Letting the Dead Fly in Kalimantan Tenga
The claw in her righthand was still dripping of blood from where it had recently been separated from the rest of the chicken. Darkly tanned, wrinkled, and with leathery skin that hung from her boney frame, she appeared even more menacing with her sunken eyes. Her face was so filled with forehead lines, crow’s feet, Marionette lines and nasolabial folds even Botox would have been futile. One thing was for sure; this wasn’t a wedding.
She looked so frail it was mystery how she managed to climb onto the wooden platform suspended from the ceiling about three feet above the floor. “If she’s not a shaman, then she’s a zombie,” I thought. Insensitive humor maybe. But making fun is what I do when I’m scared sh*@less.
In Central Kalimantan Borneo, the Ngaju Dayak tribes require a priestess to guide the spirit of the deceased into the next world. The spirit, who likely has wandered around the village for years, can leave the earthly plane only when a tiwah, a feast of pigs, chickens, monkeys, maybe a chevrotain (mousedeer) or two and fruits and vegetables, is held.
“The village feast for the dead is really for the living,” my guide commented recalling the row of pig pens outside of the hut. There was also some butchered meat hanging on wooden hooks and a bunch of clucking chickens. If the last hour’s sacrifice was any indication, however, there would soon be much less cackling going on.
An intricately carved wooden box is adorned with animistic bas-relief figurines of jungle creatures like birds, snakes, pigs, and monkeys, as well as flowing water, rocks, and plants representing the next world. Sometimes they were painted. Nearly always they were suspended skyward sometimes as high as three meters. The cleaned bones of the departed would then be placed with the bones of their ancestor-kin while cradled by images the Ngaju Dayak cherished in both life and death.
Some wooden structures were quite large and as a family mausoleum, could easily have contained multiple generations of bones. It might have been luxurious in a spiritual, condominium lifestyle sort of way.
The villages along the along the Kahayan river and the Sungai Lunuk tributary had names like Tumbang Miri, Tumbang Korik, Tumbang Mahuroi, Kuala Kurun, Tumbang Tihis, Teluk Jolo and others. The exotic sounds of their names alone filled my ears with voices from the diaries of long ago 19th century adventurers. And then there was a screech. Or a chant. Or simply an aggravated old shaman.
The ancient woman sat cross-legged, draped with yards of brightly colored batik fabric surrounded by four bowls of coagulating blood placed one at each corner of the suspended platform. Somehow, she managed to hold a skinny drum in the crook of her left leg. At some point, the leathery faced priestess pointed the claw menacingly at the doorway while the party ambiance of the dozen or so men waiting outside continued to smoke clove cigarettes and laugh quietly amongst themselves.
History is replete with outwardly inconsequential acts with consequential consequences. We could begin with with Eve but that’s such a dark place. Maybe the 4,000 year-old Mesopotamian recipe for beer is a better place to start. While not as dramatic as humankind’s fall from grace, it does reflect quite highly on Middle Eastern priorities. It also gave a lot of Europeans a frothy libation to help uplift medieval spirits during the long, cold winters.
Kaharingan believers understand that the priestess helps the unquestionably tired and perhaps disoriented spirit to leave this world. That meant leaving the funerary room and once free, heading “di atas gunung; over the mountain.” The full moon that night (coincidence?) created a pathway of light to help the spirit find its way. Perhaps the priestess also conjured up the wind that swirled throughout the hut and then turned north as if it were headed to the Pegunungan Schwaner. There in the mountains, proboscis monkeys slept, pit vipers slithered, crocodiles lurked, Sunda clouded leopards stalked, fire-bellied toads croaked, rhinoceros hornbills barked, Borneo bloodsucker lizards sucked, and other manner of mammals and reptiles large and small, hunted or were hunted, ate or were eaten, slept or awakened, hid or revealed themselves and generally time moved unimpeded as it always had along the equatorial belt.
If you’ve gotten this far, heres’ the lesson for today: we all just want a beer and are trying to get home. Talk amongst yourselves.