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Basangiang: traditional healing through possession among the Katingan Ngaju of southern Borneo.


One characteristic of the Katingan, a Ngaju subgroup of southern Borneo, is the presence of female mediums who during healing ceremonies enter a state of possession and cure patients through the intervention of spirit-beings who are believed to possess them during these ceremonies. The social status of these healers is ambiguous: on one hand, they are valued for fighting disease; on the other, they are feared, owing to their constant contact with it. Generally speaking, such respect as they enjoy is offset by a sense of unease caused by the sacred context in which they operate and the peculiar formative experience--linked to a temporary state of illness--which has brought many of them to practice as healers.

In this contribution we propose to analyze the circumstances of healing through the use of possession among the Katingan in the wider context of traditional Ngaju medicine, concentrating especially on some key ideological concepts and specific aspects of Ngaju medical practice. As indicated by the scant published literature on the subject, this is a little-known area of research. Among those who have devoted some attention to the subject are Johannes Salilah and Amoud H. Klokke (1998), Sian Jay (1989), Hans Scharer (1946, 1938), Carl Lumholtz (1920), August Hardeland (1859), and Carl Schwaner (1853-1854). Up until now, Johannes Salilah and Sian Jay are the two authors who have provided most of the published material available on possession healing. The former, Salilah, was a district head of Ngaju customary law (damang) and a priest (basir)'. He is best-known in the South Borneo literature as the main informant of Dr. H. Scharer and the principal source of the ritual texts relating to Ngaju funeral rites which Scharer edited (1966) (see Baier 1974:57). He came from Pangkoh, in the lower Kahayan River area, a traditional center of Kahayan language and culture. Kahayan is the dominant Ngaju cultural tradition and the Kahayan language is considered by most Ngaju to be their lingua franca. The first written version of Ngaju religious traditions (Panaturan) was published in the sangiang sacred language by the Great Synod of Kaharingan priests held in Palangkaraya in 1973. (2) This work is dominated by origin myths from the middle course of the Kahayan River (Baier 2007:568). Even the second edition of the Panaturan (1996), which was slightly adapted to embrace other Ngaju Dayak traditions and formally agreed upon by a committee of chiefs representing different Kaharingan communities, retains much the same bias. Kahayan myths differ from those of the Katingan River. While Katingan priests (pisor) use Panaturan notions when dealing with outside authorities, when it comes to local traditions, ceremonies and rituals they use notions particular to their own region, which differ especially in terms of cultural traits, such as mythology, ritual practices, and the arts (Arneld 2008:136; Stohr 1959).

Salilah's material, contained in the volume Traditional Medicine among the Ngaju of Central Kalimantan (Klokke 1998), is a major source for the study of Ngaju healing. Originally written in the Ngaju language in the 1930s, it was translated into English, edited, and published posthumously by Amoud H. Klokke. Salilah's account has the virtue of bringing together a vast amount of material relating mostly to the healing of physical ailments, such as the curative properties of plants and medical prescriptions; it also describes the causes of illness and documents ceremonies performed for spiritual healing by the use of possession. It should be noted, however, that when Salilah describes ceremonies characterized by possession, he is referring to a practice called badewa which is marked by strong Malayo-Javanese cultural influences. The healers are men and they make use of deities of an extra-Kaharingan pantheon referred to locally as dewa. When these healers are possessed by dewa spirits, they frequently speak in Malay (Klokke 1998:255). As Salilah indicated, in many Ngaju areas, by the time he was writing, badewa healing had supplanted by several generations an indigenous ceremonial form called basangiang in which female healers used the sacred sangiang language to appeal to local divinities and spirits (Klokke 1998:289). However, in the Kahayan area, Salilah's region of origin, along the upper course of the river, as well as in the neighboring upper Rungan River area, there appears to have been an exception. Here Jay (1989:39) describes healing ceremonies involving possession performed predominantly by female mediums called tukang sangiang that appeal to Kaharingan deities and spirits, although she does not name these ceremonies.

To this day basangiang healing ceremonies are those that are most frequently performed in the Katingan River area. Here healing practices are still under female jurisdiction and the few men who practice basangiang ceremonies dress as women in order to do so. Katingan healers, called tukang sangiang, are descended from the uluh balian, the married women and mothers who were historically responsible for conducting all community ceremonies among the Ngaju, including the most important of these, the tiwah secondary burial ceremonies. (3) The present-day tukang sangiang healers in the Katingan area are what remains of the former uhih balian class of priestesses. This connection is clear to the tukang sangiang whom we interviewed for this study and is also acknowledged by local Kaharingan priests (pisor), although the latter are reluctant to speak openly about it. This uluh balian origin of the tukang sangiang accounts for the fact that they and the priests continue to use the same sacred language. This point, until now, has been largely ignored in the anthropological literature. In practice, tukang sangiang healers are uluh balian priestesses who have been downgraded and reduced in status to marginal religious practitioners. The fact that they still perform a religious role, if only peripheral, is probably thanks to the fact that their healing knowledge is thought to be fundamental to the well-being of the Katingan community. As documented by Schwaner (1854:76), Scharer (1963:57), Lumholtz (1920: 189), and Baier (2008:50), Katingan priestesses in the past, unlike uluh balian in other Ngaju areas, never offered mere entertainment such as singing or prostitution.

As far as we have been able to ascertain from our fieldwork, the main difference between basangiang and badewa ceremonies concerns the spirit beings appealed to. In the case of badewa ceremonies these are said to belong generally to the wayang stories. Thus, healers in the Katingan area, using dewas, turn mainly to Batara Guru.

Our research, which began by documenting the activities of the great-aunt of one of the co-authors (Junita Ameld), the latter a Ngaju who speaks the local language as well as the sacred sangiang language, turned out to be especially complex for three primary reasons. First, our research concerns a class of initiated women who guard a knowledge that has secret aspects; second, healers are set apart from the rest of society due to perceptions regarding their ambiguous social position; and third, external pressures have, in the course of time, resulted in the exclusion of the uluh balian from the wider range of Ngaju ceremonies.

The information gathered in the field and presented in this paper derives primarily from interviews conducted between 2007 and 2015 along the middle course of the Katingan River with three women healers, one male healer, and three priests. Other people interviewed include patients about to undergo healing ceremonies, previous patients and their relatives. The results of these interviews allow us to sketch out what is a currently shared outlook on the subject of basangiang healing. We will begin by introducing readers to the meaning of the term basangiang itself and to its historical significance. We will then explain the Katingan concept of semenget or 'life force,' which is fundamental for sustaining interactions with spirit-beings during basangiang ceremonies. We will then define Katingan concepts of illness from an emic perspective and present a description of local healers. In conclusion, we will briefly describe the unfolding of a basangiang ceremony and identify the deities and other spirit-beings involved in healing. An historical account of the cultural context of Ngaju healing, including the progressive exclusion of female healers from the religious sphere, will be the focus of a separate paper which we are currently writing.


The meaning of basangiang

The traditional Ngaju practice aimed at healing an illness of spiritual origin through the use of possession is called basangiang, which translated means, literally, 'doing sangiang,' or 'interacting with the sangiang' (Photo 1). In the Kaharingan religion, the Creator, Ranying, is said to have created seven primordial divinities before he created human beings. Collectively, these divinities are called Raja Uju Hakanduang. (4) These divinities are the right hand of Ranying and embody his seven powers. One of these seven is Putir Silong Tamanang, the Master of Healing. Later Ranying created the first man, named Manyamei Tunggul Garing Janjahunan Laut (or Manyamei) and the first woman, named Kameluh Putak Bulau Janjulen Karangan Limut Batu Kamasan Tambun (or Kameluh). From their union, Manyamei and Kameluh had three sons: Raja Sangen, Raja Sangiang, and Raja Bunu. The last of the three, Raja Bunu, is said to be the founding ancestor of the Ngaju, while the sangiang spirit beings are said to be the descendants of the other two brothers, Raja Sangen and Raja Sangiang. Hence, the term sangiang refers to the descendants of the Raja Sangen and Raja Sangiang, both of whom are described as the brothers of Raja Bunu, the ancestor of the Ngaju.

The sangiang who are summoned during basangiang healing ceremonies are divided into two categories. These are at times hard to distinguish with precision, but they are valued differently. The first and most important group is made up of sangiang spirits who inhabit the Upperworld and who, as the descendants of Raja Sangen and Raja Sangiang, are believed to be related to the Ngaju, although these spirit-beings have never lived anywhere else but in the Upperworld. Ties of kinship with these Upperworld sangiang are affirmed through mythic genealogies called timang that are orally transmitted and recited during ceremonies by priests and tukang sangiang in the sangiang sacred language. (5) Although the sangiang are related to human beings, they are not regarded as the direct ancestors of the present-day Ngaju, who are, instead, descendants of Raja Bunu. In general, the sangiang are spirit-beings of a human type, although their nature and supra-human powers ally them closely with the Upperworld divinities. (6) The second category consists of sangiang who are not Upperworld beings, but whose existence, instead, is confined to the earthly realm. This group includes "near" ancestors, especially powerful people whose spiritual powers made them sacred. In local ideology, these people are said to have been able to dissolve themselves and so became spirit-beings without really dying. They are considered less prestigious than the Upperworld sangiang, as they are less noble and less powerful.

Stories of the mythical ancestors of the Upperworld are told in origin myths describing the creation of the earth and the distribution of human beings throughout the world. The human ancestors, as we have noted, are descended directly from Raja Bunu, the mythical founding ancestor of the Ngaju, who came down from the sky to live temporarily on earth. When he returned to the Upperworld, he left his mortal descendants on earth with the promise that they would one day join him in the Upperworld. Raja Bunu was one of the three sons of the first human couple. His two brothers, Raja Sangen and Raja Sangiang, with their respective descendants, have always lived in the Upperworld and make up, as noted above, the Upperworld sangiang. It was the wish of Ranying, the Creator, that mortal humans should be helped in their daily lives by their sangiang relatives, whose primary task is therefore to intervene when summoned. (7)

According to the Panaturan, Ranying created a village called Lewu Bukit Batu Nindan Tarung Kereng Liang Bantilung Nyaring in the third level (out of seven) of the sky as the home for the first human couple. The first man was called Manyamei Tunggul Garing Janjahunan Laut and the first woman, Kameluh Putak Bulau Janjulen Karangan Limut Batu Kamasan Tambun. As already noted, they had three sons: Raja Sangen, Raja Sangiang, and Raja Bunu. Raja Sangen had nine children, Raja Sangiang eight, and Raja Bunu and his wife Kameluh Tanteluh Petak had, to begin with, also eight. After having these eight children, Raja Bunu and Kameluh Tanteluh Petak left their upperworld village at Lewu Bukit Batu Nindang Tarung and traveled to the earth, to a place known in the Panaturan tradition as Pantai Danum Kalunen. (8) In their journey to the earth, Raja Bunu and his family were ordered by Ranying to stop in a village called Lewu Bukit Tambak Raja located at the entry to the Door of the Sky (Tumbang Lawang Langit). Here, they stayed for a time before they continued down to earth. During this time they had another six children, making 14 children in all.

Myths tell that Raja Bunu received his wife, Kameluh Tanteluh Petak, as a gift from Ranying (see Ameld 2008). She was presented in the form of a statue fashioned from earth. Raja Bunu asked Ranying for life-giving water in order to bring the statue to life. But, three times Raja Bunu lost the water of life, the third time because he was tricked by a malevolent spirit called Angui who disguised himself as Ranying. At last, Angui persuaded Raja Bunu to let him animate the statue by capturing the wind to use to give breath to the statue; gathering water to give it blood and transforming the earth into flesh. Eventually, the Creator decided to send Raja Bunu to the earth for an undefined period of time. He also established that Raja Bunu and his descendants would remain immortal for nine generations, after which time, starting from the tenth generation, they would be mortal, but would return to the Upperworld following death provided they performed the tiwah. Before Raja Bunu and his descendants departed from the Upperworld for earth, Ranying carried out a tiwah suntu (model tiwah), which was to provide the model for all tiwah to be held on earth. Taking part in the performance of the tiwah suntu were the descendants of Raja Sangen and Raja Sangiang. Later, knowledge of how to perform the ceremony was transmitted from the Upperworld to the Ngaju by a group of deities called the Bawi Ayah who descended to earth in order to convey this knowledge. The Ngaju women who learned from the Bawi Ayah how to perform the tiwah and other ceremonies were called the bawin balian (women [bawin] who led the ceremony [balian]) or uluh balian (those who led the ceremony). In this way, the mortal descendants of Raja Bunu (i.e. the ancestors of the present-day Ngaju), by following these teachings, have been able to enact the journey back to the Upperworld, returning as souls to an ancestral village that the Ngaju call Lewu Tatau.

With death the journey of the Ngaju on earth comes to an end, and they begin on a path which, through the performance of the tiwah, leads the deceased's soul to its new home in the village of Lewu Tatau. The "soul" referred to in this context is called the salumpuk liau in the sangiang language. (9) At the same time, a second soul associated with the mortal flesh and bones of the deceased, called the liau balawan panjang ganan bereng, remains on earth until the performance of the tiwah. During the tiwah burial ceremony these two souls are sent to the Upperworld separately, but once they are there, they are reunited, as the deceased starts its new life in Lewu Tatau. Since, for mortals, access to the Upperworld occurs only by way of death, the earthly sangiang described earlier, who become spirit-beings without dying, remain forever bound to the earthly world.

The term basangiang refers, in the final analysis, to 'interacting with spirit beings,' not only, in the literal sense, with sangiang, but also with other divinities who are considered superior to both kinds of sangiang spirits. These divinities were created first, before all other spirit-beings. For the purposes of the basangiang, the most important of all is Putir Silong Tamanang, the Master of Healing, who lives in the most prestigious part of the sky, while the second is Jata, who is the principal divinity of the Underworld. These two divinities are both female. During basangiang healing ceremonies, Jata is called on by the tukang sangiang to assist in healing illnesses, while in everyday life, Jata may be given offerings for protection and well-being. Offerings are placed on a wooden altar dedicated to her that is built near the house. (10)

The possession healing that occurs during basangiang ceremonies involves interaction with many kinds of spirits and divinities whose capacity for healing is recognized by the Ngaju. This elasticity probably derives from the socio-cultural changes that are now transforming Katingan society. In this context the term basangiang appears to have replaced a more ancient term, jay a, which was previously used to describe similar healing practices involving possession. The term jaya is translated by Hardeland (who spelled it, djaja) as 'powerful' (kraftig) or 'medicinal' (Arzneien). Hardeland also added that in the sangiang language djaja becomes mait, meaning 'effective' (1859: 98). According to our findings, which differ slightly from those of Hardeland, in the past Ngaju healing ceremonies were called balian jaya (ceremony [balian] for healing [jaya]) in the sangiang language. Concerning the sangiang word mait, it means 'powerful' or 'proven effective beyond doubt.' (11) A distinction that is still clear to those we interviewed is the source from which possessing spirits are drawn. Jaya refers specifically to interaction with Upperworld beings. This differentiates it from basangiang where the involvement of minor earth-bound spirit-beings is also called for. Although our research on jaya is still ongoing, we can say, based on the information we have gathered so far, that in the past, yaya ceremonies were held by uluh balian priestesses, who were entrusted with directing all the ceremonies of what is now the Kaharingan tradition. Today's healers, known as tukang sangiang or 'experts in sangiang,' are their descendants.

With their progressive loss of ceremonial power, marked by their exclusion from the tiwah, the uluh balian have continued to practice in other areas of ritual. In most of the Kahayan River area, they have progressively lost ground in ceremonial matters, as documented by Salilah (Klokke 1998:285, 289). In the Katingan area, they still perform several ceremonies that are not considered to be within the area of competence of the priests who perform tiwah ceremonies. They also perform some rituals that priests also practice, particularly those that are an integral part of (almost) all Ngaju ceremonies.

The kinship ties that exist between humans and the spirit-beings invoked during basangiang ceremonies are affirmed through the recitation of timang, origin myths recounted in the sangiang sacred language that elegize these spirit-beings so as to obtain their favor, thus persuading them to participate in ceremonies meant to help human beings. This practice of reciting the timang has been described mainly in connection with the priests' performance of the famous tiwah ceremonies, but it is also done by the tukang sangiang during basangiang healing ceremonies. Healers thus interact with the divinities and sangiang in the same way as the priests do and in doing so, they make use of the same sacred language, known as bahasa sangiang. The opening of a ceremony begins with a tawur rite. Tawur means, literally, 'asperging,' i.e., 'sprinkling' or 'casting into the air.' By casting grains of rice into the air the priest or the healer acts to awaken the seven rice deities and send messages to the intended deities. While casting these grains, the priest or healer chants the timang. These chanted timang are highly formalized and the act of throwing rice skyward as they are being chanted symbolizes the journey of the seven rice deities as they carry human messages to the divinities. In the tawur, these messages are anticipated by reciting different timang origin myths, each one elegizing a different divinity. The first to be called are the rice deities, as their function is to build a bridge to connect the earthly world to the heavenly one. The other deities or spirits summoned depend upon the nature of the ceremony being performed and its objectives (Arneld 2011:65).

The "life force" of the body: semenget

According to Katingan myths of human creation, the soul is made up of two components that were given to human beings, first to Raja Bunu's wife, by Ranying, the Creator. As noted before, these myths tell that, in the Upperworld, Ranying gave Raja Bunu an inanimate statue made of earth to be his wife. Raja Bunu was deceived by a malevolent trickster called Angui into allowing Angui to give life to the statue instead of Ranying. However, although the statue was alive, it was unable to speak. Ranying then helped Raja Bunu by giving the statue the ability to talk by blowing wind into it through the anterior cranial fontanel. As a result, after having received Ranying's "breath of wind" the earthen body gained "complete life" (i.e., not only animation but also consciousness). But since it was Angui who animated the earthen body with life instead of Ranying, Raja Bunu's descendants, after the passage of nine generations, were destined to become mortal. Since then, the descendents of Raja Bunu (i.e., the Ngaju) are able to return to the Upperworld only after having first died in the earthly world.

The "breath of wind" and the "earthen body" given by Ranying to Raja Bunu's wife make up the two primary components of the human self. The "breath of wind" is considered to be the principal soul and is called salumpuk entang. But the body, too, is animated by a soul called balawang panjang ganan bereng (or salumpuk bereng). Salumpuk entang and salumpuk bereng are the two components which join together to form a living human soul, which in the Katingan tradition is known as the semenget. In this case, there is no difference between the everyday and sacred language; in Katingan this soul is generally called the semenget; whereas in colloquial Ngaju it is referred to as the hambaruan. For the Katingan Ngaju it is the semenget that is thought to give power to the human body. Hence, we describe it here as the human life force.

The sangiang word for "soul" in general is salumpuk (or salumpok) (Baier 1987:153) but in the chants of the priests, different types of soul are usually specified. As already noted, the principal soul is called the salumpuk entang, while the body soul is called the balawang panjang ganan bereng. In the Panaturan it is said that the balawang panjang ganan bereng consists of the souls of the cornea (lumpuk mata), flesh (biti bereng), blood (isi daha), hair (pupus), bones and muscles (karahang tulang). In summary, all of these souls together--salumpuk entang and balawang panjang ganan bereng--make up the soul of a living human being which is called hambaruan in everyday Ngaju. Upon death, this living soul becomes the soul of the deceased which is now called liau in both colloquial Ngaju and in the sangiang sacred language. However, more specifically, in the sangiang language the salumpuk entang becomes the salumpuk liau, while the balawang panjang ganan bereng becomes the liau balawan panjang ganan bereng. When a person dies, it is believed that the salumpuk liau quits the body and goes to a peripheral part of the Upperworld to await the performance of a tiwah, which then sends it to its upperworld home at Lewu Tatau. The liau balawan panjang ganan bereng also quits the body, but stays on earth while awaiting a tiwah ceremony. During the tiwah the two souls are sent separately to the Upperworld, where, upon their arrival, they are reunited.

Aperson's loss of vigor is associated with a weakening of the semenget. Consequently, as a person's physical condition worsens, his level of life force correspondingly decreases. A null level of semenget results in death (Arneld 2011:66-67). Semenget is therefore believed to be an indicator of one's strength, which varies according to an individual's condition independently of his or her age. However, semenget may be strengthened by means of a homonymous ritual, called the semenget, which is performed to call back and so reinvigorate the life force, especially for those who have completed or are about to embark on a risky endeavour. For example, someone who has just returned from a long journey may be in danger of losing his semenget because it has been weakened due to the physical rigors of travel. The goal of the semenget rite is to reinforce the semenget and so to reinvigorate the body (the idea is that if the soul is strong, the body will be strong, too). This rite is not always performed by a priest (pisor) or a tukang sangiang healer, but may also be conducted by an elder provided he has the ability to call back the life force. In this case, when performed by a layman, the semenget is done without a tawur and is conducted in the colloquial language. Otherwise, on ceremonial occasions, either when performed during a basangiang or as part of another ceremony, the semenget rite is opened with a tawur, which, for the Katingan, can only be performed by a priest or a tukang sangiang.


When performed at the beginning of a semenget ritual, the tawur is addressed to the seven rice deities which are invited to travel to the Creator, Ranying, and request life force for the patient. Thus the seven deities go before Ranying who gives them life force which they then transmit to those who need it. During the ritual, a small white cloth sachet containing seven perfectly whole grains of rice (behas semenget) is prepared for the patient. These rice grains are associated with the seven rice deities, the purveyors of life force. The behas semenget is placed in a rice-filled bowl on which are also arranged offerings for the rice deities (Photo 2). The actions performed during the ritual repeat and evoke what is occurring on a spiritual level: i.e., the healer (if the semenget ritual is being performed during a basangiang ceremony) brings the bowl close to the cranial fontanel of the person being treated and blows over it three times, invoking the life force. The healer then blows over the sachets containing the rice grains representing the rice deities and on the patient's fontanel in order to put back or recharge the semenget received from the Ranying (Arneld 2011: 66-68) At this point the semenget is strengthened and any endeavor the person may wish to undertake may now begin in earnest.

Katingan healers are believed to possess strong semenget which allow them to withstand the physical and spiritual pressures they undergo during basangiang ceremonies. While in a possession state, healers are at great risk of losing their semenget. Thus, they must guard their semenget, carefully keeping it always close at hand.

Diseases of the body and mind

Tukang sangiang healers clearly distinguish between two kinds of illnesses: those that are body-related (what we describe here as "physical illnesses") and those that are mind-related (what we refer to here as "mental illnesses").

Physical Illnesses

The range of physical illness is vast and includes pathologies that manifest themselves in a series of more or less serious health problems, ranging from bodily pains caused by fatigue, inflammations, rheumatism, broken bones, infectious diseases (and so on) to more serious forms of illness, some of which may be difficult or impossible to diagnose. Theoretically, all body-related illness have one or the other of two causes. The first is what we would call a "natural" cause, i.e. the illness originates from a condition causing physical dysfunction or pain without any metaphysical trigger (without the intervention of malevolent spirit-beings). The second is a "spirit-related" cause, i.e. dysfunction or pain caused by the actions of malevolent spirits. Spirit-related illness is believed to happen for different reasons, for example because a spirit is annoyed and therefore randomly targets people or because someone has activated or sent a spirit through black magic to attack a specific person.

A physical illness may thus have either a natural or a spirit-related origin. It is up to the healer to determine which is the case. In both instances healing is performed without the direct intervention of the sangiang and therefore does not involve possession. If the healer diagnoses the cause to be spirit-related, it is generally believed that the spirit has inserted something sharp into the patient's body. This "sharp thing" is believed to be the source of the physical dysfunction affecting the patient's body and may be (a) something concrete/material that can be touched and observed (wood, thorns, and so on); or (b) something that is immaterial/invisible. In both cases, the sharp thing is considered to be the cause of the illness. Regarding spirit-related illnesses, it is important to note that the healer must determine that a spirit is to blame, for a patient may experience pains in his body without these necessarily being due to the actions of spirits. Moreover, it is not the spirit itself that is believed to have entered the patient's body, thus causing the illness, but rather something belonging to the spirit. Therefore, the behavior of the patient is unaffected, only the condition of his or her body is altered. There are essentially two ways to heal a person who is suffering what we are describing here as a physical illness. These ways differ according to the cause of the illness. In the case of a physical illness that is presumed to be of natural origin, the healer treats the patient mainly by applying an ointment to the affected part of the body. This ointment, produced by the healer herself, is made from coconut oil in which medicinal roots and herbs with curative properties have been steeped, and in which special stones are sometimes immersed.

The stones immersed in these ointments are believed to have been received or thrown down from the Upperworld by the sangiang. Like the medicinal plants, they transmit their curative properties to the liquid in which they are immersed. These stones are generally found by healers, and their peculiar shape often suggests that they are endowed with special powers (see Photos 3, 4, and 5). The healer may also treat some specific illnesses using herbs, as is amply documented by Salilah. Overall, a tukting sangiang's knowledge of plants is limited to those with medicinal properties and is more or less detailed depending on the level of instruction she has attained. There are clear differences between individual healers in the extent of their knowledge and capacity to diagnose and cure illnesses. As in other societies, there are good healers and not-so-good ones.




If a physical illness is diagnosed by the tukang sangiang as having a spiritual origin, it means that it is caused by the actions of a spirit or is due to the effects of black magic. Most illnesses of unknown origin are attributed to the influence of malevolent spirits. Spirits may also act indirectly, for example, by transmitting disease through infected food. A physical illness of spiritual origin is characteristically experienced as something sharp thrust into the person's body--as if he or she had been struck by a dart from a blowgun (sumpit). (12) As noted, the object may be material--a thorn, splinter, or nail--or immaterial. In treating it, the healer follows the same procedure as described for illnesses having a natural cause, but while doing so, the healer uses an ointment to extract the "sharp thing" causing the illness from the patient's body. If the sharp thing is invisible, the healer "materializes" it. How she does this is a guarded secret, making it an extremely delicate matter to discuss. Once the sharp thing is removed, the evil essence causing the illness is neutralized and the patient should recover. Because there is no malevolent spirit inside the patient's body, there is no need to perform a basangiang, the goal of which is to free the body from a harmful spirit residing inside it. The action of removing sharp things from the body is called mangumul (literally 'to perform kumuV or 'make sharp things come out of the body'). Performing mangumul is obligatory when a physical illness has a spirit-related cause.

Physical illnesses of spiritual origin may also be associated with unusual circumstances present at the onset. For example, the occurrence of rain while the sun is shining (hujan bandang) is believed to trigger unusual events, including illness. A measure to counter the effects of hujan bandang is to disguise the person as a plant so that he will not be recognized by spirit assailants as a human being and so be protected from attack. This is done by bringing a leaf close to the person's ear. Food, too, as a possible source of illness, may be protected by being concealed by leaves, by being wrapped as if it were being transported, or simply by placing a leaf next to it.

If a patient is not cured after being treated with ointments, medicinal herbs, or mangumul, the healer must give up, since she cannot use her sangiang spirits in a possession ceremony because the sick person's illness has been diagnosed as physical rather than mental (Photo 6).

Mental Illness

Mental illnesses are associated with abnormal social behavior thought to be caused by the presence of a malevolent spirit inside the sick person's body. The range of behavioral alterations associated with such illnesses is vast and includes anxiety disorders and personality disorders of different kinds and degrees of seriousness, such as, for example, impulsive or angry behavior, hysterical or anti-social actions, withdrawal or isolation, or an inability to communicate, work together with others, or function socially. In the most serious cases the sufferer refuses to take part in his or her community, for example, by running away from home, refusing to work, or by going to live in a tree in the forest for days or even weeks at a time. In such cases, the sick person is considered to be out of his or her mind and is described, using Indonesian, as "mad" (orang gila). The only way to treat a person suffering from a mental illness is by performing a basangiang ceremony.

Mental illness is generally attributed to the actions of territorial spirits that enter the patient's body and so cause a mental alteration such that the victim is incapable of interacting or even of living together with other human beings. As in the case of physical illness, a triggering factor may be the effects of black magic. However, the most serious cases tend to be associated with powerful spirits identified with particular kinds of trees, most especially the Ficus benjamina (lunuk), where these spirits are believed to make their homes.


The intervention of a healer in a state of possession (ngupang) involves two forms of interaction with the patient. The first and most common consists in a communication, ideally between a sangiang spirit and the patient believed to be under the influence of the malevolent spirit causing his illness (13); the second one presupposes, instead, a clash between the two spirits brought into contact when a sangiang spirit is introduced into the patient's body. In the latter case, the patient, too, enters a state of possession. In both cases the aim is the same: to expel the evil spirit from the patient's body and free his or her soul, thus allowing the person to be reintegrated back into the community. It is possible that a family may have to organize more than one basangiang ceremony, as it is not certain that healing will be achieved on the first attempt. In some cases it will never occur, but if a person is reintegrated in the community, the basangiang is considered to have been successful.

In local ideology, physical illness is considered benign, while mental illness is regarded mostly as its malignant counterpart. Wc were told that mental illness is considered to be especially malignant because it is more destructive of the victim's family and community, i.e., the sufferer may attack or harm other people. The reason for this probably derives from the characteristics of "traditional" societies in which persons exist primarily within relationships of cooperation, solidarity and reciprocity, such that collective interests take priority over those of the individual. From this perspective, mental illness is not just a sign of individual disorder, but signals a wider disorder, a breakdown of ties within society at large (Appleton 2006: 8). In this context, the healer's intervention is a true mediation aimed at rebalancing the dynamics of the social order. Thus, from an emic point of view, it might be said that physical illness is to the individual what mental illness is to the community. Hence the greater seriousness attributed to the latter, which is seen as an attack on the social order itself.


Healing among the Katingan is a female area of expertise. It is practiced by a class of women who draw upon teachings believed to have been passed down by the Master of Healing, the goddess Putir Silong Tamanang, who is known to Katingan healers as "the one who has the power of healing." Local myths narrate that Putir Silong Tamanang lives in the seventh level of the sky--the most prestigious part of the heavenly world - and that she is married to the primordial divinity, Raja Angking Penyang. She and her husband are credited with creating rice. Rice was created in the Upperworld through the union of a flower and sacred life-giving water (danum kaharingan belum) originally for Raja Bunu, the progenitor of human beings, because, unlike other divinities, he was unable to eat betel leaves, the godly food, as they made him ill (Panaturan 1973:97). (14)

This does not preclude men from being admitted to the ranks of the tukang sangiang. Just like women, if a man is considered capable of communicating with divinities and spirits, he may accede to the teachings that will enable him to practice as a healer (Photo 7). In doing so, he will normally take on a woman's identity during ceremonies since the power to perform basangiang derives from a goddess and is transmitted along the female line. (15) There are three conditions that must be met before a person may begin to learn how to practice as a tukang sangiang: 1) he or she must first experience a mental illness, undergo a toha ritual, and be cured through a basangiang ceremony. It is possible to undergo a toha ritual only if the patient has had, or currently has, a tukang sangiang in his or her family. In other words, eligibility is restricted to families that have produced tukang sangiang healers in the past. The fact that a prospective healer has a kinship connection with a current or former healer certifies that he or she has the strength and predisposition to host a spirit in his or her body. The existence of this connection may be generally known or be determined by the tukang sangiang who performed the basangiang ceremony. Later this same tukang sangiang may become the master who instructs the prospective healer in how to perform the basangiang ceremonies; 2) the tukang sangiang performs divination the results of which confirm that the patient is eligible to practice as a healer; and, finally, 3) the apprentice healer must be able to pay the master tukang sangicmg compensation for his or her instruction.


Knowledge relating to the art of healing is passed down within a broadly defined lineage whose members reveal themselves as being predisposed to interacting with spirit-beings. The youngest age documented by us was nine years old and the oldest, forty-three. The starting point for undertaking this educational path can have two possible origins: either illness or dreaming.

In the first, and most common case, the triggering event is a long and serious illness of spiritual origin which may involve anti-social behavior manifested, for example, by running away from home or prolonged isolation as described earlier. The disease is difficult to treat so that more than one or two basangiang ceremonies may be necessary to heal the patient. During the basangiang the healer may opt, as a last resort, to introduce a practice called toha, that provides for the insertion of a sangiang spirit--from either the upper or earthly world--into the patient's body. Toha is a ritual which may be performed as part of a basangiang ceremony to solve a long-standing, unresolved mental illness. It is not performed during every basangiang, but only if the patient is related to a tukang sangiang. Ties of kinship are interpreted as proof that the patient is capable of hosting a sangiang spirit. When the sangiang spirit is inserted, the patient is possessed by it and according to local explanations, the sangiang spirit fights against the evil spirit, to expel it from the patient's body so that the latter becomes normal again. This fight between the sangiang deity and the evil spirit inside the patient's body is believed to be very dangerous. That is why the patient has to be someone strong enough to host a sangiang in his or her body.

The toha is considered to be more dangerous than the communication procedure mentioned earlier as it involves bringing a sangiang deity into direct contact with the evil spirit inside the patient's body. In this phase of the ritual, both healer and patient are in a state of possession. To begin with, a sangiang spirit inside the healer's body calls for another sangiang spirit and asks it to enter the ill person. From an external communication between sangiang spirits and the patient, the confrontation then enters the next, more violent phase, that of a spiritual struggle inside the patient. For this reason, toha is considered a very dangerous sort of "shock therapy" that is performed only if the patient is thought to have a talent for interacting with sangiang spirits. Hence, the importance of kinship connections with practicing healers. These connections may be commonly known, or be indicated indirectly through divination, by reading an object belonging to the ill person such as a shawl, which acts as a mirror to the patient's soul, revealing whether the person has a talent for interacting with the sangiang. The object used for divination is later wrapped in a black cloth and kept by its owner as a sacred object that functions as an amulet. After the basangiang is over, those who were healed by the toha may feel that the experience "opened" their bodies to the sangiang. As a result, they may now choose to become healers themselves. That is why, after they have been healed, they may visit the healer in order to have her determine whether they meet the conditions that would allow them to learn how to become healers themselves.

A case documented in the field concerns a seventy-eight year old woman who, when she was fifteen years old, during the period of seclusion (kurung or bawi kowo) practiced by the Ngaju and the Ot Danum due to the girl's beauty (Bundu nd:21; Maiullari 2011:56-58), ran away from home and took refuge for two months in a Ficus benjamina tree (lunuk) before being treated by a tukang sangiang healer. The latter read from the girl's shawl that they shared a kinship link and so was able to cure her by performing a toha ritual that was held during a basangiang lasting three days and three nights. From that moment, the young woman realized that she had the power to perform basangiang. A second case concerns a fifty-eight year old healer who, at the age of thirty-five, fell ill for eight years, remaining for much of this time on her mat and "behaving like a madwoman" (her own words). Two attempts at basangiang failed to produce a positive outcome, but the third was successful due to a toha performed by a male healer dressed as a woman, as described below. The healer performed a toha that made the sangiang enter into her body by whipping her over the head with betel leaves.

A second, less common way of becoming a healer is by means of a dream that serves as a revelation. Such dream experiences distinguish those who are considered to be supreme healers. An episode we documented during our fieldwork concerns a forty-eight year old man who was visited in a dream when he was nine by a female sangiang who taught him to perform the basangiang and ordered him to dress as a woman whenever did so. On the next day, he says, he fell ill and acted like a mad man. One of his relatives known as a tukang sangiang had to perform a toha to bring him back to a normal state. Following this toha, the youth pursued further training with the same healer, who belonged to his family.

From this point onward the two paths described, learning to heal following an illness or following a dream, proceed in the same way: those who wish to practice healing turn to an expert, tell her about their experiences, and ask to study with her so as to learn how to heal with the help of the sangiang spirits. Like other training calling for specialized technical knowledge, acquiring such knowledge generally requires the payment of a fee, either in cash or, as was more common in the past, in the form of material goods such as jars, gongs, and other items.

However, it is not always the case that a person who is receptive to sangiang wants to become a healer. In Ngaju collective imagination, healers are considered to have been mad women (manian gila), although now integrated into the community. They are therefore people who are receptive to the sangiang--who are subject at times to sudden convulsions associated with possession--but who have chosen not to become healers precisely because of the negative connotations that attach to healers. We documented one case in the field of a famous weaver of ceremonial textiles who lived in the area of the mid Katingan River. She died in 2012 at the age of 94. She enjoyed a prestigious position in society because of her social class and the skills for which she was known. As a young woman she had been ill for a time--and had also lived in isolation in a tree --until she was cured by a basangiang ceremony. Following her recovery, she realized that she was particularly receptive to spirits, but chose not to become a tukang sangiang because of the negative connotation of the profession, because "it is madwomen who do basangiang."

During her training, a novice learns how to recognize and address the gods and spirits, the formulas used to communicate with them, the sangiang sacred language, how to identify and make use of medicinal herbs, and more generally all that is necessary in order to perform healing ceremonies. She also learns the other rituals that form part of the tukang sangiang's repertoire, such as those held to pay tribute to the deities following the fulfilment of a request (mapunduk hajat) made with the promise of offerings should the request be answered, feeding spirits (pakanan taluh), locating lost property, building or moving family altars (like, for example, a balai Jata, an altar used by families who venerate the deity, Jata), (16) and requests for longevity and a good life (manyambuhul or nyembuhul). Tukang sangiang operates mainly in the context of healing. During her period of training, a pupil follows her teacher to all of the ceremonies that she directs in order to memorize her words, but also, through visual observation, the practices that form part of her newly chosen vocation. Once her training is complete, and she becomes an expert herself, the new tukang sangiang works by interacting with a certain number of sangiang. Each healer has a number of deities who regularly help her during basangiang ceremonies. These are not necessarily the same as those employed by her teacher.

Only ritual specialists can summon sangiang spirits during healing ceremonies. This is because communication is conducted in the sangiang language and requires that specialists narrate origin myths (timang) that praise the sangiang deities and affirm their kinship with human beings. However, sangiang spirits sometimes come spontaneously, of their own accord. For example, Junita's great-aunt, who was a tukang sangiang, used to lose consciousness at times and became possessed even when not performing a basangiang. This was interpreted as her being visited by the sangiang. Other instances are known, but our data are insufficient to comment on the frequency with which tukang sangiang experience this kind of spontaneous possession.

At the moment, our ongoing research is focused on acquiring a deeper understanding of aspects of basangiang healing, including the training of novice tukang sangiang as outlined here.

The basangiang healing ceremony

Basangiang is performed in the patient's house, or, less often, in the place where the illness is presumed to have been contracted. Taking the form of a complex of rituals, the duration of an individual basangiang is variable, ranging from a minimum of one day to--as far as we could ascertain--a maximum of three days, nights included, without significant interruptions. However, the main activities related to possession take place at night, after sundown, and end, at the latest, around dawn. This is linked to an idea that night and day are reversed in the Upperworld. Therefore these activities are held at night, which is day in the Upperworld. Nevertheless, preparing the ceremonial site, making offerings, and so on are held during the day and are considered to be part of the basangiang timeline.

The basangiang is preceded by a preliminary ceremony called the manyandah, the general meaning of which is "to diagnose." The ceremony is also referred to as a short basangiang. It is normally held one or a few days preceding the first day of basangiang and serves to invoke the sangiang spirits, introduce them to the illness afflicting the patient, ask them to find what has caused it and how it might be cured. Before the basangiang ceremony begins, all the necessary material for its performance must be prepared, including the sacrificial animals - chickens, pigs, or buffalo (now more often cattle). The nature and quantity of this material is indicated by the sangiang who have made themselves present during the manyandah as a result of the tukang sangiang's invocation. This material represents a fee paid in return for the spirits' intervention. Once the material has been assembled, the basangiang ceremony may begin.

Which deities will intervene in a basangiang depends on the healer, who indicates the specific sangiang she or he plans to interact with during the ceremony. Each healer interacts with only a limited number of deities, not with the whole Ngaju pantheon of healing spirits. Some, for example, interact with three deities, others with five or six, and so on. The number probably depends on the knowledge passed down by the healer's teachers. To communicate with the sangiang, a healer must know the timang that refer to that particular spirit or deity. Here, as in other matters, our research is still ongoing. During the manyandah the healer describes the patient's problems to the deities, who then respond by possessing the healer and speaking through her, affirm their availability to heal the patient's illness in exchange for specific sacrifices and offerings. During a basangiang, the tukang sangiang is usually helped by more than one of the sangiang belonging to her healing group. If an illness is particularly severe, it is believed that only the most powerful divinities may be able to treat it. The most powerful deities are only appealed to by some healers, and only in particularly complex cases. The comportment of the tukang sangiang and the tools she uses when possessed serve to identify the particular deity who is possessing her and the characteristics that are associated with this deity. These tools and behavior are therefore symbols of identity. When a healer is possessed, the deity controlling her is believed to speak and act in a specific way that makes its identity recognizable. For example, the divinity Putir Silong Tamanang uses a mandati and/or puts a sapuyung ceremonial hat on her head. The divinity Sangumang likes to drink a lot of baram (fermented rice wine), while Sangiang Bandar plays music and walks with a staff. Some of the tools can be seen in Photo 7. In addition, deities often reveal their identity by mentioning their name.


At the heart of the basangiang ceremony, the healer dances to the accompaniment of music, with her head covered by a long shawl while she holds onto the "flying bridge" of the sangiang (jambansangiang) who arc descending from the heavens to possess her. In the Katingan River area, a basangiang is normally performed by single tukang sangiang, but more than one is not considered unusual. The musicians who provide her accompaniment are not tukang sangiang, but ordinary laypersons. The jamban sangiang, serving as an axis-mundi, is made of a bundle of long young betel palm fronds, stalks of rice, or a batik loincloth (bahalai) hung from the interior ceiling of the house (see Photo 1). (17) The healer's rotating movement as she hangs onto this "flying bridge" is a sign of the movement of the sangiang deities as they travel from the Upperworld to the earth. When a tukang sangiang grasps the jamban sangiang with her hands and starts swinging around it, her movements are interpreted as those of the sangiang descending into the tukang sangiang's body to possess her. After that, the tukang sangiang enters a form of possession that, following Emma Cohen (2008), we would characterize as "executive possession." "Executive possession" is a form of possession in which "the spirit entity is typically represented as taking over the host's executive control, or replacing the host's 'mind' (or intentional agency), thus assuming control of bodily behaviours" (Cohen 2008:103). During a basangiang, the tukang sangiang is typically possessed by several sangiang. If the first one that enters her body is unable to heal the patient completely, it will abandon her body in order to make room for others until one enters who is able to effect a cure. However, it is also believed that a healing ceremony may be successful thanks to the actions of more than one sangiang. In this case, the sangiang possess the tukang sangiang in sequence, one after another, until the healing is fully completed and the pathological elements are totally gone from the patient's body. According to the information we collected from tukang sangiang, when a healer enters a state of possession, she is unconscious and after the ceremony is over remembers nothing of what happened. Thus, while the tukang sangiang is possessed by a deity, she falls unconscious, and it is believed that the deity takes complete control of her body and mind. This state of "executive possession" entails the following features: (a) the presence of an incorporeal intentional agent in or on a person's body that (b) temporarily effects the ousting, eclipsing or mediation of the person's agency and control over behavior, such that (c) the host's actions are partly or wholly attributable to the intentions, beliefs, desires and dispositions of the possessing agent for the duration of the episode (Cohen 2008:109).

As already noted, the identity of the deities possessing a healer can be recognized by the tukang sangiang's behaviour, her voice, and the specific paraphernalia she uses while performing. Among the more common sangiang that we were able to document are the following:

1. Putir Silong Tamanang. She is the most powerful among all the sangiang healing divinities; she lives in the Upperworld and is married to a primordial divinity named Raja Angking Penyang. Her presence is associated with the use of a mandan, a sapuyung ceremonial hat, the bunge flower, and sawang (Cordyline fruticosa Backer). In Ngaju belief, sawang is a plant that symbolizes well-being and prosperity and was brought to earth from the Upperworld. According to myth, sawang was given by Ranying, the upperworld Creator, to Raja Bunu, who brought it with him when he descended to earth. Because of this connection, sawang is planted at the end of a ritual called mambuhul balaku uniting, the goal of which is to bring well-being, prosperity and longevity from the Upperworld to the people living on earth. The mambuhul balaku uniting ritual may be performed in different ceremonies, like, for example, a tiwah or a marriage. Sawang is planted mostly around houses, but may also be planted elsewhere.

2. Patindih Layang Ngambu Melai Lawang Langit. An ancient female sangiang from the Upperworld employed particularly when treating serious illnesses.

3. Sangumang. A male upperworld sangiang known for drinking baram, the locally fermented rice wine. When a healer is possessed by Sangumang she, too, drinks large quantities of baram, sometimes continuously over several nights if the ceremony lasts that long.

4. Harimaung Darun Bawan. An upperworld divinity who, according to local mythology, is a very powerful Ngaju ancestor. His effigies decorate the sapundu ceremonial poles of the tiwah and the poles that protect villages against malevolent spirits (see Photo 8).

5. Sangiang Bandar. An earthly sangiang employed by many healers. He is known as a heroic warrior renowned for his power and manifests his presence by using a lute, a violin (kecapi), and a walking stick.

6. Jata. The most important sangiang of the Underworld.

7. Saluh Bujang. An underworld sangiang corresponding to a Jata in the Petak Putih area.

8. Sangiang Dohoi. An earthly sangiang who manifests his presence by using a drum

(katambong) and speaking the Dohoi language. (18)

9. Andi Pati Singa Ria. An earthly sangiang in the shape of an elongated catfish with gills (family Clariidae, genus Ciarias).

To describe in detail the elaborate procedures of a basangiang ceremony is beyond the scope of this paper. However, we wish to present some of its salient moments, both as they relate to executive possession by the tukang sangiang and in order to illustrate concretely the transposition of local ideologies in a ceremonial context. The main phases of a basangiang ceremony--which we list below--are subject to variation depending on the "lineage" of the tukang sangiang performing it. By "lineage" we mean in this context a "line of descendants" within the class of tukang sangiang healers. The class as a whole includes a number of these "lines." A "line" may feature some specific cultural traits (note: these are very small variations) that differ from the others, giving rise to small ritual differences in how the basangiang is conducted. For example: at the end of a basangiang ceremony, when the sangiang are invited by the healer to return to the Upperworld (as documented also by Scharer; see below), not every tukang sangiang simulates their return by the movement of a sapuyung ceremonial hat (i.e. swinging it in imitation of the sangiangs," boat journey). This would be the peculiar feature of one "line of descendents" or "school" of tukang sangiang (or maybe more than one, however not of every "line"). Below are some of the main phases of a basangiang ceremony:

Manapah: preparation of the white ceramic bowl containing the behas semenget rice used for strengthening the soul of the patient in the semenget ritual. This bowl, once it is ready, is called the mangkok tambak;

Semenget ritual: the ritual performed to strengthen the patient's soul;

Tawur: dispatching messages to the sangiang to summon them to the ceremony. The rice grains used for this are instructed: "don't fall to the ground but travel to the sangiang spirits and the patient's soul";

Jucung mangkot: the mangkok tambak bowl is placed on the healer's head (see Photo 9);

Healer's dance, performed while holding onto the jamban sangiang. The dance marks the healer's entry into a state of executive possession. The sangiang enter her body through the cranial fontanel. The woman is typically possessed by several sangiang. As noted, those who are not able to cure the patient exit to make room for others, until a sangiang who can cure the patient enters;

Heart of the ceremony: communication between the sangiang spirit (healer) and the patient believed to be under the influence of a malevolent spirit, talking about the patient's problems. Patients may either speak for themselves or, if they refuse or are unwilling to talk, members of their family may discuss the problems afflicting them. During this exchange, patients sometimes become very agitated, cry out, or try to flee. When they seem to calm down, this is interpreted as a possible sign that the malevolent spirit has left their body. The ceremony then closes;

The rice bowl used for semenget, containing the behas semenget, is removed from the healer's head;

Divination using the behas semenget which is read for signs indicating whether, and to what degree, the patient will recover;

Extracting an object from the patient's body using a sawang leaf, a machete (mandan), or a ceremonial dagger (duhang) (Photo 10). The object, often a stone, symbolize the harmful agent inserted in the patient and varies depending on the patient's illness. Once it is removed, the object is wrapped in a black cloth and becomes an amulet for the patient (Photo 11);

The sangiang are invited by the healer to return to the Upperworld. Sometimes their return is simulated by the movement of a ceremonial hat (sapuyung), which is made to swing in imitation of the sangiangs' boat journey. Such a method of dispatching the sangiang has also been documented by Scharer (1966: 486, 492);

Metaphoric closure of all the healer's doors to the body; this is done first by tapping her knees, elbows, the cranial fontanel and blowing in her ears (with the help of another person), then rubbing knees, elbows and fontanel with plaited young coconut leaves that have been soaked in a special liquid (tampung tawar) which neutralizes spiritual danger.




Throughout a basangiang ceremony, the tukang sangiang acts as a mediator at two distinct levels: 1) the spiritual level concerning the practice of possession and 2) the social level concerning the reintegration of the patient back into the community. The days of convalescence which follow the ceremony are when the success of the basangiang can be verified, to see if it has had a positive outcome and has freed the patient from the ills affecting his or her soul.


The basangiang healing ceremony is part of a religious institution that has undergone important changes, due mostly to cultural syncretism, acculturation, and political factors. These changes occurred especially in the last century, as documented by a large ethnological literature. During this time basangiang became marginalized. The female priestesses (uluh balian) who until then were in charge of local ceremonial performances, lost authority to a new class of religious leaders consisting of priests (pisor/basir). Consequently, the uluh balian moved from being the most prestigious figures responsible for a wide range of religious activities to a marginal class of religious practitioners. While no longer considered priestesses, the tukang sangiang have retained their healing-related knowledge and, in particular, continue to this day to perform the basangiang.

In the past, access to the uluh balian priestesshood was opened to men provided they dressed and identified themselves as women while performing. The same goes today for the tukang sangiang, who recognize a female divinity as their Master of Healing.

While in modern Western medicine recent studies have shown that the factors causing mental illness may be psychological, environmental, biological, genetic or a combination resulting from the interaction of biological, psychological and social factors (Murthy 2001:10, 16), in traditional Katingan medicine, as far as we were able to establish, natural and social causes of mental disorder and the loss of psychological well-being are not recognized because mental afflictions are attributed to the actions of external agents, namely malevolent spirit-beings. These agents are believed to enter the sick person's body and alter his ways of feeling, thinking, behaving and relating to others, disturbing not only the individual, but, in many cases, the entire community to which he or she belongs.

Mental pathologies range from mild to severe. The worst cases are considered those that result in behaviors that display alienation and a complete absence of social involvement with other persons. Such behavior may include disturbing acts and physical violence against the others. Those whose actions signal a break with society are considered orang gila. Their affliction is seen as a malevolent form of illness that troubles not only themselves but the equilibrium and well-being of society as a whole.

The goal of a basangiang ceremony is to remove evil from the sufferer's body in order to restore him or her to mental health. This is accomplished by the tukang sangiang, who through her use of the sacred sangiang language, communicates with the deities and offers her body as a temporary place for them to reside while they carry out their healing. A basangiang performance aims to restore the patient's mental health and to reintegrate him into the everyday life of his community. If one or more basangiang healing ceremonies fail to cure the patient, the sick person, in the worst case situation, becomes estranged from those around him and is socially marginalized.

Studies focusing on the relationship between religious and healing institutions show that from a mental health perspective, religion provides much-needed guidelines which can help individuals to devise a course for their lives (Behere, et al. 2013). Further research on this topic is needed among the Ngaju, but this seems to be the case, too, for the Katingan practice of basangiang, in which healing is accomplished by deities who communicate with the patient to help them overcome their difficulties by addressing the origins of their affliction. In this sense, a successful basangiang ceremony may be said to have a cathartic effect on the patient. (19)

The basangiang ceremony, if successful, frees the patient from psychic tensions, conflicts and the effects of traumas. As is shown by the experience of healers and other people, it is often following a toha, in which the patient enters a state of possession, so that the disease may be removed and his body "purified." If this does not succeed, traditional healing stops, and the patient is considered incurable. This means that he will no longer be able to take part in the life of the community in the same way that normal people do. He will lose his social position and become an outsider living on the peripheries of the community.


We are very grateful to Clifford Sather for his suggestions and support and to an anonymous reviewer for his/her valuable comments on a previous draft of this paper. We would also like to thank Martin Baier, Dito Djamit, Kazuya Inakagi, Franco Maiullari, Ameld Nadjir, Anthony Nyahu and Yulius Saden for their detailed help with issues related to the topics covered by the paper.

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(1) Damang Johannes Salilah (d. 1989) was born in 1892. He was a Ngaju Dayak priest who converted to Christianity in 1930. That same year he began working as a medical assistant at the Protestant Mission hospital in Kuala Kapuas. During the Japanese occupation and the years that immediately followed, with the growth of the Kaharingan religion under Tjilik Riwut, he went back to his original religion and continued to perform as a priest in Ngaju ceremonies. He was the supreme adat judge of Kabupaten Kapuas in Central Kalimantan until 1971. Around 1981 he converted to Islam, but by the end of the 1980s he re-embraced Christianity and died shortly after his last conversion, in 1989 (Baier, 1974:57; 2007:75; personal communication).

(2) Panaturan is the official holy book of the Ngaju Kaharingan religion. Its complete name is Panaturan: Tainparan Taluh Handiai which means 'The Origins: The sources of all being.'

(3) In the Ngaju language, balian was the original name for all religious ceremonies. Hence, priestesses were called uluh balian, 'those who led the balian,' or bawin balian, 'the women who led the balian.' In the past these uluh balian priestesses were responsible for all Ngaju ceremonies, including the tiwah. In some cases, as with the tiwah, they were assisted by other ritual specialists who performed more restricted ritual functions. According to our research and the field data that we collected, the most important of these ritual specialists were the uluh hanteran (pisor), who during the tiwah assisted the uluh balian in accompanying the soul of the deceased to the Upperworld. While in the past their role was to help the uluh balian, today the pisor (and basir) are the official priests of the Kaharingan religion. Regarding the basir, these men, dressing as women, acted as uluh balian in the past. Basir is a Ngaju term referring to infertility, metaphorically comparing the priests to infertile paddy (parai basir): hence basir are infertile "women" because they are, in fact, transvestite men, who, being men, cannot bear children. Therefore, "infertile" should be interpreted in a cultural sense, not a physical one. Basir are not necessarily infertile or impotent men: we should rather refer to them as non-productive "women" (Ameld, 2011:64-65). Today basir dress as men like the pisor.

(4) These divinities, each with different powers, are said to have been created by Ranying at the same time. In Ngaju, uju means 'seven.'

(5) The ordinary term for "genealogy" in the Katingan language is jereh. However, the mythic genealogies that are narrated during rituals are called timang.

(6) An example of an Upperworld sangiang is Harimaung Darun Bawan, a feline-like deity referred to later in this paper. The Upperworld, or langit, is inhabited by both "divinities," such as Putir Silong Tamanang, as well as by the Upperworld sangiang. Each of these various spirit-beings inhabits a separate settlement/village (lewu), each located in a different part of the Upperworld.

(7) It should be noted that not only sangiang are called by the tukang sangiang during basangiang ceremonies, but also other Upperworld and Underworld divinities, most notably Putir Silong Tamanang and data. Thus the spirit beings with whom these female healers interact are not confined solely to the sangiang.

(8) Its full name is Pantai Danum Kalunen, Luwuk Kampungan Bunu, Lewu Injam Tinggang Rundung Nasih Nampui Burung.

(9) Prior to death, this soul is called the salumpuk entang, but since the context here is the tiwah ceremony, the name is changed to salumpuk liau. Similarly, while alive, the second soul associated with the flesh and bones is called the salumpuk bereng, but after death it is called the liau balawan panjang ganan bereng.

(10) Altars dedicated to Jata are permanent structures; families place offerings in them even if no one is ill. At the moment, we are collecting further data on the role of the Underworld spirits in Katingan healing.

(11) The Panaturan sheds further light upon the meaning of the term mait. Here, in the last important event in the story of Manyamei and Kameluh, the first human couple and the parents of Raja Bunu, as related in the Panaturan, they leave their family and village at Bukit Batu Nindan Tarung and move to a new village called Batang Danum Rasau Kaput (still in the Upperworld). In this new village, Ranying changed their names. Manyamei became Mangku Amat Sangen and Kameluh, Nyai Jaya Sangiang. At the same time Ranying provided them with a powerful medicine that can revive even the dead, which they then use to cure illness. In the sangiang language this medicine is called garu bahari, santi mait, meaning 'powerful medicine proven to be effective' (Panaturan 2002:176).

(12) It is interesting to note that this same image of a blowgun dart stuck in the body which we recorded in the Katingan area, was also used by tukang sangiang in the upper Rungan and upper Kahayan River areas (Jay 1989:40).

(13) The patient in this case, although in a confused state of mind, is still responsive; hence there is no direct interaction between the sangiang spirit and the malevolent spirit as in the toha rite, which is described below.

(14) According to priests (pisor), the jars represented on the main posts of Ngaju mausoleums (sandang) depict this creation myth and ideally contain some grains of rice as a symbol of prosperity and well-being.

(15) Information is unavailable for the upper Kahayan and upper Rungan River areas. Although Sian Jay notes that not all tukang sangiang are women, it is unclear from her account whether or not male mediums dress as woman.

(16) Not all the families have a balai Jata; many maintain altars dedicated to other deities.

(17) Literally, jamban refers in Ngaju to a narrow wooden platform or walkway that temporarily connects two places.

(18) The Dohoi language is classified as a West Barito language and is spoken by the Ot Danum people in Kalimantan Tengah and Kalimantan Barat. Dohoi varies geographically. The variants currently spoken in Central Kalimantan show considerable Ngaju influence (Couderc 2013:7; Inagaki 2013:95). In Kalimantan Tengah, Dohoi speakers are present in the upper reaches of the Katingan and Kahayan Rivers (Sevin 1983:24; Ameld & Maiullari 2011:97). According to Ethnologue, the Dohoi language shows 60% lexical similarity with the Katingan language.

(19) Catharsis, which means "purification," is a concept that was first used by Aristotle in his Poetics in regards to classical theatre. The healer's intervention, could be compared to the modern phenomenon of hypnotic catharsis as utilized by Charcot, Breuer and at first also by Freud, who later abandoned this method and developed psychoanalysis, which is not based on hypnotic suggestion. A state of possession--including toha--is a psychic condition that may be induced or occur spontaneously and is similar to a hypnotic state, with the consequent sensory insulation from surrounding reality and exaltation of the faculty of producing paranormal phenomena. The cathartic method works on the patient who is brought to a hypnoid state to make him relive, also emotionally, the situation that has been determined to be the beginning of his illness. The idea is that by reliving the origin of his illness, the subject expresses freely the emotions linked to that repressed memory, and whose very repression has produced the symptoms. Freud calls this phenomenon abreaction. Abreaction's therapeutic effect consists in the removal of the emotions connected to the traumatic event that has been repressed, and the consequent disappearance of the symptoms caused by its repression. These emotions, in local ideology, correspond to the presence of evil spirits, and are removed from the body during a basangiang as attested by the stones or other small objects materialized by the healer.

Junita Arneld, Scientific Collaborator

Museo delle Culture, Lugano, Switzerland


Paolo Maiullari, Curator

Museo delle Culture, Lugano, Switzerland

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Title Annotation:RESEARCH NOTES
Author:Arneld, Junita; Maiullari, Paolo
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:90SOU
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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