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The Ibans or Sea Dayaks are a branch of the Dayak peoples of Borneo, in South East Asia. Most Ibans are located in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It is believed that the term "Iban" was originally an exonym used by the Kayans, who - when they initially came into contact with them - referred to the Sea Dayaks in the upper Rajang river region as the "Hivan".

Ibans were renowned for practicing headhunting and territorial migration, and had a fearsome reputation as a strong and successful warring tribe. Since the arrival of Europeans and the subsequent colonisation of the area, headhunting gradually faded out of practice, although many other tribal customs and practices as well as the Iban language continue to thrive. The Iban population is concentrated in Sarawak, Brunei, and in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan. They traditionally live in longhouses called rumah panjai or betang (trunk) in West Kalimantan.[1][2]

Ibanic Dayak regional groups[]

File:Sarawak; Sea Dayaks with weapons and head-dresses. Photograp Wellcome V0037431.jpg

Iban men complete with traditional attire, spears, Ilang and Klebit Bok.

Although Ibans generally speak various dialects which are mutually intelligible, they can be divided into different branches which are named after the geographical areas where they reside.

  • The majority of Ibans who live around the Lundu and Samarahan region are called Sebuyaus.
  • Ibans who settled in the Serian district (places like Kampung Lebor, Kampung Tanah Mawang and others) are called Remuns. They may be the earliest Iban group to migrate to Sarawak.
  • Ibans who originated from Sri Aman area are called Balaus.
  • Ibans who come from Betong, Saratok and parts of Sarikei are called Saribas'.
  • The original Iban, Lubok Antu Ibans, are classed by anthropologists as Ulu Ai/batang ai Ibans.
  • Ibans from Undup are called Undup Ibans. Their dialect is a cross between the Ulu Ai and the Balau dialects.
  • Ibans living in areas from Sarikei to Miri are called Rajang Ibans. This group is also known as Bilak Sedik Iban. They are the majority group of the Iban people. They can be found along: the Rajang River, Sibu, Kapit, Belaga, Kanowit, Song, Sarikei, Bintangor, Bintulu and Miri. Their dialect is somewhat similar to the Ulu Ai or Lubok Antu dialect.

In West Kalimantan (Indonesia), Iban people are even more diverse. The Kantu, Air Tabun, Semberuang, Sebaru, Bugau, Mualang, and many other groups are classed as Ibanic people by anthropologists. They can be related to the Iban either by dialect cultural customs or rituals.

Language and Oral Literature[]

Template:Main article The Iban language (jaku Iban) is spoken by the Iban, a branch of the Dayak ethnic group formerly known as "Sea Dayak". They live in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan, and in Brunei. The language belongs to Malayic languages, which is a Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. The Iban language is also related to Malay, and more closely to Sarawakian Malay. It is thought that the homeland of the Malayic languages is in western Borneo, where the Ibanic languages remain. The Malayan branch represents a secondary dispersal, probably from central Sumatra but possibly also from Borneo.[3]

The Iban language is included in Malaysian public school examinations for Form 3 and Form 5 students. Students comment that questions from these exams can be daunting, since they mostly cover the classic Iban language, while students are more fluent in the contemporary tongue. The language is mostly taught to students in rural areas with a majority Iban population, including: Baleh (Kapit), Betong, Sri Aman, Saratok, Lubok Antu, Pelagus (Kapit), Pakan and Julau.

The Iban people speak basically one language with regional dialects that vary in intonation. They have a rich oral literature, noted by Derek Freeman, a professor of anthropology at the Australian National University who stated: Derek Freeman told me that Iban folklore “probably exceeds in sheer volume the literature of the Greeks.” At that time, I thought Freeman excessive. Today, I suspect he may have been conservative in his estimate (Sutlive 1988: 73). There is a body of oral poetry which is recited by the Iban depending on the occasion.

Iban ritual festivals and rites[]

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File:Sarawak; Sea Dayak tribesmen at a head feast. Photograph. Wellcome V0037464.jpg

An Iban head feast.

Significant traditional festivals, or Template:Lang, to propitiate the gods, can be grouped into seven categories according to the main ritual activities:

  • Farming-related festivals for the deity of agriculture, Sempulang Gana
  • War-related festivals to honor the deity of war, Sengalang Burong
  • Fortune-related festivals dedicated to the deity of fortune, Anda Mara
  • Procreation-related festival (Gawai Melah Pinang) for the deity of creation, Selampandai
  • Health-related festivals for the gods of Shamanism, Menjaya and Ini Andan
  • Death-related festival (Gawai Antu or Ngelumbong), including rituals to invite dead souls to their final separation from the living
  • Weaving-related festival (Gawai Ngar) for patrons of weaving

For simplicity and cost savings, some of the Template:Lang have been relegated into the medium category of propitiation called Template:Lang. These include Gawai Tuah into Nimang Tuah, Gawai Benih into Nimang Benih and Gawa Beintu-intu into their respective nimang category, wherein the key activity is the timang inchantation by the bards. Gawai Matah can be relegated into a minor rite simply called matah. The first dibbling (Template:Lang) session is normally preceded by a medium-sized offering ceremony in which Template:Lang (a paddy's net) is erected with three flags. The paddy's net is erected by splitting a bamboo trunk lengthwise into four pieces with the tips inserted into the ground. Underneath the paddy's net, baskets or gunny sacks hold all the paddy seeds. Then men distribute the seeds to a line of ladies who place them into dibbled holes.

Often only a few of the lower ranking ritual festivals are celebrated by the Iban today. These include as Sandau Ari (Mid-Day Rite), Gawai Kalingkang (Bamboo Receptacle Festival), Gawai Batu (Whetstone Festival), Gawai Tuah (Fortune Festival) and Gawai Antu (Festival for the Dead Relatives), which can be celebrated without the Template:Lang (ceremonial cup chanting), reducing its size and cost.

Commonly, all those festivals are celebrated after rice harvesting near the end of May. At harvest time, there is plenty of food for feasting. Not only is rice plentiful, but also poultry, pigs, chickens, fish, and jungle meats like deer. Therefore, it is fitting to call this festive season among Dayak collectively the Gawai Dayak festival. It is celebrated every year on 1 June, at the end of the harvest season, to worship the Lord Sempulang Gana and other gods. On this day, the Iban visit family and friends, and gather to celebrate.

Culture and customs[]

Main article: Iban culture

Religion and belief[]

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For hundreds of years, the Iban's ancestors practiced their own traditional belief system, although after the arrival of James Brooke, many were influenced by European missionaries and converted to Christianity. Although the majority are now Christian; many continue to observe both Christian and traditional ceremonies, particularly during marriages or festivals, although some ancestral practices such as 'Miring' are still prohibited by certain churches. After being Christianized, the majority of Iban people have changed their traditional name to a Hebrew-based "Christian name" followed by the Ibanese name such as David Dunggau, Joseph Jelenggai, Mary Mayang, etc. There are several reasons why some Iban and other Dayaks convert to Christianity:

  • Observing the various Template:Lang (prohibitions) and superstitions dictated by the traditional augury can make life complicated and introduce delays that will slow down one's progress with life and work.
  • The healing (Template:Lang) offered by the Template:Lang is not effective in curing many diseases, e.g. smallpox, cholera (Template:Lang), dengue, etc.
  • Christianity is considered a new branch of knowledge to be adopted and adapted to the traditional customs and way of life, leading to the realization that old practices may be discarded in view of better ones.
  • Christianity comes with Western education and medicine, which can be used to seek employment on sojourns and upgrade one's standard of living to escape poverty.
  • Defeats of Dayaks at the hands of Europeans with better weapons, such as guns and cannons against traditional hand-held weapons such as swords, shields, spears and blowpipes, despite strict adherence to traditional augury practices.
  • Some Ibans consider Christianity an extension of human knowledge because it can accommodate some of their traditional practices, e.g. some the ritual festivals can be celebrated in the Christian ways.
  • Some churches and pastors prohibit Christian Iban from practicing their ancestors' traditional customary ceremonies to honour the Template:Lang, spirits and ancestors, but they somehow replace the ceremonial procedures with Christian prayers and practices retaining the ceremonial title with the same purpose and function. (However, there is a certain degree of flexibility regarding individual observance.)

For the majority of Ibans who are Christians, some Christian festivals such as Christmas, Good Friday, Easter are also celebrated. Most Ibans are devout Christians and follow the Christian faith strictly. Since conversion to Christianity, some Iban people celebrate their ancestors' festivals using Christian ways and the majority still observe Gawai Dayak (the Dayak Festival), which is a generic celebration in nature unless a Template:Lang proper is held and thereby preserves their ancestors' culture and tradition.

Despite the difference in faiths, Ibans of different faiths do live and help each other regardless of faith but some do split their longhouses due to different faiths or even political affliations. The Ibans believe in helping and having fun together. Some elder Ibans are worried that among most of the younger Iban generation, their culture has faded since the conversion to Christianity and the adoption of a more Western style of life. Nevertheless, most Iban embrace modern progress and development.


Template:Lang or Template:Lang is a dish of rice or other food cooked in cylindrical bamboo sections (Template:Lang) with the top end cut open to insert the food while the bottom end remains uncut to act as a container. A middle-aged bamboo tree is normally chosen to make containers because its wall still contains water; old, mature bamboo trees are dryer and are burned by fire more readily. The bamboo also imparts the famous and addictive, special bamboo taste or flavour to the cooked food or rice. Glutinous rice is often cooked in bamboo for the routine diet or during celebrations. It is believed in the old days, bamboo cylinders were used to cook food in the absence of metal pots.

Template:Lang is preserved meat or fish. In the absence of refrigerators, jungle meat from wild game or river fish are preserved by cutting them into small pieces and mixing them with salt before placing them in a ceramic jar or today, glass jars. Ceramic jars were precious in the old days as food, tuak or general containers. Meat preserved in this manner can last for at least several months.

File:Dinner with Iban family (8035179786).jpg

An Iban family serving a guest tuak.

Tuak is an Iban wine traditionally made from cooked glutinous rice (Template:Lang) mixed with home-made yeast (ciping) containing herbs for fermentation. It is used to serve guests, especially as a welcoming drink when entering a longhouse. However, these raw materials are rarely used unless available in large quantities. Tuak and other types of drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) can be served in several rounds during a ceremony called Template:Lang (serving drinks to guests) as a Template:Lang (thirst quenching drink), a Template:Lang foot washing drink), a Template:Lang (respect drink) and a Template:Lang (profit drink). Another type of stronger alcoholic drink is called Template:Lang (hut) or arak pandok (cooked spirit). It contains a higher alcohol content because it is actually made of tuak which has been distilled over fire to boil off the alcohol, cooled and collected into containers.


Template:Main article Iban music is percussion-oriented. The Iban have a musical heritage consisting of various types of agung ensembles - percussion ensembles composed of large hanging, suspended or held, bossed/knobbed gongs which act as drums without any accompanying melodic instrument. The typical Iban agung ensemble will include a set of Template:Lang (small gongs arranged together side by side and played like a xylophone), a Template:Lang (the so-called "bass gong"), a Template:Lang (which acts as a snare) and also a Template:Lang or Template:Lang (a single sided drum/percussion instrument).

There are various kinds of Template:Lang (music), depending the purpose and types of Template:Lang, like Template:Lang (slow tempo). The Template:Lang can be played in some distinctive types corresponding to the purpose and type of each ceremony. The most popular ones are called Template:Lang (swinging blow) and Template:Lang (sweeping blow).

Sape is originally a traditional music by Orang Ulu (Kayan, Kenyah and Kelabit). Nowadays, both the Iban as well as the Orang Ulu Kayan, Kenyah and Kelabit play an instrument resembling the guitar called the sape. Datun Jalut and Template:Lang are the most common traditional dances performed accompanied by a sape tune. The sape is the official musical instrument of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It is played similarly to the way rock guitarists play guitar solos, albeit a little slower, but not as slow as the blues.[4][5] One example of Iban traditional music is the taboh.


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File:Hornbill Figure from Borneo.jpg

A 19th century Iban carving of a hornbill.

Traditional carvings (Template:Lang) include: hornbill effigy carving, the Template:Lang shield, the Template:Lang (ghost statue), the knife handle, normally made of deer horn, the knife scabbard, decorative carving on the metal blade itself during Template:Lang blacksmithing e.g. Template:Lang, and frightening masks. Another related category is designing motives either by engraving or drawing with paints on wooden planks, walls or house posts. Even traditional coffins may be beautifully decorated using both carving and ukir-painting.

The Ibans like to tattoo themselves all over their bodies. There are motifs for each part of the body. The purpose of the tattoos is to protect the tattoo bearer or to signify certain events in their life. Some motifs are based on marine lives such as the crayfish (Template:Lang), prawn (Template:Lang) and crab (Template:Lang), while other motifs are based on dangerous creatures like the cobra (Template:Lang), scorpion (Template:Lang), ghost dog (Template:Lang) and dragon (Template:Lang). Other common motifs include items which Iban travellers might come across during a journey such as an aeroplane which may be tattooed on the chest. Some Ibans call this art of tattoing Template:Lang or Template:Lang. To signify that an individual has killed an enemy (Template:Lang), he is entitled to tattoo his throat (Template:Lang) or his upper-side fingers (Template:Lang). Some traditional Iban do have piercings of the penis (called Template:Lang) or the ear lobes.

File:Iban weaver.jpg

An Iban woman prepares cotton for spinning.

Woven products are known as Template:Lang. Several types of woven blankets made by the Ibans are Template:Lang and Template:Lang.[6] Using weaving, the Iban make blankets, bird shirts (Template:Lang), Template:Lang and Template:Lang. Weaving is the women's warpath while Template:Lang (headhunting) is the men's warpath. They Template:Lang do have conventional or ritual motives depending on the purpose of the woven item. Those who finish the weaving lessons are called Template:Lang (finish the wood) [[7]]. Among well-known ritual motifs are Gajah Meram (Brooding Elephant), Tiang Sandong (Ritual Pole), Meligai (Shrine) and Tiang Ranyai.[8]

The Iban call this skill Template:Lang — plaiting various items namely mats (Template:Lang), baskets and hats. The Ibans weave mats of numerous types namely Template:Lang (motive mat),[9] Template:Lang made of rattan and Template:Lang made of rattan and Template:Lang bark. Materials to make mats are Template:Lang to make the normal mat or the patterned mat, rattan to make Template:Lang rotan, Template:Lang when the rattan splits sewn using a thread or Template:Lang when criss-crossed with the Template:Lang bark, Template:Lang to make Template:Lang used for drying and Template:Langto make a normal Template:Lang or Template:Lang (canvas) which is very light when dry. The names of Iban baskets are Template:Lang (medium-sized container for transferring, lifting or medium-term storage), Template:Lang (container worn at the waist for carrying rice from a paddy ), Template:Lang (small basket hung over one shoulder), Template:Lang (cylindrical backpack), Template:Lang (tall cylindrical backpack) and probably Template:Lang (almost rectangular shaped backpack). Another category of plaiting which is normally carried out by men is to make fish traps called Template:Lang, Template:Lang, Template:Lang and Template:Lang using betong bamaboo splits except Template:Lang which is made from Template:Lang which can be bent without breaking. The Iban also make special baskets called Template:Lang for the dead during Gawai Antu with numerous feet to denote the rank and status of the deceased which indicates his ultimate achievement during his lifetime. The Iban also make Template:Lang (rectangular net) and Template:Lang (conical net) after nylon ropes became available.

Iban have their own hunting apparatus which includes making Template:Lang (rope and spring trap), Template:Lang (bamboo blade trap) and Template:Lang (deer net). Nowadays, they use shotguns and dogs for animal hunting. Dogs were reared by the Ibans in longhouses, especially in the past, for hunting (Template:Lang) purposes and warning the Iban of any approaching danger. Shotguns can be bought from the Brooke government. The Ibans make their own blowpipes, and obtain honey from the Template:Lang tree.

File:Iban Prahu.jpg

Iban war prahu in Skerang river.

The Ibans can also can make boats. Canoes for normal use are called Template:Lang, but big war boats are called Template:Lang or bong. A canoe is usually fitted with long paddles and a sail made of Template:Lang canvas. It is said that Template:Lang is used to sail along the coasts of northern Borneo or even to travel across the sea, for example, to Singapore.

Besides that, the Ibans make various blades called Template:Lang (small blade), Template:Lang, and Template:Lang. Although silversmithing originates from the Template:Lang, some Ibans became skilled in this trade and made silverware for body ornaments. The Iban buy brass ware such as Template:Lang (gong), Template:Lang (snare) and Template:Lang Template:Lang (tray) and Template:Lang (small box) from other people because they do not have brass-smithing skills. The Iban make their own Template:Lang to split the areca nut and Template:Lang to grind the split pieces of the areca nut. They also make Template:Lang(finger-held blade) to harvest ripened paddy stalks and Template:Lang (hand-held blade) to weed.

Agriculture and economy[]

Ibans plant rice paddies once a year in twenty-seven stages.[10][11] Other crops planted include Template:Lang, cucumber (Template:Lang), Template:Lang, corn, Template:Lang, and cotton (tayak).

For cash, the Ibans find jungle produce to sell at the market. Later, they planted rubber, pepper and cocoa. Nowadays, many Ibans work in towns to seek better sources of income.


Two highly decorated Iban Dayak soldiers from Sarawak in Malaysia are Temenggung Datuk Kanang anak Langkau (awarded the Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa or Grand Knight of Valour)[12] and Awang anak Raweng of Skrang (awarded a George Cross).[13][14] So far, only one Dayak has reached the rank of general in the military, Brigadier-General Stephen Mundaw in the Malaysian Army, who was promoted on 1 November 2010.[15]

Malaysia’s most decorated war hero is Kanang Anak Langkau for his military service helping to liberate Malaya (and later Malaysia) from the communists, being the only soldier awarded both Seri Pahlawan (The Star of the Commander of Valour) and Panglima Gagah Berani (The Star of Valour). Among all the heroes are 21 holders of the Panglima Gagah Berani (PGB) including 2 recipients of the Seri Pahlawan. Of this total, there are 14 Ibans, two Chinese army officers, one Bidayuh, one Kayan and one Malay. But the majority of the Armed Forces are Malays, according to a book – Crimson Tide over Borneo. The youngest of the PGB holders is ASP Wilfred Gomez of the police force.

There were six holders of Sri Pahlawan (SP) and Panglima Gagah Perkasa from Sarawak, and with the death of Kanang Anak Langkau, there is one SP holder in the person of Sgt. Ngalinuh (an Orang Ulu).

In popular culture[]

File:Iban people of Betong.jpg

An Iban family living in a longhouse in Betong.

  • The episode "Into the Jungle" from Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations included the appearance of Itam, a former Sarawak Ranger and one of the Iban people's last members with the entegulun (Iban traditional hand tattoos) signifying his taking of an enemy’s head.
  • The film The Sleeping Dictionary features Selima (Jessica Alba), an Anglo-Iban girl who falls in love with John Truscott (Hugh Dancy). The movie was filmed primarily in Sarawak, Malaysia.
  • Malaysian singer Noraniza Idris recorded "Ngajat Tampi" in 2000 and followed by "Tandang Bermadah" in 2002, which are based on traditional Iban music compositions. Both songs became popular in Malaysia and neighbouring countries.
  • Chinta Gadis Rimba (or Love of a Forest Maiden), a 1958 film directed by L. Krishnan based on the novel of the same name by Harun Aminurrashid, tells about an Iban girl, Bintang, who goes against the wishes of her parents and runs off to her Malay lover. The film is the first time a full-length feature film was shot in Sarawak and the first time an Iban woman played the lead character.[16]
  • Bejalai is a 1987 film directed by Stephen Teo, notable for being the first film to be made in the Iban language and also the first Malaysian film to be selected for the Berlin International Film Festival. The film is an experimental feature about the custom among the Iban young men to do a "bejalai" (go on a journey) before attaining maturity.[17]
  • In Farewell to the King, a 1969 novel by Pierre Schoendoerffer plus its subsequent 1989 film adaptation, American prisoner-of-war Learoyd escapes a Japanese firing squad by hiding in the wilds of Borneo, where he is adopted by an Iban community.
  • In 2007, Malaysian company Maybank produced a wholly Iban-language commercial commemorating Malaysia’s 50th anniversary of independence. The advert, directed by Yasmin Ahmad with help of the Leo Burnett agency, was shot in Bau and Kapit and used an all-Sarawakian cast.[18]

Notable people[]

  • Rentap, Leader of rebellion against the Brooke government and used the title of Raja Ulu (king of the Interior).
  • Temenggung Koh Anak Barieng, the first paramount chief of Dayak in Sarawak
  • Jugah anak Barieng, second Paramount Chief of the Dayak people and the key signatory on behalf of Sarawak to the Malaysia Agreement
  • Stephen Kalong Ningkan, the first Chief Minister of Sarawak
  • Tawi Sli, the second Chief Minister of Sarawak
  • Kanang anak Langkau, National hero of Malaysia
  • Henry Golding, actor

See also[]

  • History of the Iban people
  • Bornean traditional tattooing
  • Iban language
  • Iban culture


  1. Template:Cite web
  2. Template:Cite web
  3. The Austronesians: historical and comparative perspectives. Peter Bellwood, James J. Fox, Darrell Tryon. ANU E Press, 2006. Template:ISBN, Template:ISBN
  4. Template:Cite web
  5. Matusky, Patricia. "An Introduction to the Major Instruments and Forms of Traditional Malay Music." Asian Music Vol 16. No. 2. (Spring-Summer 1985), pp. 121-182.
  6. Template:Cite web
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  9. See examples here,
  10. Iban Agriculture by JD Freeman
  11. Report on the Iban by JD Freeman
  12. Template:Cite web
  13. Template:Cite web
  14. Template:Cite web
  15. Template:Cite web
  16. Template:Cite news
  18. Template:Citation


  • Sir Steven Runciman, The White Rajahs: a history of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946 (1960).
  • James Ritchie, The Life Story of Temenggong Koh (1999)
  • Benedict Sandin, Gawai Burong: The chants and celebrations of the Iban Bird Festival (1977)
  • Greg Verso, Blackboard in Borneo, (1989)
  • Renang Anak Ansali, New Generation of Iban, (2000)

External links[]

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