The Reasons Behind Ngayau

The Reasons Behind “Ngayau

The origin of the word “ngayau” generally finds consensus among the Dayak tribes. However, when it began and its history remain somewhat uncertain and often appear in various versions. This is because there hasn’t been a detailed and chronological study and historical records regarding the origin of ngayau. There are only records of the agreement among all the ethnic Dayak of Borneo to end it. This occurred on May 22 – July 24, 1894, during the Grand Assembly of Tumbang Anoi in the village of Huron Anoi Kahayan Ulu, Central Kalimantan.

Ngayau, like the red bowl (a symbol or war cry accompanied by a number of symbols distributed from village to village), cannot be done arbitrarily and must be by consensus. There must be a strong and reasonable reason for ngayau. From the accounts and testimonies of the surviving figures and practitioners of ngayau to this day, it can be concluded that there are four reasons why the Dayak engage in ngayau. In writing, the procedure for circulating and announcing this war cry is regulated in the Customary Law of one of the Dayak sub-tribes, Jangkang, in Sanggau Regency, West Kalimantan, in Chapter 41 regarding “Mangkok Merah” (the red bowl).

Therefore, ngayau is not an arbitrary action, let alone spontaneous. Ngayau is a collective action of the Dayak ethnic group, and that’s why it’s also referred to as a “tradition.” To truly understand the conditions of ngayau, it is necessary to delve into its motives.

Lontaan (1975: 533-537) notes at least four motives for ngayau. First, protecting agriculture. Second, gaining additional spiritual power. Third, seeking revenge. Fourth, strengthening the resilience of their buildings.

Indeed, there are other motives behind ngayau, and this is far more important – it’s an effort or mechanism of self-preservation. It can be said that the motive of self-preservation is more prominent, especially after the Tumbang Anoi agreement. This motive is more evident in conflicts among local populations and in Sampit, Central Kalimantan.

It’s true that before the Tumbang Anoi agreement, there were practices of headhunting even among fellow Dayak. Headhunting among Dayak was a difficult fact to deny and indeed it happened. For example, the Jangkang Dayak were once hostile towards the Ribunt Dayak. Despite their common ancestry, during the era of headhunting, the two tribes were in conflict. At that time, the law of the jungle prevailed: the strong preyed on the weak.

For instance, among the Dayak Jangkang, the war leader who frequently appeared in epic stories was Macan Gaingk. It is told that every time the rice in the fields started to turn yellow, under the leadership of Macan Gaingk, the Dayak Jangkang went on a ngayau expedition outside Jangkang territory. The spoils of the expedition would later be celebrated in a festival called notongk. The festival wouldn’t be joyous and would feel empty if the ngayau expedition didn’t yield the desired results.

Although ngayau was a war between tribes, there were customary rules to be followed. For instance, ngayau couldn’t be carried out against children and women who had just given birth. There were also taboos. If a group on a ngayau expedition encountered a pot containing tuak (a local alcoholic beverage), chicken or pork meat, and sticky rice cakes cooked in young bamboo (lemang/sobangkang), neatly arranged on an altar, along the road as they were entering a village, they couldn’t carry out ngayau against that village. These offerings were a sign that the village was in mourning or had a woman who had recently given birth. In the Dayak Jangkang language, these offerings with the message of “apology” were called “sirok somah.” Sirok means bowing down or prostrating, and somah means worship.

Engaging in ngayau among fellow Dayak was not just about acquiring enemy heads as a sign of strength and pride. It was also motivated by a desire for revenge and as a means of self-preservation: striking first before being struck. This is similar to the Latin saying, “si vis pacem, para bellum” (if you want peace, prepare for war).

So, even in battle, the Dayak had a code of conduct and manners. They didn’t want the enemy to suffer too long from severe wounds. Therefore, they would be decapitated immediately. That’s the true meaning of “ngayau.”

The entry of Catholic missionaries into Dayak communities, especially with the arrival of Catholic missions in Borneo at the end of the 18th century, had a positive influence. The radical Christian teaching of not seeking revenge with the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” principle quickly spread among the Dayak people. This teaching of love and forgiveness made the Dayak communities rethink their ngayau tradition. The assembly was attended by the traditional leaders of all of Borneo who gathered and agreed to end headhunting among fellow Dayak. However, the meeting that resulted in the Tumbang Anoi agreement itself was initiated by the Dutch East Indies government in 1894.

“Ngayau” is derived from the word “kayau,” which means “enemy.” There are various etymological versions of ngayau. For example, Fridolin Ukur in “Tantang Jawab Suku Daya” (1971) mentioned that ngayau means going to war. On the other hand, for the Dayak Lamandau and Dayak Delang in Central Kalimantan, ngayau comes from the word “kayau” or “kayo’,” which means “seeking.”

Indeed, ngayau means decapitating the head of the enemy. However, it should be added that, especially for the Dayak Jangkang, the word “ngayau” is a derivative form. The basic word is “ayau” or “yau.” It means a shadow, apparition, or specter.

The truth of this origin can be traced from the following expression. When someone goes hunting or fishing and returns home, they are asked if they’ve had any catch. In the Jangkang language, the answer would be, “Saja aba yao neh dek kidoh” (Not only did I not catch anything, but even its shadow was not there!).

Based on this evidence, it can be concluded that in the Jangkang language, “ngayau” originates from the basic word “ayau” or “yau.” Thus, “ngayau” is synonymous with hunting, as seeking “ayau” does not necessarily guarantee success. Many factors determine success, such as luck, good fortune, and the availability of the target catch. Equally important is the skill of the hunter in the field of battle, or the one being hunted, or the enemy.

Skills in using tools and equipment became crucial, and these skills were trained in young boys from an early age. Especially the technique of self-defense against enemy attacks using shields (kolaok), combined with martial arts or blocking blows. Self-defense techniques were sometimes necessary, especially when facing a balanced opponent, to conserve energy and not waste it in vain. Defensive techniques were often required in ngayau. However, when facing a weaker opponent, attacking techniques would be used. Skill in using the mandau (traditional Dayak sword) was essential, knowing when to swing (chopping or beheading motion) and when to thrust (stab). Hand-to-hand combat was also common. After the enemy was defeated, that’s when the decapitation would take place.

So, even in battle, the Dayak had a code of conduct and manners. They didn’t want the enemy to suffer too long from severe wounds. Therefore, they would be decapitated immediately. That’s the true meaning of “ngayau.”

However, it’s important to note that these actions and cultural practices may sound strange to us today. But if we delve deeper into the beliefs of the Dayak ethnic groups, we can begin to understand the underlying meaning behind the ngayau tradition.

Ngayau is inseparable from the belief of the Dayak community as a distinct entity. This belief can be traced through oral stories and traditions passed down from generation to generation. According to their firm belief, the Dayak people consider themselves descendants of celestial beings. When they descended to this world, they became the most noble beings and, therefore, rulers of the earth (Borneo).

This belief had consequences, as the Dayak people looked down upon other ethnic groups (outsiders). If these outsiders disrupted and threatened their existence and livelihood, they could be displaced. However, strong reasons were required for such actions. Shedding the blood of certain animals, especially humans, was taboo. If it did happen, they would demand retribution. The principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” was applied. Although it has been refined and adapted, remnants of this practice still continue among certain Dayak sub-ethnic groups to this day.

The customary laws of the Jangkang District, for example, still heavily emphasize seeking retribution for bloodshed. This is evident from the detailed regulations governing cases ranging from minor bloodshed incidents to fatal ones, known as “Adat Pati Nyawa.”

The unit of measure for compensation for bloodshed, known as “tael,” was unique. In the past, accidentally taking a human life (such as a hunting accident) or intentionally doing so would pose difficulties for the perpetrator. The entire family and relatives would become involved in assisting. It’s even possible that the perpetrator would have to fulfill their obligation to pay Adat Pati Nyawa for the rest of their life.

The True Meaning of Ngayau
What has been discussed above applies in normal situations. However, there’s another aspect of ngayau. Another myth is that every time they build a bridge or a communal longhouse (betang), its foundation will be sturdy and robust if there is a sacrifice involved. As described by Amil Jaya (2009) in the following novel excerpt:

“This longhouse needs human blood. The foundation pillar cannot be created without the sacrifice,” said Chief Kanyau, referring to the ngayau ritual.
“But this task of obtaining humans for the sacrifice is going to be very difficult,” exclaimed his assistant, Tuai Rumah Janting. “Our warriors are still not trained for battle.”
“I have pondered upon the matter and appointed Lasa Kulan to lead this headhunting team. I am convinced that he is the best warrior to perform the task.”
All eyes focused on the sturdy and handsome Lasa Kulan. He smiled while glancing at Kunang, Chief Kenyau’s daughter. Lasa Kulan’s smile widened as he puffed out his chest, displaying his handsome body while firmly holding his bakin in one hand and the hilt of the ilang sheathed at his waist in the other.
The smile was still on his lips when Kumang Raja returned. However, the smile soon faded along with the memory of Kunang, his sweetheart.
“They are Melanau,” Kumang Raja reported.
“How many of them are there?” asked Lasa Kulan calmly.
“Not many – only seven.”
“Good, we can easily defeat them,” said Lasa Kulan, patting his companion on the shoulder. (Amil Jaya, 2009: 5-6).

Heroic tales of Dayak warriors in battle against their enemies and stories about ngayau are told for hours during the gawai ceremonies (rice harvest festivals). The purpose is to leave a lasting impression on the listeners, to touch their emotions, and ultimately motivate them to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. The image of a brave and strong Dayak man, favored by women, is shaped and passed down through these heroic ngayau stories. The goal is to ensure that every Dayak man is brave and willing to die to defend their ancestral land.

Dayak warriors departing for and returning from ngayau expeditions were always sent off and welcomed with great celebration. When the ngayau party left the village, they were given a special ceremony by their families and the women. While drinking tuak, singing, and dancing, the warriors would shout war cries. The Jangkang Dayak called it “nyoru somangat,” the Kanayant Dayak called it “basaru samangat,” but it’s commonly referred to as “tariu.”

That is the true meaning behind the myths of ngayau. Western writers and those outside the Dayak ethnicity, generally because they lack what Gadamer calls “vorurteil” (prejudice or preconception), have misunderstood the meaning of ngayau. The events in Sambas (1999) and Sampit (2001) were not ngayau as many people perceived them, but rather efforts and expressions of self-defense by the Dayak against threats to their territory. Additionally, due to the connections and similarities between the Dayak in Indonesia and Malaysia, Dayak in Malaysia also assisted their brethren in cases of urgent conflicts that threatened their kin.

The pressure from transmigration programs, the conversion of traditional land into oil palm plantations, deforestation, damage to the land through mining projects, and the rise of political leaders in Kalimantan who were not from the region have led to social unrest. Consequently, the indigenous population of Kalimantan has felt pushed and threatened. When a trigger event occurs, the accumulated frustration and anger are easily vented by seeking the nearest “enemy” as a sacrificial offering.

The sense of urgency and threat was further felt by the Dayak ethnic groups when the New Order government initiated the transmigration program. In many regions in Kalimantan, the transmigration program can be considered successful in terms of economic growth and the development of infrastructure and facilities. Alongside the transmigration program, the government also built roads, which became links for the transportation of agricultural products, crafts, and rural culture to urban areas.

In West Kalimantan, for example, the transmigration program succeeded in Rasau Jaya in the Kubu Raya Regency, Batang Tarang District, and in the Mokok and Jangkang Districts of the Sanggau Regency. Transmigrants played a significant role in advancing the local population in agriculture and trade. The skills and knowledge of Javanese transmigrants, mostly farmers, were transferred to the local population, resulting in a transfer of skills and knowledge that improved local productivity.

Economic growth rapidly flourished in Kalimantan alongside the transmigration program from Java. In historical records, there has never been a significant social clash between Javanese transmigrants and the people of Kalimantan. This is because of the wisdom of the Javanese, which promotes harmony, gentleness, the ability to win the hearts of the locals, and a willingness to compromise on non-essential matters. There were no conspicuously aggressive actions or attitudes displayed by Javanese transmigrants, which the local population viewed as a symbol of the principle “wherever you step, the sky is held high.”

In the eyes of the local population, the behavior of Javanese transmigrants sharply contrasted with that of transmigrants from Madura. Besides having a tough character due to their coastal and densely populated lifestyle, Madurese culture and habits did not align with those of the people of Kalimantan. For instance, Madurese people would carry unsheathed sickles when going to the fields, while the Dayak carried their machetes in sheaths. The Dayak perceived that someone carrying a unsheathed machete was challenging them to fight or engage in combat.

This is what happened after the Tumbang Anoi agreement. In terms of methods, there were similarities between past ngayau and contemporary conflicts. However, the motives and casus belli were different. Therefore, it’s appropriate to strip away the image of the Dayak as headhunters because its essence is no longer the same as it once was. The hermeneutic method can reveal the truth or the real meaning behind such realities.*)

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Masri Sareb Putra
Articles: 729

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