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Local recollections of past Brunei Dusun 'big houses' (Alai Gayo) in Tutong district, Brunei Darussalam.

This article attempts to pass on whatever information I gathered during my stay among the Brunei Dusuns of the Tutong district (1985-93) concerning the construction of big houses at different times in the past, as well as their use. Narak Buntak, Pantang Runtop, Ingai Ungau, and Timor Bandang, my oldest acquaintances, still retained vivid memories of their childhood years spent in one of the big houses, or alai gayo, dotted around the district, either some distance from each other (such as Anak Tuno) or congregated in hamlets (such as the alai gayo of the present Mukim of Ukong).

Big houses, besides offering many practical advantages for their dwellers, had also provided security at a time when skirmishes with marauding neighboring groups were not uncommon. (2)

By the nineteen-eighties, after sixty years of peace and stability, none of the earlier alai gayo still survived. What remained of possibly the last big house, constructed at Pangkalan Duun or Kalan Duun on the bank of a small tributary (bang diok), (3) was to be my home from November 1985 to July 1988.

The original house was built around the turn of the century and was said to have been more than a rantai (66 feet) long (labi onom ngopod kaki gayo o) and over 40 feet deep (labi apat ngopod kaki awad o). (4) When the house was abandoned, possibly in favor of several individual dwellings some 30-40 years later, only part of it was retained, but large enough to accommodate five modest units.

In 1985, although the house was now uninhabited, the outer walls and roof of both the major building and the adjacent kitchen were still largely intact--albeit all interior partitions in the main section had been removed. (5) As at that time I was looking for somewhere to reside, the house seemed to fit my requirements. The former occupants, still living close by, embraced the suggestion unreservedly and soon set about repairing a few floor-planks and erecting steps to the front door. Once completed, it offered me comfortable, not to say quite "romantic," lodgings. Sadly, the entire main part of the house was demolished in the latter part of 1988. (6)



As a non-Dusun, I did not have to make sense of the numerous noises emanating from within and without the house, especially at night. The Dusuns attributed these to activities carried out by ghostly past inhabitants who had died in the house. Apart from myself, nobody wished to stay there. A lively debate ensued. The resulting consensus was that these spirits of the dead (lamatai), who were roaming the place, were unlikely to make out who the strange occupier of the house was and thus had decided to leave her alone and not disturb her, even at night. Nor would they disapprove of her sleeping in the wooden bedstead (kibong) once belonging to them. (7)

Constructing a big house (alai gayo) as remembered by my oldest Dusun acquaintances

When searching for a new house site, the first task was to establish that the selected ground on which the house was to be erected was propitious (alan moncoi). (8) Otherwise the well-being of its future dwellers was not assured.


Places to avoid were, and to some degree still are: 1. the ridge of a hillock (bumbung buked), as this is the known thoroughfare for malevolent spirits (tanga-alan kuo raat), 2. the summit or top of a hill (purok), most likely for practical reasons, as few summits were naturally flat enough to accommodate an alai gayo, 3. land in a valley (suok), or at the entry or exit of a valley (mok ulu suok, mok rompod suok), as valleys are passages for earth spirits (isi tana). If a house were to be erected on a passageway of spirits, the inhabitants might collide with the spirits and hence be likely to be troubled by disease. And as valleys often have additional depressions (lupok) that were, at times, likely to fill with water (suat ulus aig), building on it was thought to diminish the livelihood of the inhabitants (mencari andi ma kalap), 4. the land between two promontaries (temunong) where earth spirits were known to leap from one side to the other. A house in their path might therefore get trampled on by the isi's feet (jamakan o), transmitting sickness in the process, 5. wet plains (payo) which were, again for practical reasons, considered suitable only for temporary buildings such as field huts (tadong).

Ideal sites for houses therefore were either on low lying flat ground (seriba mok tana rata), on river banks (mok tabing bawang) or by the side of a hillock (dan kerimbang purok). But if the chosen area was on primeval jungle land, the cooperation of the resident jungle spirit (isi ntalun) was required.

To ascertain the will of the spirit a dukun (oracle and general magical specialist), (9) often the headman (tetuo) himself, performed a divination ritual (ndaki) at the earmarked site. There he inquired of the isi whether it was willing or not to release the land, by sinking a slashing knife (dangol) into the ground and addressing the spirit as follows: "Mun muyon naak ntalun ati, tarus tibaso dangol ser alom tana; kalau onjop sambuto o ": (If you are willing to vacate this land let the slashing knife pierce it without obstruction; if, however, you are unwilling, obstruct it). If the isi ntalun refused to move, a new site had to be selected and the divination repeated.

How and when to collect material for a house

All material required for any house was gathered by the future householders themselves. No outside help was sought (andi na karumo lama tad sadu, lama mok alai no gala). The logs (batang kayu) for the house-structure, bark (kulit kayu) for the walls, nibong palms or bamboo (bulu) for the floor were procured from the jungle (ntalun ngalap). Only the palm leaves (raun nipa, raun amblo) for the roof were sourced from nearby. If the material could not be transported down a river or tributary, buffaloes were employed when possible to haul the logs or leaf fronds to the site (okon ma birit ya kerbau ndudul). If this was not feasible, men themselves had to shoulder the material (nyaan).

Prohibitions relating to the construction of a house (pantang alai agu)

The only day in a lunar month when no logs or bark could be taken from the jungle for the construction of a house (pantang adau ngalap kayu, ngalap kulit kayu) (10) was on new moon (bulan agu). It was feared that wood taken on that day would remain for some time attractive to wood-boring insects (bubok). But if on any other day a mousedeer (planok, Tragulus ravus) crossed the jungle path of a gatherer, everyone had to return home for the day (kalau manau li ntalun nggium kayu, nggium kulit kayu, aro planok temalib, lama muli dalai). Otherwise, once the people have taken up residence in the new house, they might suffer from swelling and bulging eyes similar to those of the mousedeer (mato mpanuk).

Rules for erecting the first pole (nidong tancok mulo-mulo)

There were clear regulations as to the time and method for erecting the very first pole. All days of the waning moon (bulan ndauu) in any lunar month were seen as inauspicious. Like the moon which gradually fades (bulan mail), the sources of livelihood for the occupants were also believed to inexorably vanish (go maii rati o, onjop rejeki o).

Among the waxing days (bulan nakod) of a lunar month, days 1-3 were the most favored. Like the increasing moon, the fortune of the future dwellers too could be expected to grow (io nakod gala). Days 4-7 and 9-14 provided no problems. On day 8 (katang iau), however, erecting the first pole for a new house was avoided. (11)

Furthermore, the pole had to be in place before midday (tampak adau) for similar reasons, as the slanting sun (baring adau), too, was not propitious. But only the very first pole of a new house was subject to these rules. The remaining poles, like the rest of the structure, were under no particular restrictions.


Days of a wake (adau salong,) days 3, 7, 14), however, superseded all known restrictions. No work could be undertaken by the entire community other than what was needed for the wake itself (pantang adau).

On the day when the first pole was to be planted, the hole for the pole was dug by more than one person before day-break (nyari, andi gi miang, at around 4 am), i. e. before the birds woke, most likely a tailor bird (jiriot), and therefore before any adverse omen (angai raat) might be heard. (12) Digging the hole was seen to be all that was needed, and no further omen was sought or taken note of (andi io peduli suda pongo kali io te). But as the first pole had to be standing upright before the sun began its descent (baring adau andi malap), i.e.about 1 p.m., it was slotted in soon after the hole was ready.

This first pole was invariably the largest and most massive trunk (13) and commonly erected in the center (jnemang li tanga tidongon gulu) of the east facing gable. It would reach up to the roof-tie (peninting), with the remaining poles assembled clockwise (baru no keliling, pusing kuanan), imitating the movements of the belian in a temarok ritual (pusing kuanan, pusing belian), from east to west, with the last column facing east again (tad adau iau li adau iau). (14) But in a case where no gable-side could be facing east, the first pole erected might also not be able to face east. (This shortcoming, however, was not seen as a major problem; as long as the final pole faced east (pongo pusing, sino adau iau aii o), people felt satisfied.)

Furthermore, putting up poles or posts required special attention. It was essential that the prepared pole still showed the original bottom (puun) and top (untu) ends of the tree trunk, whether by different thickness or by markings, and could subsequently be placed the same way up wherever it was needed. (15) When lining up posts (ngatur tancok), ready for using, no pole should accidentally be bumped into another (babingki). This could cause sickness in the future.


Just before securing the first pole a small good-luck cloth- or leaf-bundle (petua) was placed by Pangan in Bukit Udal, Burut in Rambai at the bottom of it, containing a few grains of rice (ngumi agas kabun), bits of salt (uson), a slice of lime (oncom), an oyster-shell (kulit timong) and a shaving of gold (amas kediok) in the hope that the occupants of the dwelling would never go hungry (lap sanang, lap aro rejeki) and possibly be able to afford a few precious objects (lap kediok barang amas). Others, such as Laman in Ukong, Narak in Bang Diok waited until the cooking stove was ready, before placing a similar parcel inside the hearth (nauu mok puan) to secure their future livelihood (ngadim rejeki). (16)

As nearly all alai gayo were at times used for large gatherings and festivities, they had to be made extremely sturdy (tagap). To achieve this, the main poles (tancok) were positioned at about one ropo (roughly two yards) intervals with supporting poles (tukod) between every two tancok (tukod aro tanga ropo te olot tancok). [see Figure 1 ]

Floors (sileo) [See picture 7]

The tools to cut down trees or obtain planks (ngamad papan) were the hatchet, described by Hose as a "small springy-hafted axe" (17) (penad) which was exclusively used before the stronger and easier to handle modern axe (kapak) was available. Felling trees and making planks (papan) was then done with the kapak (kapak no nyasap). But for a smooth finish the hatchet continued to be employed (kapak no sasap-sasap raat-raat gala, penaa isu do ngalus: the axe by simply hewing away produces a rough surface, for a smooth one the hatchet was used).

The nibong palm (Oncosperma tigillaria) split lengthwise into four laths (putul apat) was the most durable of all the material available for flooring. Too hard for insects to attack, it did not need to be replaced for up to 40 years (andi kou ngganti). (18) If nibong could not be obtained, floors of split bamboo (bulu) lasted about 5 years, of areca-palm (pinang) a mere 2 years. All three, nibong, bulu, and pinang were laid parallel to the length of the house and securely lashed to the joists with rattan (uwai). Where wooden planks made up the floor, areng, a red hardwood, was favored, with a life-span of well over 10 years. (19)

External walls (obon deribou)

Ukang leaves (Licuala sp., raun ukang), wherever available, were originally used for walls in preference to sago leaves (raun ambio). Tree bark later replaced both. The tree of which the bark was harvested was tembangkou (Xylopia ferrugine), chosen for its smooth and flat bark (alus agak o), but lasting little more than 10 years. (20) More durable bark, but rougher in appearance and more difficult to find, was the luan tree (Dryobolanops rappa).

The process of acquiring bark was described in the following way: after selecting a tree with a cutting knife, sections of the bark were first pounded along straight lines (gon makang ya dangol lap tunjur) to loosen the bark. It was then easily pried from the trunk (sanang nyungkit no). The bark sheets that could be obtained in this way were between 1/2 a ropo to 1 ropo in length (aro awad kiro-kiro saropo). An experienced worker could harvest as many as 100 pieces (kaping) a day. The bark sheets had subsequently to be kept dry (odong la io suat masa), but out of the sun until they were needed. That moment came after horizontal bamboo slats (reng) had been added to the wall frames into which the bark sheets could be slotted. The sheets were then lightly tied to the slats.

The time it took for the bark sheets to dry and sufficiently harden was about three months (making karing, makin kodou, makala ndiri). It was important to allow the procedure to progress naturally to avoid warping and splitting (andi io pulos). And if well dried, no boring insect could damage it (ain kapandai kanon bubok). For this reason bark far outlasted wooden planks (ala papan). It was therefore no surprise that bark walls, along with nibong floors, were generally the last remaining parts, long after the house itself had been abandoned (saboi sulap naii, io no kakal kulit ya nibong bo no).

In areas, such as Lamunin, where bamboo (bulu) grew abundantly bamboo was commonly employed for exterior walls. The rods were split into two (gon mild) and the knots hacked smooth (gon nyasap buku, gon ngalus).

Sago wood (papa ambio) provided another option for external walls. After the sago trunk was split, the lengths were cut into appropriate sections, which in turn were put into place at once (tarns ngobon) and lightly fastened to horizontal bamboo slats (reng) with rattan. These sago sections were left rather loose to allow them to dry out naturally and by this process become much flatter. They were then repositioned (nyusun). The gaps that had been created through shrinkage were then eliminated by pushing the sago sections together, before they were finally tied down permanently (ngogot bonor).

Any wall, whatever the material used, was to provide clear proof of skilled workmanship. It included the knowledge of the way each kind of material behaved from start to the final stage, as well as a keen sense of what the finished wall should look like, i.e. it should not only be functional, but also pleasing to the eye. To avoid the arrangement of planks or bark looking unbalanced (pateo gaya obon o), the broadest had to be positioned at the bottom, with the rest ascending, gradually decreasing in width (iris-iris basusun tad seriba li sawat).

Windows (long pawang, tabok)

Windows (tabok or jendela) were of various sizes, some being positioned higher up, that a standing person could use, with or without external shutters; others being narrow and oblong (long pawang), often only one wall-board wide, but enabling seated persons to look out (io no tabok alan ngkuku, alan intong).

Steps/ladder (tukad)

Depending on the size and lay-out of the house, there were initially notched beams serving as ladders on either side of the gallery, replaced later by wooden steps, both with hand-rails (alig or pagar tukad). In the house of Kalan Duun there were wooden steps close to the center of the front, with a notched beam ladder at the back leading to the kitchen. The bottom of the beam, being the bottom of the original tree, touched the ground (puun tukad io no tana). This was to ensure that the children born in the house would not be breech babies (anak patiu).

All steps or notches had to be in uneven numbers (andi pampan), counted in Malay by: idup, mati, idup (alive, dead, alive) etc. with an idup starting at the bottom and rounding off at the top (idup puun, idup untu).

Roof (taap)

Houses were originally roofed either with shingles of wood or more commonly with palm-leaves. In 1985 only one house in Bukit retained palm leaves, possibly sago leaves for both the main roof and side-overhangs. Shingles could be obtained from sago (papa ambio) or ukang trees (Licuala sp) (papa ukang). Leaves were taken from sago (raun ambio), or if a river was close by, from nipah palms (Nipa fruticans) (raun nipa). A man was said to be able to shoulder (nyaan) between 10 to 15 fronds for some distance.

The roof rested on extended main posts (tancok) and accessory support piles (mbutu), all held in place by the roof ties (peninting), to which the rafters (kasau) and purlins (dampar) were fastened. Where soft wood (kayu lami), such as bengawong (Macaranga gigantea) or bakangin (Tema sp) was used, often for the rafters, wood pegs, 2-3 inches long from the tiad tree (Eugeissonaminer Becc) helped to secure them (isu ngalantak). Rattan provided the material if tying was employed (bogot ya uwai). Particular skill was necessary to prevent the knots from slipping (mun andi pandai ngogot sulap andi io mantagap). Each section of the structure called for its own special knot. The knot which ensured non-slackening and therefore non-slippage when tying a mbutu (extension) column to a tancok (main) post, was the pisak-pisak knot (ogot kuo nggaran o 'pisak-pisak'andi io mpulak, tagap no). (21)

A palm frond was about 11/2-2 ropo long. All sago fronds had to be soaked first. They were traditionally immersed in a well (buron mok kaut) for up to three days, whereupon they were lifted out of it and stood up vertically to let the water run off (ngka kain keduan, talu ngadau tindalan io no, gon muod, gon kesakan aig). Soaking the fronds extended their life-span by a few years to about ten years (kalau babur taan no raun ambio saboi mopod taun no). (22)

The stitching (nyarut) (23) was carried out by both men and women (kimu, myanai pandai). For a substantial alai gayo people from other settlements might be recruited to help (Jikalau alai ga-gayo karumo). For one house in the Bukit Udal area people of Kalan Duun or Dukong were asked for assistance (aa nyarut la soro mikot). They worked during the day, but returned home at night (dop adau muli). Food and drink was provided by the host community. Stitching twenty fronds of two ropo, thirty of about one ropo (jaruman) a day was the norm, but there were some stitchers who managed 40; Runtop, to everybody's amazement, even 70! (Kalau kou kuat sangadau saboi apat ngopodjaruman. Mula yapa gulu, io ku cangang mana ta gaya o diso, saboi turu ngopod alap o). On the roof the distance between one layer of fronds and the next was one span (sarangau), i.e. about 8 inches, with each jaruman securely tied to the roof slats (reng) by rattan (uwai). (24)

To avoid having to redo an entire roof at the end of its life-time, people periodically rethatched sections of the roof, starting 6 or 7 years after initially putting up the thatch.

When sago leaves became scarce, people were forced to use nipah from the Tutong river. But nipah leaves were greatly inferior to sago leaves and lasted at best 5 years (andi taan raun nipa, limo taun no, maii io ramok bonor). (25)

Prohibitions during the construction of a house (pantang alai andi gi pongo)

If anyone other than the workmen fell off an unfinished house, or fell down inside it or experienced any other kind of accident, he or she was fined (kumon do no) for having been careless (andi tantu-tantu), especially if the person was found to have had no reason to be there. Such an incident was seen as a bad omen (raat lama neratu). Minor accidents suffered by persons constructing the house were of no consequence (onjop uno-uno).

There was no clear memory any more as to how people in the past reacted to major accidents (nasip raat) happening before a house was completed. Some thought that the house was dismantled and moved to another spot, others that only the roof structure needed to be replaced. Only certain was that an outbreak of an epidemic demanded an immediate halt to the construction of a house, however advanced it may have been, and a new house site had to be found. The death of a family member during building, however, had no impact on the process other than arising from the customary wake demands. (26)

The lay-out of an alai gayo

The interior plan of a Dusun alai gayo resembled those of the longhouses erected by other tribes such as the Kayans and Kenyans, (27) consisting of a large common space or gallery (serambi), followed by the family apartments (lubok or bilek) and the kitchen (dapur). Sirang was the term to describe a lubok, plus a section of the dapur with the stove (puan) and the space between one family lubok and the next. But sirang and lubok were often used interchangeably, referring either to the sleeping area alone, or the apartment plus part of the kitchen. (28) [see Figure 2]

Pangan's detailed description of the last alai gayo his family occupied may illustrate the general lay-out of all conventional Dusun alai gayo. It, like the alai gayo at Kalan Duun, measured about 66 feet in length (awad sarantai) and about 40 feet in depth (apat ngopot labi gayo io). Roughly 20 feet of the depth remained completely open and undivided to serve as the common gallery (deribou duo ngopod kaki labi), the rest made up the 8 private sleeping quarters (seralom alan bilek, alan modop/6 feet deep and 41/2 feet long) and beyond the kitchen with the hearths (alan puan, alan masak) another 14 feet deep.

The basic meaning of deribou is 'outside' the house or 'below, on the ground.' Selalom in contrast only means 'inside.' When, therefore, deribou is used to describe the gallery (serambi) in an alai gayo, a Dusun in the past would instantly equate it with the area downstairs on the ground around the house. To illustrate this, Pangan added that the serambi was: macam tana, macam gilot te: (like the land outside). But the similarity ended there. Unlike today, where the ground outside houses is used to serve meals under tents on festive occasions such as weddings (makan ya kem), or musical entertainments (pancaragam), in the past the ground outside was only used for cooking, especially boiling rice packets in cooking-oil tins (cuma io masak tana masak nubur klupis mok tin). All eating and other festivities, such as the war dance (ncayau), death's-head dance (kukui), or general dancing, and all ritual celebrations (alan temarok, lan lama makan, lama mangalai, lama minum) took place inside the house in the long and spacious gallery. It was a place where everyone could move about freely (mawad te, luas. lo no bulat deribou lapang nio, mudan kajou-kajou). Percussion instruments were kept there, hung along the walls (no onjop isi deribou o, kali aro tawak suang o alan bagandang), ready to be played.

However, the lubok section adjoining the serambi was strictly private. Each room (bilek lama) was owned by one person or family (29) and no one, not even members of the same house, could gain access without the owner's clear invitation (odong semuon mok lubok). In fact, despite being also called bilek (room), a lubok was usually no more than a space large enough for a bedstead (sodong awad alan nakin kibong o), or to roll out sleeping mats, with no scope for sitting. The partitions between the lubok were mostly of bark (kulit luan or kulit bangkou), or just curtains. But there was always enough space (alan ni miang) for people to sit between the rooms (olot bilek dan iti alan ngkuku), or even to eat (kalap makan dan iti mok olot bilek). Where a lubok had partition walls, it also had two doors (long tukad no duo te), one from the gallery, the other, at the further side, opening onto the shared kitchen.

The kitchen (dapur)

The kitchen, as stated above, could be accessed by the members of a family directly from their lubok, or by the passage between two lubok. A third way to the kitchen comprised the passages at either end of the lubok row. These two passages were usually wider than those between the rooms and were used by members of the household and non-members alike. [see Figure 2]

The kitchen followed the longitudinal wall of the house and was broad enough to accommodate if possible a separate hearth (puan) for each lubok family, or one hearth shared by two families, with one family on either side (duo inan, tunggal sabila, tunggal sabila). Rarely a very large hearth might be shared by up to four families (saboi tunggal puan no apat inan ngisu). Each hearth contained a clay slab set in a wooden rectangular frame, supported on four solid legs. More clay or the remains of dry, hardend anthills (punsu tana) were heaped on the clay base. Iron bars rested on two wooden blocks, one on either side, making up the andon, onto which a cooking pot could be positioned. The firewood (luton) below had to be arranged according to precise rules. The sticks (often three), had to have the thicker end, i.e. the bottom end, resting on the clay slab and the thinner top end pointing upwards (nyudu), leaving a hollow for air (talu batang o ngalap luang ono). (30) Each household, i.e.a lubok unit, collected its own firewood and either stored it beneath the stove or piled it up alongside. Wood mainly from the malia tree was collected from the nearby jungle by both men and women. Splitting the wood was done by the men, but both sexes carried it home in back-baskets (myanai ngelaas, kimu maya ngongoi maba ya sageng).Later, when rubber was widely planted, rubber branches were used instead (io no raan pulut gala lapon luton). Apart from fire-wood each family kept a water-pitcher (ipang) close to their stove.

The families either ate in the kitchen by their stove, or in the passage beside their lubok. Female guests might be asked to join them there for the meal and for exchange of news or a chat afterwards (alan ngkuku, alan cerita). Male guests, however, remained in the gallery at all times.

Causes for leaving or abandoning an alai gayo

The Kayans, Kenyahs among others are said to have rarely inhabited any house, even the more solidly built ones, for more than fifteen or twenty years (Hose, I: 55). The most common causes of their removal were need for new, more fertile land, severe epidemics, successive bad luck, or the burning down of the existing house. Among the Dusuns, fatal epidemics (penyakit gayo) (31) appear to have been the main reason to relocate an alai gayo prematurely, while adverse omens (nasip raat, angai raat), or bad dreams (nupi raat) could force them to postpone moving into a new alai gayo, or erecting the first tancok.

Narak grew up in Anak Tuno, an alai gayo with seven sirang. In his late twenties, a white dog-like spectre was seen by some inhabitants roaming around the house. After seven of them were struck down by a fatal infection, there was no doubt that the ghostly appearance was none other than a vengeful isi casting disease and death over the entire house. In horror all the remaining occupants fled to a distant jungle area and remained there for about two years before they thought it safe to return to Anak Tuno. (32)

Much earlier, Bukit Udal had been chosen by Pangan's great-grand father Kelaii as a sanctuary for his extended family when, for a third time, sickness struck their big house at Telamba. He later decided to remain permanently there. People from Abang, conversely, who initially too had fled to Bukit Udal and had planted orchards of durian (sukang and lalit) and jackfruit (tabadak), returned to their old home once the epidemic had receded (atas penyakit mail).

On another occasion when Pangan was in his teens, and news of a rapidly spreading epidemic (33) reached Bukit Udal, Runtop, Pangan's father, displayed his command over magical powers (petua) to save his alai gayo from the outbreak (ncaa sulap). As ketua alai he instructed all his people (anak bua o) to circle the house with him (sengaii lama maya ngaliling alai) on three days. At the end of the final perambulation he sat down on the ground with kapor, i.e. pounded betel-leaf, betel-nut and lime (daing, pinang, apou) and lit candles and called the spirit, known to be close, to attend (ngkuku io dono. Kadimon o nio). Runtop alone saw the spirit approach. The remaining persons present only heard Runtop address the apparition: "iti orang jaii te, odong kou nguo, intong-intong kou te orangjati te sengaii" ("all these are my people, do not afflict them, know that we all are of the same people") and asked it to accept the offering. The manner and content of the spirit's response, however, remained hidden from the people, but the isi obliged and spared the house (andi io nguo, andi ni io suat penyakit).

Moving to a newly constructed alai gayo

The move had to be conducted at the time of the waxing moon (bulan nakod). Relocating during the waning moon phase (bulan ndauu) was tantamount to future loss of livelihood (io ndauu barang rezeki). The tetuo (and ketua alai) might decide to test the new house by spending one night on his own in it, likely on new moon (bulan agu). Should he have an inauspicious dream (nupi raat) that night, the start of the move would be postponed for another two or three days, when he would seek another omen (angai agu). (34)

When commencing the general move, some older persons were asked to go and sleep in the new house on the first night, followed by several senior persons on the second and a further few on the third night (mesti tamba-tamba). Only then was it the turn of the younger members. But they too were encouraged to stagger their taking up of residence.

Accommodating a newly married couple (lama kawin agu) in an established alai gayo

If possible a separate lubok (lubok di-diso, ale-ale) was offered to the couple. But where space was restricted, a spare bilek might be borrowed (bilek minjam), or if the lubok of the parents was large enough to accommodate the couple for as long as necessary, a screen (pagar) or a wooden bedstead (kibong) (35) could provide the required seclusion. It was, however, emphasized that people in the past were not fussy (lama laid te andi peduli). They were used to being with others most of the time (suang-suang inan ni samo-samo). Real privacy was unknown to them.

Social organization of an alai gayo

None of the Dusun alai gayo in the Tutong district were thought to have contained more than seven families, the smallest having had less than twenty inhabitants, the largest a maximum of forty. (36)

Although these were distinctly non-stratified groups, the headmanship (tetuo and ketua alai) of a Dusun alai gayo generally went within families. As a rule, the most capable son followed the outgoing tetuo with no contest (andi io pile, jadi anak o) and commonly served in this position until his death. He had been instructed from an early age by his father in all aspects of law and customs (adat), as well as becoming proficient in the shamanistic art of a dukun (medicine-man, augur), to secure the respect and loyalty of his people (anak bud). (37) A tetuolketua alai was expected to arbitrate and mediate in disputes between two parties of his household, and impose fines where breaches of adat were clearly established. He was responsible for organizing the construction of a new alai gayo, its subsequent management and, if ever required, a relocation.

Beyond this, collection of comparative kinship data in emulation of Peranio 1977 (on the already changing Limbang scene in the late 1950s) would have been conditional on the present author being both motivated towards kinship research specifically; not having other priorities such as learning the Dusun language from scratch; and not facing a subversive challenge from a jealous local anthropologist in a mutually supportive relationship with an authoritarian state (Kershaw, R. 1998: 33-34) (at that time the government was highly fearful of research on the non-Muslim "tribes"). In fact, a perhaps more relevant difficulty in the 1980s-90s arose from younger-generation migration to urban areas, which rendered the tracing of many family linkages effectively impossible.

Prohibitions and fines relating to any house, whether occupied or deserted

Any damage inflicted on an occupied house belonging to someone else (merosak alai rumo) simply had to be made good. No further fine was imposed. Similarly when any object from in- or outside someone else's home was removed without the owner's permission, it had to be replaced with a brand-new object (ngganti barang ono. Onjop aro ukum. Barang lama jadi agu).

But if any part of a deserted house, whose original owner was still alive, was removed without the owner's permission, the fine ukum kemali of $5 was imposed on the guilty person for having behaved as if the owner had died and therefore had no more use for the house and its parts (cam onjop aro lama mpuan barang ono).

A person carrying what could be used as a weapon, such as a knife (isau), slashing knife (dangol), or a gun (senapang), before intending to go up into a house, had to leave it behind, either at the bottom of the stairs or at the latest by the door. Entering a house with it was a serious offence and fined one gong (sangumi agong). (38) Similarly, if someone went into a house with intent to make trouble (nau ngayau di-rumo; menakod dalai nyarubang di-rumo), he or she too received a fine of one gong.

Big houses giving way to individual dwellings

The earliest single Dusun houses seem to have been built in the late thirties two decades after the British administration had outlawed headhunting. By that time the number of raids from neighboring groups had become significantly less. But these initial one-family dwellings were nevertheless grouped around or near the original big house, as the village layout of Bang Diok still testified in the 1980s.

A further two-fold impetus for moving out of the alai gayo was provided by the Japanese during their occupation: 1) their brutal treatment of even minor offences brought the crime rate down to near zero, instilling even greater confidence into the Dusuns to live in less protected surroundings; 2) the Japanese, unlike the British previously, encouraged the Dusuns to establish new padi fields on virgin land or reserved land (tagon o ngarau mok utan simpan), encouraging especially younger couples to venture further from their homes than ever before. The field-huts (tadong) they now erected were sturdier and could be occupied for up to three months, during both the planting and harvesting season, without the need to return home. Each such tadong had a raised floor of split bamboo or sago (sileo bulu, sileo ambio), with walls and roof of sago palm fronds (obon raun ambio, taap raun ambio). The space beneath was used to store the newly harvested padi until the end of the harvest. The cooking was done on the ground in the open. All the milled rice (agas) needed for the stay, the occupants had brought along; fish (sada) and meat (daging) they caught or hunted; vegetables (sancam) they gathered in the vicinity. (39)

All older Dusuns who had experienced this new way of life away from home, years later still talked fondly of the time spent in the fields, and described how, on their return, they desired to replicate their life in the fields and exchange communal life for living in separate accommodation (andi no bakumpol te, da biasa no ngaal noyo sulap io ale-ale: they no longer lived together; as they had become accustomed [to living by themselves] they began to build separate houses). These new villages (kampong) were led by an officially appointed headman, the ketua kampong, while after 1931 several such kampongs were joined into parishes, termed mukim, with Penghulus responsible for their administration.

As mentioned at the beginning, the only alai gayo that was still extant in the 1980s was the present author's home at Kalan Duun in the hamlet of Bang Diok. (40) Although none of the remaining residents talked about there once being a gallery (serambi) with stairs on either side, similar to the present Dusun alai gayo at Sukang, we may safely assume that this had been the case. Its original longitudinal length (as reported above) indicates that it too had once been a conventional Dusun alai gayo. The precise moment when and the reason why the old house was reduced in size was also no longer known. One hypothesis offered was that when one of the severe epidemics (penyakit gayo) was spreading in the area, the inhabitants of Kalan Duun, (like many of the big houses of Dukong) fled to the jungle. When, after the epidemic had receded (atas penyakit maii), some of the original inhabitants returned to Kalan Duun, they rebuilt the house to a smaller scale, with a square-shaped (sagi apat) floor-plan rather than the usual rectangular one. The number of units occupying the new house probably never exceeded five, the same number still recorded before the house was finally abandoned, possibly in the nineteen sixties.

An outwardly identical single family house was most likely erected simultaneously beside the main house, and similarly used material from the original building. (41) This small house remained occupied by one family as of 1985 and escaped destruction in 1988.

The layout of the rebuilt alai gayo at Kalan Duun as extant in 1985

Most of the principal main part and the entire kitchen remained standing on tall piles above a small tributary (bang diok). The outer walls of the main building were of overlapping sawn planks (obon papan), the roof now of corrugated iron (taap sink), by 1985 red from rust. (42) The wood-cladding of the gable top ends above the roof tie, at either side of the house, had been fairly recently replaced by vertical sheets of this corrugated iron. Two of the windows (long pawang) of the building, were placed at seat height (seriba, sodong ngkuku) and merely one plank wide and about three feet long. The remaining windows (tabok or jendela), were at standing height, with outer wooden shutters. The steps (tukad) had gone, but were replaced for my arrival with five rungs (laang tukad) in total and with a hand-rail (alig or pagar tukad) on the right-hand side.




The interior was now completely open. All of the past partitions had been removed. The only furniture left was a wooden four-poster bed. The floor (sileo) was of either wooden planks (papan) of various length and breadth, or of nibong slats, likewise of different breadth. As there were no partitions, nor ceiling, all the rafters (kasau), purlins (dampar) and roof-ties (peninting) were exposed.

The kitchen, separate in modern times from the main building, was accessed via a narrow roofed passage linking the two. The kitchen was by far the most interesting part of the house. It still retained one outer bark-wall (obon kulit kayu) and a floor of mainly nibong (sileo nibong). Both bark wall and the sections of nibong floor were believed to have been left-overs from the original house, i.e. from around 1910. In other words, the integrity of a historic house and kitchen had disappeared. Of the original five cooking hearths, only two were remaining, one, now without legs, sitting on the floor, one still on its four wooden supports, raising the hearth about two feet above the floor.


Modern Dusun houses

Even though numerous younger Dusuns had by the 1980s migrated to urban areas in pursuit of employment, building a house in their home village still had some attraction to many. It was made easier by the fact that their livelihood no longer depended on farming, thus old rules which still governed their fathers could now be overlooked (sekola da aro, io alan onjop pantang no adau iti, kakal sow ngalap ncari no: education today frees people from old prohibitions. They can still be sure of a livelihood). Choosing a site was no longer seen as a problem. Most places rejected in the past could now be accessed. Land such as hill-tops could be flattened by modern machinery (nyungkil purok, ngaal rata-ratd), depressions could be filled in, making nearly all land suitable to erect houses. The process of selecting a house site in the past and present was described as follows: "gulu lama ngintong tana, adau iti lama pile tana": previously people looked carefully at the land, nowadays they take any land they fancy."

Houses built on titled land (tana garan) or on land subject to a Temporary Occupation License (TOL, tana toel)

Up to the establishment of the Residency all Dusun big houses were built on state land. Unofficial ownership of land and trees has been recognized and respected among the Dusuns themselves for a very long time. But not being numerous, the rural Dusuns (lama dusun laid te onjop suang inan bo) perceived land to be plentiful, both for cultivation and settlement. Seeking title to land was therefore not an issue for discussion (onjop lama pa guno tana musim laid te). Even when the British restricted land-use, only very few Dusuns comprehended the new value of land. (43) This is why many if not most rural Dusuns do not own the land on which their houses stand. Such land was placed by the Brunei (colonial) government under Temporary Occupation Licences. The official rules for a building on TOL land, whether in urban or rural areas, state that the structure must be of wood, and not filled in between the supporting pillars on the ground. (44)

One further impediment that was frequently talked about in the 1980s was when Dusun parents had nominated their children as heirs to some agricultural land held in title, either within or at a distance from the village in the hope that these new owners would one day make use of the land. If, however, as was often the case, these younger Dusuns wanted to accept the government's offer of a highly desired subsidized unit in a newly built housing estate, only landless persons were entitled to apply for them. This also excluded anyone in possession of TOL land. So, to the great disappointment and regret of the parents, such land was on numerous occasions returned to them or at times even handed over to the government.
Appendix: Vocabulary related to parts or structure of the house

alai or sulap         house
bumbung or bumbungan  roof (general)
serambi               gallery
lubok or bilek        family room
dapur                 shared kitchen
tabungan or bungan    roof space = luang tabungan
pitan                 hearth
obon                  wall (internal/external)
tukad                 steps, pagar tukad (alig): handrail
long or luang pawang  elongated narrow window (in seat height)
tabok or jendela      window, often with shutters
long or luang tukad   door opening
kobot                 door
mbutu                 corner post supporting the roof
pamantung             vertical door-post
takup long tukad      horizontal door-post
dampar                purlin
kalang                joist
kasau                 rafter
panusok               floor-tie
peniting              roof-tie
reng                  slat
sulai                 supporting timber or post, sulai dampar, sulai
                      tancok, etc


Hose, Charles, and William McDougall

1993 The Pagan Tribes of Borneo. Vol.1. Repr. Singapore, Oxford in Asia Hardback Reprints.

Kershaw, Eva Maria

2000 A Study of Brunei Dusun Religion. Ethnic Priesthood on a Frontier of Islam. Phillips, ME: Borneo Research Council (Monograph Series, No. 4).

Kershaw, Eva Maria and Roger Kershaw

2011 Writing an Identity. Content and Conceptions of a Brunei-Dusun "Constitution" of 1981. Phillips, ME: Borneo Research Council (Monograph Series No. 12).

Kershaw, Roger

1998 Brunei-Dusun omen birds and the rice-sowing Zodiac: some ambivalent portents for autochthonous research, Borneo Research Bulletin 29: 29-56.

Peranio, Roger D

1977 The Structure of Bisaya Society: A Ranked Cognatic Social System.Ph.D thesis, Faculty of Political Science, New York, Columbia University. (Repr. 1979, Ann Arbor, Michigan, University Microfilms International.)

Sandin, Benedict

1972 The Bisayah and indigenous peoples of Limbang, Sarawak Museum Journal 20: 41-51.

Eva Maria Kershaw

Parish of Assynt Sutherland, Scotland

(1) An alai for the Dusuns is strictly a house large and substantial enough to be occupied by at least one family unit for several years. Anything smaller, such as a field dwelling, lived in over the planting season, is a sulap. The breadth of a 'big house' was generally 2/3 of its length, thus, the length never reached the extent of a Kayan or Iban longhouse. The latter was termed by Dusuns alai awad (long house), whereas they called their own large or big house an alai gayo (big house).

(2) Despite the vivid memories of Kayan raids into Dusun territory, it was unlikely that these were other than sporadic and always in a quest for heads, trophies of gongs and brassware, and possibly some slaves, but never in search of new agricultural land. The main suffered incursions, therefore, were from such neighboring groups as the Tutongs (sang kluyo) and Kedayans (sang pungit).

(3) Known officially as Sungai Damit Pemadang.

(4) Ingai (his ID stated his year of birth as 1905), who spent his youth there, remembered the the palm fronds of the roof were twice renewed during the time of occupancy. But he could not say when the main house and kitchen shrank to their 1980 size. Equally I do not have the date when the single unit dwelling behind the main house was constructed. But judging by its appearance, especially the roof of its main section, it seems to date from the same period as the corrugated iron roof of the large house. [See picture 1]

(5) Possibly used elsewhere. What was left was the bed, some fishing nets and several sets of rattan rings (utas jaring, njaring), used in the past to hunt Sambhur deer (tambang: Cervus unicolor).[See pictures 2, 7, 8]

(6) This was against past Dusun practice where any house that was no longer to be used, might be dismantled and reused elsewhere. Otherwise it was left to disintegrate by itself. Absolutely forbidden was to set fire to all or parts of an old house (pantang marun alai laid).

(7) An early and persistent bedfellow happened to be a small black lizard (mpluari) which liked to creep under my pillow, but never disturbed me. When I told Narak about it he asked: mana gayo? (how big is it?). I indicated with my two index fingers about six inches. Narak's firm response was: ain mpluan, anak buayo! (this is not a lizard but a baby crocodile). I later learned that the size of snakes, lizards etc were given by their circumference and not length. Therefore the size of my mpluan should have been indicated by the width of my 5(th) finger! Two memorably spooky noctural calls on moonlit nights belonged to the frogmouths in the surrounding sago swamp and nightjars along the track, though identification, even as birds, was delayed until after observation and cogitation by Roger Kershaw.

(8) E.g. Timor Bandang of Bang Diok (Sungei Damit) could claim to have built his house on such a ground, as in the 30 years he had occupied it no unforeseen death or accident had occurred in it or to its inhabitants.

(9) For a full acount of the role of a Dusun dukun in the past see Kershaw, E.M. 2000, p 69.

(10) There was no restriction on wood collected for other purposes such as fire-wood.

(11) Just as no work was allowed in the rice-field. There the reasons were clear, namely that ignoring the restriction was likely to result in the rice getting spoilt, with no likely cure at hand. The grounds for not erecting the first pole were less obvious.

(12) The scaring of birds and obscuring their sounds at the beginning of building a new house was also noted in Hose and McDougall 1912 (repr 1993) Vol I: 209.

(13) Usually a dapa trunk (Vatica sp), with other poles being upun (Upuna borneensis, teak wood).

(14) The east (adau iau) is associated with life and birth, the west with dying and death and belonging to the dead (adau matai, lama matai mpuan).

(15) Older people asked how in modern times, when all poles bought from saw-mills were equally thick at both ends, how anyone could possibly distinguish the butt from the crown (adau iti ngisu kayu mputong, andi pandai untu, puun).

(16) Some people who later used cast cement plinths (tancok semin) still inserted such a parcel when at the point of casting.

(17) Hose and McDougall 1912 (repr 1993) Vol I: 99-100.

(18) Nibong floors alone were certain not to crack under the weight of large numbers of revellers stamping in unison in a kukui [head dance] or ncayau [war dance] (andi kou kaputul sileo nibong). Nibong slats, therefore, were likely to be reused in the construction of a new house.

(19) One ropo is the length from the tip of the middle finger of one hand to the tip of the middle finger of the other hand, when both arms are stretched out, or near equal of the length of a person from head to toe; i.e. about two yards. For a detailed description of a longhouse construction see Hose and McDougall 1912 (repr 1993) Vol I: 203-210.

(20) Bangkou bark sheets had one further advantage: as they were thinner than luan bark sheets, it was easy for shy young girls to bore small holes into them in order to observe the goings-on outside (okon mangurek obon tad selalom ngintong). With luan bark, two sections of the wall had to be pried slightly apart to achieve the same result (kulit luan gon o milak).

(21) During the Japanese occupation and for some time afterwards all wooden poles, posts, and planks had to be tied with rattan, as nails were unobtainable (Onjop gi paku. Paya, ngisu ogot sengaii). The extension poles to the main poles (mok tancok te, mbutu o pun bogot, ogot uwai), the roof-ties and even the roof itself were all tied by rattan (sawat ngogot peninting, bumbung ogot uwai.).

(22) Sago fronds often had to be harvested from a fair distance. People from Rambai, for instance, came as far as Bukit Udal in search of them (Lama Rambai li diti nau ngalap).

(23) One side of the palm leaves was folded over the center rib (jaruman) and stitched to the other side with split bomban (Donax canniformis) stems, a reed otherwise used for basketry.

(24) To roof a small single house about 500 fronds were required, a larger single one more than one thousand.

(25) For this reason Runtop used corrugated iron after his sago roof needed replacing. Yet corruguated iron too was less durable than he thought. A list of vocabulary relating to parts or structure of the house is appended at the end of the article.

(26) There were two deaths in 1986 while the families were building houses: Angkalit Buntak from a short illness, Madam Musing in a road accident. For the restrictions, see E.M. Kershaw and R. Kershaw 2011 Appendix 3.

(27) See Hose and McDougall 1912 (repr 1993),Vol I, pp 203-211.

(28) The same interchangeable usage of both lobok and sirang in everyday discourse was recorded among the Bisaya of Limbang (Peranio 1977: 83).

(29) A"family" was generally described as being two parents and their children [mostly one to three]. An alai gayo, moreover, contained several bilaterally related family units. But it is noteworthy that Dusun has no indigenous word for "family." Dusuns, when necessary, have taken recourse to the Malay kaum, both for a 'domestic family unit,' and for 'group, rank-category,' and 'extended family,' as in kaum keluarga or kaum belian.

(30) Again it was greatly important that the bottom and top of branches or sticks were still identifiable and placed accordingly. This, like the correct vertical position of the poles on houses, ensured that no child of the house would be born feet-first.

(31) Such as cholera (kolira), dysentry (penyakit temaii or penyakit tarom), and small-pox (penasi)

(32) The disease in question was either dysentery or the outbreak of diphtheria mentioned in the 1938 Annual Report Brunei. Narak built a single house within the compound of Anak Tuno. He lived in it for about 20 years before erecting his final house, once more on the same site.

If people did not wish to go to a remote jungle area, it was considered distant enough to set up camp as soon as the crowing of the cockerels left behind was no longer audible.

(33) Most likely the same outbreak of diphtheria, when Pangan was fifteen.

(34) But no one knew of anyone ever having to seek a second omen, which means that no adverse dream was normally experienced, even at the first attempt (onjop ni loloi-loloi raat).

(35) With about 30 yards of ordinary cotton material draped around four posts (libun bo no kuo main-main no, libun kasa, talu ngopod ela)

(36) The present Mukim of Ukong (as listed by Narak Buntak and Ruput Mantok) had 15 alai gayo: Bang Pangan [Bang is the short form of Bawang = river]; Beraban; Dalong; Dukong; Lago Benuang; Lampaku; Nak Padang [Nak stands for Anak = little, small]; Nak Tuno; Nong Anggi [Nong or Nung is the short form of temunung = foot of a hill]; Pak Balai [Pak is short for tampak = top of]; Pangkalan Duun or Kalan Duun pangkalan = landing stage for boats]; Pangkalan Piasau; Piton Lambang (the last of the alai gayo); Telamba.

Nak Tuno had 3 sirang with 15 inhabitants (cf down from the earlier 7); Pangkalan Duun had 5 sirang.

The present Mukim of Tanjung Maya (as listed by Anai Adum) had 6 alai gayo: Na Sidat; Nong Daru; Nong Kululou [= the present Bukit Udal]; Nong Manggis; Pangkalan Pap; Pok Karagan. Each alai gayo had 3 sirang with about 5 members each. A house therefore had less than 20 inhabitants.

The present Mukim of Lamunin had 7 alai gayo with no more than 4 sirang each. One such alai gayo was Pak Nunok.

The present Mukim of Rambai had 1 alai gayo

(37) Without access to a school, the son designated to follow his father, mostly the eldest son, acquired the vital asset of insight and judgment directly from his father (lan o berakal, yapa te bo ngajar, pandai ngira o jami). Pangan explained how his father, tetuo/pengulu Runtop, taught his two oldest sons from an early age what he deemed to be the basic, but most important, attributes of a good communal leader. The exact wording was still fresh in Pangan's mind, some 50 years later: "odong muyon raat ya lama kampong. Odong peduli tuntut rumo raat, odong maya. Ingat yang moncoi gala lap aman" ["do not treat the people of the village badly. Do not listen to gossip, do not be influenced by it. Remember always to act in the interest of harmony"] "Lama jadi tetuo no kajun bolou mato, bingol telingo" ["anyone becoming a tetuo must behave as if both blind and deaf"]. He elaborated: "rati bolou mato, uno-uno pun kito odong peduli. Uno-uno pun tuntut rumo odong ngarongou" ["that is, blind to everything he sees, deaf to everything others say"]. "Kalau aro sow ngadu baru kou ngarongou, mun andi, andi kou bole batuntut, cam ngintai gala, ngintai adu no" ["Only when someone comes with a complaint should a tetuo listen. Otherwise he must not speak, but wait, wait for a complaint to be brought before him".] Moreover a tetuo must be respectful yet sociable and always willing to take part in whatever task his people had to perform: moncoi io no, budi no moncoi ngarumo, ngarumo di-rumo, uno korojo no ngarumo o.

(38) Kalau lama nakod dalai lama lain ya dangol, ya senapang, kalau andi ileo mu, kakal nakod kou dalai, iton mu kajou-kajou ono, kumon no kou, kumon do sangumi agong: if someone goes up into another house with a slashing knife or a gun and does not remove either, but enters and walks around the house with it, he is fined one gong.

(39) If the couples had children, these were left behind to be cared for by the older people. Pangan (born 1923) and his wife Kasip (bom 1929) were one such couple, who as newly-weds lived in their field hut for over three months. These padi fields were later planted with rubber trees.

(40) Kalan or pangkalan is a landing stage, Duun a place name, bang or bawang a river, diok means small; thus bang diok is a tributary river or brook.

(41) Hose and McDougall 1912 (repr 1993) Vol I, p 55 notes that most interior peoples, such as the Kayans, generally reuse planks and the best of the timber in the construction of a new house.

(42) On sunny days radiating uncomfortable amounts of heat into the inside. Ingai thought there had been two previous sago leaved roof coverings (duo ganti taap ono).

(43) Pangan recalled the time when the first land surveys took place. A Malayan official (from Malaya), Abu Taman, urged the Dusuns (Abu Taman majal o) to take up the offer and obtain title to the land they cultivated. Some agreed, even signed up, but few kept paying the yearly land-charges and subsequently forfeited their rights to the land (naii sain gala soro, tapi andi barai, macam kinsil o nio). Others sold the land to eager urban Chinese and then went on working their original land for the new Chinese owners (Tana kina gala bo no, jadi kuli kina!).

(44) But the building authorities generally seem to turn a blind eye to such developments in villages, even when of bricks and mortar.
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH NOTES
Author:Kershaw, Eva Maria
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Geographic Code:9BRUN
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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