The Erau Festival of Tenggarong: A Blending of CulturesThe Dayaks dancing with their swords, spears and an orangutan skull were atough bunch from a long way up the Mahakam River. They certainly did not look like they had put on leopard skins, head-dresses with colourfully intricate beadworks, huge earrings and a plethora of accountrements for the benefit of gawking tourists. In fact, aside from myself, there were only a couple of foreigners around, wives of French oil workers from the nearby city of Balikpapan.
Local Indonesians with video cameras, as well as a national television crew, were busy filming the proceedings, knowing that they were on to a good thing. The Dayaks were about as "authentic" as I had ever seen and - best of all - they were putting on their show in the district capital of Tenggarong, a town of some 50,000 with small hotels and localstyle restaurants. And Tenggarong is easily accessible by paved road from Balikpapan; one of Indonesia's biggest oil centres.
The Erau festival was another example of how much there is to the country outside the overtrodden tourist tracks. Most visitors think of Indonesia only in terms of Bali with -perhaps - Yogyakarta and Borobudur. But as communications and facilities throughout the archipelago have improved tremendously, huge chunks of territory are becoming easily accessible to anyone wishing to see the unusual in this land of never ending wonders, contrasts and traditions.
TheDayak ceremonies - and much, much more - are part of the annual festival celebrating the foundation of Tenggarong, the capital of a former sultanate on the bank of the Mahakam River. Here, as elsewhere in Kalimantan (the Indonesian three quarters of the huge island of Borneo), the earlier Dayak inhabitants were pushed inland by later Malay speaking migrants. It is unclear what was involved in this gradual "push", but large segments of the Dayak groups allied with coastal leaders, giving them allegiance as well as tribute. It is partially thanks to the residual respect some Dayaks still show to the royal family at Tenggarong that the Erau festival displays such a visually exciting combination of tribal rituals, along with coastal Muslim ceremonies and dances.
To clear up a confusing point: the ethnic designation "Dayak" is no more or less precise than the word "Indian" as applied to the Americas. Although all Dayaks share some basic traits, their differences are numerous mutually unintelligible languages, different social divisions and lifestyles as well as physical variations. All this underlines the fact that the inland peoples of Kalimantan cannot be lumped together into a homogeneous group. Specialists tear out their hair in despair when they hear laymen speak of Dayaks. While many of us know the difference between, say the Mayas and the Apache, few have heard of the distinguishing characteristics of the Iban and the Kenyah, lumped together into Dayak category. But as several groups participate in the Tenggarong festival, for the sake of simplicity we will not distinguish between them, with apologies to the specialist.
Tenggarong, the former capital of the Kutai sultanate, is now the seat of the kabupaten (district) Kutai, a short dis-tance up the Mahakam River from Samarinda, the capital of East Kalimantan province.
On September 28, 1782, the sultan of Kutai moved his court from a downriver location to avoid conflict with Bugis immigrants from South Sulawesi who had settled there in large numbers. The celebrations for the foundations of the city, which used to be a yearly event, now occasionally take place at the government's discretion. As the district treasury foots the bill, the decision as to whether to hold the festival is based on budgetary considerations.
A series of speeches kicked off the events, the governor delivering the keynote address. There followed a huge parade, including marching bands, majorettes and some muscular Dayaks, bemused with the show as they were being mobbed by amateur and professional wielders of cameras and video recorders.
For the next few days, after the VIPs had gone home, the festivities settled down to a routine. Each day, there were traditional sports of several varieties. One of these, a team event, consisted of whipping heavy wooden tops, trying to knock down the opponent's while the thrower's top keeps whirling. Government officials and Dayaks in traditional dress joined this game, all joyfully shouting like rowdy boys. Another game consisted of a combination of soccer and volley ball, played with a hollow rattan ball. There were several blowpipe competitions, and one series of boat races, powered by teams of 25 paddlers. Races were also held for canoes with small motors.
Each day there were Dayak dances and rituals. These were performed in full traditional costumes, with personal decorations of leopard claws and teeth along with all kinds of feathers and beads. The participants looked splendid indeed. Aside from dances in full regalia, the rituals included two spectacular recreations of traditional events.
First on the agenda was the erection of a carved ancestral totem - like pole, combined with the slaughter of a large water buffalo after prayers and a frenzy of dancing. The next feature was the ceremony representing the completion of a successful "head hunting" raid, with a substitute orangutan skull. This ritual was performed by the Dayaks who had travelled the furthest to Tenggarong, from a village over ten days away. Along with the Dayak events, the Islamized Kutai people put on a series of shows in their traditional outfits, resplendent embroidered silk clothes. The performances included many dances, spread over several days. In the best dance, the last sultan's brother and eldest son joined in stately steps with govern-ment officials, all in the Kutai-style brilliant silk outfits and accompanied by a gamelan orchestra.
The last and culminating day was begun with prayers at the grave of Sultan Haji Imbut, the founder of Tenggarong. Later in the day, the stars were two long "dragons", some eight metres long each, fashioned out of rattan frames and dressed in colourful cloth. They were taken abroad a boat to the centre of the Mahakam River with a committee of men in full Kutai traditional attire. After due ceremony, the dragons were lowered into the water and two young men jumped in to chop off the dragons' heads which were saved for the next ritual of this type. The bodies of the dragons were allowed to float off downstream towards the sea.
The severing of the heads was the signal for a free-for-all water fight to begin. Boats with power pumps and nozzles soaked the crowd along the river bank, but the people were already doing a good job of plastering each other with tossed bucketfuls and plastic bags filled with water. Some of the boats fought each other with jets of water sweeping the decks. Photographers be warned: carrying cameras by no means guarantees staying dry.
A PORTION OF BORNEO
To most European and Americans, the name "Kalimantan" rings no bells. Borneo might just bring up a vague recollection from a geography class. The coasts of this huge island (which used to be known only as Borneo) were colonized by the Dutch and the British. After Indonesia won independence from Holland, its portion of the island was named Kalimantan. This "new" name is really ancient, the proper one for at least portions of the island before the arrival of the Europeans. The word "Kalimantan" could come from the name of a fruit or result from the combination of the Malay words meaning "river of diamonds". The name Borneo is a deformation of the sultanate of Brunei which, several centuries ago, controlled a large chunk of territory in the northern part of the island at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans. Geographers still use the name Borneo when referring to the island as a whole.
The former British section, now mostly a part of Malaysia, is divided into the provinces of Sarawak and Sabah plus the tiny, super-rich independent oil sultanate of Brunei.
The Indonesian portion is split into four provinces, named after their geographical positions: Kalimantan Selatan (south), Kalimantan Timur (east), Kalimantan Tengah (central) and Kalimantan Barat (west). The names of these provinces are often abbreviated, as in Kaltim for Kalimantan Timur.
The island of Borneo is the world's third largest, if we exclude Australia. Greenland tops the list with over 2 million square kilometres, followed by New Guinea's 808,000. Borneo weighs in with 743,000. Much of the island is of low altitude (over half of Kaltim's 211,000 square kilometres lies under 150 metres of elevation) with a central spine of mountains. Kalimantan is dominated by three great river systems, the land's essential means of communications: the Kapuas, the longest of the three, flows west to Pontianak; the Barito, the widest, heads south to Banjarmasin and the Mahakam, with the most volume of water runs east to Samarinda. All three rivers flow from the same area, the mountains of the central portion of the island.
East Kalimantan, whose 1.5 million inhabitants - of which some 30% are Dayaks - represents Indonesia's least densely populated province after Irian Jaya. It is also the country's richest, responsible for some 25 of export earnings. These exports are the land's natural resources: oil, natural gas, timber and coal.
The island of Borneo first surfaces in literature through Chinese annals dealing with trade routes and tribute. These pre-Christian era documents give a glimpse of Borneo's gold and exotic oriental pharmaceuticals such as camphor and bezoar stones.
The first written record of Indonesia was discovered in one of the Malay-Hindu kingdoms, Mulawarman, whose capital was Muara Kaman on the lower Mahakam River, at the junction with its first main tributary, the Telen. This kingdom, as others in Sumatra and Java, was strongly influenced by the Hindu culture and religion. At Muara Kaman, sacrificial "yupa" poles of stone, inscribed in the Indian Pallawan script, attest to fourth century AD rituals when thousands of animals were slaughtered. Further inland, off the Telen River, the cave of Goa Kembang was discovered in 1895. It sheltered a dozen Hindu-style stone statues.
The trade with China continued over the centuries, interrupted only by problems and policy changes of the Celestial Kingdom. Fifth century (and later) Chinese records list an expanded number of exotic products from Borneo: gold, diamonds, camphor, birds' nests, aloe wood and the bezoar stones which are hard little spheres found in the gall bladders of certain species of monkeys.
Islam arrived from Java in the 15th century and the Mulawarman kingdom of East Kalimantan fused with the Muslim elements, changing the realm's name to Kutai Kartanegara after its Javanese model. Dynastic changes led to the rise of the Sultanate of Kutai which was founded on the banks near the mouth of the Mahakam River.
At the end of the 13th century, Marco Polo reported considerable traffic by junks between China and Borneo. The first European to have landed there was (perhaps) Friar Odoric, around the year 1322, on his way to China. Prior to the conquest of Malacca, the Portuguese might have disembarked on Borneo. They definitely did so after their 1511 takeover of the greatest trading emporium of Southeast Asia. But Portuguese interests were focused on the Spice Islands which are located further east. Pingafetta, the chronicler of Magellan's epic circumnavigation of the earth, describes the splendors of the court at Brunei, in a town which he claims held 25,000 families.
After a combined army of Kutai and Bugis forces repelled an unofficial British military expedition (disguised as a trading mission), the Dutch colonial army took over East Kalimantan to keep England at bay. The sultan was allowed to retain a measure of power as long as he did not interfere with Dutch interests. Late in the 19th century, he granted oil and coal concessions to the Dutch who quickly made these enterprises most profitable. While coal mining was aban-doned after the demise of steam ships, oil production continued to flourish. The modern town of Balikpapan was built for and by oil, the region's black gold. The installations were taken over by the Japanese during WW II, bombed by the Allies, and rebuilt after 1945. Timber, the green gold, started as a major export earner in the 1960s and is responsible for Samarinda's growth. A tremendous liquified natural gas complex at Bontang started production in 1973, shipping its total production to Japanese power companies. Within the last few years, coal mining has geared up again.
Headhunting was one of the main pillars of Dayak culture. In the old days, it was believed that freshly severed heads were essential to the welfare of a village. Old heads' power faded with age and new ones were continuously needed. This led to a permanent state of warfare in the hinterland of Borneo until the practice was stopped early in this century by the British and Dutch colonial governments.
The Dayaks, who make up some 30% of Kaltim's population, are divided in this province into three main groups: the Kenyah, the Kayan and the Bahau. These in turn are each subdivided into several sub-groups. All Dayaks show a fundamental physical and cultural unity. They are usually light skinned and of Mongol genetic stock.
Several Dayak groups used to excel in beautiful and intricate ironwood carvings with religious significance but this is now fast becoming a lost art. Carvings were a common feature of longhouses in many areas. These huge wooden houses were built on stilts, up to 180 metres long and 18 metres wide. The largest ones boasted of some 200 doors to serve up to 500 persons or 50 families living under one roof. Villages located in several upstream areas of the Mahakam still have longhouses although the government is trying to encourage individual housing.
Many of the older women still sport personal decorations consisting of many large metal rings - weighing up to one kilo per ear - in huge distorted earlobes. Hands and other parts of the body were tattooed to mark status and as a means for ancestors to recognize their descendants after death.
(There are several elements of Dayak mythology and belief with un-canny parallels to the Aztecs and other Indian groups ot ancient Mexico. The feathered serpent was an important figure in both pantheons. There were special paradises, depending on the manner of death. Warriors who died in battle and women who died in childbirth shared one of the paradises in the afterlife. There was another one for those who died by drowning.)
Since the conclusion of WW II, missionaries have succeeded in converting most Dayaks to the Catholic or Protestant faiths. Traditional beliefs have been abandoned, except in a few remote areas. Christianity has been accepted over Islam mostly because it allows the consumption of pork and the presence of dogs which are invaluable for hunting wild game. (by: Kal Muller | Source: Garuda Indonesia In-Flight Magazine, Vol.9, 1989)
* Kal Muller is a regular contributor. A photo-journalist, he has a vast knowledge of Indonesia, having visited since 1961.