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Jakarta Post

'€˜Nyobeng'€™, the Dayak skull-bathing ritual

  • Stefanus Akim

    The Jakarta Post

Pontianak   /   Wed, July 17, 2013   /  01:22 pm
'€˜Nyobeng'€™, the Dayak skull-bathing ritual

Let'€™s get the party started: Local residents carry their instruments during part of the welcoming ceremony for visitors.

West Kalimantan, famous for its rain forests, also has various mysteries and enchantments.

One of such fascination is the nyobeng, a ritual in which human skulls taken through mengayau, or headhunting, are cleansed in Sebujit hamlet in Bengkayang regency, a long way from the city.

One such recent ritual began with hundreds of men and women in traditional costumes adorned with beads and animal bones welcoming visitors. They carried mandau (swords), blowpipes and ram guns. As the guests arrived, the participants aimed their guns at the sky and and fired a salute, also intended as a courtesy for their ancestors before starting the nyobeng.

Then a local community leader threw puppies up into the air as visitors attempted to slash it as it fell with swords, repeating the process if the animal fell to the ground alive. The elder then repeated the process with a chicken. Later, residents tossed chicken eggs in the direction of the guests. Braking eggs in such a way is seen as evidence of sincerity.

Pow wow: A community elder confers with another resident during the ritual.Pow wow: A community elder confers with another resident during the ritual.
As the welcoming ceremony continued, white and yellow rice was scattered as mantras were chanted by communal elders. A number of local girls served tuak (palm wine) before the guests were taken to the Rumah Balug, a traditional house in middle of the hamlet.

This annual event, taking place after the harvest as an expression of gratitude to God, drew a large number of visitors to Sebujit, not only from West Kalimantan, but also from Sarawak, Malaysia.

The peak of nyobeng was the bathing of skulls taken by headhunters in the past. The Dayak Bidayuh people believe that the body from the neck upward symbolizes the identity of a person. Dried human skulls are believed to have the strongest magic powers on earth. A freshly taken head is even said to be able to rescue a village from an epidemic.

Furthermore, with some concoctions added, skulls are considered effective for inviting rain, increasing harvests and warding off evil spirits. The more dried skulls are gathered, the greater their supernatural powers will be. Such beliefs have led to the special bathing rite, so that the strength of former enemies continues to emanate to provide protection and fortune.

The practice of headhunting among the Dayak society came to an end in 1894 at a general meeting of community elders in Tumbang Anoi, Central Kalimantan. Headhunting had previously been seen as a symbol of bravery and a way of saving people from a plague.

Take five:: Boys wait to play their part.Take five:: Boys wait to play their part.
However, the elders'€™ consensus was not fully communicated. In West Kalimantan, for instance, according to Waliman (45), the former head of Hli Buei village, there was still headhunting practiced
during the late 1940s. '€œHeadhunting in my village ceased when Christian missionaries entered,'€ Waliman said.

The hamlet is accessible by river and land transportation. When travelling by water, ensure that the stream is high. In the dry season, it'€™s hardly passable, as the riverbed is packed with shrubbery.

By land, it is about 14 kilometers from the intersection of Jagoi Babang. Despite the yellow-soil road leading to the destination, travelers will be offered mountain and forest scenery typical of the interior
bordering Malaysia.

Customary community chief Amin said that the nyobeng tradition, inherited from the Bidayuh people'€™s forebears, had been carried on by bathing skulls that were kept in the Balug house.

According to Amin, local ethics groups frequently hunted for each other'€™s heads. It is said that some villagers at the time were told in their dreams that the heads would guarantee the safety and welfare of the hamlet if they could be stored in a high place. Eventually the circular Balug house was built on tall stilts. Today it symbolizes a place of peace.

Observant: Women watch the festivities.Observant: Women watch the festivities.
While headhunting has long been abandoned by Dayak Bidayuh people, the nyobeng ritual continues to be preserved as a traditional way to manifest peace and gratitude for good harvests.

A Sebujit youth figure and the chairman of the Dayak Bidayuh ritual committee in Hli Buei, Gunawan, said that the nyobeng ritual had replaced headhunting as a thanksgiving ritual for villagers. Comprising 104 families, the Dayak Bidayuh community is scattered in places as far away as Malaysia.

Hli Buei village has become one of the traditional tourist destinations, promoted by the regency administration of Bengkayang. Apart from the nyobeng skull bathing ritual, visitors can see a traditional Balug house, a duplicate of which has been built at the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah, Indonesia miniature park in East Jakarta.

The Balug house is about 20 meters high, soaring above the rest of the hamlet. Like most communal houses on stilts, this tall structure also has unique features: It is supported by over a dozen solid piles and equipped with a flight of stairs.

Gunawan, a Hli Buei village figure, said that the traditional house had been used for seven generations by the Dayak Bidayuh community. Home-stay facilities have been set up for tourists wishing to conveniently view the structure and enjoy the night in Sebujit.

Sidelines: A group of boys watch the opening ceremony.Sidelines: A group of boys watch the opening ceremony.
'€œThere are 15 such accommodation facilities with coffee stalls I designed myself on my return from Lombok '€” particularly for visitors who are going to spend the night so as to feel at home in this hamlet,'€ Gunawan said.

'€œIn spite of the improvements still needed, the facilities can certainly appeal to prospective visitors,'€ Gunawan added.

The lodging houses, with rates varying between Rp 25,000 (US$2.5) and Rp 100,000, are located near the Balug house with bridges linking them to the road. Right before their entrances is a communal building. Coffee stalls can be found around the home-stay complex.

Tourists can ascend the communal house to take a look at its interior with several animal skulls hanging inside. The human skulls care onsidered sacred by residents of Sebujit and are stored in a special chamber within the traditional building.

Welcome: Local residents hold their weapons high in salute to visitors and their ancestors at the start of the skull-bathing ceremony.Welcome: Local residents hold their weapons high in salute to visitors and their ancestors at the start of the skull-bathing ceremony.

'€” Photos by Stefanus Akim

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