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The shamanic belian sentiu rituals of the Benuaq Ohookng, with special attention to the ritual use of plants.


The Dayak Benuaq Ohookng people of East Kalimantan believe in a diverse multitude of territorial spirits known as wook. Some wook have the power to remove the soul (juus) thought to reside in a human body part or organ. At the same time, they implant disease with the result that the affected body part or organ becomes sick. The objective of Benuaq shamans (pembeliatn), as intermediaries with the spiritual world, is to identify the spirit responsible and negotiate with it during a nightly belian sentiu ritual. The particular belian sentiu rituals I describe in this paper are performed over four consecutive nights. They are exclusively night rituals and involve an exchange in which a carved ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri) 'exchange soul' (kelakar) is traded with the spirit for the patient's captured soul. To get rid of the disease, the patient additionally smears some of his/her saliva on a carved image (sepatukng silih) representing the illness-causing spirit. Prior to this, the shaman first activates the image. Afterwards, the image is taken to the forest and left there. The shaman may also extract the disease from the sick body part by means of a thinly shredded banana leaf (telolo). The disease can also be attached to the carved image of the spirit or mixed in the blood of a sacrificial animal. In order to find the lost soul of the patient's sick body part, the shaman, on the final, fourth night of the ritual, performs a dance, then falls into a trance. While in trance, he receives a message informing him where to catch the missing soul. To discover the soul and capture it, he uses a bamboo tube filled with boiled rice (tolakng tintikng). The captured soul is then massaged back into the sick body part of the patient.

To perform a four-night belian sentiu ritual, a great many plants are essential. These are arranged around an altar (balai sianca jadi) and are used as ritual objects. In addition, both white rice and rice colored with black, red, yellow, and green dyes play an important role in both attracting and feeding the spirits.

The observations and interviews upon which this paper is based took place during seven journeys I made to the Benuaq Ohookng between 1976 and 2006. The most intensive period of my study of Benuaq Ohookng shamanism was from 1976 through 1984.

Fundamental beliefs concerning disease and the conditions of curing

The Dayak Benuaq Ohookng referred to in this research note inhabit the longhouse villages of Pentat, Lempunah, Muara Nayan, Mancong and the former Keranau, all situated along the Ohong (Ohookng in their language) River, in the Tanjung lsui area, Kecamatan Jempang, Kutai Barat, East Kalimantan. Each village comprises a longhouse plus additional single-family houses built around it.

Culturally and linguistically, the Benuaq Ohookng belong to the Luangan Dayak group (cf. Sillander 1995, Weinstock 1983). In the traditional beliefs of the Benuaq Ohookng, a living human being has a spirit soul (semangat) and, in addition, seven bodypart souls (juus). Thus, the head has the juus puaq, the abdomen the juus sentunkng, the heart the juus lemposu, the bones the juus tulakng, the flesh the juus issi, and each eye an ilang anak majang. Terrestrial spirits (wook) have the power to "eat" a juus and at the same time implant a disease in the corresponding body part. Consequently, this part or organ becomes sick. Efforts to cure a disease can succeed only if the disease is removed and the missing juus replaced. This is the mission of the shamans, pembeliatn or beliatn, who act as mediums in relation to the wook. During nightly sessions, while performing rites known generally as belian sentiu (or sentiyu), these mediums identify the wook responsible for the illness and present them diverse offerings, including small carved images, or 'exchange souls' (kelakar), made of ironwood.

If the wook agrees, he takes back the disease. To restore the missing juus to the patient, the beliatn performs a vigorous dance, after which he falls into a trance. In this state, he learns from the wook where to find and catch the juus for re-inserting it into the patient's body.

A belian sentiu ritual may last up to four nights, or more, with varied activities and increasing amounts of ritual equipment. A one- or two-night ritual is accompanied by the sacrifice of a single chicken. For a four-night ritual, two chickens are sacrificed or, possibly, one or two pigs. For rituals lasting eight nights or more, old skulls with souls dating from the long-ago time of headhunting may be used as a medium for the wook and for the shaman's protection. The beliatn call these skulls kelelungan merwaaq or kelelungan panyan tuhuq. It is obligatory to wrap them in traditional red cloths called abang. In the case of an eight-day rite, a buffalo may be sacrificed.

To perform a four-night belian sentiu ritual, a great number of plants and other ritual objects (ramuan) are essential, every one of which has a special function. Many are medicinal plants. According to Gonner (2002:184), up to 59 species of 32 botanic families are used in Benuaq Ohookng shamanistic rituals.

Altars (balai sianca jadi) and the shaman's protective measures

To perform a belian sentiu ritual a rectangular shaped altar or shrine (balai sianca jadi) (see Photo 1) is constructed from potukng wood (Melicope incana, syn. Euodia alba, Rutaceae). (1) This is a type of wood associated with many wook. The altar furniture includes small wooden houses for the wook, two antaakng (tempayan, antique Chinese jars, homes for the spirits), a genikng (large antique gong, also a home for a spirit), a short ladder, and a specific superstructure. The altar is surrounded by high stalks or branches of the following eight obligatory plant species (eight is an important number in belian rituals):

1. Jelmoq (pisang, banana), Musa paradisiaca L., Musaceae

2. Sepootn (pinang), Areca catechu L., Palmae

3. Touq, Costus sp., Zingiberaceae

4. Ukor, Cariota mitis Loureiro, Palmae

5. Biowo, Cordyline fruticosa (L.) A. Chevalier, Liliaceae

6. Teluyatn (ironwood), Eusideroxylon zwageri Teysm. & Binnend., Lauraceae

7. Potukng, Melicope incana T.G.Hartley, Rutaceae, Syn. Euodia alba Hook.f.

8. Nancakng, Macaranga triloba (Blume) Muell. Arg., Euphorbiaceae

For the two most important of these items, teluyatn (Eusideroxylon) and potukng (Melicope), two specimens of each are present.


These plant species are related to distinct wook families. Their wood is always used in ritual performances and is fashioned into ritual objects. Potukng, rich in alcaloids, is a "spirits' wood." Teluyatn, also called belian, incorporates mystic power and calls helpful spirits.

The beliatn has to be able to lure all the various wook from the forests, fields, trees, and waterside into the room where the ritual is being performed so that they may receive the offerings and so become supportive. When the altar is beautifully decorated, then the wook will settle on the branches of the plants or in the small houses. The bowls and plates containing offerings are crowned with a cone made from young coconut leaves. The fringed panels on the side are made of the same material. Special fringes and objects intended to attract the spirits are made of the young leaves of tuak (Aren palm, Arenga pinnata (Wurmb.) Merill.). Ornamental fringes in red and yellow are often made from the young leaves of paleh (or palas), a small palm (Licuala sp.), that keeps evil wook away.

To get the attention of the spirits, the acting beliatn starts the seance with a sharp whistle produced from the hollowed fang of a sunbear (Helarctos malayanus). To protect himself from malevolent wook he smears his neck, chest, and arms with white rice-paste and sprinkles himself and all of the people in the room with fragrant danum bungaq mayang (danum = water and bungaq mayang = the flower of sepootn or the Areca catechu). For sprinkling, he uses a small twig of ngeraseh (basil, Ocimum basilicum L., Caesalpiniaceae). This "holy water" ritual seems, to my mind, to be part of an ancient Hindu heritage deriving from the Mulawarman Kingdom, which existed in this area before the arrival of Islam and produced the first stone inscriptions in Sanskrit with Pallava letters in about 400 AD. This assumption may also apply to the use of incense at the beginning of the ritual. Small pieces of tuber root from the luaq or luwee plant, (Dianella ensifolia (L.) DC., Liliaceae), which contains an insecticide, are heated in a small pan over glowing charcoal. Also, resin incense can be used. Finally, the beliatn throws wajiq (yellow sacred rice) over his shoulder in the direction of the entrance three times. This ritual calls the rice spirit lolakng luikng (lolakng means 'beautiful woman'). This female spirit, which seems also to be of Hindu origin, transmits the messages between the beliatn and his helpers, the mulukng spirits. The yellow dye for the rice is kunyit, extracted from the rhizome of Curcuma longa (L., Zingiberaceae). Yellow dye may also be extracted from siraakng (Codiaeum variegatum (L.) BI., Euphorbiaceae).


The most effective defense weapon employed by the beliatn against dangerous wook, however, is his 'leaf sword,' or biowo. This is made from a leaf of the Cordyline fruticosa (L.) (A. Chevalier, Liliaceae), artfully decorated with cuts and tied with young coconut leaves (Photo 2). The headdress and the cuffs of the beliatn are made of the same material. The people cultivate biowo plants in their gardens and fields to keep away evil spirits.

Then, in a long song couched in poetic language called the mempakn beliatn, the beliatn calls all the spirits by name and describes all of the offerings prepared for them.

Awiir, the shaman's spiritual link to the spirit world

With the biowo in his hand, the beliatn dances in a counterclockwise direction around a long white or patterned cloth hung from the ceiling or from a beam. At the top of the cloth are hung young inflorescences of the sepootn or pinang palm (Areca catechu L.), as well as other ornamental palm leaves. This is called the awiir and is the most sacred object used in belian rituals (Photos 1, 2 und 12). It is the vehicle of the beliatn, linking him to the world of the spirits. By this, his semangat can journey upwards into the realm of the spirits. Hidden at the top is a wooden cross within a ring. This symbolizes the crossroad leading the beliatn to the eight levels of the sky where the spirits live in their various villages.

One after another, all of the offerings are placed beneath or at the foot of the awiir, as the beliatn presents them while singing to the spirits. This is also the place where the beliatn strives to learn the identity of the wook responsible for the disease (Photo 3). To help him achieve this, Beliatn Daman, shown in Photo 3, uses small pots containing bees' wax torches, a small mirror, rice, and twigs of siraakng (Codiaeum variegatum), whose green leaves are spotted with yellow marks that look like yellow sacred rice. This medicinal plant, which is also known to the Benuaq Ohookng as pohon jatus pengerunu, has a magical significance. Because of its capacity for vegetative propagation, it is considered immortal. Often it is planted on graves. Even after all other signs of the grave have vanished, Codiaeum will still be seen growing there to mark the spot.

All performances of the beliatn are accompanied by the music of gimar drums, large genikng gongs, and six small kentangan or saron gongs, which play the melody. Rhythm and melody vary according to the actions of the beliatn.


Food offerings and exchange souls for the spirit

The most alluring food presented to the wook is boiled white rice and boiled rice colored black, red, yellow, and green with dyes. This "five-colored rice" fills dozens of hanging and standing platforms. Black dye is extracted from the leaves of sopaakng piaq (Leguminosa Archidendron sp.). Red dye comes from the fruits of gelinapm (also gilinggam) (Bixa orellana L., Bixaceae). Yellow dye comes from siraakng (Codiaeum variegatum L., Euphorbiaceae) and kunyit (the root of Curcuma longa L., Zingiberaceae). Finally, green dye derives from the leaves of puput (Jasminum sambac Aiton, Oleaceae) or from those of biowo (Cordyline fruticosa).


Small platforms intended to lure the wook into the house are erected in front of the house. These are constructed of potukng wood and are loaded with five-colored rice (Photo 4). At the center of the plate containing the colored rice are red petals for decoration. The posts of the left platform are pointed like spirit hats. To accommodate the great number of wook, particularly the nyahuq or omen spirits, swing-shaped constructions (kelenkakng eboq, kelenkakng = swing) with many "sitting boards," one on top of the other, are hung from a ceiling beam. On each storey of swings, a banana leaf is set out covered with five-colored rice (Photo 5).

Some beliatn additionally offer colors in liquid form, particularly to the juata water spirits (Photo 6). The four glasses of colored liquid are accompanied by four sepatukng kokooq, dog-like figures carved of potukng wood (sepatukng = figure, kokooq = dog). White appears in the form of white rice at the center. The purpose of this set of offerings is probably to attract the wook from all four points of the compass. This idea seems also to reflect Hindu influence, as these four directions play an important role in Hinduism.

The big dog-shaped figure on the left-hand side depicts a timang (tiger), a spirit that protects the beliatn, which is also carved of potukng wood. The figure is carefully dressed with a typically Benuaq ikat fabric ulap doyo woven from the leaf fibers of doyo (Curculigo latifolia Dryander, Amaryllidaceae). A second plate contains the five-colored rice formed into five heart-shaped figures. Figures that depict or attract the wook, or which are occupied by them, must be made ofpotukng wood. Most of these figures have human-like shapes. Other, similar carved figures, which are made of ironwood (teluyatn, Eusideroxylon zwageri), have an entirely different function. These are 'exchange souls,' or kelakar. Several of them are generally displayed within the altar area (Photo 7 and 8) and each is designated spirits may cause illness (Collection H. Zahorka).


Ruyak are constructions that hold objects for offerings. Their shape differs for different wook families. If a local or village wook is identified as responsible for the patient's illness, then objects will be offered that are valuable to local people; however, in miniature form (Photo 9). Adorned with split coconut leaves, this ruyak contains an antaakn (tempayan, antique Chinese jar), kentangan (six small gongs), a genikng (large gong) and two cylinder-shaped bellows like those used by Benuaq blacksmiths. The objects are probably made of lutukng wood (Alstonia as a 'compensation'(ganti), to exchange in return for the patient's soul. They are offered on the altar without a special ritual. Their length varies; however, their gender is always indicated: males with a loincloth, females with a skirt. The kelakar can be considered as a symbolic substitute for a human sacrifice, or simulacrum. Photo 8 shows, from left to right, a male, a female, and another male kelakar. The far right-hand figure depicts a mulaakng spirit carved of deraya sepatuku wood (Horsfieldia grandis, Myristicaceae). Mulaakng scholaris (L.) R. Br., Apocynaceae) and bamboo.

A banci is a very wicked and powerful wook. To satisfy this spirit (typically imagined as female and depicted in the form of a large wooden statue with movable arms and legs), a large boat-shaped construction of potukng wood, the balai banci, is built in front of the longhouse and filled with all types of human food and delicacies (Photo 10). The banci also demands blood. The small construction at the front offers rice to the mulaakng, a family of forest spirits.


Some of the spirits dealt with by the beliatn

While the spirits worshipped by animists are characteristically located in, or belong to, individual animals, plants, natural phenomena, and ritual objects (Zahorka 2004: 77-82), the spirits of the Benuaq roam the natural environment. They are not spirits of individual plants or animals, but are associated with trees, forests, mountains, swamps, water, fields, and villages. They are thus territorial spirits. Most of them are benevolent if rewarded by the beliatn with sufficient offerings.

Helpful sky spirits associated in part with (former) headhunting raids (and so with the color red) are the nayuq. They control the keeping of adat and are an aid to the beliatn, as are the timang spirits called upon during belian sentiu rituals. However, both use sickness to punish people who disregard adat. The mediating friendly rice spirit, lolakng luikng, has already been mentioned. For major and difficult tasks, the beliatn can also call the spirits of the kelelungan merwaaq for help.

A group of generally good spirits, who aid the beliatn, are the tangkai. The helpful mulukng (already mentioned) belong to this group, as do the juata water spirits, the madakng, nyahuq, and tonoi. The juata spirits are associated with the rainbow, with pregnancy and delivery, but they are also responsible for diarrhea and dysentery. The madakng are mountain spirits that can cause body pain. The nyahuq are associated with the omen birds and with puti, the mangris tree (Koompassia excelsa, Becc., Taub., Caesalpiniaceae). The nyahuq also lead the souls of the deceased to the otherworld. The tonoi earth spirits guard the village and ritual objects like gongs, tempayan, and mandaus. They are not as powerful as the others, but they are the protective spirits in the village, and are associated with the color white.

Among the large belontakng images erected in the field on the occasion of kwangkai funeral rituals, all of which depict a human figure facing westward, the protecting tonoi spirit is depicted as a snake embracing the human figure; the juata as a crocodile or a fish (mostly on the back of the figure), and the timang as a dog-like tiger (often at the head or at the feet of the figure). The belontakng statues erected on the occasion of the great ritual, the guguq tautn, depict a human figure, generally as a beliatn, always facing eastward.

The kuyakng are tree spirits associated with the color green and with the waringin tree (nunuq ringin, a strangling fig, Ficus benyamina L., Moraceae). These spirits can cure, and they can even influence life expectancy, though they also can cause madness.

The great varieties of mountain and forest spirits that are called wook are associated with the color black. They include the mulaakng family who can abduct a juus if not provided with offerings. This family is associated with the deraya sepatukng tree (Horsfieldia grandis). Specified as evil are spirits known as the banci, bongai, and tentowoaq. The banci, a powerful female wook, is responsible for many severe diseases like malaria and encephalitis. There are some notable parallels between the banci and the Bali-Hindu witch Rangda. To pacify her, a great variety of offerings and blood are needed. Bongai and tentowijaq are powerful forest wook that can cause various diseases by abducting human juus. To compel them to return a juus, the blood of a sacrificial animal is required. Unspecified groups of evil spirits are also known as papaq or papaiq. Local variations exist.

Luring the spirits and diagnosis

To determine the cause of a disease ("case history," anamnesis) and identify the responsible spirit ("diagnosis"), the beliatn listens to the lengthy reports of the patient's family concerning the history of the sickness and about the dreams they have recently experienced. The beliatn conveys these accounts to the spirits via the awiir, generally by holding it in his hand while listening.

After this, all of the spirits have to be lured into the room where the ritual is being performed. They are supposed to settle within the altar and on the swing-shaped constructions with the five-colored rice, the kelenkakng eboq. These actions occur during the second and third night of a four-night belian sentiu session. On the second night, to accommodate all of the spirits entering the room, the last platform in front of the house is connected with a long string of rotan wentonik to the top of the altar. On the third night a ladder-shaped connection is added, the tukar wook (tukar = ladder), made of bete tuak (bete = leaf), the leaves of the aren palm (Arengapinnata) (partially visible in Photos 1, 11, and 12).

When the belian sentiu ritual starts on the third night, a heap of long branches is piled in front of the house. These serve as homes to the spirits. The branches are from the eight plant species surrounding the altar, together with some more, like tae (Canarium sp., Burseraceae), kelebahuq, (Glochidion obscurum vat. macrocalyx J. J. Smith, Euphorbiaceae), kayutn arakng (Diospyros sp., Ebenaceae) and nunuq ringin (Ficus benjamina L., Moraceae).


Inviting bees' wax torches light and brighten the entrance. The beliatn appears in the door taking up a polite, respectful attitude, and sings, demanding that the spirits enter the room (Photo 11). After a while, the branches are laid down in front of the altar and afterwards on the altar itself. During this time, the beliatn sings and makes inviting gestures (Photo 12). When the spirits have settled on the altar, the branches are carried out. Now, the room is teeming with spirits.

Some beliatn use a swing fixed in the open door to lure the spirits into entering the room. It is called a kelenkakng wook (kelenkakng = swing) (Photo 13). The fringes of the swing have to be of bete tuak, the leaves of the aren palm (Arengapinnata). During the third night, the diagnosis is established and the spirit causing the disease is identified.


Ritual prophylaxis

To avoid spreading the sickness to healthy relatives of the patient, the beliatn provides prophylactic rituals. Everyone present gets some white rice paste (and later also blood from the sacrificed animals) rubbed on their chests, and fragrant "holy water" (danum bungaq mayang) is sprayed over them. The beliatn also keeps his "leaf sword" (biowo) and torches, as well as red and yellow fabrics on hand while singing over their heads in order to protect them from evil spirits. The beliatn will also ask the house spirits for help. A tonoi spirit traditionally occupies an inherited Dayak sword (mandau). The beliatn holds the mandau, along with some wax torches, and touches the body part that should be protected from the disease by the helpful tonoi (Photo 14). In the particular ritual shown in this photograph, a child of the family sponsoring the ritual was probably sick with encephalitis and, unfortunately, later died.


For prophylaxis, family members also have to sit on a throne-like pantiq in front of the house. The beliatn holds a big branch of nunuq ringin (Ficus benjamina) over their heads and pours a large quantity of "holy water" over the branches and onto those below. Nunuq ringin is the home of the kuyakng tree spirits, who can heal and extend a person's life span, though they also can make people mad. The singing beliatn requests that the kuyakng provide a positive influence on the patient (Photo 15).

Blood sacrifice

All belian rituals require a blood sacrifice of chickens (piaq) or pigs (uneq) or, on major occasions, even a buffalo. The offerings are the immaterial semangat and juus of the sacrificed animal, not its body. This offering is directly dedicated to the spirit identified as responsible for the patient's illness. The spirit responds with a blessing. Before blood-taking, the beliatn explains to the animals why they are to be slaughtered, and he praises them, and dedicates them via the awiir to the spirit (see Photo 16). The blood has to be drawn while the animal is still alive. It fills several small bowls. The beliatn then smears the fresh blood on all the plants within the altar area and on all the other objects there. The blood protects from evil spirits and purifies.

After these offerings have been made, the beliatn starts to examine and divine from parts of the sacrificed pig's liver (ate) and its spleen (lapikng), as if they were segments of a map. When he discerns special patterns, he reads from them messages from the spirit concerning the success of the ritual, the health of the people participating in it, and future events (Photo 17). In the foreground of the photo, on the left-hand side of the figure is a telolo. The telolo is half a leaf of a banana plant thinly split and bundled together on one side.

The ritual therapy

a) Extracting disease with a telolo and returning it to the spirit depicted as a "spittle image" (sepatukng silih)

The telolo is an important instrument used by the beliatn in his therapy. He puts it on the sick body part of the patient and extracts the disease with it (Photo 18). He then carefully shakes or plucks the disease from the telolo so that it falls into the blood in the bowl or onto the five-colored rice in the kelenkakng eboq.


However, if the illness-causing spirit has already identified itself and indications from the liver show that it is willing to take the disease back, then the beliatn attaches the disease directly to the image that depicts the spirit. This image is called the sepatukng silih, or 'spittle image' (silih = saliva), and is carved from potukng wood (Melicope incana).

The following describes a ritual at which I was present, in which two beliatn identified the powerful tentowajak spirit as the culprit. The spirit's sepatukng silih is shown with a pointed hat (an attribute of dangerous spirits), a face surrounded with red paint, and painted arms without hands. It is adorned with fragrant basil flowers. The most appalling thing about this image, however, is the painted bag that hangs around its neck. With this bag, the spirit is supposed to carry the disease back to its abode. This peculiar object, kolit sepootn, consists of the bag-shaped first bract (botanical term: prophyll) borne on the inflorescence of the pinang palm (Areca catechu). To activate the spirit of the spittle image, the beliatn holds it against the awiir and sings to it for a long time (Photo 19).


After this, the patient smears (or spits) his own saliva on/at the figure to get rid of the disease. Alternatively, a mother may perform this action using the saliva of her sick child (Photo 20). In addition, the beliatn rubs the telolo with the extracted disease on the spirit's bag to transfer the disease into it (Photo 21). After this, someone carries the image with the disease in the bag into the forest. The Basap Dayak of the Mangkalihat Peninsula do a similar thing using disease-bearing figures (Zahorka 2002).


b) Catching a lost juus with a tolakng tintikng and re-implanting it in the patient's body

Tolakng bulaan refers to the bamboo Bambusa vulgaris (Schrader, Graminae) and tintikng describes the boiled rice that is cooked inside it. The use of bamboo is a pre-ceramic technique for boiling food. The tolakng tintikng is thus a length of bamboo filled with boiled rice and often decorated with coconut leaves, or blackened. It is a highly important instrument of the beliatn because it acts like a magnet to draw back lost souls. During the third night of a four-night belian sentiu session, these objects are fixed below each rung of the ladder, and bundles of them, together with a fried chicken placed on top of them, are held above the head of the patient by the beliat.


On the fourth night, at the conclusion of a belian sentiu session, the beliatn dances with furious drumming and falls into a trance. A helper covers him with a fabric (Photo 22). His trance lasts at least half a minute. While in trance, the spirit reveals to the shaman where the soul is hiding. The shaman then jumps up, grasps a tolakng tintikng, and pokes it eagerly at the spot revealed to him (Photo 23). This can be the branch of a plant or the bottom of a tempayan or one of the small houses for the spirits as shown in the photos. Then, from the end of the bamboo stick, he pulls out a tiny thread-shaped soul and on closer examination recognizes the patient to which it belongs (Photo 24).

Then, he massages the soul thoroughly into the patient's sick body part (Photo 25). After the disease has been extracted with the telolo and the missing juus has been re-implanted, the patient should recover his health. Sometimes, before re-implanting the juus, the shaman places it for a moment inside a small vessel.

The following day, after the end of the curing ritual, the headdress of the beliatn is hung in front of the patient's door to indicate that the house is now pali (taboo) to nonresidents for four days (persons, however, may enter through the rear door).


Another form of healing ritual, but with much more vigorous dancing and drumming, is the belian bawo, which was last performed in the Lempunah longhouse in 1976, on the occasion of a gugu tautn ritual (Photo 26, Beliatn Nuncutn). The historically more recent belian sentiu ritual has now replaced it. The belian curing rituals of the Benuaq are shamanistic rites combining elements of mediumship, wandering, and possession.


Some additional notes

The payment received by the beliatn is small; however, he and his helpers are given the right halves of any pigs sacrificed. The total expense of a four-day belian sentiu executed for two families, performed by two beliatn and with two sacrificed pigs in Pentat village in 2006 was said to be at least Rp. six million, at the time about USD 660. Except for the cakes, most food offerings, like the fried chickens, cannot be eaten after four days under tropical conditions.

After one ritual, Beliatn Ran did something rather profane, which I would like to share here. At the end in the last night, at 3 a.m., the hosts served boiled pig meat and rice as a late dinner for everyone present. When 1 got greasy fingers, Beliatn Ran, grinning, offered me his telolo as a tissue. I used it appropriately and then shook it jokingly over the bowl with the blood sacrifice; all of which drew a great laugh from the gathering.

Benuaq rituals are part of Benuaq Ohookng religion, which they call adat nahaa. The official Indonesian term for this traditional religion is Hindu Kaharingan, but this name is unknown among the Benuaq Ohookng. Yet, several elements of their faith are obviously related to ancient Hinduism. For example, their creator and most powerful spirit is Letala, etymologically most probably derived from the highest ancient Hindu authority, Bathara, and by no means from Islam's Allah. Under this deity's spiritual authority, according to the myths of the Benuaq, are a great number of Seniang or Sangiang spirits who are responsible for the sun, moon, stars, rain, and winds. They are also the ancestors of animals and of many wook. On behalf of Letala they watch over human adat, morals, and taboos. Within this pantheon, they exist above the wook. Another evidence of Hindu influence on the belian rituals of the Benuaq is they do not use palm wine or other alcoholic beverages in contrast to other tribes in Kalimantan, for example, the Ot Danum (Helbig 1982: 374f) and Tumon Dayaks (Zahorka 2001: 84-102), among whom plenty of tuak is compulsory. Although many Benuaq are now members of Christian denominations, they still faithfully perform their rituals as a part of their cultural heritage and adat. This is not so, however, with Benuaq who have adopted Islam.


During my seven research journeys to the Benuaq Ohookng (1976-2006), my friendly and knowledgeable informants were the late Kepala Adat Dangud of Tanjung Isui, the late Kepala Adat Bakot of Lempunah and his son-in-law Anatolius Teng. The following pembeliatn, many of them unfortunately now deceased, introduced me to the mysteries of the belian sentiu rituals: Angkang, Nuncutn, Daman, Moya, Rayat, Sinti, Gerong, Rantio, Iman, Kuno, Acui and Ran, many of them my close friends. To all of them I am deeply grateful for allowing me to share in their inherited knowledge and shamanistic interpretations of nature and disease.

For their advice on plant identification, I gratefully acknowledge Dr. Christian Gonner and, from Herbarium Bogoriense, Dr. lng. Harry Wiriadinata, Dr. Ing. Yohannes Purwanto, Dr. Johannis P. Mogea, and, last but not least, Ary P. Keim, Ph.D.


Bonoh, Y. 1985 Belian Bawo. Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan Kantor Wilayah Propinsi Kalimantan Timor (unpublished).

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2008 Ritualpflanzen bei schamanistischen Krankenheilungsritualen der Benuaq Dayak in Ost-Kalimantan. Der Palmengarten (in Druck).

Herwig Zahorka

(1) In the spelling of Benuaq Ohookng words used here, /c/ corresponds to the English/ch/and/q/ represents a glottal stop.
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH NOTES
Author:Zahorka, Herwig
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Obituary
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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