDDING FEAST TIME: In Nyadong, Ashley and Rachel serve the guests, excluding children, as a gesture of appreciation for their attendance.

According to Rowena, the longhouse folk were excited about the wedding, as this was the first time they had been asked to conduct a full-scale traditional marriage ceremony for a foreign couple, and they would also get to participate in the wedding feast. "We appreciate the opportunity to do this for a foreign couple. Everyone can come together to celebrate, eat, and drink," Melina said.

PERFECT COUPLE: Rachel and Ashley are the first British couple married in Iban wedding style in Lubok Antu.

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