A Travellerspoint blog

A night with a Headhunting Tribe in their Longhouse- Borneo

Among the Kayan Dayaks of lower Kalimantan (Borneo)....................Ramdas Iyer

sunny 99 °F


A big fan of Joseph Conrad's "Lord Jim", Borneo had always stuck in my mind as the ultimate frontier. In 1838, British adventurer James Brooke arrived to find the Sultan of Brunei fending off rebellion from warlike inland tribes. Sarawak ( Malaysian Borneo) was in chaos. Brooke put down the rebellion, and was made Governor of Sarawak in 1841, with the title of Rajah. This event led Rudyard Kipling to create" Man Who would be King" and Conrad" Lord Jim"; two colonial classics that ring in me as an amateur historian and adventurer.
Borneo is the third largest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea. Straddling the equator, it covers 750,000 square kilometers (290,000 square miles), more than twice the area of the British Isles or more than Texas and Louisiana combined, and measures about 1290 kilometers (800 miles) from north to south and 800 kilometers (500 miles) from east to west. The northern 25 percent is occupied the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, and the Islamic sultanate of Brunei; and the southern 75 percent is occupied by the Indonesian state of Kalimantan.
My penchant for Island cultures has resulted in a few articles involving island cultures in this magazine: Madagascar, Bali, Papua New Guinea and nine articles covering Indonesian islands including Borneo.
Borneo is part of an archipelago called the Greater Sunda Islands. It is thinly populated and covered by mountains and rain forests. Most of the cities and towns are along the coast. The soil is poor. Large areas of the coast are made up of marshes and mangrove swamps. Most of the interior consists of rugged mountains interspersed with deep gorges. This area is laced with clear and whiskey-colored streams. The highest point 13,455-foot-high Mount Kinabulu in Sabah. In Kalimantan few areas rise above 3,000 feet. The highest point, in the central range there is 9,582 feet.
The rain forest on Borneo covers an area about the size of France

In 1996 I landed in Banjarmasin, Kalimantan ( Indonesian Borneo) with great visions of seeing long houses, Dayak head hunters and raw jungle infested with proboscis monkeys and Orangutans. Much to my naiveté and ill preparedness (I was an expat serving in India and did not have the right resources, including internet which was in its infancy, to plan) I ended up with coastal communities who were totally Islamic and displayed little ferocity from those mentioned in Victorian tales of yore.
Despite these shortcomings I made my way to the pier straight from the airport and negotiated with some seedy folks to travel the mighty Barito river that flowed 400 km into the dark interior. I wanted to see long houses but they were 4 days away and my short trip did not allow me, nor was I adventurous then to partake on a perilous journey such as that. After 6 hours in the water facing the most thunderous rain storms ever experienced while on a boat, I finally arrived at a place were there a few proboscis monkeys. With my basic 35mm Pentax SLR I captured whatever that moved with a blur in the wetness of the surrounding rain forest.

Later next day an interesting sight in the streets of Balikpapan led me to a small art shop where a native Dayak was selling his Mandau- hunting sword. It was made of amazing metalwork, its hilt bone finely embossed ( human femurs were used at times) with its finely woven rattan handles frayed after a few years of use. The shop keeper arranged for a trade and worked on it that night to 're-rattan' the handle and varnish it. I would never know if any heads were taken with it, but the highly designed entrails separator at the top section of the sword with gold embossed design was enough for Indonesian customs officials in Djakarta from trying to prevent me from removing a national treasure. ( Photos attached)
But that experience left me longing for an adventure that would get me to the long houses, Dayaks and their interesting villages. Why Dayaks ? you may wonder. I have a morbid fascination for cannibals, head hunters and mortuary rituals. In my previous articles in Travellerspoint, I have elaborated on cannibalism and head hunting in Irian Jaya and Papua New guinea, funeral traditions in Sulawesi, Bali, Iran, India and Madagascar. Here I will attempt to combine headhunting practices alongside interesting funeral traditions of the Dayak people.
The Dayak or Dyak are a people indigenous to Borneo. It is a loose term for over 200 riverine and hill-dwelling ethnic subgroups, located principally in the interior of Borneo, each with its own dialect, customs, laws, territory and culture, although common distinguishing traits are readily identifiable. Dayak languages are categorized as part of the Austronesian languages in Asia. The Dayak were animist in belief; however many converted to Christianity, and some to Islam more recently. Estimates for the Dayak population range from 2 to 4 million. Dayak population estimated at about four million spread over the four Indonesian provinces in Kalimantan / Borneo, the Malaysian territories of Sabah and Sarawak and Brunei Darussalam.
In the past, anthropologists described the Dayak as the "legendary natives of Borneo" who lived in longhouse and engaged in head-hunting. Today, they form a small minority, the loser in an era of swift change and modernization.

In 2015, a good two decades later I finally returned to Kalimantan. This time, after an elaborate photographic trip to record the wonderful Orangutans in Tanjung Putung, I allowed myself to reach the interior.
The Beconsu puyan dayaks live a good 6 hours upstream on the Lamandau river from the river town of Pankulunbun, where boats to Tanjung Putung National Park travel on the Sekoyner river. Like all rivers near the coast, the Lamandau is close to half a kilometer wide and slowly closes in to about 200 meters upstream where we were headed. I was surprised to see the small 4 seater speed boat, something Pierce Brosnan used to navigate the canals of Saigon in the pursuit of world order. All our luggage , gasoline tanks and my angry Dayak guide sat on the bow of this boat. After two noisy hours on the wide river we arrived at a small village where I had lunch at a small Islamic restaurant. Some rice and chicken with a warm soda. My young guide and I went shopping for grocery along the river market, vegetables etc since we were expected to cook our own food. Another 4 hours of passing boats laden with hardwood timber( the interior was getting deforested at an alarming rate with the forests being replaced by palm oil plantations. The impact on the wild life and especially the Orangutan population has been a ecological disaster.
In the past deforestation in Borneo was historically low due to infertile soils, unfavorable climate, and the presence of disease. Deforestation only began in earnest during the mid-twentieth century. Industrial logging rose in the 1970s as Malaysia depleted its peninsular forests, and former Indonesian strongman President Suharto distributed large tracts of forest to cement political relationships with army generals. Thus, logging expanded significantly in the 1980s, with logging roads providing access to remote lands for settlers and developers.
Logging in Borneo in the 1980s and 1990s was some of the most intensive the world has ever seen, with 60–240 cubic meters of wood being harvested per hectare versus 23 cubic meters per hectare in the Amazon. In Kalimantan for example, some 80% of lowlands went to timber concessions, including virtually all its mangrove forests. By the late 1980s, it became clear that Indonesia and Malaysia were facing a problem of timber crisis due to over-logging. Demand from timber mills was far-outstripping log production in both Malaysia and Indonesia.
The Borneo mountain rainforests lie in the central highlands of the island, above the 1,000 meters (3,300 ft) elevation. These areas represent habitat for many endangered species; orangutans, pygmy elephants and rare endemics such as the elusive Hose's civet. The Bornean orangutan has been a critically endangered species since 2016.

As well as Borneo's importance in biodiversity conservation and as a carbon sink, the forests have significance for water security and food sovereignty for local communities of indigenous peoples. About an hour from our destination we hit some serious rapids making it unsafe for me to travel. So the "captain" decided to unload my guide and I on the river bank, where we had to walk half a mile while he guided the boat through amazing skill through the rocky rapids, to pick us up a while later.
We disembarked onto a pallet sized pier and climbed the banks to hit the main road of the Dayak village of Bokonsu. It is perhaps one of the few villages along the river which still has a traditional longhouse that is still owned by the village chief Pak Dinson. The longhouse had been built by his great grandfather around the turn of the century when Dayaks lived like the fabled tribe as described by Conrad.

For me just being in the compound where the long house was surrounded by crypts of many family members from the 19th century, stacked in wooden boxes, was simply fascinating. A central pole, with a special box traditionally signified that the bones of the enemies were kept there to bring power to the village. Since I had arrived early the long house was empty but for a couple of young girls. Unable to contain my excitement I walked around all the burial crypts and shot some nice photographs. The leader of the village also the owner of the long house was a formidable looking Dayak, Chief Dinson welcomed me into his home as soon as he arrived from his job as a security guard in a plantation. As long houses go, the one in Bakonsu was relatively small. Perhaps 200 feet long and 40 feet wide, with an attached structure that serves as a latter-day kitchen. The entire floor was matted with reed mats with a few windows throwing very little light into the structure. There was no cross ventilation inside and it was quite hot and humid inside with no electricity but for a weak bulb powered by a 2 x 2 ft solar panel by days sunlight. There was not a hint of a breeze anywhere.
Many Bornean people have traditionally lived in longhouses that hold up to a 150 people and are like a village under one roof. In the center of house is a common room off which the rooms of the house radiate, sort of like side streets off of a main square. The rooms are connected by a common veranda or porch. The kitchen is divided from the main room by a wall and in the corner an area, where women slept. Men often slept outside. There were traditionally no windows. In the old days there were no possessions except for some large pots used for storing and fermenting.

I was given a thin mattress and a mosquito net which my guide erected for me , trapping some specimens inside that I had to swat during the night. The only access to this tall long house was a notched wooden plank, which traditionally is lifted up at night like a ship's gang plank. This was done to prevent headhunting raids by neighboring enemies. I cannot imagine a life in the jungle with enemies constantly prowling to take your head. The very fact that they lived in a longhouse made me realize that this kind of structure was purely an arrangement for security. It was a fortress on dry land to stymie head hunting raids.

I was not quite sure what to expect and how the evening was going to pass after sun down. My guide was busy chopping vegetables and cooking some chicken in the wood burning stoves in the adjacent structure. Of course with no running water but river water had been pumped into a giant overhead tank by a village owned diesel pump that sat on a barge by the small pier. I suspect all houses had their own wells since the water table was quite high in the area. In the meanwhile my boatman's wife was preparing his meal in the kitchen too. She had traveled with us for this very purpose perhaps including the provision of other spousal benefits.
Around 7:00 PM people started walking into the house, the women in sarong, some men wearing a lunghi while others were wearing a regular trouser and shirt: their Sunday best. None spoke English but as they were gathering and greeting each other a small gamelan ensemble had also assembled in a corner. It ceased to be a quiet corner anymore. The clanging of cymbals and the striking of the badegong drums was a bit cacophonous, until the rice wine arrived to numb ones senses.
I was finally told that I am going to receive the customary Dayak welcome. Potong pontan is a welcoming ceremony in which guest are given a machete by the village chief and asked to cut through plants placed at the entrance of the village to purge evil spirits. As they hack away the guests explain why they are visiting. Likewise I recollect visiting Wae Rebo, a village perched at an altitude of 4000 ft in Flores (Nusa Tenggara). After an 8 hour trek, I was shown the house of the chief (Manggarai clan) where he conducted a brief ceremony to request his ancestors for my permission to visit and that I will be kept away from harm.
Pak Dinson's family made me wear full native garb, turban included. They then seated me on a special 'throne" and thereafter the assemblage of a half a dozen women tied strings on my wrist to reflect their affection and to offer protection. A few decades ago, while seated on this makeshift throne, I would have been impressed by the rows of decorated skulls of fallen enemies hanging from the roof and corner, skull racks. Today all I could see was a few Hornbill skulls since the government has banned the exposition of human body parts.
Skulls from headhunting raids have traditionally been displayed in longhouses. Some longhouses today still have heads hanging from the ceiling as relics of their glorious past. The most recent ones are Japanese heads taken in World War II. In the mid 40s there was a spike in the number of head hunting occurrences as the Allies encouraged any means to defeat the Japanese. There was another increase in the 60s when the Indonesian government, fearing the spread of communism, encouraged the head hunting of Chinese immigrants. Headhunting is believed to still be practiced in some remote areas.

Head hunting was a Dayak was part and parcel of their religious rites. Births and “ naming,’’ marriages and burials, not to mention less important events, cannot be properly celebrated unless the heads of a few enemies, more or less, have been secured to grace the festivities or solemnities.
Heads taken in headhunting raids brought glory to the warrior who collected them and good luck to their village. They were usually preserved and worshiped in special rituals. Head-hunting rituals are needed for spiritual benefits such as for agriculture (rice) and the building of a new house (longhouse). Certain parts of the body—the heart, brains, blood and liver—was believed to bring power to those who consumed them. Some Dayaks of Sarawak used to eat the palms of their enemies. Cutting out the heart, it was believed, destroys the evil that is believed to reside in that organ.

I was given a buffalo horn and each man and woman of the village took turns to pour rice wine into my horn. After 10 such passes, I gracefully stumbled out of my royal perch. As the attached photographs show, I was dancing with the women and men in a slow trance inducing dance, augmented by the cacophony of the pentatonic beat of the ensemble.
This moment could have been very touristy except that I was the only person there and quietly decided to go native. The women, were very flirtatious right under the noses of their husbands. I was quite surprised. While I have seen some beautiful Dayak women in photographs, I was not quite lucky since my female admirers were mostly machete wielding plantation workers.

Henry Keppel wrote in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy” in the early 1840s: “We were fortunate in visiting these Dyaks during one of their grand festivals in the evening; dancing, singing, and drinking were going on in various parts of the village. In one house there was a grand fete, in which the women danced with the men. The dress of the women was simple and, curious — a light jacket open in front, and a short petticoat not coming below the knees, fitting close, was hung round with jingling bits of brass, which kept “making music'* wherever they went. The movement was like all other native dances — graceful, but monotonous. There were four men, two of them bearing human skulls, and two the fresh heads of pigs; the women bore wax-lights, or yellow rice on brass dishes. They danced in line, moving backwards and forwards, and carrying the heads and dishes in both hands; the graceful part was the manner in which they half turned the body to the right and left, looking over their shoulders and holding the heads in the opposite direction, as if they were in momentary expectation of someone coming up behind to snatch the nasty relic from them. At times the women knelt down in a group, with the men leaning over them. After all, the music was not the only thing wanting to make one imagine oneself at the opera. The necklaces of the women were chiefly of teeth — bears' the most common — human the most prized. In an interior house at one end were collected the relics of the tribe. These consisted of several round-looking stones, two deer's heads, and other inferior trumpery. The stones turn black if the tribe is to be beaten in war, and red if to be victorious: any one touching them would be sure to die; if lost, the tribe would be ruined."
The rice wine was quite potent and I was afraid of either being too familiar with the women or simply collapse from my knees suffering from the inability to bear the weight of my drunken frame. The very thought of having to climb down the notched ladder for a toilet break was quite unimaginable. Late in the evening I sat alone with Dinson the formidable looking chief ( who is now reduced to be the Head of security at a Chinese owned plantation)sat with me and traded war stories. While many of his stories were passed on by his forebears he had personally been involved with the rest of the village in a major battle with the Madurese people. He proudly produced his mandau, which had 5 notches to my guide's three. A notch is a score and I leave the rest to your imagination.

"This story needs to be told as every male over 25 was involved in this battle with the Madurese people in 2001. Madura is famous throughout Indonesia as a place to leave. Its poor soil and lack of industry make staying generally a one-way ticket to poverty. Many ethnic Madurese now live in eastern Java, but in the 1950s they began going to Borneo as well, some under government-sponsored “transmigration” schemes, others under their own steam. Migration was seen as a way to develop the jungles of the “land of rivers” and to relieve population pressures elsewhere in Indonesia. It was also a way to consolidate the government's hold on its restive regions.
Barren Madura is not much of a place for agriculture, so the newcomers tend to be laborers or traders. They have not mixed well. All ethnic groups in Central Kalimantan complain about the Madurese: they say they are aggressive, they try to encroach on land, they cheat and steal, and quickly get violent in disputes over women. Say a good word about a Madurese in Borneo and it might cost you your head.
For their part, most Dayaks retain adat, their traditional culture. This involves a reverence for ancestors and looks back to Borneo's past as a land of head-hunters in a perpetual state of war with one another. Heads were once needed to sanctify a new common house and in a host of other ceremonies. Dutch colonialists eventually persuaded the Dayaks to use buffalo heads instead. The practice of beheading humans was said to have virtually died out, until 1997.
The latest battlefield, near Pangalunbun the capital, in the long war between indigenous Dayaks and Madurese migrants, the warriors with their traditional mandau swords swap tales of eating human liver. The heads, livers and hearts of their victims have magical properties, they say. Beheading is their traditional way of killing their enemies, state-of-the-art magic their secret weapon.

The Madurese in Pankalanbun area have all gone or been killed now, but until February 2001 the town was around 60% Madurese. They were relatively prosperous, but aware of the violence Madurese had faced in West Kalimantan. In all this the government, as usual in Indonesia, has mostly been absent. A Dayak who has put on a red headband has declared that he is at war. And according to tradition, once at war he must kill someone and drink the victim's blood." writes the Economist magazine.

Late that night I was back in my mosquito net battling the remaining hungry mosquitoes. Morning came without much rest and it was time to leave. While Dinson had left early, he came back to wish us good bye and gave me something I still possess with great nostalgia: the head of a giant hornbill. These hornbill heads are used in Dayak's head dresses as their main ornament. He had no enemy skulls to give me since they were all either hidden or left inside the ceramic urn in the front of the house.

We left the longhouse on a walk around the village. Beautiful dayak rice granaries, some overgrown with weed. A couple of long houses were in deep decay. I met smiling people wherever I went until such time I reached the rivers bank to make my 4hour journey back down stream. My excitement was not quite over as I my guide pointed out to an ancestor's totem planted by the river. the interred bones were on an ceramic urn 60 feet from the ground- far away from any spirit seeking enemies.

The End

Send comments to [email protected]

Photo Gallery

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 16:24 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia borneo longhouse kalimantan ramdas iyer dayaks pankalunbun mandau

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents


Once again you have artfully and masterfully captured the magic and magnificence of the land and of the people...especially the people.

You are a true adventurer!

by Mark Riesenberg

Mark, thanks as always. We tend to judge head hunters from a "christian" point of view.Yes they took heads from rival tribes who put pressure on their survival unlike some of the wars that we are fighting. Their collective culture,their art, intelligence and survival in the deepest jungles put them a notch above our gun toting citizens.
When Papua was being explored by the Dutch, English and the Germans in the 1800s, the Dayaks were the only ethnic group ( they tried 8 other Indonesian archipelago peoples) who could handle an even harsher environment as porters.

by Ramdas Iyer

Ram, your love, respect, and understanding of the head hunters is inspiring. We need more insights and heart-based thinking like yours to better our world for all.

by Mark Riesenberg

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.