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5 Things You Should Know About The Dayak – The Headhunters of Borneo, Malaysia

5 Things You Should Know About The Dayak – The Headhunters of Borneo, Malaysia

Malaysia is an exotic country — with a blend of modern and colonial buildings weaving themselves into high tech industries and ancient cultures. As a result, it is not surprising that Malaysia is listed at one of the top 10 most visited county on earth.

One of the most fascinating things about Malaysia is the people itself. Here, we are going to look at 5 things you should know about the Dayak – a tribe living in the Borneo with the reputation for being fearful headhunters.

1. Dayak Were Headhunters of Borneo

The Dayaks were renowned for practicing headhunting, and had a fearsome reputation as a strong and successful warring tribe in ancient times. Sharing their homes by living in longhouses built on stilts, the head trophies were kept in the longhouse as a sign of valor in battle and brought prestige to the conquering warrior.

The headhunting culture no longer takes place nowadays, but the tribe was still known to be fiercely territorial. In 2001, the Dayak armed with spears, machetes and blowpipes roamed a market town in an Indonesian province in Borneo to drive out migrant Indonesian they claimed took up their jobs and land.

In less than a week of violence, 200 migrants were killed. They were either hacked with traditional Borneo swords or shot with poisoned darts from blowguns.

2. Rich Culture

The animist Dayak (the majority are now Christian) observe both Christian and traditional ceremonies, particularly during marriages or festivals.

Significant festivals include the rice harvesting festival of Gawai Dayak, the bird festival of Gawai Burong and the spirit festival of Gawai Antu.

During the festival, the Dayak gets together to drink rice wine called tuak and perform a unique war dance called ngajat (depicting a man going to war or a bird flying as a respect to Iban’s lord of war).

Visitors to the longhouses (or rumah panjang) are normally invited to witness the dances and took part into the drinking the tuak ceremony with the headman of the longhouse as their host.

3. Singer-Actress Jessica Alba was a Dayak

Jessica played a Dayak in the 2003 Sleeping Dictionary movie by Guy Jenkin. Filmed in Sarawak and is set during the British colonial rule in the 1930s, Jessica played the role of a woman who sleeps with a young and naive Englishman, John Truscott (played by Hugh Dancy) who went into Borneo to try and apply his father’s work to the Iban society.

The love story was built on the concept of ngayap which was the Iban way of courtship practised in the early 1920’s and ’30’s. Jenkins combined the story with the story of young Britons being posted to jungle outposts and being “thrown in the deep end” when they had to learn the local language in express time.

The film never went big, but received several DVDx awards, including Best Actress to Jessica Alba.

4. Courting girls at night (ngayap)

The ngayap courting activity is a test of a young boys’ courage and maturity as they have to travel at night through forest, crossing rivers or swamps to reach the girls’ longhouse. The night courtship should last no longer than 3 nights, and at the end of the courtships, the boy will be asked if he is serious about marrying the girl.

The night courtship is pre-arranged with the girl and it should not involve more than a series of talks to let the two parties know each other.

In the headhunting days, this kind of night travel could be a very risky affair as they could fall upon a band of marauding enemies. But as Dayak is known as a warrior tribe, the night courtship is accepted as a sign of a bravery of a headhunter.

5. Modernised Dayak

The Dayaks today are now to be more placid and hospitable than those during the colonial era. Some longhouses are now equipped with air-conditioners, refrigerators and the internet.

The days where headhunting is a norm is long gone and despite being a tradition, dayak tatoos is increasingly becoming just a symbol of heritage and culture. The increasingly urbanised Dayak is reduced to an exhausted past and the ancient crafts of boat building, weaving, dancing and tatooing are dying fast.


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