Ngaju Dayak

views updated

Ngaju Dayak

LOCATION: Indonesia ( Kalimantan/Borneo)
POPULATION: About 800,000 (2003)
RELIGION: Traditional animism; Christianity (Protestant, Catholic); Islam
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Indonesians


Originally meaning "inland" or "upriver," Dayak is a catch-all term to distinguish traditionally animist peoples of the interior of Borneo from the Islamized and Malayified coastal population. Despite centuries of cultural exchange through trade and the mixing of populations through migrations across the island, Dayak groups maintain distinct traditions and identities from one another, often more linked with peoples across the seas than those across the mountains. Individuals tend to identify with ancestral valleys; thus, for example, a Ngaju Dayak of Central Kalimantan calls her or himself an oloh ("person [of]") Kahayan, an oloh Katingan, or an oloh Serayun, depending on his or her locality of origin. Even a rough classification of Dayak peoples yields several groupings: the nomadic Punan of the deep interior forests; the Murut-Kadazan of Sabah and adjacent territory in Indonesia, whose languages have their closest relatives in the Philippines; the Lun Dayeh and Lun Bawang, who are linked to Sarawak's Kelabit; the Kayan and Kenyah of eastern Kalimantan; the Land Dayaks and Sea Dayaks (Iban) of western Kalimantan, who speak Malay dialects but do not share in Islamized Malay culture; and the large Barito-river groups of central Kalimantan, including the Ma'anyan, Ngaju, Ot Danum, Benuaq, and Tunjung.

This article will focus on the Ngaju of Central Kalimantan, the largest Dayak group in terms of population and the most influential politically and culturally. The name "Ngaju" signifies upriver (as opposed to ngawa, downriver). The Ngaju distinguish themselves from the Ot Danum, related but more conservative peoples living even further upriver (Ot itself means "upriver" and Danum means "water" or "river").

Austronesian peoples from the Philippines, farmers and seafarers, had arrived in Borneo by 3000 bc. Beginning in the 6th century ad, iron metallurgy provided Dayaks with the tools with which they could clear tracts in the dense interior forests for the cultivation of rice and taro, which was more nutritious than their former staple of sago palm starch. Since the early centuries ad, Dayak peoples have supplemented their subsistence agriculture by procuring forest products. These include gold, diamonds, gutta-percha, illipe nuts (source of a valued oil), aloeswood (an aromatic), resins, and camphor and bezoar stones (the hardened gall bladders of certain monkeys) and other ingredients for Chinese herbal medicines. Dayak traditionally traded them to coast-based brokers in exchange for such goods as Javanese gongs and Chinese porcelain and silk. The greatest brokers of all were the sultans (such as the ruler of Banjarmasin [seeBanjarese ]) who controlled the river mouths and thus all traffic between the Borneo interior and the outside world. Despite Banjarese claims to suzerainty over the upriver peoples in central Kalimantan, these latter, living in small semipermanent settlements scattered over a vast area, remained de facto independent.

Beginning in the 1830s, the Dutch colonial government promoted Protestant missionary efforts among the Dayaks; this slowed the progress of Islamization, reinforced among interior peoples a sense of a distinct identity, and created a Christianized Ngaju elite. Included within the Banjarmasin-centered province of South Kalimantan under the newly independent Indonesian republic, animist as well as Christianized Ngaju feared they would end up at the mercy of a Muslim Banjarese majority. After fighting a small-scale guerrilla war against the central government, the Ngaju were able in 1957 to achieve their goal of a province of their own (Central Kalimantan) and toleration of their traditional religion. Their ultimate success can be attributed in great part to the esteem in which the national military held the Ngaju leader Tjilik Riwut, an ex-parachutist and hero of the revolution.

Despite these political successes, the Ngaju still face being outnumbered within their own province. The New Order regime (1966-1998) greatly increased transmigration into Central Kalimantan (as into other parts of Kalimantan) of Javanese, Balinese, Madurese, and others (from 13,000 between 1971 and 1980 to 180,000 in 1981-1990 and a similar number in the following decade). The government's aggressive development program promoted a highly destructive logging industry that reduced forest land from 84% of the total area of Central Kalimantan in 1970 to 56% in 1999, dramatically diminishing the territory available to Ngaju swidden farming.

In 1996-1997, as Suharto seemed to be preparing to retire and a succession struggle appeared eminent, violence erupted in neighboring West Kalimantan where Dayaks targeted one group of transmigrants, the Madurese. Sparked by an incident between Malays and Madurese, fighting resumed between Dayaks and Madurese in 1999 after the fall of Suharto in the wake of the Asian/global emerging markets financial crisis of 1997-1998; the conflict killed 186 people and displaced at least 26,000 Madurese. Dayak-Madurese conflict broke out in Central Kalimantan in 2001, spreading from Sampit, a town that had become majority-Madurese, to the provincial capital of Palangkaraya, 220 km away. From February to May, almost 500 hundred Madurese were killed, and almost the whole Madurese community of over 100,000 fled the province. Dayaks in West and Central Kalimantan were not only exacting revenge on Madurese for perceived grievances but also scapegoating them for all that Dayaks had suffered under the New Order (other groups, Malays [including recently Islamized Dayaks], Bugis, and even Chinese reportedly joined in the anti-Madurese attacks). Central Kalimantan has remained quiet since, but the conflict between the interests of the indigenous peoples of Borneo and the goals of the national government persists.


The terrain of Central Kalimantan province consists of several river valleys running north-south from the Schwaner and Muller Mountains to the Java Sea. Swamps extend from the coast deep into the interior, where they give way to dense jungle.

From a homeland along the Kahayan River, the Ngaju have spread as far west as the valley of the Seruyan. They have settled down to the mouth of the Kapuas, but, as one approaches the sea, they become more and more mixed with non-Day-ak. The upper courses of the rivers are largely the preserve of the related Ot Danum Dayak. According to the 2000 census, Ngaju constituted 18% of the population of Central Kalimantan, 334,000 out of 1.86 million; they were outnumbered by Banjarese (24%) and equaled by Javanese (18%) transmigrants. A 2003 estimate places the number of Ngaju speakers as high as 800,000.


The Ngaju language is one of a group of closely related Austronesian languages (the Barito family) spoken from the Schwaner Mountains and the upper Mahakam valley to the southeast corner of Borneo (minus Banjarese-speaking territory). The Kahayan dialect (called Bara-dia after its words for "have" and "not") has become a lingua franca throughout much of Kali-mantan. Other major Barito-group languages are Ot Danum, Lawangan, and Ma'anyan. Incidentally, a dialect of Ma'anyan appears to be an ancestor to the languages of Madagascar; apparently, around the 5th century, Barito Dayaks were living closer to the coast and participated in long-distance seafaring under Malay leadership.

For the last five generations, Ngaju have had a system of given and family names (the Ot Danum adopted this only very recently). A man's full name will consist of his given name, the name of his father, and the name of a patrilineal ancestor. Upon marriage, a woman will keep her given name but replace the rest with the full name of her husband, e.g., a woman named Luise H. Tuwe marries Alex Banda Mambay and becomes Luise A. B. Mambay.


See the article entitled Indonesians .


According to the 1980 census, 17.71% of the population of Central Kalimantan (and a much larger percentage of the specifically Ngaju portion thereof) adhered to traditional animism, predominating in the more upriver villages. Some 14.27% of the provincial population was Protestant and 1.94% was Catholic. Because the schools were initially established by missionaries, the Ngaju elite is largely Christian. The rest of the provincial population is Muslim. In the past, conversion to Islam meant exchanging a Dayak identity for a Banjarese or Malay one. In recent times, however, many Dayaks (such as the Bakumpai, a Ngaju subgroup) have adopted Islam but remained Dayak in language and culture.

The traditional Ngaju religion recognizes ganan, spirits who dwell in house posts, in big rocks or trees, in the dense forest, and in bodies of water. These spirits divide into sangiang or nayu-nayu (benevolent spirits), taloh or kambin (malevolent spirits), and liau (ancestors). Gods include supreme deities of the upperworld (male) and the underworld (female). Various rituals are performed, from small offerings to the ancestors, to ceremonies marking major transitions in the individual's life, to community rites to ensure abundant harvests or cure epidemics. Balian (priestesses) and basir (transvestite priests) speak an esoteric language while being possessed by spirits. The abode of the dead is visualized much like that of the living, as a settlement consisting of houses strewn along a riverbank (though in former time the most privileged dead, those whose heirs were able to offer human sacrifices, would enjoy a hill-top estate).

The Indonesian state's requirement that all citizens adhere to a monotheistic religion has threatened the practice of the Ngaju's traditional animism. In response, Ngaju have formalized their religion under the name of Kaharingan (taken by Tjilik Riwut from the name of an "elixir of life" spring, Danum Kaharingan Belum ) and to have the religion classified as an "offshoot" of Balinese Hinduism [ seeBalinese ]. Kaharingan claims 330,000 adherents, including many Dayak who are not Ngaju. There is a 16-member council (almost all Ngaju) to coordinate theology and rituals; however, this does not include balian or basir. Through a 300-page study book (published in 1981), Hindu-Balinese-style meeting halls, and sermons, prayers, and hymns, the council aims to instill concepts of individual salvation and a supreme being. For instance, it promotes the already widely accepted identification of the important god Tempon Telon with Jesus Christ. Nowadays, no tiwah celebration takes place without being registered with the council, which directs the police to issue the required permit.


See the article entitled Indonesians .


Men wed at the age of 20, women at 18. Formerly, parents chose a child's partner, but now school-educated young people choose their own spouses. Bringing a sum of cash, the man's parents deliver the proposal for him to the woman's parents.

The woman's parents call their kin together to discuss the proposal. They try to discover whether the man is of good character and has no blood of slaves. If the woman's kin decide to refuse the proposal, they return the money. If they accept it, they arrange the betrothal ceremony and feast, bearing the whole cost thereof.

The two sides negotiate a bride-price (palaku), the wedding expenses to be paid by the man's family, and the date of the wedding. The woman's side may set a very high palaku as an assertion of its own status; too high a palaku may cause the man's side to withdraw the proposal. The man's side must first present bahalai (cloth for a woman's sarong), cloth for a kebaya (blouse), perfume, gold rings, etc., to the woman's side. The palaku is often returned to the husband later if he has shown himself to be a good man who loves his wife. In addition, the man presents saput, a gift consisting of an heirloom gong or porcelain, to the wife's siblings as a sign of gratitude for their having taken care of his future wife. Moreover, a panangkalau, a similar gift, is given to any older sister of the wife who is not yet married; this is to ward off any disaster that would follow upon a younger sister daring to marry before an elder sister. The wedding contract (surat pisek) is sealed with the taking of medicinal herbs. From one month to three years may elapse between the betrothal and the wedding itself, depending upon the financial resources of the man's side.

Funerals unfold in two stages. The primary burial rite sends the soul of the departed to the lower part of heaven; the secondary ceremony (tiwah) enables the soul to pass into the highest heaven, Lewu Tatau, where it meets the supreme god Ranying and will never again suffer disasters, difficulties, or fatigue. First, the corpse is laid in a wooden coffin in the shape of a boat or a trough for pounding rice. This first burial includes masked performers dancing to ward off evil spirits, and priests chanting to the accompaniment of drumming.

A tiwah costs the equivalent of $6,000-$12,000; it requires the sacrifice of many water buffalo and pigs, and the feeding of numerous visitors who come in from villages scattered over a wide area. The expense is such that groups of families can mount tiwah only every seven years or so; those dying within that interval are given a common tiwah that takes from one to three weeks. Balian sing legends and genealogies from memory for hours and hours and perform dances. To take advantage of the gathered crowds, individuals set up stalls to sell prepared food and other goods, as well as venues for gambling nearby.

The bones of a deceased person are exhumed from the raung (sometimes, the corpses need to be cremated first) and deposited in sandung. These are houses, 2 m (6.5 ft) high, intricately carved with representations of the hornbill, symbolic of the upperworld, and of the lower world's naga serpent (the Ma'anyan inter the bones of whole families in the larger pambak mausolea); modern sandung are often of concrete. Sacrificial animals are slaughtered while tied to a sepunduq, a post carved with images of demons with fangs, huge protruding tongues, and long noses. Another piece of funerary art is the sengkaran, a 6-m (20-ft) pole representing the "tree of life" (a symbol of the cosmos); at the top is a hornbill flying over a forest of spears stuck into the back of a naga that lies on a Chinese heirloom jar. Also important are "ships-of-the-dead," small, model sailing ships with a crew of benevolent spirits made of gutta-percha (a kind of latex); these are now produced throughout Kalimantan for tourists.


Traditional Ngaju society was divided into three classes: the utus gantong or utus tatau, the utus rendah, and slaves. Living in the upriver part of the village, the utus gantong were people of influence and wealth, status inherent in their possession of gongs and porcelain; the demang (chieftains) came from this group. Living downriver, the utus rendah were free persons but lacked such prestige goods. Balian or basir (religious specialists) could come from this group; specializing in, among other duties, chanting at funerals, they did not labor in the fields, and offenses against them were doubly punished. The slaves were either jipen (accepting bondage to pay off a debt) or rewar (captured in war and sometimes designated as human sacrifices); slavery was abolished in 1892, but the stigma of slave ancestry remains.

Prominent individuals took noble titles of Banjarese (Java-no-Malay) origin. Under the current Indonesian government scheme, the demang (named for life because of their personal qualities) stand between the village heads (kepala desa) and district heads (camat). The kepala desa is elected for life, has an assistant (sekretaris), and a subordinate in charge of agriculture and land holdings (kepala padang). A council of elders advises him, but everyone has the right to give an opinion on matters of common interest (individuals who have experience of the outside world are listened to the most eagerly). Many villages, particularly those farthest upriver, are in effect autonomous from higher administration. Unwritten customary law emphasizes fines and rites to propitiate offended spirits; the village council with the village head presiding decides punishments.

The Dayak have had a reputation (often exaggerated by Westerners) for relatively free sexual relations. It is clear that a women's pleasure was given priority, as when men wore the penis pin (palang, in historical times known among the Ngaju only in the Katingan valley). Young men and women can interact freely, for instance joke and dance, when older people are watching. A man can speak with another's wife as long as a third party is present. If a man is found alone in a deserted place with a woman other than his wife or sister, he must pay a fine (singér).


Villages are on or near rivers (generally the only way to get between settlements) and include a central community house and a place to dock boats.

Most people spend as much as half the year away from the main settlement in smaller ones near their respective swidden (shifting-cultivation) fields, returning only for major ritual celebrations. Houses are built either directly along the river shore or along a road parallel to the river. Long-houses (betang) are only found now among the Ot Danum (those of other Dayak peoples may house the equivalent of an entire village in as many as 50 single-family rooms [bilik]). Among the Ngaju, longhouses were only built by the rare individuals who were able to amass the capital necessary to build them, and they represented so huge an investment that they were not abandoned even when the owners needed to farm increasingly distant swidden fields. Contemporary Ngaju live in large extended family dwellings (umah hai) housing one to five nuclear families (a couple, unmarried children, and their married daughters and their families). Raised on 2.5-m (8-ft) pillars, houses have walls of wooden shingles or pieces of bark. Wealthier families build houses in a "Dutch" style, complete with chairs, coffee tables, china cabinets, and the like (traditional houses have no furniture).

The Ngaju home province, Central Kalimantan has a Human Development Index (combining measures of income, health, and education) of 73.5 (2005 score), far higher than Indonesia's national score of 69.6 and the fifth highest in the country (after Jakarta, North Sulawesi, Riau, and Yogyakarta). Central Kalimantan's GDP per capita is us$10,976, among the highest in the country (cf. us$10,910 for North Sumatra, us$6,293 for Central Java and us$2,919 for North Maluku). In 2000, the level of infant mortality, at 47.68 deaths per 1,000 live births, was the third lowest in country (after the national capital region of Jakarta and the highly urbanized Yogyakarta region).


The basic kin group consists of a nuclear family expanded to include the families of married daughters; kinship is reckoned on both the mother's and father's sides. According to custom, the ideal marriage is between the grandchildren of two brothers; also preferred are matches between the children of two sisters and between the children of a brother and a sister. Taboo, however, are matches between the children of brothers and especially between generations, as between an uncle and a niece. In the latter case, the infringing couple is required to eat from a pig manger with the entire village as witnesses, otherwise, the couple and the village will suffer calamities as supernatural punishment.

As taking a second wife is too expensive, polygamy rarely occurs. The divorce rate is high (one Ma'anyan village counted as many as one in four marriages ending in divorce). Infidelity by the husband or the wife is the usual reason; barrenness is not sufficient cause because childless couples adopt. In the case of divorce, younger children stay with the mother, while older children can become the responsibility of other kin of either side, depending on the circumstances.


In earlier times, Ngaju made cloth from bark or wove it from cotton. Nowadays, they wear manufactured clothes imported via the coastal ports.

Traditional ceremonial clothing for men includes a head cloth decorated with hornbill feathers; a sleeveless shirt; short pants; two pieces of cloth to cover the front and back of the body down to the knees; a penyang, or belt made of leopard claws; bead necklaces; a mandau sword; and a richly carved wooden shield. Women's attire is essentially the same, except that gold thread and beads are worked into the front and back cloths, the penyang is of copper plates, and numerous bracelets are worn.

Though much less so today than in the past, Ngaju (as other Dayaks) have intricate tattoos and stretch their earlobes down to the shoulders with numerous earrings.


The staple foods are rice, cassava, and various tubers. Cassava leaves are commonly cooked as a side dish, as are river fish (game is eaten only rarely; this includes wild pigs, monkeys, snakes, and wild fowl). Regional specialties include: sayur rim-bang, a large eggplant cooked with river fish; sayur ambut, a pungent dish combining fish and tender shoots of rattan; and wadi and paksem, fermented mixtures of meat (fish, wild pig, deer, or deermouse) and rice. Durian is a popular sweet, preserved as tempoyak or made into dodol taffy.

Anding, an alcoholic drink made from glutinous rice, is used in rituals and is an indispensable part of all celebrations. Tea and coffee are drinks for everyday consumption. One makes barum gula by fermenting 4 kg (8.8 lbs) of boiled glutinous rice in a jar with cloves, cinnamon, and peppers and adding sugar after a week. Both men and women are fond of chewing betel nut.


In 2005, North Sulawesi's level of literacy stood at 98.87%, high by Indonesian national standards and even higher than in the region of the national capital, Jakarta (See also the article entitled Indonesians in this volume).


All ceremonies feature the playing of an ije karepang, an ensemble of five Javanese gongs; to this are added the tarai (a flat gong), the tangkanong (a xylophone), and gandang (drums).

Each of the many traditional dances serves a particular function. The deder ketingan offers young people an opportunity to mix at traditional feasts. The enggang terbang ("flying hornbill") honors the ancestors. The kanjan halu, originally a post-harvest dance of thanksgiving to the gods, serves now as a tiwah funeral feast entertainment. The kinyah kambe is a trance or possession dance. The balian bawo heals sickness. The giring-giring greets guests. The manambang pangkalima celebrates victory in battle.


Most Ngaju support themselves by practicing swidden shifting-cultivation agriculture, growing dry rice and other plants, such as cassava, ubi rambat (a kind of tuber with a creeping vine), taro, eggplant, pineapple, banana, sugarcane, chili, gourds, and sometimes tobacco. This requires cooperation between families; men generally do the work in the fields, but women do also, if their family has lost its adult men through death or for some other reason. Among Dayak groups, the Ngaju have pioneered the growing of cash crops on permanent fields, primarily rattan and rubber but also cloves, oil palms, coffee, pepper, and cacao. Pigs and chickens are kept for ritual consumption. Catching river fish provides the main source of protein, more important than hunting wild pigs with spears and dogs and shooting down fowl with blowguns; hunters also use snares, as well as traps employing wooden or bamboo spikes.

Ngaju also sell forest products to brokers from the coast, including valuable woods, such as ironwood (ulin), damar resin, kulit gemur (used for cosmetics and insect repellant), and illipe nuts.


Cockfighting and kinyah (a form of silat [ seeMalaysian Malays ] martial art) are popular sports.


See the article entitled Indonesians .


Traditional arts include mat- and basket-weaving, textile-weaving, canoe-making (especially among the Ma'anyan), pottery, and tattooing. Particularly noteworthy is the production of mandau swords and sumpitan, blowguns unique because they consist of a shaft of ironwood through which a hole has been drilled. Non-Dayak blowguns consist of split wood or bamboo tied back together. Woodcarving is also highly developed. Dayak artwork features repeated geometrical forms, such as spirals (an influence from the Dong Son culture of ancient northern Vietnam) and densely packed yet harmonious combinations of stylized motifs, especially fantastical animals, reflecting inspiration from Chinese art of the late Zhou dynasty.


See the article entitled Indonesians .


Central Kalimantan's Gender-Related Development Index (combining measures of women's health, education, and income relative to men's) is 60.9, higher than Indonesia's national GDI of 59.2. The province's Gender Empowerment Measure (reflecting women's participation and power in political and economic life relative to men's), however, is 51.8, significantly lower than the national GEM (54.6).


Bertrand, Jacques. Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Indonesia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Danandjaja, J. "Kebudayaan Penduduk Kalimantan Tengah" [The Culture of the Inhabitants of Central Kalimantan]. In Manusia dan Kebudayaan di Indonesia [Man and Culture in Indonesia], edited by Koentjaraningrat. Jakarta: Djambatan, 1975.

Darity, and Djongga L. Batu. "Kalimantan Barat, propinsi." In Ensiklopedi Nasional Indonesia, Vol. 8. Jakarta: Cipta Adi Pustaka, 1990.

Data Statistik Indonesia. (November 8, 2008).

LeBar, Frank M., ed. Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia. Vol. 1, Indonesia, Andaman Islands, and Madagascar. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1972.

Loveband, Anne and Ken Young. "Migration, Provocateurs and Communal Conflict: The Cases of Ambon and West Kalimantan." In Charles A. Coppel, ed., Violent Conflicts in Indonesia: Analysis, Representation, Resolution. London: Routledge, 2006.

Muller, Kal. Borneo: Journey into the Tropical Rainforest. Lincolnwood, IL: Passport Books, 1990.

Profil Propinsi Republik Indonesia, Vol. 11, Kalimantan Tengah. Jakarta: Yayasan Bhakti Wawasan Nusantara, 1992.

Sevin, Olivier. Les Dayak du Centre Kalimantan: Etude Géographique de Pays Ngaju de la Serayun a la Kahayan. Paris: Orstom, 1983.

Waterson, Roxana. The Living House: An Anthropology of Architecture in South-East Asia. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1990.

—revised by A. J. Abalahin