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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

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 16:24 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia borneo longhouse kalimantan ramdas iyer dayaks pankalunbun mandau Comments (3)

In search of the Great Apes-Gorilla, Chimpanzee & Orangutan

Travels through Borneo, Uganda and Tanzania............................Ramdas Iyer

In the next few weeks I will be on a journey to Galapagos where Charles Darwin laid rest to his Theory of Evolution. As a son of a Zoologist, evolution was a much discussed subject around me. Before discussing my travels in search of the great apes, I wish to dedicate a few paragraphs to Louis Leakey, the father of Paleoanthropology. The first hominid ( Apes and Humans) skeleton was discovered in 1913 by a German scientist Hans Reck in German East Africa. With the end WWI (1914-1918), the Leage of Nations mandated that German East Africa needs to be transferred to Britain and regained its original name, Tanganyika. Louis Leakey, who was born in British East Africa (Kenya) was a paleoanthropologist and archaeologist whose work was important in establishing human evolutionary development in Africa, particularly through his discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.

He continued the work of Hans Resk whom he met in Berlin in 1929 and started his expedition in 1931 and subsequently unearthed several early human fossils ; Homo habilis (1.9 million years ago), Homo erectus (1.2 million-700,000 years ago) and Homo sapiens( 17000 years ago), in 3 decades of work at Olduvai Gorge. I visited Olduvai Gorge in 2013 while on a photographic Safari to Tanzania.
It was indeed a pilgrimage of sorts for me since I have been following the work of the Leakeys ( his wife Mary and son Richard are also renowned scientists) for quite a few years. Their son Richard Leakey is credited with the discovery of a 160000 year fossil of a Homo sapiens in Kenya. It was the oldest of the species found at that time and was the first contemporaneous with Homo neanderthalensis, found in Europe. This find confirmed that these two species of Hominids lived at the same time.

Richard Leakey had an illustrious career culminating as the Director of Kenyan Wildlife. He was lauded world over for saving the elephant in 1980s by issuing a shoot at sight order on poachers. I had the privilege of attending his lecture in The Smithsonian Institution in DC in 1986.
One of Louis's greatest legacies stems from his role in fostering field research of primates in their natural habitats, which he understood as key to unraveling the mysteries of human evolution. He personally chose three female researchers, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, calling them The Trimates. Each went on to become an important scholar in the field of primatology. Leakey also encouraged and supported many other Ph.D. candidates, most notably from Cambridge University.
The introduction of Louis Leakey in this article is critical to my travels. His prescience on the evolution of humans ultimately resulted in my seeing all the great apes.


In the past few years, no time and expense was spared by me to see the great Apes. I have always been interested in Primates and in the course of my travels through Asia and Africa these past couple of years, I not only marvelled at our distant cousins but also visited sites that were critical in the understanding of the emergence of man from Apes.
Apes live in the green equatorial belt that straddles Africa and Asia. The Gorillas primarily live in three countries on either side of the Congo River; Uganda and Rwanda are home to the Highland Gorilla while Congo is home to the Lowland Gorilla. It was in the volcanic mountains of Virunga, bordering Rwanda and the then Belgian Congo, where Dian Fossey,the American primatologist studied the mountain gorilla for 17 years beginning in 1967. Her life is depicted in the movie" Gorillas in the mist", a moving and fascinating film starring Sigourney Weaver.
Fossey made discoveries about gorillas including how females transfer from group to group over the decades, gorilla vocalization, hierarchies and social relationships among groups, rare infanticide, gorilla diet, and how gorillas recycle nutrients.
Mountain gorillas are one of the most endangered animals in the world today. Scientists estimate that there are about 600 Mountain gorillas, living in two populations of about 300 individuals each and separated by about 20 miles. There is only 285 square miles of high-elevation rain forest in the whole world, which is in east-central Africa, and the gorillas’ natural habitat. These gorillas are highly endangered due to habitat loss, but also to poaching and war. There are no mountain gorillas in captivity. In the 1960s and 1970s, mountain gorillas were captured in order to begin a population of them in captive facilities. They have never survived in captivity.

I visited the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (a World Heritage Site) in 2014. It is located in southwestern Uganda in East Africa. The park is situated in Uganda near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and next to the Virunga National Park on the edge of the Albertine Rift. It comprises 331 square kilometers (128 sq mi) of jungle forests and contains both montane and lowland forest and is accessible only on foot. Advance permits are needed at the cost of $700 per day. At this park there are 7 groups of habituated gorillas that are approachable by humans each with populations ranging from 8 to 16 individuals. The permits allow a maximum of 12 people per group to trek through the park. The 12 people in our group were supported by 12 porters, 2 advanced trackers and 2 armed forest rangers. The park's elevation ranges from 300o ft to 5400 ft with no trails. One has to penetrate by hacking through vines in an undulating terrain, where reasonable physical fitness is expected of visitors.
After 3.5 hours of trekking, through thick vines and vegetation sometimes at 30 degree inclines we spotted two females, an infant and three siblings waiting nervously for their Silver backed alpha male leader, who had gone away to fight another male. In such instances, the male can get killed followed by the group being taken over by a new younger male that has left its group to start one of its own. While this is a natural process amongst gorillas, it nevertheless leaves the group traumatized. Our trackers finally located the male in a steep area of the forest which we reached under great effort. It must be noted that only one hour of contact and observation with after the first sighting is allowed . The sight of the 350 lb alpha male in his majesty and gentleness is a moment one cannot easily forget. The rest of its family joined in but the vegetation was too thick to see them all together. The entire trek took 7.5 hours; heavy rain or our inability to locate them would have been a great loss for me.

Jane Goodall's pioneering work on the behavior of chimpanzees have enabled us to appreciate the human like qualities of our closest DNA relative with 99% similarity. Goodall’s work was in the Gombe stream area of western Tanzania, even today a remote corner bordering Uganda. As an ardent follower of Jane Goodall’s work, I desperately wanted to visit Gombe during my trip to Tanzania in 2013. But one had to take a chartered plane which only flew twice a week making it both very expensive and time consuming.. Instead I chose to visit Kibale in 2014 in Uganda which is a vast tropical rainforest over 700 sq.km in area at an altitude ranging from 3000-4500 ft. which runs into Queen Elizabeth National park, Uganda ( creating a 180 Km long Wildlife corridor) a much celebrated but much poached national park.
Kibale National Forest has one of the highest diversity and concentration of primates in Africa. It is home to a large number of endangered chimpanzees, as well as the red colobus monkey and the rare L'Hoest’s monkey. The park is also home to over 325 species of birds, 13 species of primates, a total of at least 60 other species of mammals, and over 250 tree species. The predominant ecosystem in Kibale is moist evergreen and semi-deciduous forest.


Since the 1960s a team of Japanese scientists have been habituating chimpanzees to human presence at Kibale national park. In Serengeti, the animals are used to the safari vehicles and are as such “habituated” to their presence. In the tropical rain forest it is not possible. So scientists spend time and in the case of Kibale, up to 6 years to make some of the chimpanzee groups get accustomed to the presence of human beings. Jane Goodall was the first to do so in Gombe stream and DianFossey with the Gorillas in Volcanoes Park, Rwanda. Akin to the gorillas in Bwindi, one can track chimpanzees in their natural habitat. For 600 USD per day one can spend 12 hrs.with them : from the time they wake up till the time they build new nests and sleep. For $150 one can insert himself into the forest and catch them for an hour, either at 8:00AM or 2:00PM. Since chimps can be found in 19 African countries, they are not as exclusive as the gorillas. But this is the only place that I know of where there is a formal wildlife tracking program available, in a classical moist hardwood equatorial rainforest.
Kibale is 325 KM/ 6 hrs. from Kampala with the last hour on dirt roads leading to one of the most lush and beautiful forests in central Uganda. The community, Batooroo and Balinga tribes surrounding the park were once notorious for killing chimps for bush meat, but today
readily endorse international Eco tourism that supports local infrastructure. I arrived at Chimps nest lodge by 6:00 pm and heard loud chattering noises from chimpanzees in the forest around us along with the sounds of grey cheeked Mangabeys and red Colobus monkeys. The air was cool, the surroundings forested and the noises classical Africa. Each cottage had solar lights, Eco toilets and a wood burning stove for hot water. We did night walks to spot Bush babies and Ganet cats and day walks around the camp for photographing primates. This gave me a chance to photograph non chimpanzee primates which I would otherwise not be doing once inside the national park.

The trip to Uganda was successful and fulfilling but left in me a yearning to see the Orangutan. I ventured into Tanjung Puting National park, in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia in December 2014 to see them in their natural habitat. Tanjung Puting National Park is the largest and most diverse protected example of the extensive coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest, which used to cover much of southern Borneo. The area was originally declared as a game reserve in 1935 and it became a national park in 1982. The park has over 800 different species of plants, over 220 bird species and nine primate species including the endangered orangutan and endangered proboscis monkey.
The park is home to more than 4,000 orangutans making it one of the largest populations in Borneo. Birute Galdikas pioneered the study of the orangutan, an intelligent great ape with long arms and spectacular red hair, native to parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. Determined to enter and open wide the world of the elusive red ape, Galdikas convinced Leakey to help orchestrate her endeavor, despite his initial reservations. In 1971, Galdikas arrived in Tanjung Puting Reserve, in Indonesian Borneo. Galdikas thus become the third of a trio of women hand-picked by Leakey to study mankind's nearest relatives, the other great apes, in their natural habitat. Leakey and the National Geographic Society helped Galdikas initially set up her research camp to conduct field study on orangutans in Borneo. Before Leakey's fortuitous decision to appoint Galdikas as the third Trimate, the orangutan was much less understood than the African great apes. Galdikas went on to further burnish Leakey's legacy by greatly expanding scientific knowledge of orangutan behavior, habitat and diet.


When she arrived in Borneo, Galdikas settled into a primitive bark and thatch hut, at a site she dubbed Camp Leakey, near the edge of the Java Sea. Once there, she encountered numerous poachers, legions of leeches, and swarms of carnivorous insects. Yet she persevered through many travails, remaining there for over 30 years while becoming an outspoken advocate for orangutans and the preservation of their rainforest habitat, which is rapidly being devastated by loggers, palm oil plantations, gold miners, and unnatural conflagrations.
Unlike in Africa, the coastal swamp forests of Borneo are often flooded and one needs to go by boat to reach the Orangutans. Camp Leakey is 25 km by boat from the nearest town. While it possible to do a day trip into the Camp, travelers such as myself live on a houseboat with basic facilities. It is almost impossible to spot an Orangutan unless many days are spent along the riverbanks where the animals come to drink water. Thanks to Camp Leakey which was operated as a release station for captive orangutans until 1985, three generations of wild and semi wild animals are present in its environs throughout the year. While all the animals near camp Leakey live a wild existence, they are however fed a nutritional supplement of fruits during the lean fruit bearing months to ensure that the babies get enough nutrition. Around 10 different animals arrive each day at the three different feeding stations along the river. This program may be stopped in a few years as efforts to make Tanjung Puting fully wild are underway.
The jungle is full of Proboscis monkeys, which is endemic to Borneo. Hundreds of them can be observed along the waterways. One can see an occasional orangutan through the woods but it is almost impossible to photograph them given the density of the forest. My luck prevailed when a mother with its young was approaching the river in a relatively open spot. The time spent observing them and photographing them was a special moment in my annals of wild life photography.
Orangutans are solitary animals. However mothers nurse their young till they are 6 and the young females will always be near the mother for 20 years. Spending three days near Camp Leakey, I observed various individuals, young males and females, and many mothers with their young. Unfortunately the two alpha males that hold the territory near Camp Leakey were foraging inside the forest and not to be seen.
I was also fortunate to see the magnificent Mueller' Gibbon near the Camp. There are five types of ape. Four are considered "great." The fifth is the gibbon. Greatness in apes is largely a matter of size, and the gibbon, maxing out at 30 pounds, doesn't make the cut. To primatologists, it is known instead as the "lesser ape". Gibbons may be small, but they bear all the requisites of ape hood: large brains, no tail, and rotary shoulder blades. Like orangutans, they populate Southeast Asia.

Gibbons are masters of their primary mode of locomotion, brachiation, swinging from branch to branch for distances of up to 15 m (50 ft), at speeds as high as 55 km/h (34 mph). The gibbons' ball-and-socket joints allow them unmatched speed and accuracy when swinging through trees. Nonetheless, their mode of transportation can lead to hazards when a branch breaks or a hand slips, and researchers estimate that the majority of gibbons suffer bone fractures one or more times during their lifetimes. They are the fastest and most agile of all tree-dwelling, non-flying mammals. The IUCN currently recognizes fifteen gibbon species, all but one listed as either endangered or critically endangered. Habitat loss from logging and fires place the most stress on current population levels.
In 2014 between my travels through Borneo and Uganda, I was able to see the Great Apes and the lesser ape. It is interesting to note that there are only two species of each of the great apes( except man Homo sapiens),eastern Gorilla (gorilla.gorilla) and western Gorilla (gorilla.berengui), Chimpanzee(pan troglodytes) and Bonobos( pan paniscus), the Bornean Orangutan (pongo pygmaeus) and the Sumatran Orangutan (pongo abilii). The Gibbons consist of 15 species and is the only lesser ape.
While on a trip to Addis Ababa in 2007, I ensured that I visited the National Museum where the oldest and most famous skeletal fossil 'Lucy' (Australopithecus afrensis) is displayed.
I also had the good fortune to visit the Sterkfontien caves near Johannesburg in 2012, where the Australopithecus africanus was discovered. This is a much celebrated species since it was tree dwelling with ape like limbs but with a much larger cranial capacity as seen in homo erectus and other future species.

While in Indonesia in Dec 2014, I visited Flores Island home to Homo floresiensis, a new hominid discovered in 2004. The remains were discovered by an Australian-Indonesian team of archaeologists in Liang Bua caves, who were looking for evidence of the original human migration of H. sapiens from Asia to Australia. They were not expecting to find a new species. They were surprised at the discovery of a nearly complete skeleton of a hominin. Excavations done after that found seven more skeletons, dating from 38,000 to 13,000 years ago.
It was my bad luck that while just 14 km away from the Liang Bua, severe rains caused a mudslide that prevented vehicular movement. It will be interesting to note that the H.floresiensis lived as a contemporary of modern man and the Neanderthal man thus having three human species inhabit earth at the same time about 20,000 years ago.

In conclusion, I would like to reflect on my journey in seeking knowledge about human evolution. The various fields of Primatology, Archeology and Paleo-anthropology come together in providing a picture of how we evolved from non-ape primates to Great apes and branched out into other species of hominids. The study of non human primate behavior has helped us understand our own species behavior. The joy derived from watching them in their natural habitat is something everyone who has as interest in this field must pursue. The End.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)


Scientific sources:
Univ. of California, Berkeley/ Sumatran Orangutan Society/Orangutan.org/Wikipedia
@Ramdas Iyer

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 14:00 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia mountain borneo gibbon orangutan gorilla fossey uganda bwindi tanjung chimpanzee goodall kibale puting galadakis Comments (2)

Funerary Customs of the Toraja People, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Amazing customs of a Megalithic people as seen in 1995......................Ramdas Iyer


My first visit to Indonesia in 1996 opened my eyes to the beauty of this magnificent archipelago of 17000 Islands, 300 ethnic groups that range from the highly evolved Javanese court culture to the tree-dwelling Korowai stone-age peoples of Papua. This was a time when globalization had not quite reached the far corners of this earth and one could see ancient cultures in the cusp of slowly adapting modernity while still offering the outsider a glimpse into their societies.
Over the next few years I had made it a point to visit as many cultures in Indonesia as time permitted and managed to visit Sulawesi ( Celebes Islands), Kalimantan (Borneo), Java, Bali, Lombok and Papua in four separate trips to this trans- continental nation of 250 million people.
Here I wish to share my experience I had with the Toraja people of Central Sulawesi. I had read about their unique funeral ceremonies and of a culture of elaborate funerary celebrations that even UNESCO granted World heritage status to their cultural landscape. These were pre- internet and pre digital camera days, so travelling was a little bit more challenging especially for me who was stationed in India on assignment.
Upon reaching Ujung Padang (known as Makkasar to the Dutch colonists) from Jakarta, I took a rickshaw to a travel agency; one with absolutely no posters or advertisements but only an album with some pictures of Tana Toraja. After some negotiations I had settled on taking a 6 hour drive to the highlands with a guide in tow. This was also a time when the Rupiah and reached an all time low of 14000 to the dollar after the famous Asian Financial meltdown. To put things in perspective, a room in 5 star hotels in Jakarta could be had for $40.
My guide would remain with me for the 3 days and I would eventually fly back on a pre WWII aircraft back to Ujung Padang. One particular observation in Makassar has still left an indelible image in my mind. It was that of one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen; one that could launch a thousand ships. It was a face that could write the history of the coming together of Polynesians, Chinese and the Malay people. Eighteen years later, last month I happened to have dinner with my son in Utah and the lovely receptionist was also from Makkasar , reminding me to tell the story of these unique peoples.

Extracted from UNESCO’s citation “The Tana Toraja Traditional Settlement is a living tradition. It is a heritage that has been handed over from generation to generation for at least 700 years or even longer back to prehistoric time. Torajans, who are used to live in an isolated hill, had moved to low land. Burial customs had also changed especially since the seventeenth century when the Buginese from the coastal area to south invaded Tana Toraja. Prior to that time, human remains and precious burial gifts were stored in elaborately carved wooden coffins. During the invasion, lots of the precious gifts and beautifully decorated coffins were destroyed. Since then, Torajans began to make less decorated coffins and placed them high on the cliff-face vaults, reserving more intricate carving for the tomb doors and portrait statues of the deceased, tau-tau.
However, all of these changes should be understood as a dynamic process that commonly occurs within a living culture. These changes are part of the historical stratification... The Toraja burial custom and ceremonies are exclusive. Such complicated and expensive ceremonies sustain many aspects of prehistoric megalithic culture which cannot be found in any other part of the world today.”
The World Heritage nominated Tana Toraja Traditional Settlement consists of 10 sites which are dispersed in an area of 100 square miles around Rantepao, capital of Central Sulawesi.. Traditionally, a Toraja settlement consists of a compound of houses (tongkonan) and granaries (alangs), burials (liang), ceremonial grounds with menhirs (rante), rice-fields, bamboo forests, and grazing ground or pasture for buffalo and pigs.
With so many exciting sites to visit, I first needed to understand the reasons for elaborate funeral ceremonies. Torajans traditionally believe that death is not a sudden, abrupt event but a gradual process toward Puya (the land of souls, or afterlife). It is based on a strong belief that the soul of the deceased travels to the land of the south and in this land of eternity, he will need all the requisites of everyday life in the hereafter just like when he was alive in this world. The death ceremony is often held weeks, months, or years after the death so that the deceased's family can raise the significant funds needed to cover funeral expenses. During the waiting period, the body of the deceased is wrapped in several layers of cloth and kept inTongkonan.
I visited one such traditional Tongkonkan home where there was one such pre burial coffin inside the small 12 ft by 10 ft living quarter. I was quite surprised to hear about the actual post death ritual ;The departed one is wrapped in a cloth and kept in the corner of the house until all the body fluids drained into a pan. The whole place reeked of death, yet something the Tor get used to daily ( similar to living next to the nightmare of the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, NY in the 80’s, a name very similar to the Torajan experience!). After the body mummifies and dries out they assemble it in sitting position and sometimes seat it with the family during meals with food offerings before returning it to the coffin...This is due to a firm belief that the soul of the deceased is thought to linger around the village until the funeral ceremony is completed, after which it begins its journey to Puya. Even after burial they feared that if the deceased started missing their living relatives they would take them away too. So they built effigies with similar facial features and mount them on platforms on cliffs high above the villages, giving the deceased “companionship “after the funeral ceremonies. They offer food, drinks, and cigarettes and annually change the clothing inside the graves and reassemble scattered bones.


It is custom that funerals may take place only after the harvest and before the first sowing of the rice seeds, which normally falls between July and September. Toraja Funeral Ceremonies are occasions for entire families to gather from around the globe, and for villagers to participate in communal events, renewing relationships and reconfirming beliefs and traditions in the way of the ancestors.
In preparation of the Funeral Ceremony, villagers and family members build a tower on the designated ceremonial site where the meat of slaughtered cattle will be distributed during the event. In the centre of the ground is planted a stake where the sacrificial buffalo will be tied to and stabbed. Around the large site are built temporary shelters forming balconies where people can watch proceedings below. The next day the coffin of the deceased is moved down from the Tongkonan to the floor of the rice barn where decorations are made around the bier.
The first official day is dedicated to the seemingly endless formal procession called Ma’passa Tedong where persons, families, groups, bring with them their gifts and contributions ranging from water buffaloes to pigs, rice or alcoholic drinks. All gifts are meticulously registered and announced while donors will show off their gifts by walking around the ceremonial area. Everyone watches who gives what, so that the occasion is not only to confirm one’s status and wealth in society, but also to express former debts repaid, or even new ones made. In the evening, the coffin is brought by hundreds of people to the ceremonial site - called Rante and placed on the high house. After the procession, start the exciting and rowdy buffalo fights, where a lot of betting goes on.


The next day the committee tallies all gifts, and the family then decides how many buffaloes and pigs will be slaughtered and distributed to guests, and how many given to charity to neighbouring poor villages. Most expensive are the prized pied buffaloes. Every Torajan Tongankkan is decorated with Buffalo horns; those that were slaughtered to respect the family. The one with the most horns naturally has a high standing in their society.
The following day comes the actual slaughtering of the cattle for their meat to be distributed for meals to the thousands attending the ceremony that lasts for over a week. The slaughter of the sacrificial buffalo is done in public. This happens very fast and sure, where the buffalo is stabbed directly into its heart and collapses immediately. The buffalo is then hacked and its meat distributed from here, where each part is allocated to a specified person or group whose name is called out, with prime cuts given to the most important in status.
The Torajans believe that aristocrats must be buried between heaven and earth - hence their spectacular grave sites. High up in the limestone cliffs are set tombs, carved out of solid rock, and guarded by human effigies called Tau tau watching sightlessly over the rice fields.

The coffin may be laid in a cave or in a carved stone grave, or hung on a cliff. It contains any possessions that the deceased will need in the afterlife. The wealthy are often buried in a stone grave carved out of a rocky cliff. The grave is usually expensive and takes a few months to complete. In some areas, a stone cave may be found that is large enough to accommodate a whole family. The coffin of a baby or child may be hung from ropes on a cliff face or from a tree. This hanging grave usually lasts for years, until the ropes rot and the coffin falls to the ground. If a child dies prior to teething, it is placed in a small niche inside a tree and eventually the tree envelopes the child. (See my pictures on baby graves laid inside trees)
Aside from Toraja, living megalithic cultures still exist in some places in Indonesia, mainly among the Batak (Sumatra), and the islands of Nias (west of Sumatra), and Sumba (in Lesser Sunda Islands). All of them have been influenced by modern culture to varying extents. There are indeed some basic similarities among these living megalithic cultures, especially in cosmology, settlement pattern, ornamental design, and subsistence, since they have a common root in the prehistoric culture of Early Austronesians. However, none of them are identical and each demonstrates peculiarities of its own.
The Batak people who live on Samosir islet in the middle of Lake Toba in the interior of North Sumatra still maintain their traditional houses, settlement patterns, and ornamental design. But they do not construct stone monuments anymore and practice less elaborate secondary burial custom. Ceremonies for the dead as well as thanksgiving festivals are conducted, but are not as complex as in Toraja. Upright stones are erected only occasionally within the housing compound. The people of Sumba continue to build megalithic structures, but elaborate and expensive ceremonies for the dead have been abandoned.
Tana Toraja Traditional Settlement and culture differs in many aspects to other living megalithic traditions in Indonesia. Toraja burial customs with their elaborate and complex ceremonies, numerous water-buffalo sacrifices and varied burial methods (hanging coffins, rock chambers, cave burial), have no other living comparison.

This article is mostly edited from data garnered from the net together with my own 35mm scanned pictures hopefully offers an opportunity for the reader to get a glimpse of the uniqueness of such cultures. In 1975 only 50 people reached Toraja. From 1985 to 1995 only 40000 per year people made it to Toraja, far less than the amount of people visiting Antarctica today. However in 2007, my plane stopped at the spanking new Ujung Padang International Airport while transiting from Jayapura, Papua and I finally realized that this remote part of the world has now access from all over Asia bringing in tourist dollars but quickly eroding a way of life. I was fortunate to see one of the last megalithic cultures (where stone menhirs are planted on the ground as a death memorial). The End
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 10:17 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia sulawesi tana toraja celebes megalithic Comments (0)

Embedded in a Balinese Procession to appease the Gods, Bali

A Peek inside one of the great cultures of Asia................Ramdas Iyer

After my first trip to Bali in 1995 I was totally convinced that if there is a Paradise on earth it must be centered in Ubud, Bali. The sensory effects of the land combined with a predominantly Hindu people whose purpose in life seem to be one that is committed to ritual celebrations placating their various gods is a truly uplifting experience. Upon my return after nearly a decade in 2004 I was pleased to observe that the core of the culture was still intact but I could see irreversible changes taking place along the fringes of the villages and in the towns. Even though there was no concerted effort by Indonesia’s fairly secular government to disturb this idyllic Island, pressures of a growing Islamic population, commercial opportunism and mass tourism centered mainly around the beaches was a source of cultural erosion. As a frequent visitor to rain forests I can see similarities between deforestation of forests and cultural erosion of societies.
While many writers and photographers have highlighted Balinese culture in wonderful articles, I chose to present here my own photographic journey and the cultural richness of Bali using my own experiences growing up in India in a Hindu family performing similar rituals. The details of these ceremonies were extracted from various sources with spare commentary interspersed by me. An important distinction between Hinduism practiced in Bali is very dissimilar to the Classical Hindu practices. The paganized version practiced here is much akin to the brand of catholism I witnessed in Chichicastenango, Guatemala where petitions to Christ are made with animal sacrifices. Even in India today there are many paganized versions of pre Hindu styles of worship that exists alongside with Vedic Hinduism.

The question I hear frequently is how Bali became a Hindu Kingdom. As early as 200AD the SriVijaya Kingdom was established in Sumatra by the strong naval powers of south Indian kings. This kingdom eventually became the Mahajapit Empire occupying Sumatra, Java, Bali and later Cambodia. Buddhism and Hinduism alternated as the state religion between 500 AD and 1300 AD. With the spread of Islam under the sword, Hinduism was relegated to tiny Bali while the Javanese slowly converted to Islam after 1300. Since Hinduism and the Indic religious culture was ingrained in the Javanese mainland culture that the elites ruling Java left Bali alone as a safe haven for Hindus,

The Balinese devote most of their waking hours to an endless series of offerings, purifications, processions, dances, and dozens of other religious rites. Ceremonies and festivals guide a Balinese from birth to death and into the world thereafter. There can be few places of comparable size where ceremonial obligations hold such a sway over people's lives. There are festivals dedicated to the art of woodcarving, the birth of a goddess, percussion instruments. There are temple festivals, fasting and retreat ceremonies: parades to the sea to cleanse villages, special prayer days for the dead, nights of penance (sivaratri), harvest festival, blood sacrifices, and house deity anniversaries. But some ceremonies-such as the extraordinary mouse cremation at Ababi village near Tirtagangga takes place once every 10 years. I have personally witnessed elaborate cremation ceremonies in Bali that is a macabre spectacle.
In this article I wish to highlight the Pura Taman Ayum temple procession in Mengwi village during the Galungan ceremonies, an annual festival to appease the Island spirits. We all like parades but no parade on earth can match the colorful religious processions of the women of Bali.
A basic tenet of the Balinese religion is that rituals and ceremonies maintain harmony between the two equally powerful forces of good and evil, and that the proper and harmonious behavior of the people brings the supernatural forces under control.
Starting at the home of my guide Ketut I joined the cavalcade dressed in sarong and sash, with his family members. Over the years many small community platforms have been erected all over the island. Some big and some small, where the locals gathered to build decorations, stitch flowers into garlands, make religious paraphilia or even carve wooden effigies for funerals. Female members of Ketut’s family gathered at a nearby community platform with me firmly embedded with them. I knew they were teasing me a little bit including asking me to marry somebody’s daughter, They had all prepared elaborate offering platters some weighing in excess of 20 lbs. The platters consist of sweet cakes, glutinous rice, sumptuous quantities of fruits and flowers all decorated with cut patterns made from palm fronds.
Nobody is left out; peasants as well as aristocrats take part in the preparations. Rules govern exactly how much food, oil, palm leaf strips, lamak, and symbolic money are offered. Men ready the temple grounds; hanging friezes, canopies, and banners, building bamboo platforms and altars, slaughtering pigs, erecting penjor poles, performing guard duty, and covering the genitals of statues with checkered cloths.
Fashionable dress shows respect and is also a mark of social prestige. Women don rich handspun kain and ornament themselves with jewels, scarves, and pounded gold in their hair. At festival times a young woman looks her best. She's allowed to wear lipstick and makeup at religious events but not in daily life when it would be considered too flirtatious. Infant girls wear flowers in their hair and bright sashes around their tiny waists. Men wear a brocaded head cloth, kris, and colorful sarung.

We then proceeded to join the many women emerging from various corners of the village, all wearing the same pink-laced blouse and matching floral sarong. It was so well orchestrated that new entrants smoothly merged into the procession. After a couple of kilometers of walking we stopped for a while waiting for a neighboring village to join the procession. Then suddenly through the rice fields emerged over a 100 women dressed in white lace blouses and dark floral sarongs. Caught in the confluence of these streams of caparisoned women made me feel like I was in the Sangam at Allahabad, India where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet kicking off one of the largest religious gathering mankind has ever known with 15 million people taking a holy dip on Maha Shvrathri day.
What is great about Bali is that it is poor with rich traditions. So the people have a great self-dignity. One could tell the wealthy from the not so fortunate ones from the gold jewelry worn by some of them. Rarely have I seen a more egalitarian social festival that brings all people together using one common denominator: the welfare of the community. I must admit that the Haj maybe another one such event.
After 4 km about 200 of these fine women escorted by a few men and myself reached the grounds of the temple. I realized that I was the only non-oriental in the entire gathering and was often the subject of an occasional flash photograph by a camera-toting member of the Balinese diaspora.
The women systematically placed their offerings in front of the shrine of the trinity Siva, Vishnu and Brahma. There was no orchestration, no fumbling nor stumbling. There was no rehearsal nor was judging it all purely organic.
The priests began their chanting and amidst the clanging of bells and prostrations of the women, I made an exit towards the gate not wanting to make a spectacle out of private worship. I wish to make this point about the spectacular Hindu temples in India. They do not seek World Heritage status because doing so would interrupt the private nature of worship between man and his creator. While I would like all of humanity to enjoy cultures I myself would find it hard to be a non-believer amongst believers.
Here in Bali large celebrations, lasting for days and mobilizing thousands of people, are performed with startling efficiency. A large temple festival is like a stage for a lavish form of metaphysical theater, a three-ringed circus of the arts when the temple comes alive with devotees who crowd into the courtyard and parade between the shrines. For three or four days almost without break, ritual dances, festive music, dramas and cock-fights ( see my blog on travellerspoint) are performed as if the occasion were a costume party instead of a fervid act of worship. Finally, bloated with sensory pleasure, the gods are invited to return to their heavenly spheres.
No one who has encountered a Balinese procession will ever forget the total immersion into Balinese culture and the wonderful opportunity to interact with the people on a special occasion. Am I blessed!
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:07 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali indonesia culture hindu balinese galungan Comments (2)

Centerstage in a Balinese Cockfight, Central Highlands, Bali

Religion and Roulette in a delicate balance


As an entrepreneur who had literally bet his house on his new business, I needed some serious relaxation in Paradise. It was indeed Ubud in Bali that I chose for that time. During this second visit in 2004 after 9 years of yearning to return, I spent a full week exploring the Hindu culture of Bali. Staying at “Taman Rahasya “ a coconut Grove that translates to secret grove in Sanskrit and great views of the volcano , Mt. Batur, I launched project "go Native". The backyard lead to miles of paddy fields with locals planting rice, kids flying kites and butchers chasing pigs, while ducks and geese were taking cover awaiting their turn at the abbotoir.Here I had the good fortune to meet a young guide/driver who helped me to simply merge with the locals.
The purpose of this trip was to attend several Hindu temple ceremonies, including the 210 day cycle Galungan and Kuningan ceremonies during when the island fills up with red-colored arc-shaped coconut leaf and bamboo decorations. With thousands of temples “dressed up” in new yellow clothes, small rural roads become incredibly pretty. The Kuningan holiday takes place ten days after Galungan, bringing the holiday period to a closing time. On this day, a special ritual ceremony is held for the ancestral spirits. The cockfight.


Cockfights have the ceremonial purpose of ritually spilling blood, an important pacification of the demons that escort Hindu temple festivals. In fact, cockfight is required, not just allowed at every Balinese temple festival or religious ceremony. The blood is an offering to the hungry forces of evil. But times are changing fast in Bali. The Indonesian Government has officially banned this sport after pressure from western animal rights organizations. Being an insider in Ubud and a ranking Hindu from India, I was given the inside track to one of this culturally significant battle of the cocks.


Dressed in my linen shirt, colorful sarong and head dress I quickly made my way into the massive gathering in front of the temple. Cock-fighting is the Bingo or slot games of the third world. Unlike the monotonous whir of the slots, there is literally blood and guts here - like the Romans throwing the Christians to the lions. There are crowds that jostle and shout. There is lots of frenzied action. Even if you don't bet, the scene may be worth the effort of getting there. Although this is almost exclusively a man's sport, there are always ladies who show up to sell snacks to the spectators.
The cocks that are used in cockfighting are specially treated in preparation for the cockfight. They are fondled, massaged, plucked, bathed, deloused, and fed the choicest mixtures of corn, rice, egg, and proprietary strength-building ingredients. It is said that a mixture of chopped grilled meat and jack-fruit leaves thickens the blood and prevents serious bleeding when injury results from the fight.
As the only foreigner albeit of Asian descent, I was given every courtesy by the frenzied crowd. Someone dragged a rickety chair for me to sit down. I had not gone digital SLR yet and I was a simple point and shooter having decided to finally rest my film SLRs for this paradise vacation. Standing on a chair is taboo in Asia since the oft soiled shoes in a tropical environment is nasty. I wish the westerners understand this too. They put their feet everywhere, much to my dismay. I cleverly removed my sandals, slipped a pair of ankle socks that I always carry in my back pack for walking on hot surfaces in the tropics. This way I could stand above the fray to witness this religious cock fight and present it to you here.

The ceremony started when the cocks are brought to the arena in small, flexible bamboo cages. The cages are lined up around the edge of the arena, inside the barricade, and their handlers’ squat behind them. Then a white-clad priest advanced to the center of the arena and presented offerings on the ground to the spirits “ butas and kalas”, chanting over them, ringing his bell over them, and finally pouring rice wine on the ground. Then he made similar offerings to the gods in a shrine built up off the ground at a corner of the arena. Blood shedding was on its way.

Usually there are 3 fights & each cockfight between 2 birds ends after three rounds or when one cock is no longer able to continue fighting. After the fights, the crowds don't automatically disperse like at the end of other sporting events, instead males will just stay behind chatting about the match or about arcane facts of cock lineage similar to equine racing. Often the visitor like me misses most of the significance. The preliminaries and the post script, the daily treatment of the fighting cocks, the arcane lore of the sport, and especially the intricacies of the betting are as integral a part of the story as the fight itself. And, unfortunately, they are aspects that most people miss because they occur in such a seemingly chaotic fashion as to make them unintelligible to anyone but the person who would take the time and trouble to investigate.
I hope these images contribute to your understanding of one of the great “blood sports” of Indonesia

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 16:47 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali indonesia hindu cockfight Comments (1)

Travels in Papua in Dani Tribal Lands, Papua, Indonesia

Down the Mountain to a Mummy, The final segment of the Dani Experience.................Ramdas Iyer, Author

The "Baliem Highway" as I call it, is a network of small trails issuing out of hundreds of villages sequestered in the lush mountains of Papua. I was amazed to discover that the trail distances are measured in "days of walking" to Wamena, the only town in all of the Papuan Highlands. These trails descend from 6000 feet down to the valley floor, at about 1000 ft. above MSL If the fearsome Yali wanted to purchase some batteries, or aspirin or even simple comforts like candy or cigarettes, they have to walk a minimum of 8 days on the "Baliem Highway". On the last day of my stay in the highlands I enjoyed walking the highway, which is nothing more than 5 feet wide hugging the crest of the mountains. There was a steady flow of people in either direction, and to give you an idea of human density, contact was made every 30 minutes or so. From space it would almost look like ants walking a forest floor.

After my host villagers wished me good-bye, some of them walked alongside this pedestrian highway and set themselves up in various stations along the way trying to sell sweet potatoes, sugarcane, tobacco and taro roots for the hungry travellers. I met a young man with a rooster in his hand. He will be walking 2 days down and two days up to sell his rooster in the market and pick up some essentials on the way back (See Photo). One of the most interesting observations was that of one of my porters carrying a two-gallon can of petrol amongst our supplies. I initially thought that it was fuel for our trip. Instead he sold the can at our farthest point thereby garnering a good price for its supply to the interior. Unfortunately this fuel is also used for chain saws to cut trees.

People were carrying piglets, walking adult pigs like one would walk Dalmatians, holding hemp baskets for sale and in one case one of them had a collection of fine boar's tusk for sale in the market. What does not qualify to make it into the nostrils end up as necklaces used for ceremonial purposes; one such artifact was acquired there for my New Jersey home along with penis gourds and bead necklaces. With a keen eye on statistics, I purchased 5 and as expected two made it back whole.

We paused at several points as my porters were purchasing and consuming sweet potatoes from select vendors. I was given to understand that the ones grown in steeper slopes had a better taste than the ones found in the valley. I would imagine that the tuber had to grab every ounce of tumbling water to put out its fine sugars. It brought back memories of buying Malbec wine in Mendoza, Argentina a few years ago, when the same grog was available back home perhaps even cheaper. I am glad that restricted baggage in air travel has put an end to my trans- national appellation transfer. I have made it a point not to buy duty-free since the $10 saved is lower than the $20 copay my chiropractor charges, along with the question “Did you carry something heavy?”
We came upon some spectacular springs were water from the ground caused rivulets, resulting in waterfalls just a mile down hill. The porters and I had our last group picture together in the highlands and thereafter the trail dropped steeply towards Wamena.



If you remember, I had mentioned that Wamena had only five miles of paved roadway. Alongside this roadway, there are many stops were minivans picked up these tribal coming down the hill and transported them into town. We took one such conveyance and reached Wamena. After leaving our luggage and saying sad good byes to my porters (The silent one gave me a gift-a necklace with a single round rock in the middle) It felt as though the boomerang throwing kid in “The Road Runner” movie had grown up and was saying his good byes to me. (Mr. Gibson!)
We crossed a flimsy steel rope bridge secured by weighted steel drums over some scary waters. Since it was fairly sturdy, I would imagine that the builders loaded the steel drum pylons with concrete.(see picture)

The next morning, Scorpio and I trekked a couple of miles to see the famous mummy of Jwicka village

Indonesia has some of the most fascinating death cults. The cremations in Bali, the cave and rock burials of Sulawesi, the sea-burials of the Bugis people of Makassar and lastly the mummification of the Dani. Traditionally the Dani, after the death of a leader or chief used to drain the body fluids of the chieftains and smoked them for preservation.( It almost seems thath the enemy would be vanquished in the digestive tract while the leaders will be preserved for eternity;Ying and Yang!) These mummies were kept in the chief’s hut and were used as a talisman for war successes.
Upon arrival, we were shown the long houses of these people and finally the famous 300-year-old mummy. This today has become a touristy pursuit and did not have the real excitement of being with the villagers; nevertheless it was an unusual sight and a great experience since I was the only tourist there at that time of the year. There were several mummies scattered around Papua just a few years ago. Collectors and museums decamped with most while the remaining ones were badly damaged due to age and poor preservation.

After final good byes were exchanged Scorpio walked me to the airport, only to be interrupted by a motorcycle carrying two drums of fuel for our aircraft! (see picture)

This trip had been like a dream come true. With no one interested in sharing my costs, I tried to do it very economically using frequent flyer mileage. The biggest cost was the hopper flights from Jakarta to Jayapura.
I am very keen on visiting the coastal Papuans; The Asmat who live in spectacular villages with totems akin to the the British Columbian Haidas and the Tlingits, The plains Papuans namely the Korowai, who live in gigantic tree houses and eat grubs and worms as delicacies. These trips involve many porters and travellers to subsidize the boats and planes to reach the interior. If any reader is interested in pursuing this trip please contact me.

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 09:29 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia trek dani tribes tribal papua jayapura cannibals aboriginals tribals yali lani Comments (0)

Deep inside Yali, Dani and Lani territories, Papua,Indonesia

A fascinating trek amongst a unique people..... Author Ramdas Iyer



The third and fourth days of trekking took us to greater heights and deeper into Dani territory. It was an exciting time for a photographer with the land and its unique people offering many opportunities around every corner. The climb was very vertiginous slowing down our pace considerably. We crossed many mountain waterfalls tumbling towards the white water Rivers below, traversed several vine built bridges and saw some magnificent flora.
The Baliem valley consists of three main tribes; The Dani, the Yali and the Lani. The Lani are – like their neighbors, the Dani - experienced farmers and use a highly sophisticated irrigation system to produce mainly Sweet Potatoes, Tobacco, Beans, Taro, Spinach, Sugar Cane and Bananas. 
Their villages in a beautiful surrounding southeast of Wamena are larger than the small compounds of the Dani and the Yali.
The Lani men, who are stubbier than the Dani, wear thick kotekas (penis gourds), which also serve as a “handbag”, a case for tobacco and valuables. Men sometimes wear hairnets, but the Lani extensively use bird feathers as decoration. Quite often a feather crown is worn even when the men are dressed in western clothes. The women wear short grass skirts, but like everywhere in the valley tend to wear western clothes more and more today.

Like their Dani and Yali neighbors, the women carry everything – like vegetables, small pigs and even their small children – in net-bags across their backs.The Yalis on the other hand resided on the steeper slopes at higher elevations. As a result they were not discovered until 1976. They were the fiercest cannibals in Western Papua. They not only ate the bodies of their enemies, they also ground the bones and scattered them in the mountains to totally annihilate them.. Though very tiny in stature (Average make height was 5 feet or less), they were the most feared. They wore their penis gourds parallel to the ground in a pointed manner, but of a relatively smaller size.
As a photographer, I hate to see these magnificent tribesman wearing jeans and T-shirts saying “Jesus Saves”. While not a big fan of proselytization, I must admit that the Christian missionaries have done yeoman’s work in this harsh land trying to bring modern comforts and education to these people. Like many before them these cultures will be relegated to the history books and I count my blessings to have witnessed them prior to extinction.

As a traveler the Dani and Lani can be distinguished by the relative sizes of the Kotekas (Penis gourds or more scientifically called Phallocrypts) and the Yali by their height. The Lani live 3-4 day trek from Wamena while the Yali live 5-6 days trek from Wamena. Since more Papuans are adapting to western clothing it gets harder to identify them. I was fortunate to meet a Yali man about 4 days trek into the mountains, but unfortunately he was wearing western clothes (See Photograph)

Upon arrival at the village for nightfall around 3:00PM, the heaviest downpour ever witnessed by me continued straight for 8 hours trapping me with my porters and the occasional naked villager straggling into our kitchen hut. I took this opportunity to explain life in the USA to the porters through Scorpio to a fascinated audience. They asked me if I had sat in one of those flying buses that are seen from the mountains. We also discussed their individual lives, their farming techniques, relationships with women, ancestral stories etc, etc. Our cook was making the same noodles with cabbage and eggs every day that I couldn’t take it anymore. I realized that I had not eaten anything tangy in 4 days but I noticed a lemon plant in the fringe of the village. I grabbed a few lemons and offered to cook them all noodles my way, much to everyone’s satisfaction except perhaps the stunned cook.
There was a time inside the hut when 5 naked villagers were sitting around the fire with us, just watching. The highlands after rain cools down to about 60degrees F and the men, instead of wearing an outer garment rely on the warmth of a hearth. They live in such perfect harmony with nature that I fear any changes in global climate would adversely affect them.

The next morning we spent 3 hours walking around the village and studying their homes, farms, pigs and enjoying the mountaintop vista. Here is where I met a Yali member. He was passing through the village, along the trail that would eventually take him to his destination in higher terrain. He was no taller than 4 feet 6inches, with an elf like ear. In the 2is century we still live with homo erectus who have not closed the gap with the civilizations from the fertile crescent.

I met a woman who was constantly waving both her hands with open palms. It struck me as odd for her to continue to do it for an extended period of time. Scorpio explained that she was proudly showing all her 10 fingers, since none had perished in her family: a sign of a very brave and successful warrior family See photograph). An elderly gentleman actually took the time to demonstrate the art of septum piercing and nasal decoration (see Photos). This was our turn around point and to head towards Wamena for 2 days in a very different trail along the ridge of the mountain.

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia dani papua jayapura cannibals lani wamena Comments (0)

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