Adat Creation – Sarapoh and The Origin of Death Rites
In the generation that lived just before the first major Iban migration, Retak Dai married Kelitak Darah Menyadi, a sister of lemambang Bujang Sampang Gading, who died and was brought to life by Ini Inda, the Shaman Goddess. The myth of the lemambang and his sister is associated with the origin of bards (lemambang) and bardic singing performed at the Iban Gawai Burong Festival in honor of Iban God of War, Sengalang Burong. Retak Dai and Kelitak Darah Menyadi bore a son they named Sarapoh, an ancestral hero who is the principal lawgiver and instituted the traditional rites of death and mourning.
Until the time of Sarapoh, death rites are said to have been unknown among the ancestors of the Ibans. The bodies of the dead were simply carried into the forest and left without proper rituals or burial. Thus occurred great plague from diseases that cause many deaths in the community. In its height, as mentioned in the iban oral narratives, Sarapoh’s father died in the morning, his mother died in the evening, all in one day. As he mourned his loss, Sarapoh heard a voice calling to him. The voice asked him why he and his followers grieved and he answered that it was because so many of his people had died. The voice asked what observances they practiced in death, to which Sarapoh replied that there is none. The voice then said, this being the case, it was not surprising that many had died. The spirit then explained how to prepare the bodies of the dead for burial and describe the details of proper mourning, as follows:
Immediately after death, the corpse must be properly washed and dressed in its best clothes. After this, its forehead is marked with three yellow spots of turmeric (kunyit) and finally the corpse is moved to the gallery (ruai) where it is placed inside an enclosure of woven blankets measuring nine feet on each side.
On the next day, just before the funeral takes place, food must be offered to the corpse before it is put inside a coffin; and at the cemetery, the coffin must be buried deep underneath the earth.
When people return from the burial ground, the windows of the deceased’s room must be kept close particularly at night; for it is said that while it is dark in this world, it is light in the afterworld and vice versa. At the same time a senior lady selected to tie up a sacred mourning jar.
That same evening, a ritual fire (tungkun api) must be lit in a special hut where food is placed for each of three evenings. The reason for this is for fear that the soul of the dead person might stray up to the longhouse and disturb the souls of the living.
For the same three days, an old woman will be appointed to eat black rice (asi chelum), which is an indication of the black rice in this world and white rice in the other world during the mourning period.
The sacred jar is not to be opened except by a warrior who has managed to obtain a head, or by a man who can present a human head, which he obtained in a fight; or by a man who has returned from a sojourn in enemy country.
After the mourning period has expired, a special feast known as gawai rugan or gawai antu must be held as a last rites.
During the whole period of mourning right up to the gawai antu festival, no widow or widower may remarry or anoint himself or herself with perfumes and coloured powder, or dress himself or herself with coloured garments. If such things happen, the offender will be brought before the chief and fined.
Having finished, the spirit revealed himself as the spirit Puntang Raga. He then disappeared.According to Puntang Raga’s instructions, a small amount of property belonging to the deceased must be placed inside a sacred mourning jar (more commonly a box, the lengguai) and securely bound with cord or creeper and on concluding of the mourning period called ulit, the jar must be opened in a rite called ngetas ulit. This should be done by a warrior who has taken a human head, or has successfully journeyed through enemy land.
In order to perform ngetas ulit, and so release his followers from mourning restrictions, Sarapoh traveled the Kantu territory, bringing with him a menaga jar as an exchange for anyone who wants to challenge him to a death duel. He ends up with no challenger, but instead manage to adopt a Kantu child, which he exchanged for the jar. Within hearing distance from his longhouse, he took the head of the Kantu child he adopted and shouted three times to declare the mourning period is over. This cruel action angered the Kantu community and so bring about inter tribal warfare into the world of humankind. This war between the Iban and Kantu people continued from one generation to another until peace was concluded with the marriage of an Iban chief named Jelian and Tiong, a daughter of a Kantu Chief.The first casualty of this Iban-Kantu enmity were Sarapoh’s very own three sons: Chundau, Sempaok and Bada.
Throughout the night, following their death, Remi, their sister, weeps and laments. Thus Remi introduces the practice of nyabak, the singing of the sabak or poem of lamentation for the dead. The words of the sabak describe the journey of the deceased’s soul to the otherworld (menoa sebayan) escorted by the soul of the sabak singer.An antu gerasi spirit named Rukok overheard Remi’s lamentation. He appears in the human form to seek Remi’s hand in marriage. As bride wealth, Rukok pledges a gift of Kantu’s head to Remi’s father Sarapoh. Following their marriage, Rukok leads Sarapoh followers in a series of victorious battles over the Kantu. He also led various kayau anak, or small raids, against the people of other tribes. In the process, he teaches the Iban the tactics of warfare and at the same time, introduced the marriage rules of using freshly taken head as brides’ wealth. This was practiced in the next generations by Chief Jelian & Tiong, Demong & Rinda, Beti ‘Berauh Ngumbang’, OKP Dana ‘Bayang’ & Mengan.
Research & Compile by Gregory N. Mawar
Source materials: by Professor Clifford Sather & Late Benedict Sandin, published on The Sarawak Museum Journal Vol.XLVI No.67, Dec 1994.