The Bidayuh - Sarawak, Borneo Malaysia

Bidayuh Longhouse

Alfred Russel Wallace describes the land or hill dayak houses in the Malay Archipelago which he had the privilege to document the people and their culture in 1850's as' The Dyak houses are all raised on posts, and are often two or three hundred feet long and forty or fifty wide. The floor is always formed of strips split from large Bamboos, so that each may be nearly flat and about three inches wide, and these are firmly tied down with rattan to the joists beneath. When well made, this is a delightful floor to walk upon barefooted, the rounded surfaces of the bamboo being very smooth and agreeable to the feet, while at the same time affording a firm hold. But, what is more important, they form with a mat over them an excellent bed, the elasticity of the Bamboo and its rounded surface being far superior to a more rigid and a flatter floor....These with constant rubbing of the feet and the smoke of years become dark and polished, like walnut or old oak, so that their real material can hardly be recognised. What labour is here saved to a savage whose only tools are an axe and a knife.' Wallace also describes the use of bamboo to make paths over long distances from village to village and to their farms and fields. Suspension bridges over gullies and rivers are also constructed from bamboo and water is transported to the longhouse through conduits also made from this robust grass. Large diameter bamboos are split in half longitudinally and supported on 'crossed sticks of various heights so as to give it a regular fall' Wallace.

St. John, at one time the Secretary to Sir James Brooke, loved journeying into the interior and meeting with the natives and exploring villages. He once went on a trip into the interior with his employer and a traveller by name of Madame Pfeiffer who turned up unexpectedly in 1851 for a visit . St.John observed that the land dayaks hardly walked on the ground around their village as all the longhouses were connected by bamboo walkways. He remarked that since the villagers tossed everything conceivable from their houses into the pits below, it was almost impossible to walk on ground and was best advised to stay above.

The Bidayuh longhouse consists of a longhouse or several longhouses and a main head house called a Barok. Barok is where ceremonies are held and where young men and bachelors reside. The longhouses are for families and when boys come of age, they are sent to stay in the Barok until time when he marries and will then move in with the wife's family in most circumstances. However if his family (ie if his parents are aged or sick or he has many young family members to care for) requires him to return to care for them this is also possible. Newly married couples never make a new home for themselves until much later when with child. The husband if staying with his spouse's family, will be expected to labour for her family.

The head house has a hearth in the centre of the room where the head trophies are placed. The fire is always kept burning day and night. Ceremonies are often held and can be for anything, from dispelling illness in men and rice (their crop) to birth of child. The Dayaks believe that in all animate object including man and rice, there is a living principle called 'semangat' or 'semungi'. Since religious beliefs in old times were influenced by beliefs in the supernatural, it is therefore believed that sickness is caused by 'a temporary absence, and death by the total departure of this principal from the body.' St.John. Some of these ceremonies are performed to bring back the soul and to secure it. Sickness in man is believed to be caused by spirits or 'antu'. According to St.John, there are 3 incantations that the priestess or priest prepares to rid the spirits. Nyibaiyan, Berobat Pinya; and Barobat Sisab is for restoring health. The ceremonies take place lasting from 2 to 8 days. Some ceremonies assisted by the incantations and continuous playing of drums and gongs throughout the days.

The Bidayuh regard 'semangat' as very much influenced by a greater power. The power of courage and leadership was a beneficial tool for James Brooke. The Land Dayaks admired Brooke's semangat. St.John, accompanying Brooke on a visit to the interior was taken aback upon being subjected to an unexpected greeting, ' A crowd of old women instantly seized us, and pulled off our shoes and stockings and commenced most vigorously washing our feet; this water was preserved to fertilise the fields.' ..' We had to do so many things, and almost all at once: to sprinkle rice about, to pour a little water on each child that was presented to us, until, from force of example, the women and even men insisted upon the same ceremony being performed on them.' The priestess also brought the gentlemen rice for them to spit on and in turn swallowed the morsels with relish. This strange ritual was performed to ensure a good harvest for them, the birth and wellness of children and that their livestock would be plentiful in turn bringing them prosperity. The natives had such high regards for Rajah Brooke and his immediate officers, their presence at the longhouse was considered an auspicious occasion.

Today, these ceremonies are hardly if ever practised. Many of the Bidayuhs or Land Dayaks comprising the Jagoi, Biatah, Bukar-Sadong, Selakau and Lara peoples of West Sarawak are now Christians. The Bidayuhs make up some 8.3% of Sarawak 's population. If you would like to know more about the Bidayuhs, click to