Printer Friendly

A Tumon Dayak burial ritual (Ayah Besar): description and interpretation of its masks, disguises, and ritual practices. (Research Notes).

The settlement areas of the Tumon

The main settlement areas of the Tumon are located in the border region between Kalimantan Tengah and Kalimantan Barat, along the upper reaches and at the headwaters of the Lamandau River, particularly along the Delang tributary, the Batang Kawa (the Minangkabau use the term batang for river) and the Belantikan River, all in kabubaten Kotawaringin Barat, Kalimantan Tengah. In recent years a logging road has been dedicated to public transportation, providing access from Pangkalan Bun to the Tumon villages along the Lamandau and Delang rivers to Kudangan, the head village of the kecamatan Kudangan, and further across the hills to Kalimantan Barat. The Batang Kawa River and the Belantikan River areas are still without road access.

The claimed Sumatran descent of the Tumon

The Tumon call themselves Tumon Dayak, but claim to be descendants of the well-known West Sumatran Minangkabau cultural hero, Datuk Parpatih Nan Sabatang, called by both the Minang and the Tumon "Parpatih" or "Perpatih" for short. Their oral history relates that their ancestors migrated 22 or 23 generations ago from the Minangkabau kingdom of Pagarruyung, West Sumatra, to their present settlement areas in Kalimantan (Sandan, 2001; Sengken, 2001). The reconstructed palace of Pagarruyung and several ancient pool ruins are just adjacent to the presentday Bubati office in Batu Sangkar, kabubaten Tanah Datar, in the traditional Minang heartland and cultural center in Sumatra Barat.

The most persuasive evidence of a Minang origin is the language of the Tumon. They speak what appears to be a language related to an older version of the presentday Minangkabau language. My wife, Ir. Zahara Zahorka, is a Minangkabau from Batu Sangkar and she can understand about 90% of their words. There are also some influences of Ngadju Dayak and Ot Danum Dayak cultures evident, particularly in the eastern and southern Tumon settlement areas which are closer to these Dayak communities. I plan to carry out more research on Tumon origins and ethnohistory to attempt to verify the claim that the Tumon represent the descendants of an old Minangkabau colony in Kalimantan Tengah.

Unlike the Minangkabau colony of Negeri Sembilan in peninsular Malaysia, which has been well studied (see Josselin de Jong 1980, Kato 1997, etc.), there has been little systematic research on the Tumon Dayak.

The masks used in the Ayah Besar

The Minangkabau in West Sumatra are known today for their firm adherence to Islam. However, 22 or 23 generations ago, Islam had not yet penetrated Minangkabau society. The religion of the royal courts in pre-Islamic times was a Sumatran version of Hindu-Buddhism documented in a number of Sanskrit stone inscriptions in Kawi character, found in and around Pagarruyung. One may conjecture, however, that the rural population at that time was still generally bound to its ancient animistic beliefs, with very few Hindu ideas, at most. For instance, there was never a caste system. It seems that the former migrants carried over their animism, including a touch of Hinduism, to Kalimantan, and have since maintained many traditional rituals, among others, an elaborate set of death rituals. Some variations in the performance of these rituals have been reported among the populations of different river systems, and even from village to village.

The entrance of the masks

The Tumon call their principal death rituals ayah besar. Ayah means 'father,' and besar, 'great' I observed ayah besar performances the whole burial day, and even participated in some of the rituals, in the village of Sepoyu, Delang River, 200 km NNW from Pangkalan Bun, on 5 May 2001. My helpful main informant in regard to the meanings of the rituals, the masks, the disguises, and the behavior of some of the participants was the knowledgeable adat judge of Sepoyu, Kepala Adat Sengken. The old woman to be buried that day had died fifteen days earlier. Her wooden coffin was hermetically sealed with the latex from rubber trees.

On the day of the burial, numerous mask bearers marched up to the front of the deceased's house. This occurs generally either seven or fourteen days after a person's physical death. When the numerous masked men had arrived, they made some dancing movements, as best they could under the heavy weight of their huge masks. They made a clattering noise with their kakotok or kekotok, bamboo rattles which they held in their hands (see Photo 1). A colorful textile ribbon was additionally swung. This performance continued until a boat-shaped lancang (coffin), furnished with bowsprit and stern, was carried to the grave in the afternoon. Today, lancang is a Minangkabau word for a quick, impolite behavior (Z). In olden times, however, it was the word for a fast-sailing Portuguese ship (Krause 1994, cit. Baier 1999: 51).

The meaning of the masks

The masks are said to symbolize spirits, or hantu. The dancing performance of the masked men, the clattering noise of the kakotok, and the colorful ribbons are said to entertain and give enjoyment to the petora, the soul of the dead, which is not yet in the afterworld. After the performance is completed, the mask-spirits will accompany the petora to Mount Sebayan, the final destination for the souls of the ancestors, the Tumon hereafter (Se). (1) A continuously played gamelan music melody called tifa has the same purpose of entertaining the petora (Se). Tifa is an original Minangkabau name for a distinctive melody and sound (Z). Tifa music will also accompany the petora on the way to Mount Sebayan. Gunung Sebayan Bungsu (961 m a.s.l.) is 10 km NNW of Kudangan (Photo 2). Most probably, the Tumon migrated from that direction in the past, when they moved to where they now live. Mount Sebayan is also the "place where Sanghyang Duato, our highest god, lives" and is "called Surugo Dalam meaning Deep Heaven" (Orpa S ari 1999: 64).

Tradition dictates that the animal masks be carried, together with the coffin, to the gravesite. There, they are supposed to stay--and to decay. In the next world they will become objects of wealth, like domestic animals, slaves, or other valuables (Se). The extremely soft wood of the masks decomposes quickly. However, today's economic necessity and an eroding of belief seem to have corrupted this tradition. In Sepoyu, the masks were carried home after the ceremony and stored for use in the next burial. The construction of masks is taboo during certain times of the year (Sa).

The variety of masks

The Tumon word for mask is luha. Every mask depicts a specific animal. At least forty different animals are symbolically depicted, each with an artistic and colorful design (see Photos 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). In Sepoyu the following masks can be seen: luha kuduk (dog) (Photo 4), luha babi (pig) (Photo 3), luha kuak (a bird), luha buaya (crocodile), luha ular (snake), luha tingang (hombill) (Photo 5), luha nago (naga dragon) (Photo 6), luha beruang (bear) and others. To some masks, cigarettes or sirih leaves have been attached as gifts for the otherworld. The style of the masks differs from village to village.

In Kudangan and Ponyombaan I have also seen luha tapah (catfish) and luha pengua (gibbon) (Photo 7), and I have heard of luha lonying (ghost), luha rangga balang (a naughty ghost) and of masks depicting butterflies, bats, locust, turtles and other animals. Four of these large masks are now in my collection.

The physical properties and traditional colors of the masks

The masks are generally about one meter (3.2 feet) high and one meter across. They are made of white, very soft pulay or pelay wood, from the tree Alstonia spathulata Blume or, alternatively, from Alstonia scholaris (L.) R.Br. Both of these trees are medicinal plants of the Apocynaceae family, which also includes many poisonous species. The large three-dimensional masks often show sophisticated internal constructions. Most of them are equipped with a piece of wood which the carrier bites into with his teeth while he wears the mask. That is to say, inside the mask, just in front of the mouth of the carrier is a projecting piece of wood which the carrier can take in his mouth, to help hold the mask in position. For some masks, the carrier can move the lower jaw up and down.

The Tumon masks are principally painted with yellow, red and black dyes, in contrast to the carvings and paintings of most other Dayak tribes in Kalimantan, who generally use red, black, and white colors. The Tumon use white pigment extremely infrequently, almost solely for the eyes of the masks. One exception is a small mask attached to the front of some coffins. This mask is generally white with black and red contours.

The yellow pigment comes from the widely used yellow turmeric spice kunyit, extracted from the rhizome of Curcuma longa L., family Zingiberaceae. This yellow spice is abundantly used in Minangkabau cuisine, but rarely appears in the food of other Dayak tribes. Yellow, red and black are traditional "national" colors of Minangkabau identity, and are used in many cultural ornaments, as well as in the tribal flag. They have a highly symbolic meaning (Z et al.).

For the Minang, yellow symbolizes greatness, nobility and honor; red symbolizes courage and steadfastness; and black, leadership and stalwartness (Z et al.). These three colors, so strikingly used in Tumon mask rituals, are possibly another indication of the Tumons' Minangkabau origin.

The red pigment is derived from the seeds of kasumboh or kasumba, a small tree (Bixa orellana L., fam. Bixaceae) well-known as a source of red dye in South and Southeast Asia. Its hairy fruit resembles a red rambutan fruit. The black dye is a concoction of soot and coconut oil or, nowadays, kerosene. The white pigment comes from kapur which is derived from heated and pulverized shells, a traditional component of the sirih-betel quid. In Sepoyu, traditional pigments are more and more being replaced by synthetic dyes.

The painted ornamentation and patterns on the Tumon masks are quite different from all other Dayak styles. Some ornaments resemble rather well those applied to the walls of traditional Minangkabau houses or to ritually used Minang cloth.

Disguised Appearances in the Ayah Besar

The bukong korah mud men

Together with the luha carriers, in Sepoyu three men disguised as monkeys performed a highly intriguing spectacle. They are called bukong korah. In Minang language, bukong means 'to cover or to disguise the face,' and korah means 'monkey' (in Minang, karo, Z). One of them was masked by having his face covered with a genuine orangutan skull (see Photo 8). Two others, with the upper parts of their bodies bare, were totally covered with yellow mud from head to toe (Photo 9). All three mimed the behavior of monkeys. They wallowed in the mud, and they touched people, as if by mistake, to make them dirty. They entertained and amused the (more or less) mourning community with their unique mimicry.

The underlying purpose of the performance is, again, to entertain and give enjoyment to the petora, the soul of the deceased, to keep it from seizing souls of the living and taking them to Mount Sebayan (Se). It may be conjectured that the bukong korah are a substitute for slaves who were sacrificed during the ayah besar in former times to serve the dead in the otherworld.

The death ghost and its mask

I would have probably overlooked it if Kepala Adat Sengken had not drawn my attention to what he called the death hantu which was thought to have killed the deceased woman. It was a 3 m (10 feet) long form shaped like a crocodile without legs, covered with black fibers of the aren tree (Arenga pinnata), and surrounded on the ground with fringed leaves of the coconut tree (Photo 10). This body was equipped with an elongated mask-like wooden head painted yellow, red and black, and with white eyes. The movable lower jaw was connected to the head in such a way that the mouth was able to open and close. A rooster was fastened to the nose of the monster, with its legs tied to the monster's jaw. According to the kepala adat's explanation, this symbolic ghost has to get the blood of the sacrificed rooster into its mouth in order to prevent it from killing more people.

I cannot confirm the rooster's actual sacrifice. Later, after I returned from the burial site, the death ghost was no longer to be seen, nor was a wooden bird which had been on top of a pole, and which was said to show the petora the way to Gunung Sebayan (Se).

The disguised petora helpers

Before the coffin left the house, five men with covered faces and distinctive headgear and clothes appeared and started to hack into a section of a banana trunk which they had brought with them, with bush knives and with an axe. After awhile, they poured water on the trunk.

These actions have an important meaning. On its way to the otherworld on top of Gunung Sebayan, the petora is faced with some obstacles. There is a huge tree trunk lying across the way. The petora has to cut through it to be able to set off on its way. Then, a large fire blocks the way. It has to be extinguished to continue the journey to the final destination (Se).

The disguised men symbolically aided the petora by eliminating these obstacles. But, they have to be very cautious in order to avoid being recognized by the spirits of the obstacles. If recognized, acts of revenge and even murder would threaten them. To remain uurecognized by the hantu, they have to disguise their appearance (Se) (Photo 11).

The balai petora

Three small house-like bamboo constructions totally covered with cloth, called balai petora (Se) (balai means 'hall'), were erected in front of the deceased's house (Photo 12). At the top, roasted chickens and roasted pig heads were attached, ready for consumption. Inside, the balai contained rice, cakes, fruit, and other suitable food for the petora, given in order to keep it replete, satisfied, and peaceful (Se). Later, this food can be consumed by the people.

The Coffin Designs and Mask Decorations

The coffin's layout in the house and on the way to the grave

The boat-like lancang, or coffin, rested on the living roomfloor and was covered with batik cloth. Empty wooden crates were stacked on top of the coffin. Their size was about that of a regular coffin. They are called tabak or tambak. The number of tabak, one stacked on top of another, indicates the social rank of the deceased (Sa). They are also covered with cloth. On the deceased woman's coffin were two tabak. Small offering baskets, called ancak, were filled with sirih leaves and betel nuts and were hung in front of the coffin, while plates and glasses filled with food and drink for the deceased were placed at the rear, by the head of the corpse. Colorful fabrics were hung on strings above the tabak.

All those things, together with large gongs and several tempayan (large antique ceramic jars) were covered by fabrics surrounding them like the walls of a chamber. The corners of this enclosure were formed by four upright blowpipes. This construction, with the dead body inside it, is called the keranda (Se). This is a Minangkabau name. The Minangs today call their stretcher-like katafalque keranda. The dead body, wrapped in white cloth, is carried in the keranda from the house to the mosque, and then to the grave (Z). In Islam, the use of coffins is forbidden.

Just before the keranda was removed in order to carry out the coffin, two men performed the dignified tari kancan, the ayah ritual hornbill dance, in front of the keranda (see Photo 13). While dancing, they repeatedly emptied small bamboo vessels filled with tuak (approximately 8 vol.% alcohol). This drinking belongs to the dance ritual and is done in order to make the soul resistant to the influence of the lurking death ghost (Sa, Se et al.). Like traditional Minangkabau men, each dancer donned a sarong together with a headscarf, a belt, and a sash. I was invited to participate in this. In the 19th century, the Minangkabau also used to perform a special ritual dance if the deceased could not be buried in his or her own village (Van Der Torn 1890: 80).

In other Tumon villages, participants in doa also drink tuak from elephant tusks. (2) Two large inherited tusks were part of the equipment at a doa ritual in Kinipan, Batang Kawa, which I witnessed in 2001. The question is, did these tusks originate from Sumatran elephants? Kalimantan harbors no elephants.

Then the men bit the steel blade of a bush-knife, or mandau. In this often repeated ritual, some soul-stuff of the hard steel is thought to penetrate the person and make them resistant to the threat of the death spirit (Se).

The subsequent opening of the kancan revealed a big carved and painted naga head at the front of the coffin where the feet of the dead actually rest (Photo 14), and an S-shaped naga tail at the rear. Below the naga head, a small mask with big eyes was also attached to the coffin. All those items were removed in order to attach them again later at the grave. The coffin without the two tabak was carried out from the house and put down onto a large bamboo trestle.

Then, the youngest daughter of the deceased woman laid down upon the coffin, embracing it, weeping loudly. A white fabric covered parts of her body. The oldest son came to her side and offered her the blade of his sword to bite, which she did (Photo 15). Then he also mounted the coffin in front of his sister, at first standing, then sitting, with his arm raised and swinging his sword. A great number of men lifted the trestle with the coffin and the two individuals upon it, and carried it to the distant, properly prepared grave (Photo 16). On the way, the son continuously fended off symbolic evil ghosts and obstacles with his man dau to clear the way for the petora to Gunung Sebayan (Se). Some men armed with blowpipes marched in front of the crowd. When other houses in the village were passed, the women came out to the verandas and poured a jar of water onto the ground in order to avoid being afflicted by the death ghost (Se).

The coffin boat with the petora has to sail symbolically upstream on the Dalang River to arrive at Gunung Sebayan. On the way, it has to go through many rapids (Se). In order to help the soul navigate the rapids, a long cloth twisted into a rope was fastened to the bowsprit of the coffin. Then, a number of men symbolically pulled it up through the rapids.

The designs and the masks at the grave

People who can afford it have the grave surrounded and covered with a small, open, house-like construction made of wood. When the coffin arrived at the Sepoyu grave site, the long but shallow pit within that hut was already prepared and completely walled in on all sides with boards. Next, the coffin was turned around so that the corpse's head was now in the rear, so that the deceased could see her way ahead to Gunung Sebayan, and survey the surroundings, once there (Se). Then the riders descended, and immediately the coffin was put into the pit. Once in the pit, the coffin was covered with a batik cloth and with the mattress and the pillow of the deceased. A layer of boards was placed on top of this, and then about ten cm of soil was used to fill in the grave to ground level. Next, the two tabak chests and a kind of boat rooftop were placed on top of the closed pit. At the front, just below the boat roof, the small white mask with the big eyes and the black and white painted contours was attached. Its meaning is not clear to me. Not all graves are equipped with such a mask.

The big naga head and tail were secured in the front and at the rear on top of the boat roof. Naga heads are often placed at the bow of large boats. The naga represents a dragon associated with earth and water, providing vitality and protection in daily life, and fertility and rebirth after death. The naga wards off evil. However, the naga head of the Tumon Dayak has a very special feature, and that is similar to ancient depictions of original Sumatran nagas.

The upper jaw here is always elongated like an erect elephant's trunk. The National Museum in Jakarta has in its collections an ancient prow head of Singalaya, East Sumatra, (Museum Ref: 760), which also shows this typical trunk-like upper jaw. The description reads: "This particular example combines the head of a dragon with that of an elephant" (Museum Nasional: 29). It can be conjectured that the Sumatrans combined the naga with the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha who is the god of knowledge and regarded as having the ability to remove all obstacles. Probably, with the apparently concurring features of the Tumon and the Sumatran naga heads, we can witness another indication of the Tumons' cultural roots in Sumatra.

Other designs of these naga heads include a wide-open mouth with rows of teeth and an extended tongue. The naga head on the photograph is painted with the traditional Minangkabau colors, yellow, red, and black. Only the eyes are white.

The report on one unusual custom should not be excluded. After having finished the construction work of the grave, all the men involved in that job spat on thin sticks of bamboo, which were afterwards buried by the side of the grave (see Photo 18). The meaning is to prevent the men from carrying home some of the death-stuff, should they have contacted some of it (Se).


The ayah death rituals and probably other traditional rituals of the Tumon seem to be unique among Dayaks in Kalimantan. However, the growing influence of public education, Christianity in the north and Islam in the south, are now eroding these ancient rituals. Therefore, systematic research in ethnography and cultural anthropology should be carried out soon.

The discovery of a Minangkabau community in Kalimantan is not entirely new. Kato (1997: 619) wrote: "Two of my colleagues...told me of their curious experience in the border area between Central Kalimantan and West Kalimantan, where they claimed to have run into a Minangkabau community." Kato later visited Kudangen for a few days and verified the claim of the Tumon being descendants of Datuk Perpatih, who left Pagarruyung 22 or 23 generations ago. When I visited the adat judge of Kudangan, Kepala Adat Samuel Sandan, he showed me an ancient kris which he said had belonged to Datuk Perpatih. An old "flag of his kingdom of Pagar Ruyung" is said to be kept there, too (Orpa Sari 1999: 6). However, the migration of Datuk Perpatih himself to Kalteng is very doubtful. I know his grave which is close to the town of Solok in the Minang area, West Sumatra.

But Kato and his colleagues were not the first to discover Dayak in Central Kalimantan claiming to be descendants of Minangkabau. Previously, Mallinckrodt (1924-1925: 399) had reported that the Dayaks of the Belantikan River claimed to be the descendants of "Parapatih nan Sebatang, de bekende Minangkabausche wetgever" (lawmaker), and that legend tells that all Dayaks settled on the head rivers there had migrated across the hills from the north, and had come down the headwaters. He got this information in Kotawaringin in the south.

But information on the unique rituals of the then called Kotawaringin Dayak were reported even earlier than that to their Baseler Mission headquarters by several Protestant missionaries. Johann Georg Baier, Luitpold Walter and Hugo Schweizer did missionary work there between 1928 and 1941. Excerpts from their diaries stored at the archives in Basel have been published recently by M. Baier, son of J.G. Baier (Baier 2001). (3) A comprehensive compiling of the death rituals described in these diaries was also printed in 1999 (Baier 1999). The documents of these missionaries confirm that the rituals still performed today are rooted deep in the past. And they still have the same background and meaning. However, no authentic photographs were available before.

(1.) Editor's Note: For an Ibanist, the terminology is interesting. Petara or betara refers in Iban to the gods and goddesses of the upper world or langit, the majority, if not all, of whom are considered to be remote ancestors. Sebayan, or Menua Sebayan, is also the name given to the Iban "hereafter"--i.e., the final home of the ordinary human souls. However, it is not a mountain, but is thought to be a river area, with, as here, a visible counterpart in the physical world. Only the souls of Iban manang, or shamans, go to a Mountaintop following death, Bukit Rabung, the visible counterpart of which also exists as a real mountain in Kalimantan Barat.

(2.) Doa is the term for a Tumon ritual in which the subject of the rite sits on a large gong, his back to a tempayan jar, while the kepala adat squats in front of him murmuring a chant. Then the kepala adat fixes a bracelet-shaped amulet on the subject's right arm, consisting of a string of akar dongang and 7 rice grains wrapped in a piece of daun sengkuba fixed to a string. This act and the ritual itself are both called doa. After this, the subject has to empty a big glass of tuak without stopping, or the drink is offered in the tusk. I witnessed doa twice, in Kudangan and in Kinipan. I have not described it here, in this paper, because it has nothing to do with the burial.

(3.) Editor's Note: a review of this book by Dr. Peter Beyerhaus, translated from the German by Heidi Munan, appears in this issue of the BRB.


Baier, M.


Das Totenritual der Tumon-Dayak. Tribus 48: 49-65.


Glaube, Liebe und Hoffnung auf Borneo. Bonn: Mission Classics Vol. 4. Josselin de Jong, de P.E.


Minangkabau and Negri Sembilan. Socio-Political Structure in Indonesia, 3rd Impr., 's-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff.

Kato, T.


Dynamics of the Frontier World in Insular Southeast Asia: An Overview. Kyoto: Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 34, No. 4: 611-621.

Mallinckrodt, J.


Ethnographische Mededeelingen over de Dajaks in de Afdeeling Koeala Kapuas. BTLV 80 and 81.

Museum Nasional

1998 Guidebook. Jakarta.

Orpa Sari, R.

1999 Riska, Memories of a Dayak Girlhood. Ed. by L. Spalding. Afterword by Golfer, C.J.P., Toronto: A.A. Knopf. (Riska is from Kudangan).

Sandan, S. (Kepala Adat Kudangan)

2001 verbal information given to H. Zahorka.

Sengken (Kepala Adat Sepoyu)

2001 verbal information given to H. Zahorka.

Van der Toom, J.L.

1890 Het Animisme bij den Minangkabauer der Padangsche Bovenlanden.

BTLV: 48-104.

Zahorka, Z. (Minangkabau from Batu Sangkar [Pagarruyung], wife of H. Zahorka) 2001 information given on Minangkabau language and adat. (Her mother is from Lareh (Laras) Bodi Caniago; her father from Lareh Koto Piliang)


Minang = Minangkabau. (Sa) refers to Sandan; (Se) to Sengken; and (Z) to Zahorka.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Borneo Research Council, Inc
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Zahorka, Herwig
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Geographic Code:90SOU
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Previous Article:The forest as income: testing the economic resilience of swidden farmers in the Lower Sugut, Sabah (1). (Research Notes).
Next Article:Interethnic ties along the Kalimantan-Sarawak border: the Kelabit and Lun Berian in the Kelabit-Kerayan Highlands. (Research Notes).

Related Articles
Cypriot site hints at early fertility rite.
Dayak Kings, Malay sultans, oral histories, and colonial archives: a comment on Djuweng (1999) and Sellato (1999). (Research Notes).
A bridge to the upper world: sacred language of the Ngaju. (Research Notes).
Dayak kings among Malay sultans (1). (Research Notes).
Making tactile: ganti diri figures and the magic of concreteness among the Luangan Dayaks.
Words, poetics, and the disclosure of meaning in Saribas Iban healing rituals (1).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters