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Making tactile: ganti diri figures and the magic of concreteness among the Luangan Dayaks.

Dewi Itak Silu Malik and Dewa Kakah Embung Mele were surprised to watch the work of God the Almighty. There was not one of them [of the earthen figures that God had made] which had turned into a real human being, destined to inhabit the earth that had been prepared for them.

God then happened to overhear the talk of Dewi Itak Silu Malik and Dewa Kakah Embung Mele. He told them so: my intention was indeed to create human beings. But after I had turned around those figures that I had made, they turned out to be the races of Wok and Bongai instead [i.e. spirit beings].

Dewi Itak Silu Malik thus seated herself for a belian ritual, for a turning around of the figures. She did so while holding a biyowo leaf, an olung and a jie leaf. She started chanting, using a special melody and special words. She whisked and waved, she fanned and turned around those figures.

And thus they became human beings; human beings who could move their feet, stir their hands, twinkle their eyes, turn their bodies.

--Excerpts from the Luangan origin story as written down by Lemanius (1996, chapter 11; my translation) (1)

In mythical times the goddess Itak Silu Malik turned around some human-like figures, and by turning them she made them into real human beings. While Allatallah, the almighty creator God, had failed to make these figures into proper human beings, Itak Silu Malik succeeded. By turning them around, she transformed the copies into what they represented. Through her agency, they became real. This article will be an exploration of the process by which Kakah Ramat and other belian curers among the Luangan Dayaks of East and Central Kalimantan (2) today call on Itak Silu Malik to help them turn around figures (malik, 'to turn around,' here means both to physically turn around, rotate, and to transform), assisting them in the making of representations that have magical power over what they represent. It will be an exploration of the copies, the images creating what they are images of, and I will therefore start my analysis with a description of the images themselves, or, in other words, the objects--material objects as well as "objects" created through words--through which the belians negotiate their world. I will thus attempt to describe the objects in their "objectness" (Taussig 1993: 2), trying to convey some of the concrete and sensuous qualities which I see as fundamental to how these images work.

Belian curing rituals, in which a shaman (belian), with the help of spirit familiars (mulung), negotiates with malevolent spirits which are believed to cause illness in a patient, are very frequent among non-Christian Luangans; in statistical terms, there was a belian ritual going on almost every second night during my fieldwork among the central Luangan. (3) For these people, who practice swidden rice cultivation, rituals hold a central place in their social life by providing opportunities for the otherwise generally dispersed kin groups and communities to gather. Many rituals are, however, rather small and unpretentious affairs attracting only small groups of close kin and neighbors. In such rituals, the performance of the officiating shaman tends to be rather restrained and subdued, and most of the ritual activity--in which the audience is often only marginally engaged--seem to center on the ritual representations. This article explores the workings of ritual representations--the ritual imagery--in such situations and more generally, and examines their significance in the curing process.

Ritual Imagery

In order to apprehend this imagery, and the creation of it, we have to enter a belian ritual, the context in which the imagery is used. We are thus entering Kakah Ramat's house. It is a late evening in August 1996, and the sounds of drums are calling, telling us that there is a ritual about to start. Kakah Ramat's grandson's wife is feeling ill, she has suffered from sleeplessness and a general feeling of sickness for the last two weeks, and Kakah Ramat, a practicing shaman himself, has decided to hold a belian for her. (4) This is not a big event, not a spectacular ritual, but a small curing session for a family member, not very ill, but ill enough to cause concern. (5) Together with a few neighbors the family has gathered in the house, the necessary decorations have been made, and now Kakah Ramat starts the ritual by blowing on his bear-tooth whistle. This is a luangan style ritual, a ritual focused on words and images, not on dancing and trancing, characteristics of bawo and sentiu curing. (6) Kakah Ramat, who is an old man in his eighties, is an experienced curer; by many of his neighbors he is considered the most knowledgeable curer working in the luangan style today. In his quiet and unobtrusive way he is a master of powerful words and images, words and images which here, once again, will take him, and us I hope, into the realm of representations.

There is a siur, a large 'fishing basket' (a rattan screen used to sieve for fish and river shrimp in flooded riverside grass) on the floor in the middle of the room, containing what might at first just seem to be pieces of wood, but which on closer inspection reveal themselves to be what you could call replicas. Some of them are wooden sticks, with eyes and mouths and traces of arms cut into them: rough representations of human beings. Others consist of small carved animal figurines: water buffaloes, pigs, chickens, goats. Still others represent musical instruments and heirloom objects: drums, gongs, Chinese jars, pearls (see plate 1). Then there are figurines resembling humans or animals, but not quite: some of them have sharp, pointed heads, others belong to anomalous categories of animals--spirit figurines. All these different effigies are heaped together in the basket; some of them are old, shrouded with dust and cobwebs, others are new, smelling of fresh wood, still white in color. Next to the basket there is a row of miniature houses standing on the floor, each shaped differently, made of tree and plant parts, with roofs of various kinds of leaves (see plate 2). One of the houses is made of decayed potok wood and withered potok leaves, another is made of leaves and stalks of the kelewono tree, a third has a roof of topus timang leaves. Inside each of these houses, which have open fronts and backs so that you can see through them, there are small white figurines made of rice paste, shaped like human beings with outstretched arms and legs, lying on pieces of banana leaf (see plate 3). Placed among these tiny figurines there are small portions of cooked rice, together with darkened clots of chicken blood.


Kakah Ramat is sitting cross-legged in the midst of these objects. He is chanting quietly, with his eyes closed--his gaze turned inward, his mouth full of betel. In his hand he holds a whisk of olung and jie leaves, which he is moving slowly, back and forth. On both his cheeks and on his bare chest he has yellow and white spots of turmeric and lime paste, decorations making him visible and susceptible to the spirits. In front of him there is a plate with glowing-hot incense wood (bemueng), its smoke rising toward the ceiling along a sarong cloth twined as a rope (penyelenteng), which hangs down from the roof beams, connecting spirits and human beings. Next to the censer there is a white plate filled with uncooked rice, with a small porcelain bowl containing sticky rice placed on top of it, both decorated with red and yellow flowers, and the bowl has a burning candle in the center. Kakah Ramat is picking up a few grains of rice, throwing them up into the air, letting them disperse at random.

Tak Ramat, his wife and assistant who is sitting at his side, is squashing turmeric in a flat turtle-shaped ironwood mortar, making it into a bright yellow paste.

It is dark in the room; there is just one small oil lamp lighting up Kakah Ramat who is sitting close to it. The young woman for whom the ritual has been arranged is lying on the floor in a corner of the room, sleeping, together with her two small children. Mancan, her brother-in-law, is playing with a kitten, teaching it to chase mice. The attention of the few of us who are still awake is turned toward Mancan and the cat and toward the dead mouse he has fixed to a string as a toy for the indifferent kitten. Tired from the day's work, most of the people present have lain down on the floor, and they are soon falling asleep, lulled by Kakah Ramat's monotonous chanting.

It is, however, precisely in the chanting, in Kakah Ramat's mumbling words, that most of the action takes place at this moment. With his words Kakah Ramat has created a connection between spirits and human beings, he has opened up his body to the spirits, inviting them to participate. It is at this point that we should listen carefully, because it is now that Kakah Ramat turns his attention toward the effigies, toward the human-like figures, and the miniature houses. He does so with a hardly noticeable change of tune, starting a new song, initiating a process which is called malik sepatung, 'turning the figures.' He is whisking the olung and jie leaves back and forth over the figures in the basket, over the houses with their rice-paste inhabitants. Through his words he is turning the figures, first in the wrong way--seven turns--toward the setting sun and the waning moon, and then in the right way --eight times--toward the rising sun and the new moon, thus making them into substitutes for the patient, "the myna bird struck dumb," (7) as she is here called.

Kakah Ramat's words make things happen as they are enunciated. They create and recreate objects and events--some visible, others invisible--through description and invitation. In order to perceive this process we have to open ourselves to Kakah Ramat's words, and step into the "empowered cognitive space" (Tsing 1993:97) of his chanting, into the song of turning the figures. Kakah Ramat begins the song (which is presented below in full) by summoning some spirit familiars. With a hoarse and lingering voice he calls them. He then proceeds with the actual turning, singing hurriedly, swallowing part of the words, just hinting at their constitution. Occasionally he pauses to clear his throat, or to spit out some betel nut juice. At points of transition in the text he slows down and stretches the syllables, assuring himself that the words will reach their destination.

 Nook Suit Ine Sao
 bero Bobok Uma Bao
 bero Tiwak Ma Tawai
 Silu Bisu Lintai Ngongo
 Ayus Buok Intong Reboi
 sulet Suit Ine Sao
 bero Bobok Uma Bao
 Silu Bisu Lintai Ngongo
 Ayus Buok Intong Reboi
 Nutung jemu areng
 nili olau burang
 matik jomit boto
 burei benes
 balik jurun sepatung
 beta rentang kesali
 batek sepatung burei
 butin Luing senenaring
 turu kali berebalik
 turu user berebele
 turu jiak penejiau
 dero balik sala belisei
 puput sala belisei
 sepatung sala kotek
 bayar bulau sala pulas
 sedediri sala urai
 ganti beau jadi gilir
 timbang beau jadi gade
 leban roten beau uli
 saan beau unur
 dongo beau golek
 oten beau meme
 oreng jiak penejiau
 napang maten olo tonep
 nelama bulan punus
 nuju batu Rimbung Apui
 napang goa Luang Olo
 baling dining upak putang
 jaba sasak boa oleng
 balik tou elang pesan
 bele empa elang wale
 balik napang olo sulet
 ngenawe bulan ure
 sulet rengin meroe
 empet lampung melimei
 balik kunen belisei
 puput kunen tengkieu
 berejadi pemakar ganti
 Ma Renga ganti diri
 gantin tiong pererongo
 jadi rentang kesali
 lenuang lambang olang
 adi jakit bantan unan
 oongok roten uli
 pengantai saan unur
 uli tuhan ka lei
 la langit awe ulun
 la tana awe ulun
 balik tou elang pesan
 bele empa elang wale
 balik Itak Silu Malik
 Kakah Mung Mele
 Biyayung Memalik
 Bensiang Ma Muser
 malik jurun sepatung
 balik napang olo sulet
 ngelama bulan empet
 balik rengin meroe
 lampung melimei berejadi
 ganti gilir
 timbang gade gantin unuk
 tiong pererongo
 bagin muung poyut bulet
 bekakang poyut bisa
 adi kukup nunuk nyang tempung
 pernalau nyang topa
 liang sepatung iro
 bagin belibet beau empet
 belayar beau uli
 enko telahui molo
 uaa telahui watun
 liang sepatung iro
 bagin Bongai bawen Mulang
 bagin Blis buhan Setan
 kayu entun simpung
 raba entun ruo
 penulek ka salung uli
 penungkeng ka pasang munur
 penous bundrung juus
 penuker ruo walo
 juus tiong pererongo
 pulun bulau tungke kesong
 adi dongen busek golek renak galak
 torik otau lio toto
 ketakar kunen awat kunen anam
 ngankar asi kunen ado
 ketakarjuus uli
 ketanyak ruo unur
 balik oit ututjemu
 belisei tanges tutung
 bemueng saing tamun
 kulat dupa tenung batu
 gengari datai Tiwei
 kumpai lati lili lio
 rukang ruku padang mulir
 bengkiras batang bawo
 siopot kayun kuleng
 balik napang olo sulet
 ngelama bulan empet
 jadi sepatung ganti
 Ma Renga ganti diri
 gantin tiong pererongo
 walo kali berebalik
 sie user berebele
 napang maten olo sulet
 ngelama bulan empet
 sulet rengin meroe
 sulet lampung melimei
 sep atung kunen kotek
 bayar bulau kunen polas
 sedediri kunen urai
 kesali kunen tentang
 jadi ganti na gilir
 timbang na gade
 gantin unuk tiong dongo
 ulun bulau tungke kesong
 uli ujung kerepuru
 uli oit rengin roe
 ngangung lampung limei
 oit kosi muan golek
 torik otau lio toto


 Calling Suit, mother and wife
 and Bobok father of Bao
 and Tiwak father of Tawai
 Silu the Dumb One, Lintai the Idiot
 Ayus Buok, Intong Reboi
 come Suit, mother and wife
 and Bobok father of Bao
 Silu the Dumb One, Lintai the Idiot
 Ayus Buok, Intong Reboi (9)
 Lighting the charred incensewood
 pouring the cloudy oil
 smearing the rotten turmeric
 the rice paste turned sour
 turning the wooden effigies
 together with the spirit houses
 complete with the rice-paste figurines inside
 the grains of Luing made human beings (10)
 seven times they're turned upside down
 seven turns they're turned around
 seven falls they're felled down
 this is the wrong turning
 the defective manufacturing
 the wooden effigy is wrongly carved
 the gold which is paid is badly cut
 the rice-paste figurine is badly formed
 the exchange object is not received
 the substitute does not become a pledge
 the maladies are not returning
 the illness is not backing off
 the sick one is not recovering
 the injuries are not healed
 this is the end of the turning and whisking
 in the direction of the setting sun
 toward the waning moon
 toward the stone of eternal fire
 toward the cave of daylight
 penetrating the wall of meranti bark (11)
 breaking through the trap at the river's mouth
 turning the sugarcane across the squeezer
 moving the betel chewing to the other chin
 turning around toward the rising sun
 facing the new moon emerging
 there is refreshing coolness arriving
 renewed prosperity coming
 the turning becomes proper turning
 the manufacturing becomes correct
 becomes an object of exchange
 Ma Renga substituting for the self
 in return for the myna bird struck dumb
 the spirit house becomes a dwelling place
 a raft to lie down on
 a barque to row with
 a place for the illness to return to
 an abode for the sickness
 return together with your master
 to the skies where there are no people
 to the lands where there are no people
 turn the sugarcane across the squeezer
 move the betel chewing to the other chin
 turn with Itak Silu Malik
 with Kakah Mung Mele
 Biyayung the turner
 Bensiang the converter
 turn around the wooden effigy
 turn toward the rising sun
 turn toward the new moon emerging
 turn into refreshing coolness
 so that renewed prosperity
 is received in exchange
 the pledge given substitutes
 for the myna bird struck dumb
 as the muung bush is full of berries
 the bekakang shrub hangs heavy with yield
 so that the strangler fig follows the tree falling
 and the staghorn fern weighs down the branch (12)
 take this wooden effigy
 so that what leaves does not turn back
 what sails away does not return
 what walks away gets lost
 what ends ceases completely
 take this wooden effigy
 for Bongai and the Mulang woman
 for Blis, the family of Setan (13)
 for the trees in the forest groves
 for the trees in the groves of spirits (14)
 to tell you visitors to leaver
 to make you all withdraw
 having you restore the soul (15)
 change back the eight essences (16)
 the soul of the myna bird struck dumb
 the poor one with the heavy breathing
 so that the sick will recover soon
 quickly with a clean glance
 after being touched by the cure
 after being refreshed by the cleansing
 after the soul has returned
 after the essences have turned back
 turn with the smoke of the incense
 turn with the rice tossed over it
 the agathis from the top of the mountain
 the moss on the stone
 the gengari tree on the banks of the Teweh River
 the grass by the slippery stones
 the rukang rukut flower in its garden
 the bengkiras tree with its high trunk
 the gaharu tree of decorations (17)
 turn to where the day breaks
 face the new moon emerging
 become an effigy of exchange
 Ma Renga substituting for the self
 in exchange for the myna bird struck dumb
 eight times turn upside down
 nine turns turn around
 in the direction of the rising sun
 facing the new moon emerging
 there is refreshing coolness arriving
 renewed prosperity coming
 the wooden effigy is carved properly
 the gold which is paid is cut correctly
 the rice-paste figurines are rightly formed
 the spirit houses are erected
 become objects of exchange
 pledges given in return
 substituting for the body of the sick myna
 the poor one with the heavy breathing
 return through the hole at the back of the head
 aim at the openings between the shoulders
 return with cool refreshment
 bring renewed prosperity
 hurry do it fast
 quickly with a clean glance!

As God once failed to make the human-like figures into real human beings, so does Kakah Ramat first fail when he attempts to turn the effigies. Kakah Ramat does so deliberately, though. Turning the figures seven times, toward the setting sun and the waning moon, he is turning them in the direction of death and misfortune (seven is a number which Luangans associate with death, while the setting sun and the waning moon are states associated with danger and misfortune). When he, through his words, lights charred incense wood, pours cloudy oil, smears rotten turmeric, he enacts the wrong-doing and brings it into the domain of the senses, letting it smell, look, and feel wrong. In order to undo the illness he evokes death and adversity, making abstract categories concrete, sensible. (18) It is from this point that he then starts turning things the other way, turning the sugarcane across the squeezer, moving the betel chewing to the other chin (not a far-flung metaphor, remembering that Kakah Ramat has his own mouth full of betel while singing).

Turning the other way, in the direction of the rising sun, facing the new moon, Kakah Ramat is turning toward refreshing coolness and renewed prosperity, creating what could be conceived of as transformed prerequisites. With the help of Itak Silu Malik and her companions he turns a bad and inauspicious condition into a space of possibilities. Like bushes hanging heavy with yield or branches weighed down by epiphytic ferns, the figures are tangibly transformed by Kakah Ramat's words; they are forced to turn by the sheer weight of the words. The metaphors in the song can be seen as examples of what Hannah Arendt (1973:19) has referred to as metaphors "in [their] original, nonailegorical sense of metapherein (to transfer)," that is, as metaphors establishing connections that are sensuously perceived in their immediacy, rather than constituting cognitive riddles to be solved. Kakah Ramat's words do not just produce change, they also, and perhaps more importantly, bring forth that change corporeally. It is when the words are joined with the smoke of the incense, the rice tossed over it, that the transformation becomes materialized, and hence realized (at this stage Kakah Ramat picks up the censer, holding it in his hands while singing).

An aspect not to forget here is the whisking, an activity carried out not just "textually" but also physically. At the same time as Kakah Ramat turns the figures with his words, he also confers the transformation on them by whisking and fanning over them the olung and jie leaves. Whatever disruptive elements there are that might disturb the process, these are swept aside by this action. (19) At the same time, the whisking and fanning movement also quite literally produces a cool and favorable condition. Words and movements work together here, creating a transformation that is sensually perceivable by spirits and human beings.

In the process, the human-like figures become personified and receive a name (Ma Renga). They are thus symbolically recognized as becoming, if not real human beings as God's earthen figures eventually became, then at least empowered representations of human beings. Itak Silu Malik's role in this process is not just that of spirit assistant; in a way, she is the turning. As the word malik, 'to turn,' suggests, she personifies it--she is the act that she is called upon to perform. Like Kakah Embung Mele, who is never mentioned other than as a sort of appendage to her (mele also means 'to turn'), she seems to lead no separate existence apart from her ritual function. She is, in other words, what the Luangan refer to as a "real" or "genuine" spirit familiar (mulung bene). Rather than Kakah Ramat embodying her, she is the embodiment of the act of turning performed by Kakah Ramat. Empowered by her, Kakah Ramat turns not only the human-like figures, but also the miniature houses, which become dwelling places for the illness-causing spirits--rafts for them to lie down on, places to return to. In a similar way, the animal figures (although not separately mentioned in the song) become livestock for the spirits to breed, the heirloom objects valuables for them to keep, and, not the least, the spirit figurines become companions for them to associate with.

Chanting and whisking the figures into being, Kakah Ramat makes them into what Luangans call ganti diri or gantin unuk ('substitutes for the self'). The verb ganti means 'to exchange,' 'to substitute for,' or 'to represent.' The ganti diri figures are a special category of figures distinct from others that are used in belian rituals. They are representations of the patient, or of offerings, or spirits, which are used primarily as gifts to spirits (but also, in the case of spirit figurines, as bodies to return to for spirits evicted from the sick person). In different ways, the ganti diri figures all stand for the patient. The rice-paste figurines, for example, simultaneously represent and substitute for her (and by extension, all other ritual participants), and they are given to the spirits in exchange for the patient's soul (juus), which is thought to have been stolen or disturbed by malevolent or dissatisfied spirits (jointly called blis), who thereby have induced her condition. All figures--those representing people, as well as those representing heirlooms, livestock or spirits--constitute gifts, or pledges as they are also referred to in the song. They are exchange objects in a system of "pictorial exchange": objects through which the reciprocity between spirits and human beings is invoked and sustained, and through which, if all goes well, the spirits are appeased and pleased, and the relationship between spirits and human beings can be transformed.

"The ganti diri figures are to human beings what walls are to houses." By these words Ma Dengu, one of Kakah Ramat's neighbors, once described the nature of images like the ones used in this ritual. The simile does, in an indirect way, say something crucial about what we are dealing with here, I think; it elucidates something about what is at stake in this process of first making images, and then bringing them into being through singing and whisking. What it does point out is the importance of concreteness, of tactility. (20) The ganti diri figures offer a protection which is not abstract but highly tangible (as walls are); they are sensuously part of what they are protecting. Making copies of something involves coming into contact with that same thing (cf. Taussig 1993:21). Similarly, in order to make substitutes of the self one has to put something of that self into the substitutes. This brings us back to Kakah Ramat and his performance, since contact is in fact very much what is on his agenda at the moment.

There is one more thing which he has to do with the figures before they can be handed over to the spirits. Kakah Ramat still has to bring them into being for his distracted human audience. He has to make them sensuously part of the world that they represent in still another way. The sleeping persons in Kakah Ramat's audience are woken up and urged to participate at this stage. Kakah Ramat takes some of the human-like wooden figures in his hand and walks over to the patient, holding out the figures in front of her face. Still half asleep, the sick woman leans forward and spits on the effigies. With a fingertip she then takes some saliva from her sleeping children's mouths, and puts it on the roughly carved mouths of the figures. After that Kakah Ramat brings the effigies to her husband, who also spits on them. From him they are then taken to everyone else in the room, and everyone present in turn spits on the images, which so are made, not just into copies, but also, in a more profound way, into part of those that they represent.

Images for Spirits

"But what pleasure he brings the spirits with his lavish description, bringing them into life!" (Taussig 1993:111)

Copy and contact, these are the ingredients of James Frazer's (1922) sympathetic magic. The magic used by Kakah Ramat is, however, a magic not so much bound to a law of similarity or a law of contact, as it is a magic evolving from the capacity of representations to simultaneously create and transform what they represent, a magic which Michael Taussig (1993) has labeled "the magic of mimesis." (21) Inspired by Taussig, I argue that what Kakah Ramat does in this ritual is as much to create a reality as it is to change that reality, and his creation of it is, in fact, a precondition for change. It is by making things sensuously real that they become real for those perceiving them. Copy and contact are here elements in a system of knowing which is not primarily based on contemplation, but rather on tactility (cf. Benjamin 1973a).

This is, I believe, how we must look at the images if we are to grasp something of why they are made, and how they function in the ritual. In the process of producing imagery, neither the words, nor the material objects, are enough in themselves; but together, and in combination with such performative actions as the whisking and the spitting, they act upon the world evocatively, bringing forth a vision of it in which change can be not only conceived of, but also perceived. What is at issue for Kakah Ramat is to make his representations of the world as concrete as possible so that human beings and spirits may accept them not only as representations of reality, but also as reality. In this process, the figures are not mere details; on the contrary, they can be regarded as essential to what is going on. Representation here is fundamentally about substitution, and it would be hard to conceive of any substitution in the first place without embodiment and materialization.

Contributing to the evocative power of the figures is not just their tangibility but also the complexity that they present. The world evoked through Kakah Ramat's imagery is a world of human beings and spirits, as well as animals, houses and valuables. The different spirits negotiated with in the ritual are presented with a multitude of desirable effigies, many of which are made with a particular spirit in mind. These figures are made of a variety of materials, and in some cases in many different versions, often used simultaneously. Tentuwaja, a forest spirit with whom Kakah Ramat negotiates, is, for example, presented with figures representing human beings--some of which are made of rice paste, others of different sorts of wood--and with representations of Chinese jars, pearl necklaces and clothing, (22) as well as with a wooden effigy representing himself, a human-like figure with a sharply pointed head. In the same way, Timang, the tiger or clouded leopard spirit, is also presented with offerings of human beings, animals and valuables, as well as with a wooden figure resembling Timang itself, a roughly carved cat-like creature with pink dots painted on it. Different spirits are also presented with different houses: the house with the roof of topus timang leaves, which are leaves with reddish dots on them, is intended for Timang, while the house made of wood and leaves of the kelewono tree, which grows in old secondary forest, is intended for Kelelungan, the refined spirit of dead people, and the potok pate house of decayedpotok wood is made for Keratan, a spirit of old woods and mountains, known for its awesome call and the bad dreams it can invoke.

When a decision has been made to hold a belian ritual, the belian gives instructions about what kind of figures and decorations are needed in that particular ritual, instructions which are often supplemented later on (the belian usually negotiates with many different spirits during a belian ritual, and new spirits often enter the scene during the course of events). (23) Some of the figures--the heirloom objects and animal effigies, for example--are used over and over again, and often loaned between households; while others, such as the rice-paste figurines, and most of the spirit houses, are made anew each time. So as to get a better understanding of the variation and elaboration of figures used in different belian rituals we will now leave Kakah Ramat's ritual aside for a moment, and cast a glimpse at figures used on some other occasions.

A spirit frequently called upon and depicted is Juata, the water-dragon, who is thought to cause biting pains in the stomach and so is often associated with diarrhoea. Juata can be portrayed in a particularly wide range of manifestations--as crocodile, monitor lizard, snake, turtle, crab, mollusc, water leech, etc.--often in all these shapes on the same occasion (see plate 6 next page). The figurines representing Juata are most often made of rice paste, but they can also be made of sugar palm fibers, coconut leaves, or in the form of cakes (which are eaten by ritual participants at the end of the ritual). Biang Belau, a frightening, malevolent bear spirit, is in its turn portrayed as a large, dog-sized, wild boar-like statue made of black sugar palm fibers and placed on the ground outside the house. The representation of Benturan Tana, an earth spirit who can capture the soul of people who fall to the ground from the house, is similarly placed outside the house, beneath the doorsteps, and represented as a cumbersome clay figure with outstretched arms. During rituals for infants, small animal figurines (sepatung abei) made of banana minks are often used; these are representations of animals (gibbons, monkeys, porcupines, squirrels, deer, civets, mongooses and parrots, to name the most common) in which spirits (abei) known to disturb people with "weak souls," such as small children, sometimes reside. When the belian negotiates with the Seniang, celestial guardian spirits, an image of the sky is constructed; this image consists of small yellow rice-paste figurines (representing the sun, the moon and the stars), distributed over a circular winnowing-tray.


The houses built for the spirits are as varied as the spirit figures, and are often made of materials which mimic the spirits' appearances or the habitats where they are said to dwell. Timang, the clouded leopard spirit, is, for instance, as we have seen, given a house with a roof of leaves with reddish dots on them, resembling the spirit's fur. Similarly, Juata, the water-dragon, is given houses with roofs of riverside ferns and houses resembling rafts (Juata is, in fact, also given a whole range of other houses, including both permanent constructions made of ironwood, and temporary constructions made of less durable materials).

On some occasions the offerings given to the spirits are not processed materials taken from nature, but living creatures, such as grasshoppers or crabs, representing offerings of chicken and water buffaloes, that is, if translated into a kind of spirit language. A similar process of translation is performed when the spirits are given "clothes," "gongs," and "Chinese jars," consisting of packs of leaves, coils of liana, and broken-off pieces of termites' nests, respectively.

These various figures used in belian rituals all function as substitutes for the sick person(s); they are exchange objects through which Luangans evoke a world of reciprocity. They are not, however, substitutes in the sense that they are used for want of something better, as replacements for the real thing (the spirits are, in fact, given offerings of "real" things as well; they are, for example, given sacrifices of real animals, besides the figures--but some of them are said to prefer the images, or want both). Just as God, with the help of Itak Silu Malik, once created human beings out of figures, so do Kakah Ramat and other Luangan curers make figures when they want to effect changes in the world. The making of images is something almost taken for granted, something that is always done in belian rituals, and particularly in luangan style rituals. It is as elements in a system of pictorial exchange that the figures must be understood; their attractiveness is tied precisely to their being depictions, images.

The capacity of images to make concrete and visible, and hence to make "real," is what constitutes their effectiveness. During another ritual, Kakah Ramat ran around in the house, hiding different sorts of figures all over. Asked to explain his behavior by the anthropologist, he said that he hid the figures to make them invisible, and so part of the realm of spirits. The running was performed so that the figures would reach the spirit world faster (the journey to it is a long one, Kakah Ramat pointed out). Making the invisible visible--and then invisible again--is very much what this is about. It is by constructing images that Kakah Ramat acts on the relationship between spirits and human beings; the images are what give the negotiation its tactile quality, its ability to persuade. As Kakah Ramat's ritual has shown us, and as other examples of figures used by Luangans demonstrate, the production and elaboration of ritual imagery is not just an instance in the curing process, but rather a central feature of its curing potential. Producing images is not all that is done in belian rituals, or in Kakah Ramat's ritual for that matter, but it is an activity of central importance in all belian rituals, an activity integral to the poetics upon which they are based.

Still, in what is written about curing in Borneo, there is not much detailed discussion about ganti diri-like figures. From the references that there are, one can draw the conclusion that similar figures do play a role in the curing rituals of many other Borneo peoples as well, even if not necessarily an equally central role as among Luangans. What role they play and how they function in the rituals is, however, seldom explored at any great length. Appell (1993:64) briefly points out that pig effigies made of rice paste are used today by the Bulusu' as a substitute for real pigs, which are no longer killed. Sellato (1989:40) tells us that unspecified Bornean figurines are offered to spirits in order to distract their attention away from human beings. Similarly, Rousseau (1998:255-57) discusses wooden and bamboo figurines used among the Kayan as substitutes for patients in some curing rituals; the spirits being "satisfied with the simulacrum." Sather (2001:101, 137, 200, 226) describes human effigies used by the Iban to deceive spirits into releasing the captured human soul. In describing dewa curing ceremonies among the Meratus, Tsing (1993:94) mentions a rich variety of offering cakes made in the shape of boats, airplanes, scissors, combs, jewelry, flowers, and lines of uniformed soldiers, presented as gifts to dewa spirits. Morris (1997:81-86) has paid some attention to the spirit images of the Melanau. He tells us that the Melanau make wooden or plaited images of malevolent spirits who have attacked a patient and then spit saliva reddened from chewing betel nut on them, ordering the spirits to enter the image. He also makes an extensive list of such spirit images, belum, (24) which, it should be mentioned, are much more artistically elaborate, "statue-like," than the Luangan images. In his analysis of Taman healing practices, Jay Bernstein (1997:119-23) in his turn, provides us with an example of an incantation directed to human-like statues made of sugarcane. This incantation points to similarities in use and function between the Taman and the Luangan figures: the Taman statues are offered to the spirits as substitutes for the sick person, and are said to be attractive to the spirits. Bernstein does not, however, comment on the text any further, or discuss the question of why the Taman make such figures, or why the embodiment is needed.

The literature on the Luangan, and peoples related to them, is even less informative. Joseph Weinstock (1983), in his dissertation on Luangan religion (Kaharingan), does not mention figures at all. In an article by Mallinckrodt (1974[1925]), a Dutch colonial officer, there is mention that Lawangans (a people closely related to the central Luangan) made small rice-paste figurines of all villagers during an epidemic, and placed them at the village entrance. Te Wechel (1915:43), a captain in the Dutch infantry, paid a little bit more attention to the figures. He pointed out that ganti diri figures played an important role in the curing rituals of the Dusun Dayaks (who are neighbors of the Luangan), and then recounts a story about how the bones of the deceased servants of a wealthy man once turned into different sorts of trees, the wood of which has ever since been used to make substitutes for human beings.

For a more detailed discussion of ganti diri-like figures we have to move beyond the Bornean scene to Sulawesi, where Eija-Maija Kotilainen, drawing on historical sources, has discussed their use in the central parts of that island (1992:173-83). Examples and photographs provided by her exhibit a striking similarity to the Luangan material. The Sulawesian figures are also used as substitutes for patients during healing rituals. Kotilainen (1992:177) points out that these figures cannot be likened to the widespread ancestor images of the Indonesian Archipelago (see e.g., Feldman 1985). Also, like the Luangan figures, they are simple, rudely made representations of human beings or animals made of non-durable material which are left to decay after the ritual.

When considering this material, one cannot avoid getting the feeling that the relative lack of references to ganti diri-like figures in the literature on Borneo might not correspond to their true importance in the area. Some material adding further support to this hypothesis consists of my own data from discussions with Ngaju Dayaks in Palangkaraya. According to this information, rice-paste and wooden figurines are essential attributes in the curing practices of the Ngaju as well, and are used in very much the same way as among Luangans. These data are corroborated by Jay (1989:40), who indicates their existence in Ngaju curing rituals, and by Anne Schiller (1997:51) who remarks briefly on their presence in tiwah mortuary rituals.

Why then, this general lack of discussion about these kinds of figures in the literature? Why has there not been any more detailed analyses of their use and function in the curing practices of many Borneo peoples? A similar silence pertaining to the curing figurines used by Cuna Indians has been noted by Taussig (1993:9), who finds it strange that the problem of why the figurines exist and are used is not even posed. Kotilainen (1992:33-36) has commented on the relative neglect of material culture in anthropology until recently, and the difficulties Western scholars have had in accepting information offered by informants in many non-Western societies about material culture. She suggests that an urge to rationalize informants' answers, and an inability to transcend the theories of some of our evolutionist predecessors (i.e. Tylor 1871; Frazer 1922), might have something to do with it. Such primitivist theories could have made it inconvenient for later generations of anthropologists to study such use of material culture which could seem to correspond to, or resemble, Tylor's fetishism or Frazer's sympathetic magic. So as not to make the people they have studied appear "primitive," they might have chosen to gloss over some of their observations. Some Luangans do, in fact, themselves show anxiety about how the figures might be (mis)understood. For instance, a Luangan leader emphatically pointed out to me that the figures are not used for worship--he had personally been confronted with this view by adherents to world religions--but instead, are used just to spit on, after which they are discarded.

Irrespective of what some people might think (or not think) about the figures, Luangan spirits are attracted to them (in theory at least). As Ma Kelamo, a member ofKakah Ramat's audience, framed it, "the spirits like to watch figures, it pleases them." Here the spirit figurines form a special attraction; it is thought to be particularly enjoyable for the spirits to see pictures of themselves, especially as the copies mimetically produce "real" spirits, and so, in the words of Ma Kelamo again, "increase the number of them." (25) An interesting variation on this theme is when the death shaman (wara) dances with the souls of the deceased during mortuary rituals, wearing a headdress adorned with a mirror in the front. He so pleases them doubly, presenting them with not only his own devoted dancing, but also an image of the souls themselves, dancing with him.

The making of copies is not just a matter of figures, or mirror images, but, as we have seen, it also involves the use of poetic language and performative ritual action, adding to the attractiveness of the evocation. Presenting offerings or substitutes to spirits is not a straightforward business, but an elaborated and condensed act, intended to please the spirits. What the belian tries to do is to present the spirits with offerings so numerous and tempting that they are lured by "the feeling of fullness in their stomachs, the pleasant taste in their mouths" (butung boting, iwei buen), and become satisfied (seneng).

The enticing representations brought forth by Kakah Ramat and other belian curers working in the Luangan region ultimately aim at evoking a relationship of reciprocity between spirits and people. The images, together with the scent of incense, the sounds of drums and singing, the beauty of the decorations, constitute means through which the belian attempts to make the spirits act according to principles of reciprocity. Presented with Kakah Ramat's representations, the spirits, if things turn out right, become appeased or even flattered, and so induced to return the soul of the patient or, at least, be receptive to negotiation. It is hoped that the spirits, having received offerings, will recognize a relationship with their benefactors, and some obligations that go with it (gifts are, after all, supposed to be mutual). At the very least, it is hoped that the spirits will concede to a formal transaction involving the exchange of the soul for the substitutes provided.

In negotiating with spirits Kakah Ramat cannot, however, be sure of the outcome. He cannot be sure that he actually will be able to restore the soul of the patient. The spirits are, after all, only spirits and as such highly unpredictable. As Lemanius (1996) expresses it: "when talked to [the spirits] do not want to reply, and when called upon, they do not want to answer." Appeasing the spirits is a difficult task, and controlling them is even harder. Control is, in fact, not really what is at issue here. Far from being based on control of the world, making images is essentially an attempt to utilize its open-endedness by mimetically producing an alternative version of it. (26) Whether the spirits (or the human beings for their part) actually will accept Kakah Ramat's representations, one cannot be sure.

Tactile Knowing

"Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit." (Benjamin 1973a: 233)

There is, it might seem, something of a paradox involved in Kakah Ramat's image making. Striving to make things visible, why does he, in some respects, act so invisibly? In chanting the figures into being, for instance, why does he sing almost unintelligibly? Or, whisking with the olung andjie leaves--transforming the heat of misfortune and illness into healthy coolness--why are his whisking movements at times so slight, almost imperceptible? To frame the question in a more general way, why is Kakah Ramat's performance so minimalistic, so reticent?

Belian rituals are not, it should be pointed out, always this unspectacular or "introverted," and Kakah Ramat and other belians are not always this abstract (although Kakah Ramat quite often is these days, being an old man, not so much up to large gestures anymore). The audience

is not always quite as absent-minded as in this particular ritual either, although each belian ritual contains its moments of inattentiveness (there are, in fact, quite a few of them in most rituals; cf. Atkinson 1987 for similar observations among the Wana and Harris 2001:138-39 among the Iban). The answer to why these things are so here certainly does not have anything to do with lack of skill, or lack of authority on Kakah Ramat's part--quite the contrary. What, however, does have something to do with it, I believe, is the fact that the patient is not very ill, and that the ritual in question is not a very major one. Should the patient's condition suddenly worsen, things could turn out quite differently, and other, more dramatic, ritual strategies might be employed (for an example of one such case see Herrmans 2004).

There is more to it than that, however. When Kakah Ramat blows his whistle, and then starts chanting--swallowing words, rushing on, often rapping out the words rather than singing them, appearing to act almost automatically, like a machine--he does not do so for some particular reason, but more out of habit (that is, because habit enables it), out of having mastered what he is doing. There is a certain degree of everydayness involved in his actions; he has done all of this before, countless times, and he is acting accordingly. This does not make his actions less efficacious or render his representations less evocative. On the contrary, it might even lend them a certain degree of authority.

There is a suggestive power in the habitual. In a way, Kakah Ramat's representations elude arrest, they press themselves upon their recipients and observers. One could say that they hit them, not violently or forcefully, but in the sense that they happen to them; (27) they seize them almost without their knowing it. The aura of familiarity enveloping Kakah Ramat's minimalistic performance establishes what it presents almost in the same instance as it presents it, almost without any effort (i.e. conscious mediation) on the part of the audience. At the same time it establishes an appearance of control, an appearance of Kakah Ramat being in command of the world he has set out to depict. What this effect is based on is the fact that the copies are copies of copies, and as such, part of a whole, part of something which we might want to call tradition.

When the members of Kakah Ramat's human audience lie down to sleep, (28) or when they sit chatting with each other, playing with the kitten, not paying Kakah Ramat much attention, they do so knowing what is going on even without paying any attention, they know it almost in their sleep (people soundly asleep often wake up precisely at the moments when the drums and other ritual instruments are to be played, or when the ritual decorations should be moved from the center of the room to where the patient is lying). Participating in belian rituals is far from unusual for these people, who have taken part in innumerable such rituals during their lifetimes, a great many of which have been conducted by Kakah Ramat. (29) Having heard, seen, smelled, and felt all of this before, the everydayness of Kakah Ramat's performance works reassuringly. It is because things are done so obviously according to lived tradition here that the participants have this sense of confidence in Kakah Ramat's belianship.

It is not just in relation to what is happening now, but also in relation to what has happened before, that we must approach Kakah Ramat's somewhat summarized performance. Kakah Ramat can count on the members of his audience to take the hint, so to say; he can count on them to fill in the gaps. They know the words of his chanting, not literally or in detail (such knowledge is, supposedly at least, the privileged knowledge of belians), but in its broad outlines, in its sequences, and in its key metaphors. Although they would not be able to explain or offer an interpretation for every metaphor or expression used by Kakah Ramat--even Kakah Ramat himself would be unable to do that--they still have a very solid understanding of the contextual workings of the chants, and an intimate sense of their poetics. They can perceive the silence of the dumb myna, the darkness of the waning moon, and they can sense the coolness of the turning, the possibility brought forth by Kakah Ramat's words.

The members of Kakah Ramat's audience know belian; they know it in their flesh and bones, so to speak. What we are dealing with here is a sort of habitual knowledge which may be largely described as a "knowledge of the body" (cf. Connerton 1989). Spitting on figures is something Luangan children learn how to do even before they learn to walk or talk, and making figurines and constructing ritual paraphernalia is something they put much time and effort into later in their lives. Similarly, playing the drums and other musical instruments, chatting with other members of the audience, leaning back on the floor (and occasionally dozing off), preparing the ritual food, and consuming it at the end of the ritual, are all acts closely bound up with one's personal history, firmly incorporated into one's bodily being.

Kakah Ramat's performance can be said to work recollectively. By bringing forth memories of past performances--"embodied cultural memories," as Paul Stoller (1997:47) would have it--it brings tradition into the realm of experience. It conjures up the past in the present as part of the participants' bodily dispositions, and thus lends tradition the authority of experience. Kakah Ramat does not have to be overtly performative or articulate in his copy making; what is at issue for him is to produce copies that through their distinct quality as copies (or more precisely, as copies of copies), are able to persuade the ritual participants of the continuity of tradition. As I will try to demonstrate below, creating and recreating tradition as experience is very much what this ritual and its image making is about.

The past is, as Proust has expressed it, "somewhere beyond the reach of the intellect, and unmistakably present in some material object (or in the sensation which such an object arouses in us)" (ref. Benjamin 1973b: 155). The taste of Proust's famous madeleine pastry, which transports him to his childhood past in the opening pages of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (1913-27), is of course the paradigmatic example of such "sensuously mediated" recollection (for which Proust introduced the term memoire involuntaire). But Kakah Ramat's representations, and other aspects of participation in his ritual, also function like Proust's pastry: they evoke the past and make tradition palpable. The habitual mode of representation employed by Kakah Ramat brings pastness into juxtaposition with the present; the past is made actual in the present as tradition (once again) becomes incorporated into the participants' bodily dispositions. In the ritual, the personal past is connected with the collective past as tradition is passed on as experience. Here it might be illuminating to cite Walter Benjamin, whose discussion of Proust's concept memoire involuntaire I have drawn upon above: "Experience is indeed a matter of tradition, in collective existence as well as private life. It is less a product of facts firmly anchored in memory than of a convergence in memory of accumulated and frequently unconscious data." (Benjamin 1973b: 153-54).

It is as copies of copies--that is, as re-presentations of representations that the images strike their observers. In so obviously conforming to tradition, Kakah Ramat's performance "puts the ongoingness of tradition [...] on show" (George 1996:193). To reenact and thus restore tradition is, in fact, a major project not only in this particular ritual, but to some degree in all belian luangan rituals. It could even be said that belian luangan is a curing style fundamentally occupied with the reproduction of tradition in its "essence." For Luangans, belian luangan typifies tradition; it is what Luangan tradition is essentially thought to be.

Belian luangan is, as I have pointed out, a style of curing concentrated on words and images--words and images of the past. The combination of a maximum of words and images, and a minimum of happening (if we conceive of happening as dramatic appearance) is, in fact, very much what distinguishes the luangan style of curing from other curing styles. In contrast to belian sentiu and belian bawo, which are characterized by the use of a special shamanic costume, (30) as well as by distinctive music and dancing (melodic and beautiful in the case of sentiu, rhythmic and violent in the case of bawo), and occasionally by trance behavior, the luangan style relies almost solely on words (chanting) and objects (figures, ritual paraphernalia) in negotiating with the spirits. Words and objects are, of course, essential attributes of the other curing styles as well, but these styles also have their "performative elements" (which are largely absent in belian luangan), at the same time as the chants and material representations of these styles are not as elaborated as in belian luangan.

The emphasis on words and images in belian luangan is fundamentally an emphasis on tradition. Belian luangan is regarded (probably correctly) as the oldest style of curing practiced today, as well as the most original and local style of curing. Whereas belian bawo was introduced to the Luangan area from the Pasir region to the southeast a couple of centuries ago, and belian sentiu was introduced from Benuaq Dayaks to the northeast during the 20th century, belian luangan is said to have been created by early mythical Luangan ancestors in the central parts of the Luangan area. The words and images upon which belian luangan largely rests are also those aspects of the ritual which most particularly represent tradition, and which have made belian luangan typify tradition. The richness of words and images, and the scarcity of dramatic happening, epitomize Luangan ancestral culture. This is what distinguishes belian luangan from belian bawo and belian sentiu, and what, by way of association, is conceived of as characteristic of tradition in its most "original" and "local" form. (31) Even more importantly, it is also something which in itself can be regarded as quintessentially Luangan, something which in an oblique but simultaneously profound way represents "Luanganness" to those Luangans submerged in lived tradition.

Belian luangan rituals are low-key and unspectacular affairs which have to be tactually appropriated to be meaningfully appropriated at all. In their introvertedness they are, at one and the same time, both the least and the most demanding of all belian rituals. On the one hand, they do not call for much attention or active involvement on the part of the audience. (32) On the other, they very much take things for granted (by presuming habituation and prior experience), and do very little to encourage or aid the audience in appropriating the rituals. Tradition is, in a way, rendered self-evident in belian luangan rituals, and it is also largely experienced as such. This taken-for-granted quality of belian luangan makes for some of the strength and persuasiveness of the ritual, but it also constitutes a kind of drawback. For those Luangans to whom tradition is not that self-evident--that is, not discernable in the words and images alone--belian luangan rituals can be rather difficult to approach, and it might also be that belian luangan is losing some of its popularity. Young people seem, as Kakah Ramat once expressed it, more attracted to the beautiful dancing ofbelian bawo and belian sentiu than to the elaborate words and images of belian luangan, and most of the younger people studying to become belians today do, in fact, prefer to study belian bawo or sentiu. (33)

Arranging or participating in belian luangan rituals is a sort of statement, a statement expressing commitment to local tradition, and engrossment in local concerns. It involves adopting an introverted posture marked less by dialogue with others than dedication to one's own--personal and collective--past. It involves embracing a stance of relatively unquestioned dis-engagement, a mode of apperception characterized by distracted everydayness. It means submitting to a state of being of Luangan everydayness, to a "Luanganness" typified by precisely that low-key, casual, and introverted character which characterizes the ritual itself. In a similar vein, sleeping at these rituals is also a kind of statement. Except for the expressing of commitment to the patient and to the belian by being present at the ritual, the sleeping participants affirm the taken-for-grantedness of tradition, and display trust in tradition as a force by which the present can be renegotiated.

It is with the authority of the past, of what has been done before, that one negotiates with the spirits in belian luangan rituals. The ganti diri figures and the familiar phrases in Kakah Ramat's chants derive their power to sensuously evoke the world of human-spirit exchange from having been worn in, so to speak, by tradition. This "power of the past" does not, however, derive from pastness in itself. Neither is it, of course, the purpose of the ritual to reinstigate pastness in the present for its own sake. The past is rather, to use an expression by Nadia Seremetakis, "brought into the present as a transformative and interruptive force" (1994b:31). (34) Tradition is not just a reminder of what was, but also of what can be. It is not only performed for the sake of repetition; it is also sustained because it contains within it a possibility for change, in this case, a possibility for curing.

In the ritual that we have been considering, Kakah Ramat is drawing on a history of reciprocity between humans and spirits, a relationship actualized and constructed through words and objects. Regarding this ritual, it is obvious that "It]he meaning of performance is the imagery that it enacts and evokes" (Palmer and Jankowiak 1996:229). Through the tactile qualities of his representations--through movements, metaphors, and material objects--Kakah Ramat has activated the sensory memories of his human and spirit audiences. Once again he has called on Itak Silu Malik and her companions to turn the figures, and so brought tradition to bear on yet another instance of disturbance in the human-spirit relationship. Through propitiation and exchange he has then attempted to renegotiate this relationship and retrieve the soul of his grandson's wife, thereby terminating an unfavorable condition (her sleeplessness and general feeling of sickness). Throughout this process, his representations can be said to have occupied center stage, or even to have been its main actors. It is by them that the ritual "drama" has been enacted, and by them that the power of tradition has been sensuously communicated to the ritual participants, whose embodied personal histories have formed the prerequisites of reception, and whose corporeal sensibilities, once more, have become recharged.

Thus the copies create tradition at the same time as tradition permeates the copies, and we can see how the process of copying constitutes an activity of central importance in Luangan curing, not an unessential idiosyncrasy marginal to what goes on. I have argued that it is the concrete and sensuous characteristics of representations--their objectness--that make for this importance of image making. Through what I have called the habitual mode of representation and tactile appropriation, words and images in belian luangan confer a particular authority on tradition, even as this is a remarkably introverted and non-spectacular ritual, marked by an abbreviated and condensed style of performance.


Not surprisingly, Kakah Ramat's grandson's wife became well again soon after the ritual was finished (she was not, after all, very ill to begin with). Shortly afterwards, she and her husband and their children moved into Kakah Ramat's son's house (the brother of her husband's deceased father), while Kakah Ramat started to rebuild and enlarge his own house (which was rather crowded at the time of the ritual), so that it would better accommodate his descendants (which included two of his grandsons and their families). Two years later Kakah Ramat remembered the ritual, but could not recall what had been wrong with his grandson's wife at the time.


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Isabell Herrmans

Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology

University of Helsinki

P.O. Box 59

00014 University of Helsinki


(1) This version of the Luangan origin story was written down by Lemanius, a Luangan Dayak in his seventies who lives by the upper Teweh River. In 1990 he had a dream in which he was told that he should write down the Luangan origin story, make it into a holy book (like those of the world religions). In order to do so he first had to learn how to write and type, however, which he did on his own, with some help from his grandchildren. He then wrote this rather amazing book, which contains the "complete" history of the Luangan, from when the earth was created and the first human beings came into existence, through precolonial and colonial times, and into the New Order Indonesia, and its politics of religion.

(2) The Luangan are a Dayak group consisting of several linguistically and culturally related subgroups inhabiting a large territory between the Mahakam and Barito Rivers in the Indonesian provinces of East and Central Kalimantan, in southeast Borneo. Like most Dayaks (i.e. indigenous, non-Muslim Borneans), the Luangan are swidden rice cultivators, who adhere to either Christianity or local religious traditions. Non-Christian Luangans usually say that they follow Kaharingan, an indigenous south Bomean religion which received official status as a religion (agama) in 1980. For more detailed information on the Luangan see Sillander (2004).

(3) A total of eighteen months of fieldwork was conducted in 1993 and 1996-1997. Most of this fieldwork was done in villages with a Kaharingan majority in the central part of the Luangan area, mostly in Bentian and upper Teweh Luangan villages. The fieldwork was sponsored by Universitas Indonesia, and carried out with research permits from The Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), in cooperation with Kenneth Sillander from the University of Helsinki. It was financed by the Finnish Cultural Foundation and the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies.

(4) Belian is a designation for both the shaman and the ritual.

(5) "Ill" is perhaps not the term which would most immediately come to most people's minds here. Summoned by Kakah Ramat, who was concerned over the decision of another of his grandsons to move away to another village, the young woman and her family had moved into Kakah Ramat's house only a couple of weeks earlier (before that they had lived in her parents' house in a neighboring village). New in the village and new to the house, she was prone to feelings of discomfort and "soul-loss" (as her sleeplessness suggested).

(6) The central Luangan practice mainly three styles of belian curing: belian luangan, belian bawo, and belian sentiu. These curing styles differ, among other things, in that they employ different styles of dance and music. Perhaps more importantly, they also differ in that the belian partly employs different sorts of spirit familiars (mulung) and contacts different types of malevolent spirits (blis) in them. As a consequence, the ritual chants are sung in different languages in the different styles: Luangan (the local language) is used in the case of belian luangan; Pasir and Luangan are used in belian bawo; and a mix of Indonesian, Kutai Malay, and Luangan is used in belian sentiu.

(7) Tiong, the myna bird, is an excellent singer often heard in Luangan villages. Consequently, according to some of my informants, a dumb myna is a sign of something unnervingly wrong. "The myna bird struck dumb" (tiong pererongo) is not just a metaphor for the patient's condition, however, but what Luangans call a geler, that is, a title, for the patient. Such geler are usually used much like personal names, denotatively, in the strict sense of the word, with little or no thought of what the words actually mean. The word pererongo is used only in ritual language. Etymologically, it is derived from the word dongo (meaning 'sick person') and the image that it evoked for most of my informants was that of a sad and quiet myna bird.

(8) In translating this text I have been forced to take some poetic license. Much of the rhythm and alliteration characterizing the original is lost in the translation

(9) These are all spirit guides summoned by Kakah Ramat.

(10) Luing is the spirit/guardian of rice, and the rice-paste figurines are thus "grains of Luing made human beings."

(11) The walls of the longhouse are made of bark from meranti trees.

(12) The fern referred to here is an epiphytic fern (Platycerium sp.) commonly growing on tree branches; sometimes these ferns grow so large and heavy that the host branches break and fall down to the ground.

(13) Bongai, Mulang, Blis, and Setan are all malevolent spirits (or, rather, categories of malevolent spirits) thought to cause the patient's illness.

(14) In making swidden fields Luangans leave groves of particularly large trees untouched, as spirits are supposed to favor such places. Cutting down all big trees close to the village could lead to the spirits coming to the village for refuge, which would be undesirable from the human point of view.

(15) Like other Indonesian peoples, Luangans believe that human beings have a soul or spirit (most frequently referred to as juus) which occasionally can leave the body, for example, in dreams, during illness, or as result of fright. Soul loss implies weakness and the central objective of belian rituals is said to be to retrieve the patient's soul (this is regarded as equivalent to restoring the patient's health).

(16) have here translated the Luangan word ruo as'essence'; usually this word is used only in association with the wordjuus which I translate as 'soul.' No difference is said to exist between the wordsjuus and ruo, and it is claimed that the latter may not stand on its own but can be used only to "replicate" the former, as in the standard expression juus jatus, ruo walo, "a hundred souls, and eight essences," which frequently figures in belian chants (parallelisms, of which there are many examples in such chants, including the one reproduced here, are frequently constructed by way of such, in themselves allegedly meaningless, duplicate words or sentences). Similarly the numbers "one hundred" and "eight" in this expression are said to be determined not by correspondence to the number of real souls "out there" but by convention only. In fact, Luangans usually hold that people only have one soul, although no strong opinion or certainty exists with regard to this issue. I would argue that souls are described as multiple in poetic expressions primarily because of the multitude of efforts required to retrieve them.

(17) All trees and plants mentioned here are used for incense.

(18) As their names (Silu the Dumb One, Lintai the Idiot, etc.) suggest, the spirit familiars called upon by Kakah Ramat to enact his wrong-doing are spirit familiars specifically associated with such activities (i.e. "purposively failed or incomplete work"). All these "bad" spirit familiars are in fact themselves bad or inverse versions of other, "ordinary" or "good" spirit familiars (Silu the Dumb One is Silu's "failed" counterpart, Lintai the Idiot is Lintai's, etc.).

(19) As Lemanius (1996) frames it, the olung and jie leaves are used by the belian "to sweep and chase away what might disturb and disrupt the turning of figures."

(20) The simile of comparing the ganti diri figures with walls may, of course, also be seen as pointing to the importance of boundaries, and of notions of enclosure, of keeping separate, notions which also hold a central place in curing practices elsewhere in the Indo-Malaysian world. If we interpret the simile in this way, the ganti diri figures unsettle the distinction between gift and fetish as conceptualized by Michael Jackson. According to Jackson (1998:78), "the difference between fetish and gift is that the fetish withholds or prevents communication, sealing self off from other, while the gift opens and mediates communication. The fetish closes gates; the gift opens paths." According to this logic, an amulet, for example, is worn for protection, so as to reinforce the boundaries of the body of its wearer; a gift, on the other hand, such as a sacrifice to the spirits, is presented for contrary purposes, in order to restore the relationship with the receiver, or to ask for favors, both of which amount to increased communication with the other. It seems to me that this distinction is untenable even if it might at first sight appear sensible, or at least it is so with respect to the ganti diri figures. It is obvious that ganti diri figures, in Jackson's terms, are both gifts and fetishes; they are given to the spirits in order to open a path, to enable negotiation with them. But they are also given with the intention of sealing off the self, in order to reinforce the boundaries of the body of the patient which the spirits have penetrated, and to undo the prevailing connection between the spirits and the patient, to break the relation.

(21) Taussig, in his book Mimesis and Alterity, describes his concern with mimesis as a concern "with the prospects of a sensuous knowledge in our time" (1993:44). More specifically, his concern is with going beyond a view of copying as a naive form of realism, beyond an understanding of mimesis as "that necessary straw-man against whose feeble pretensions poststructuralists prance and strut" (1993:44). Instead of viewing mimesis primarily as an act of representation, he endeavors to explore its transformative and creative properties which he understands as intimately associated with the copy's concrete and sensuous character. By treating the copy as a sensate actualization (rather than a representation) of the original, and by perceiving mimesis as what he calls "active yielding," as an act involving the subject's embodiment of, or yielding to the object, he develops a view of mimesis in which representation is but one aspect of the process. He illustrates his case through an analysis of Frazer's concept of sympathetic magic in which he demonstrates how copying, or the law of similarity, always works in tandem with the law of contact, which indicates that the issue of copying is not really to establish likeness. Indeed, exact realistic likeness, as already Yrjo Him (1900) and Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert (1972), quoted by Taussig (1993:51-52), knew, and as the copies which are the subject of this paper make clear, is generally irrelevant in mimetic magic. Similarly, the principal purpose of the law of contact is neither to represent (as in Frazer's original meaning, in the sense of part to whole), but rather, as Taussig sees it, to convey what he calls "the physiognomic effect of imagery" (1993:58). In Taussig's understanding, it is above all through such "bodily impact" (i.e. through tactile appropriation) that both copy and contact, as elements in an act of imaging designed to manipulate reality, essentially work.

(22) Even if Tentuwaja is seen as an ugly forest creature, he is at the same time considered very human-like, and regarded as a noble (tatau), who likes to wear pearls, for example.

(23) The belian makes the decision about what figures are to be used both with regard to the symptoms of the patient, and with regard to the information that he gets through a process of exploring the cause of the illness (pereau). This process can sometimes be repeated many times during a ritual (the belian can never be absolutely sure of who has caused the illness--there might, for example, be several spirits guilty at the same time). Different figures are also favored in different styles of curing.

(24) He has also published a similar list made by Lawrence and Hewitt in 1908.

(25) Being many is a value in itself for many Luangans--who feel marginalized by their more populous neighbors--and they consider their spirits to have similar views.

(26) The gap between the representation and what it represents can be seen as what creates the possibility of transformation.

(27) I am borrowing concepts used by Benjamin (1973:231) here.

(28) When Ma Bari, the village head, entered Kakah Ramat's house, he lay down on the floor without saying a word to anyone, and then slept there through the whole evening, waking up just to spit on the figurines, and then again to eat the cakes served at the end of the ritual (after which he went home to his own house to sleep).

(29) Participating in belian rituals, especially the larger ones, is considered a kin obligation and, because of the inclusive system of bilateral kinship reckoning, this often entails a very high degree of ritual activity. Since there are no clear rules defining exactly when one has to participate and when one need not, individual choice still largely determines presence, and so one tends to see some people at rituals much more frequently than others.

(30) The belian wears a colorful skirt with a pattern of flowers or spirit figures, together with a belt embroidered with pearls, and a wrapped headcloth (laung), as well as either wrist or foot bracelets (ketang orjunung), in belian bawo and belian sentiu rituals; whereas the belian wears his ordinary clothes (except for a headcloth) during belian luangan rituals.

(31) An additional feature of belian luangan which makes it more local in comparison with the other curing styles is the fact that the spirits negotiated with in the ritual are all local spirits, whereas one also negotiates with different kinds of foreign spirits (in addition to local spirits) in belian bawo and especially in belian sentiu.

(32) They do, however, demand a lot of preparatory work (with offerings, ritual food, figurines and other ritual paraphernalia).

(33) Lack of time or patience to learn the lengthy chants is often suggested as the reason for a diminishing willingness among young belians to study belian luangan. Engagement in wage labor, uncertain future prospects, and influence from national politics of culture promoting performative tradition, should perhaps also be added to the list. A decreasing depth of experience in Benjamin's sense, making tactile appropriation increasingly difficult, could also be an important factor, especially among Luangans in downstream areas who live in greater proximity to various aspects of "modernity." Among the Benuaq sub-group of the Luangan, luangan rituals are rarely performed these days, and they become rarer the further downstream one goes, at the same time as belian sentiu becomes more popular. In many Benuaq villages, people say that there are no more belians around with a sufficient knowledge of luangan curing. On the other hand, luangan curing probably never had the same popularity in downstream Benuaq areas that it has had among the central Luangan. Among the latter, several young belians whom I talked to claimed that they were going to study belian luangan later, when they get older and will have more time to do so.

(34) am indebted to Seremetakis not only for this particular insight, but also more generally in treating objects and sensory experience as central to the imagination of the past. The interrelationship between memory and material culture (and its two-sidedness) is particularly lucidly described in the following quotation of hers: "The sensory landscape and its meaning-endowed objects bear within them emotional and historical sedimentation that can provoke and ignite gestures, discourses and acts--acts which open up these objects' stratigraphy." (1994a:7)
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Author:Herrmans, Isabell
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Geographic Code:90SOU
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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