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“…It is heartening to see traditional dance and music still strong in our village and others, but many of the stories are lost and I am not sure young Dayak children really understand what it means to be Dayak in today’s world….” Turn the page to read about the unique traditions of the Dayak Ngaju people of Central Kalimantan.
Syaer was also the overseear of a very important ceremony in his village, a Tiwah or death ceremony, which had not been celebrated in his village for 25 years. “We are honouring the spirits of 73 people who have passed over to the other side. Tomorrow the families will be digging up and cleaning the bones of the deceased, and they will be placed in temporary wooden boxes before being moved to the Sandung where the bones will be placed with their ancestors in a very sacred place near our village”.
The Kaharingan faith, which is classified as Hindu in Indonesia, had its first recorded origins in the mid 1800’s when Dutch missionaries made their way up the Kapuas River into deeper Borneo. They discovered an animist faith that assigned cosmological and geographical features to different deities. They believed the heavenly sphere was controlled by the creator Hatalla . The earth’s surface was the domain of Kaloe, a female monster in the shape of a toad, but there were other deities who watched over different aspects of human life including Pataho, the founder and protector of villages and also the controller of war and defence.
Tempon Telon watches over the souls of the dead in the next world and so becomes a very important deity during the Tiwah celebration with much respect and prayer offered to this mythical being. Seven Basir were present at this Tiwah. Their role is to communicate with Tempon Telon and represent the spirits of the dead bodies. They play a role similar to high priests in Bali and spend most of the time during the Tiwah chanting in an ancient language called Sanging. Nobody else in Tambang Manggu village understands this language and it is unclear how the Basir learnt it themselves.
The Basir are chosen by the gods to represent them and they play a critical role in releasing the spirits into the next world. Death is believed to occur in two stages, the primary stage when the person dies and is buried, and the secondary stage when the spirits are released. The spirit is believed to be in a safe place or holding pattern until the tiwah is performed and the soul can ascend to the highest level. Along the way there is the danger of evil spirits causing all sorts of mayhem so the Basir play a very critical role.
Kaharingan owes much of its origins to Tjilik Riwut who became the first governor of the newly formed province of Central Kalimantan in 1957. Riwut was an animist and practising priest and is still revered today with his name on many buildings and monuments in Palangkaraya. He chose the name Kaharingan, meaning living, a source of life stemming from God, having means to exist by oneself without foreign influence.
There have been many adaptions over time and in 1966 in Palangkaraya an updated version of the myths and legends of the faith was formally agreed upon by a committee of leaders. Entitled Panaturan Tamparan Taluh Handiai, The Origins, it is the source of all being.
In May 1980 the Kaharingan community was officially recognized by the state government, not as Indonesia’s sixth religion but as a branch of Hinduism, which remains the situation today. A local Hindu Kaharingan academy was formed and many people of the faith are trained there.
It seems there are between 200 and 250,000 followers of the Kaharingan today, 90% of whom are Dayak Ngaju but there is some concern among the leaders that most young people are adapting to Islam or Christianity and some of the stories and understanding from the past is being lost.
“I am deeply concerned about the future of Dayak culture” Sayer commented to me whilst sitting in front of the traditional longhouse in which he lives. “So much of our culture is disappearing. It is heartening to see traditional dance and music still strong in our village and others, but many of the stories are lost and I am not sure young Dayak children really understand what it means to be Dayak in today’s world. The Kaharingan beliefs are a positive way to teach and connect with the traditional ways, that’s also why the Tiwah ceremonies and rituals are so important”.
One of the challenges today is the high cost of holding a Tiwah. The one I attended recently cost around USD 50,000 and would not have taken place without some financial support from the government. The provincial government is looking to promote Tiwahs as a way to bring tourists to Kalimantan so they can get some return but it seems they have a long way to go as I was the only westerner along with my three friends at this event.
A Tiwah has been described as a carnival in the jungle and it is indeed a very joyous, happy place to be with much baram (rice wine) consumed, especially by the families of the deceased. It was also very encouraging to see some young Dayak children present learning about their culture and the wisdom, stories and beliefs passed on from the ancestors.
As the modern world changes life in the towns and villages, it is wonderful that Dayak people can connect with their values and who they are as a people, through the Kaharingan faith. Long may this continue.