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A bridge to the upper world: sacred language of the Ngaju. (Research Notes).

General Remarks

The Ngajus are a major population of Borneo. They live in the Indonesian Province of Central Kalimantan along the Barito, Kahayan, Kapuas, Katingan, and Mentaya rivers and their tributaries. The word Ngaju means "upper-river"; the uluh Ngaju are thus people from upriver, in contrast to the uluh Ngawa, downriver people. They do not call themselves Ngaju, but identify with the particular river along which they live, such as uluh Kahayan, or uluh Rungan. While anthropologists describe the Ngaju as one ethnic group this should not obscure the fact that there are marked regional differences in speech and in rituals. Thus the death ceremonies along the Rungan and Kahayan rivers appear similar, but they are unlike those practiced along the Katingan. It is likely that what is conveniently lumped together under the word Ngaju combines quite separate and varying groups.

Research on the Ngaju Dayak has a long history in Germany. Around 1830 Christian missionary work was begun among the Ngaju by the "Rheinische Missionsgesellschaft Wuppertal". These missionaries, and later on, after World War I, missionaries of the "Basler Mission" were among the chief researchers to study the Ngaju. These missionaries devoted most of their attention to religious practices and concepts rather than other cultural fields. (2) Their aim of attempting to understand and describe Ngaju religion was primarily to improve their knowledge so as to be in a better position to deal with their "adversary" (heathen beliefs and practices). The missionaries' ultimate aim of language learning was also to prepare themselves for proselytization. Their activity resulted in the publication of some dictionaries that contain the rudiments of a Eurocentric grammar. (3) On the other hand the documentation about the Ngaju brought together by these missionaries provides a never-ending source of data that can be used for comparisons with the present situation. The famous work of Scharer (1946) was a major influence on the Leiden School and also on the work of Mircea Eliade. After its translation into English (1966), interest in Ngaju culture rose among English speaking experts. (4)

In this paper I describe the rhetorical structure of the sacred language of the Ngaju, called basa sangiang. Although basa sangiang contains dyadic aspects, this does not necessarily mean that the whole worldview of the Ngaju is dualistic. Hardeland already discovered that the priests' chants contain stanzas that consist of two parallel, synonymous parts in 1858. He also noted that the first part of each stanza contained words that were usually taken from everyday speech, while the second part was made up of words that were more often derived from basa sangiang. (5) Neither Hardeland nor Scharer, however, progressed very far in their analysis of the rhetorical structure of these parallel, synonymous sets. An analysis of this rhetorical structure shows that the Ngaju also use codified phrases called tandak to designate places, objects, persons, and ritual activities during ritual. The most sacred tandak are powerful tools which the priest needs in order to accompany the souls of the dead to the upper world. Th e final stage of Ngaju death rituals (tiwah) is the biggest ritual in an individual's lifecycle, and it alone takes 33 days.

The Ngaju celebrate their death rituals in two stages: primary burial called tantulak matei is performed from three until seven days after death; and secondary burial called tiwah is held about nine months or more after primary burial. (6) The Ngaju texts published by Scharer (1966) are taken from tantulak matei, or primary burial. These texts contain a great amount of material which, up until now, could not be sufficiently evaluated. Hardeland (1858) and Mallinckrodt (1928) transcribed and translated only short extracts from the tiwah which are insufficient for an exploration of the entire soul-concept of the Ngaju as it is represented in the ritual texts for primary and secondary burial. (7)

The ceremony upon which my research is based is the tiwah. The particular tiwah I studied took place from December 1987 till January 1988, and from November until December 1993, in the village of Tumbang Malahui on the Beringai, a tributary of the Rungan river. In contrast to neighboring villages where Islam and Christianity dominate, in Tumbang Malahui the indigenous Kaharingan religion is still strong. Of the 1,375 inhabitants in 1990, 60 per cent called themselves Kaharingan, the remaining 40 per cent Christians.

After the first tiwah I remained a further three months in the region to transcribe the texts which had been recorded on tape. I stayed with the family of Demal Runjan who helped with the first transcription, and later I worked with the priest (basir) Itar Ilas, who interpreted the chants and gave me the meanings of many codified phrases (tandak). Altogether I have transcribed and analyzed four of the main ceremonies (on twenty tapes), namely the manenung (a divination ceremony to check whether the deity that protects tiwah allows the ritual to proceed), manarung (announcing the guiding of the souls), basir munduk (the guiding into the upper world itself), and blaku untung (a concluding ceremony for the surviving relatives).

The ritual texts and interpretations of the religion by Ngaju religious specialists offer the best access to the Ngaju religious sphere. Thereby one is able to explore from an "inner perspective" the actual contents of the religion.

The Priestly Speech, Basa Sangiang.

The Ngaju use a sacred language for rituals which is called basa sangiang. (8) A large part of basa sangiang can be translated using the grammar of Hardeland (1858) and his Dajacksch-Deutsches Wortterbuch dictionary (1859), which, to this day, is still unequaled in quality and the amount of sangiang words it contains. Furthermore, Baier has recently composed a sangiang language dictionary based on the notes and preparatory work done by Hardeland and Scharer which offers additional help. But these three sources are not sufficient to achieve a reliable translation and comprehension of the ritual texts in their full complexity.

When a priest uses basa sangiang he or she automatically assumes that the upper world deities are involved. Everyday speech is for ordinary life, while basa sangiang is the form of speech which is used in the upper world. The existence of sacred languages has been reported for various Indonesian regions. (9) The chief difference between basa sangiang and ordinary speech is that in basa sangiang we find a general rhetorical structure which may be described as dyadic (Fox 1988). The coupled phrases stand namely in a fixed relationship, whereby the second part is subordinate to the first. In the first part the meaning is determined, while the second consists of a variation of the first. While the words in the first and second part are semantically related, this relationship can be described as "neutral", (10) that is, they can in another context be used to form other pairs. For example, while in a certain context antang (hawk) can be paired with tambun (hornbill), in another context the word kenyui (another name for hawk or bird of prey) is appropriate. The dyadic sets, as Fox calls them (1971; 1988), may or may not occur during spoken prayers (karungut), but they are typical when priests proceed to chant, accompanied by drums (an activity called balian). During balian chants in particular the two phrases closely match each other, as in the following example:
hatue ("male part"):

Ngitar garing panduka munduk naharep sambang
to turn ivory seats to sit opposite drums

bawi ('female part'):

misat sihung tapujena bajanda nyambau pintu
to turn ivory seats to see opposite drums

hatue ("male part"):

Ngitar garantung nyahu
to turn gong thunder

bawi ('female part'):

misat janjingan kilat
to turn gong lightning

Free translation:

they turn around on their ivory seats, nearing the drums and gongs that make thunder, they turn around on their ivory seats, seeing the drums and gongs that make lightning

When explaining such paired sentences to the researcher, the priests describe these dyadic sets in gender terms; every set contains a "male" (hatue) part, followed by a "female" (bawi) part. Of these two parts, hatue is the more important. If, for example, through lack of time the ceremony must be shortened, (11) the priests may decide to chant only hatue. These hatue phrases are made up mainly of words which also exist in ordinary speech, while the bawi parts frequently contain words that are specifically found in ceremonies and mythology, words that are generally designated as belonging to the sacred speech of basa sangiang. While the bawi part is a reflection of the hatue phrase, the relationship between bawi and hatue expressions is often synonymous, but there are also metonymous or even antonymous pairs. When a bawi word has no apparent semantic connection with a parallel hatue expression the link may be found in mythology. Thus in the following example:


petak sintel balambang tambun earth thick having a base watersnake


liang deret bangkalan gong = pit close together having a base gong

Since there is no semantic connection between watersnake and gong, the pairing of the two must be found in mythology. In a priest-drawn chart published by Stohr (1968) we see the watersnake as the creature that holds up the earth. As for the gong, it is an instrument that is intrinsic in a ceremony; its sound functions to establish a cosmic connection (Laubscher 1977:132) and during ceremonies the priests place their feet upon gongs. Thus, both the watersnake and the gong can be seen as supports and as means by which to link this world with the upper world.

An interestir aspect of the relationship between hatue and bawi parts is apparent when numbers occur. The bawi number is always one higher or one lower than that mentioned in the hatue part, but it is understood among priests that the divergence must be interpreted not as respectively larger and smaller numbers, but as alternative ways of expressing the hatue number.

For example:

lewu due barsa tandipah kilau namunan usuk antang
village 2 standing opposite like stripes breast hawk

rundung telu hasambau nyakatan beket dahiang
village 3 standing opposite like stripes dahiang bird

Free translation: A village that consists of two parts lying opposite to one another like the stripes on the breast of a hawk, or like those on the dahiang. (12)

When we record a large body of basir chants it becomes apparent that there are hatue words that are almost always accompanied by a particular bawi expression. In the following table a short list of regular pairs presented is subdivided according to different classes of relationships.

balai [sali.sup.*]
bulau [rabia.sup.*]
garing [sihung.sup.*]
kahaliman [kabuasin.sup.*]
nunjung [gatang.sup.*]
kilau [ruwan.sup.*], [nyakatan.sup.*]
balambang bangkalan
lewu [rundung.sup.*]
tandipah [hasambau.sup.*]
namunan [beket.sup.*]
tapakalung [salandewen.sup.*]
lasang [gentui.sup.*]
anak [busu.sup.*]
raja [kanaruhan.sup.*]
sintel deret
pinang [manyang.sup.*]
bumbung [pandung.sup.*]
petak liang
tawur [etan bulau.sup.*]
lampang hadurut
Hatala Jata

baras [busung.sup.*]
manamuei [mangaja.sup.*]
parentah basara
garing sihung [paturung.sup.*]
hindai [isen.sup.*]
tingang tambun
tingang antang
bulau hintan


balai meeting house synonym
bulau gold synonym
garing ivory synonym
kahaliman to enjoy synonym
nunjung to lift up synonym
kilau as synonym
balambang to base upon synonym
lewu village synonym
tandipah be opposite to synonym
namunan stripe synonym
tapakalung tattoo synonym
lasang boat synonym
anak cild synonym
raja king synonym
sintel thick synonym
pinang Pinangpalm/Pinangflower whole/part
bumbung Saxifrage-leaf/Saxifrage-plant part/whole
petak earth/pit whole/part
tawur rice/golden rice kernel whole/part
lampang emerge/immerse antonym
Hatala upper world deity/
 underworld deity antonym
baras sand/sandbank metonym
manamuei to travel/to visit metonym
parentah command/discussion metonym
garing ivory/ivory talisman metonym
hindai not yet/not metonym
tingang hornbill/watersnake mythological
tingang hornbill/hawk mythological
bulau gold/diamond mythological

Words marked with an asterisk do not occur in ordinary Ngaju language.

The large number of words which have been marked with an asterisk confirms that bawi words are frequently not regarded as part of everyday language. It is not altogether clear whether such bawi words have always been part of a separate sacred language, or if they once formed a part of the ordinary language that has become obsolete. Evidence for the latter hypothesis has been advanced by Baier, who has found some words that Hardeland recognized as ordinary speech, but which Scharer identified as basa sangiang. (13)

The dyadic sets have contributed to the general debate on dualism (Scharer 1946; 1966: 10), and therefore it is interesting to note that particularly the names of the most important gods, have tandak that surpass a dyadic set: the complete, most sacred and seldom mentioned full tandak has a third level. (14)

E.g., Raja Duhung Mama Tandang, Langkah Sawang Apang Bungai, Bandung Nyaring jahawen (Scharer 1966: 757) = the name of the man, who accompanies the souls of the dead to lewu tatau during the secondary burial (tiwah).

Lewu Tatau Habaras Bulau, Habusung Hintan, Hasahep Bati Lantimpung, Hakarangan Bawak Lamiang, Hapasir Manas Marajan Bulau - Lewu Tatau Dia Rumpung Tulang Rundung Raja Isin Dia Kamalesu Uhat, freely translated as "Prosperous Village of Gold Sand, of Diamond Beaches, Carpeted With Silk, of Jasper Pebbles, Heaps of Jasper Beads, Grand Place Where Bones Never Decay Carrying the Burden of the Glorious Flesh, Where the Muscles Never Tire" (Schiller 1987:37).

Although this third and final level is seldom mentioned, it is ideologically of great importance, indicating that the dual structure is part of a more inclusive system.


Within the basa sangiang there exists a special class of words or combinations of words which are called tandak. For example, the tandak "bawi kangumbang sinjang, hatue kanampan buno" literally means: "the women (souls of women) wear scarves, the men hold lances" (Hardeland 1859: 268). According to basir Itar has this is the common tandak for women and men. Also the tandak "liau kaharingan" which literally means: "the souls that are near the water of life" (Hardeland 1859: 276) is according to basir Itar Ilas just a tandak for the souls.

The codified phrases which are called tandak by the priests are formulae with which during the ritual names of places, objects, ritual activities, or persons are indicated. Tandak are the precious possession of a priest, which are often shortened in ritual texts, thus forming a code within a code. Only occasionally will a priest give the complete form, to indicate that he or she has mastered this aspect of basa sangiang. Just as basa sangiang generally is characterized by parallelism, so tandak are usually comprised of two parts, a male and a female part, with the second part also generally containing lesser known esoteric words.

Tandak fulfill the religious requirement whereby places, objects, and persons, when referred to in a ritual context, must not be called by the names given to them in everyday language. Extended knowledge of the Ngaju religion is necessary for the interpretation of these texts. Moreover, some religious "secrets" are hidden in the ritual texts, which will not reveal themselves to an outsider, even with the help of dictionaries. Only through the help of priests and experts on the Ngaju tradition can these ritual texts be understood.

A special use of tandak can be found in the area of personal name giving. A deceased person for whom a tiwah is organized receives a tandak name during primary burial (tantulak matei) (if he or she has not received one while still alive). During secondary burial, when the soul is conducted to the upper world, it is addressed, not with the person's ordinary name, but by his or her tandak name. After the tiwah ritual is concluded, it is usual to hold a name-giving ceremony, the patandak, for all relatives who have organized a tiwah. They will all obtain a tandak name which they must treasure. Close relatives are privy to one's tandak name, so that in case of a sudden death, it may be communicated to the basir. If the relatives have no recollection of a deceased's tandak name, they may have to consult the basir who once assigned it. In contrast to one's ordinary personal name, or that of one of his or her parents, it is important not to say one's own tandak name aloud. If someone wants to reveal it to another pe rson, he ought to show it written down. The basir who gives someone his tandak name lets himself be guided by his position in society, his wealth, his occupation, or a particular character trait. There are some conventions in a person's tandak name. A basir will receive, for example, a tandak that begins with the word sambang, "drum". A common male tandak name begins with the word tingang "hornbill", antang "hawk", or sangkalemu "name of a tree". A common female tandak name begins with the word bulau, "gold", or lamiang, "agate". A knowledge of tandak is the most important thing that a basir (priest) must learn.

The Education of a Basir

The most important part of a person's training to become a basir traditionally consisted of memorizing not only a multitude of hatue and bawi phrases, but also of memorizing many hundreds of tandak. Hitherto, for my dissertation, I analyzed only one relatively small ceremony and found more than three hundred and fifty tandak. Every place, person, bridge, or village has its tandak. Each deity also has a tandak name, but these ought not to be spoken aloud: even during a ceremony the basir mentions the deity's secret tandak name only internally, to himself.

When a basir has studied basa sangiang he may demonstrate his skills on the occasion of a karunya. Karunya, "chanting praise", can take place after all kinds of ceremonies, except those that are essentially of a sad nature. During the karunya a basir sings praise to all the important persons present. He begins with the younger ones, proceeding to the eldest. During this chant he ought to refer to personal information, such as the characteristics or professions of his subjects without prior consultation. Some say that magical power is involved to enable the basir to chant correctly, but others are of the opinion that the basir ought to know all-important persons of the village anyhow. A properly trained basir must internalize basa sangiang to such an extent that he uses it fluently. Thus basir Itar Ilas, who helped me translate the ceremony text, made free use of basa sangiang. He also recited a myth of origin in this form of speech. This is in contradiction to the frequently stated opinion that a basir can on ly speak basa sangiang when he is in trance, when the sangiang have entered his body, and that he cannot produce it when he has returned to full consciousness. (15)

There is specialization among those who have learnt basa sangiang. While some may decide to become basir, others prefer to become tukang hanteran or "guides of the souls". The tukang hanteran acts only during death ceremonies and guides the soul to its destination. While he guides the souls to the upper world, the tukang hanteran speaks and chants throughout the night. The tukang hanteran is believed to have greater sacral power than the basir because it is he who personally guides the souls towards the upper world. (16) Nowadays a tukang hanteran is rarely engaged, because his services are extraordinarily costly. For one night of chanting he obtains as much as the chief basir (upu) gets for conducting the whole tiwah. Even if a tukang hanteran functions as guide, the organizers must also employ a number of basir, because the tukang hanteran accompanies only one of the souls. Hence it is much simpler and cheaper to let the basir guide all souls. A dead person has four souls that need to be guided to the upper world. As legitimization, before he accompanies the soul, the tukang hanteran recites the whole body of myths of origin, which he must commit to memory. Somebody who aspires to become a tukang hanteran must go through a thorough training, as mistakes are considered extremely dangerous and may result in his death or the death of his relatives. Therefore there must be implicit trust between a tukang hanteran and the pupil who trains to become one. The specialization is often passed on from father to son. When a tukang hanteran is fully trained he must first perform a guidance ritual for a banana plant, which, after he has done so, should die within a month. This is interpreted as a sign that the soul of the plant was successfully guided to the upper world. If this happens, it is interpreted as his confirmation as tukang hanteran.

A tukang hanteran is a specialist who is concerned with only death rituals; he should in principle not be used for ceremonies for the living. In reality, since their services are seldom called for, some tukang hanteran have branched out to conduct other ceremonies, that is to say, they are beginning to learn to become basir. The basir is much less specialized. He can conduct death rituals but also those relating to marriage, birth, healing, agriculture, house building, and so on. During all these ceremonies the basir does not act alone like the tukang hanteran, but he shares responsibility with at least three other basir. A basir must also know a body of knowledge called balian lunas, which are the unwritten rules and regulations referring to all ceremonies which carry religious sanction. This becomes apparent for example if, after a ceremony that was not properly held, one or more of the participants die. Thus it may be dangerous for a village if during a ceremony too many rules are broken.

The education of a basir also includes much practical knowledge, which is subsumed under the concept talatah balian. Such practical knowledge includes items such as how decorations should be made for the construction of a sandung or "bone house", which offerings are needed on such an occasion, and how the house's roof should be built. Talatah balian is without religious sanction and the basir may introduce innovations without endangering himself or the community. When a person has reached an advanced stage of learning as a basir, he should attach himself to teachers to learn about the upper world. At this level he ought to pay each of his teachers a traditional gift (syarat) consisting of:

* three grams of gold;

* knives, plates, and saucers;

* a suit of clothing (pakaian sinde mendeng);

* a piece of agate;

* two hens, one of which must be white;

* one hen's egg, and

* one silver coin (ringgit).

Without receiving these gifts a teacher is not allowed to pass on detailed information about the upper world.

For years a person who is learning this specialization has to function as a pangapit or pangambun (ordinary basir) before he may become an upu (chief basir). During a ceremony the upu sits with pangapit and pangambun on both sides of him. The further away a person sits from the upu the less advanced he is in knowledge. The persons sitting immediately next to the upu have almost advanced to upu-level or are already recognized as upu, but on this occasion are not taking the leader's role. By participating in many ceremonies, a person training to be a basir learns to recognize the various drum beats that are used during balian chants. There are 35 different ways of playing the drum, each connected with specific ideas and activities. Every change in drum pattern is announced in the chants so that the group can act in unison. All basir must master the techniques of chanting (balian) and recitation (karungut).

A basir who takes part in a tiwah should know the rules pertaining to the part of the ceremony in which he chants, for example:

* The washing ceremony for the soul (liau) must be recited in karungut.

* The travel of the soul boats must be described in balian, but the movements in the upper world villages are in karungut.

A good upu will divide the hours of the night carefully so that he will not be forced through lack of time to forego the slower balian chants. Karungut is considered more formal and sacred than balian and that is why the chief ceremonial acts take place in karungut.

A Bridge to the Upper World

The task of a basir or tukang hanteran is to memorize the pathways in the upper world. Knowledge of these pathways is necessary not only for ceremonies concerning the dead, but also for all rituals performed for living persons. During rituals the soul of a living person is not only sent to the upper world, but must be accompanied back. This is the reason why the parties concerned should not fall asleep during a ceremony. Doing so may cause the soul to remain in the upper world. This situation, when not rectified, results in certain death within a month. The upper world is conceived of as consisting of layers which are separated by streams. These separating streams can be crossed at particular places where there are bridges or, when the soul travels in a boat, mooring places. Such points of entry between layers in the upper world are called jamban, meaning bridge, landing, or jetty. A basir must know exactly the various uses of the jamban, because the pathways used by souls of the dead and those of the living differ. When reaching a jamban it is essential that he utter its correct and full tandak name. Only in this way does the entry point function as such (Zimmermann 1968:392). Even when laymen have knowledge of the various jamban, they can not utilize these jamban in their function as bridges in the upper world if they do not know their complete tandak name. In my transcription there is a passage where the souls of the dead have to cross by a particular jamban. The basir tested the knowledge of the souls by mentioning a jamban with a beautiful cloth and agate stones, but noted that the souls did not want to cross this bridge. The souls reported that the jamban was insufficient. They wanted to cross by another jamban. When the basir as conductor of the souls mentioned a more complete one, including gold and a different, more complete tandak, the entry was successful. This example shows how the various jamban are recognized also by laymen. The latter know that at every layer of the upper world there is a jamban th at must be decorated in a traditional manner. However, they do not know its exact tandak. It is only the basir who, by uttering the right magic words makes the passage possible. At the same time he gains financially because the relatives have to provide valuables for entry at every jamban. The basir themselves are interested to keep this tandak secret. On one occasion I witnessed a dialogue between two basir who were discussing a ceremony for rescuing an endangered soul. One basir asked the other for the right name of a particular jamban, but he got only a smile for an answer. Later the other basir told me that only a few were able to conduct such a ceremony, because a living persons soul can only once be saved from such a situation. He compared it with the difficulties of someone whose visa has run out. He added that he was not allowed to give the tandak of the jam ban to the other basir. When I asked the reason for his reticence he told me that his fellow priest had not mentioned a syarat (gift).

A basir who can conduct a tiwah knows the position and names of the jamban and thus possesses a truly precious knowledge. After his own death he will be able to find his own way into the upper world. This knowledge makes him independent in this respect. Such a basir need not fear that his relatives will wait a long time before they have saved enough to hold a tiwah. During this period of waiting, the souls are thought to be restless and anxious. (17) The knowledgeable basir however, is sure to reach his destination without having to wait.

As mentioned above, every deity also has a tandak. These words are regarded as of particular magical value. Uttered while scattering rice, the proper tandak causes the deity to come so that a request can be formulated in its presence. Hence particular tandak of deities are regarded as of great value to a person and are kept secret. When a basir during the course of a ceremony has to mention a deity's tandak, he usually leaves off the latter, female part, uttering this latter part only in his inner thoughts, or murmuring it in an indistinct manner, so as not to give away the whole tandak. In order to obtain such a tandak one has to present a syarat (gift).

During an early phase of my research while transcribing one of the sacred texts, I encountered a tandak name of the deity Raja Sangumang, the protector of all humans. This tandak obviously was incomplete, so I wrote basir Itar Ilas with a request that he furnish me with the missing part. He answered affirmatively, giving the name, at the same time explaining how important it was to him that he should give me such assistance and how he valued my efforts to understand the Kaharingan religion, before providing me with the needed answer. Much later I understood that he presented me with a very secret name of the deity, one which is often used not unlike a mantera (sacred sentence, in order to wish for something). At the time I did not fully realize how bold I had been to ask for the name or how generous he had been in giving it.

The use of mantera is common in Indonesia: if one has a wish and needs help he utters a mantera and hopes that he receives help. In this case one can utter the whole tandak of Raja Sangumang, and the deity will come to help.

Scharer (1966) presents a series of texts in which he discloses the complete tandak of various deities. His remarkable openness did at first prevent me from being aware of the sensitivity of this topic. Since his book has as yet not been translated into English or Indonesian, the basir do not know the extent of his printed revelations.

Tandak have been around for a long time and it appears that they have assumed a life of their own especially in oral tradition. This is apparent when we attempt to interpret the various drawings of parts of the upper world made by basir in the course of time. Thus there is a drawing depicting jamban timpung, the entry to the final level in the upper world. (18) When this picture is shown to a basir he can only recognize it as standing for jamban timpung when he knows its complete tandak. This tandak entails, for example a male and female tiger on top, a variety of gongs and Chinese jars, several plants among which is the handiwong palm tree, a lunuk tree as well as two separate worlds, symbolically represented with circles (Stohr 1968: 409-412). (19)

During the past years I have shown various of these drawings to groups of basir, and in the lively discussions which followed it was generally the tandak that provided the clue. For example, in order to decide which boat is drawn, the basir look for pointers, such as a bird, weapons, or a gong and compares these with all the boat tandak. In various European museums there are many such drawings which were collected early this century mainly by missionaries. These drawings contain aspects of the upper world which have not been seen in this form by any living basir. (20)


The sacred language of the Ngaju, basa sangiang, is used to communicate with beings of the upper world. It must be learned by the priests during their education (to become a priest). Knowing the basa sangiang gives the priest the authority to arrange a ritual. It also legitimizes his own existence.

Basa sangiang has a rhetoric structure comparising a so-called male part (hatue) and a female part (bawi). The dyadic sets have contributed to the general debate on dualism, but should not be taken as proof of a dualistic worldview. Within the basa sangiang there exist tandak, formulae by which places, objects, ritual activities, or persons are indicated. Tandak fulfill the religious requirement whereby places, objects, and persons, when used in ritual contexts, must not be called by the names given to them in everyday speech. There is a big difference between tandak for living persons and for the dead, and between tandak for death rituals and for life cycle ceremonies. The most sacred tandak are those of the deities and of the bridges in the upper world, the jamban. When reaching a jamban it is essential that the priest utters its correct tandak name. Only in this way may it serve as an entry point.

In addition, uttering the tandak of certain deities can be used as a mantera, in order to wish for something. Tandak function also as a mnemonic, so that the priest nowadays can still recognize priests' drawing from the 1920s. Finally, some religious "secrets" may be hidden in ritual texts, which will not reveal themselves to outsiders, even with the help of dictionaries. Only priests and experts can correctly interpret their meaning.

(2.) e.g. Grabowsky (e.g. 1882/1889/1895), Zimmermann (1902, published in 1968), Scharer (e.g. 1946).

(3.) e.g. Hardeland (1858), Epple (1933).

(4.) like Miles (1964), Metcalf (1976), Schiller (1987), Weinstock (1983).

(5.) Hardeland (1858:210): "Die Zaubergesange (...) bestehen aus kurzen meistens zweigliedrigen, parallelen, synonymen Redeabschnitten, die denselben Gedanken mit anderen, gewohnlich im zweiten Gliede mehr aus der Sangiangsprache entnommenen Wortern wiederholen, wahrend im ersten Gliede sich mehr gewohnlich Dajaksch findet." (The magical chants (...) consist of short, mostly paired, parallel and synonymous parts of speech which repeat the same thought in the second arrangement using other words taken from the Sangiang language, whereas in the first arrangement the Dayak speech is more commonly found).

(6.) Schiller (1987;1996) divides the "death cult" into three stages: 1. primary treatment of the corpse, 2. chants to purge the deceased's home of some of the pollution associated with death, 3. secondary treatment of the souls and physical remains. In my opinion her first two stages ought to be put together, because the purging of negative influences forms an intrinsic part of the primary burial ceremony.

(7.) Scharer and Mallinckrodt were helped by informants who wrote and translated all of the sacred songs. The informants were Christianized Ngaju, who were thus no longer adherents of Kaharingan religion. Using modem technology I had an opportunity to record all of the priests songs during the ritual, that means in their sacred context. The translation of these sacred songs could only be accomplished in cooperation with the priests, who discussed the correct translation. My primary purpose was to present the interpretation of the adherents of Kaharingan religion.

(8.) Linguists of the University of Palangkaraya call the sacred language basa sangen (Elbaar 1981/82:1-2; Santoso 1983/84:1-1). However the people in Tumbang Malahui differentiate between basa sangen, the language used for the telling of mythical tales, and basa sangiang, the language used in rituals, e.g. for contact with the deities.

(9.) For references, see Fox 1988.

(10.) J.J. Fox 1971: 271.

(11.) "A ceremony or a part of a larger ceremony must end by sunrise. This is because in the upper world circumstances are reverse to the world here on earth. Sunrise on earth is thus sunset there and the sangiang will rest.

(12.) This is the name of the village Tumbang Malahui itself in basa sangiang. The secular name is never mentioned during the ceremony.

(13.) Baier 1987:viii. As noted above bawi parts can be left out, and it may be asked whether bawi words have become unfamiliar because they have been rarely used or whether they formed a rare and separate set of words from the outset.

(14.) see also Baier 1987: viii.

(15.) See Scharer 1966: 9.

(16.) Basir Itar Ilas is however of the opinion that the basir munduk (the "requesting basir") can guide the souls just as well.

(17.) In modern times many young people resist the pressure to sell their possessions and go into debt in order to send the souls of their ancestors to their final destination. It is a motivation for the younger generation to join the Christian or Islamic faith, and the elder Kaharingan people feel threatened at such thoughts (see Schiller 1997: 44; Kuhnt-Saptodewo 1993: 13ff; 1997).

(18.) Stohr 1968, Zimmermann Collection. The notes probably are Zimmermann's own (according to Stohr).

(19.) This particular drawing was provisionally analyzed by Zimmermann in the 1920s. His commentaries are somewhat vague and incomplete. I am as yet not able to decode the picture in full, but I have already obtained the comments of a basir, which already must be regarded as an improvement upon Zimmermann's analysis. However, before making conclusive statements about this picture, I have to show it to other basir. I am sure that such drawings can elicit important information about this perception of the upper world.

(20.) 1n 1996 I invited two of them, basir Itar Ilas and Bajik to visit the Museum in Cologne in order to study the priest drawing. This invitation was financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG).


Adriani, N.

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Kuhnt-Saptodewo, S.

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Kuhnt-Saptodewo, S. and H. Kampffmeyer

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1977 Iban und Ngaju: Kognitive Studie zu Konvergenzen im Weitbild und Mythos. Paideuma 23: 221-253.

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1985 Panaturan. Majelis Besar Agama Hindu Kaharingan. Palangkaraya.

Metcalf, P. and R. Huntington

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Santoso et al.

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1984/85 Struktur Bahasa Dayak Ngaju.Proyek Penelitian Bahasa dan Sastra Indonesia dan Daerah Kalimantan Tengah. Palangkaraya: Departmen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan (unpublished manuscript).

Scharer, H.

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1942 Die Vorstellung der Ober- und Unterwelt bei den Ngadju Dajak. Cultureel Indie 4: 73-81.

1944 Die dajakische Religion in ethnologischer und theologischer Sicht. Evangelisches Missions-Magazin 89: 31-155.

1945 Die Stellung der Frau bei den Ngadju-Dajak in Borneo. Evangelisches Missions-Magazin 89: 168-188.

1946 Die Gottesidee der Ngadju Dajak in Sud-Borneo. Leiden.

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Schiller, A.

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1989 Shamans and Seminarians: Ngaju Dayak Ritual Specialists and Religious Change in Central Kalimantan Contributions to Southeast Asian Ethnography 8: 5-24.

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Stohr, W.

Uber einige Kultzeichnungen der Ngaju-Dayak. Ethnologica, Neue Folge 4: 394-419.

Usop, M. and Mihing, T.

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Weinstock, J. A

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Zimmermann, P.

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Jani Sri Kuhnt-Saptodewo (1)

(1.) I would like to thank B.J. Terwiel for editing the English.
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