The Orang Ulu Tribe - Sarawak, Borneo Malaysia

Orang Ulu Longhouse

The orang ulu are made up of a few tribes namely the Kenyah, Kayan, Klemantan, Kelabit, the Lun Bawang, Penan as well as a few minor tribes in the interior. Orang Ulu, means the "up-river dwellers" mainly living in Central Borneo, which accounts for 5.5% of the population. The Penan, Kayan and Kenyah, live in the middle and upper reaches of and the Kelabit and Lun Bawang live in the highlands.

The Kayans live in the main territories in central Borneo. They are warlike, conservative and religious people. The Kayan are considered more skilled in handicraft then all other peoples and believed by early anthropologists to be the original people in Sarawak who adorned their bodies with tattoos. The Kenyahs are found mainly in the highlands a little north of the centre of Borneo . As recorded in The Pagan Tribes of Borneo,'Physically they are without question the finest people of the country. Their skin-colour is decidedly fairer than that of Sea Dayaks or Kayans. They are of medium stature, with long backs and short, muscular, well-rounded limbs; a little stumpy in build, but of graceful and vigorous bearing. They are perhaps the most courageous and intelligent of the peoples; hospitable and somewhat improvident, sociable and of pleasant manners.'

the resident blacksmith at Sarawak cultural village, happy to pose for a pic or two and very happy to show you his family album if you care to ask

The Kenyah are knowned for their handicraft work especially in making baskets, mats and weapons and tools like blow-pipes, and the implements used for working the wild sago.

All the Orang Ulu tribes except the Penans build houses of similar architecture but the finishing and skill differs widely. The houses are always located close to rivers. The as of the Ibans, are built to accommodate the villagers and were built for as many as one hundred families in the old days. The longhouse is normally supported on stilts made from Berlian or Ironwood which rise some 20 - 30feet high. The roofing was also made of berlian shingles. The apartment each serves one family comprising of the parents, daughters, young sons and female slaves. Normally a small fireplace for cooking and sleeping area makes up the apartment. Its main door opens up into a long gallery which doubles up as the common living and reception room. The long single gallery is marked each 30 feet or so by a fireplace. The main fireplace usually located at the reception area is hung a row of head, charms and talisman. These hearths are kept smouldering all the time. Young bachelors and visitors sleep in the gallery.

The chief's room, is usually about twice as long as others, is often in the middle of the house where the official reception area and main fireplace are located. Those of the other upper-class families, normally the chief's relatives are located on either side of the chief's room. These rooms may also be larger than the other rooms in the longhouse.

The gallery is reached by a series of steps, or rather notched logs that resembles vaguely a ladder and positioned 45°. These ladders are easily dislodged in the event of an enemy attack. Below the house, boats are stored. Each family owns a padi barn where the harvest is stored. It is normally a large wooden bin about 10sq.ft and is raised on stilts some 7ft high. The Kayan longhouse quite often is made of several grouped together whereas the Kenyah village is made of a single longhouse. Unlike the other tribes, the Kayan people speak the same language, follow, and the same customs; have the same traditions, beliefs, rites, and ceremonies. The chiefs make it a point to pass down from generation to the next, the teachings of the forefathers.

a resident playing the sape with a beautiful mural as backdrop

The Kayan man usually wears a necklace made of a string of antique beads which are considered of high value. Every Kayan perforates the rind of his ear and the object worn denotes his standing as a warrior. Young men who have not been on the warpath are allowed to wear only discs of wood or wax; men who have been to war adorn the canine tooth of a tiger-cat and those who have brought home a head or have distinguished himself in war wear similar shaped adornment but made of the beak of the helmeted hornbill. The ear lobe is also perforated and brass rings are worn, sometimes weighing as much as 2lbs causing the lobe to distend. The same with the Kayan women. Some Kenyah and other tribes also adorn brass rings. However with the Kenyah women, a string of little brass rings are worn instead of a single ring.


tattoist's tools

The most elaborate body tattoos are from the Kayan tribe. 'The dog design figures very prominently in Kayan art, and the fact that the dog is regarded by these people and also by the Kenyahs with a certain degree of veneration may account for its general representation. The design has been copied by a whole host of tribes, with degradation and change of name'Charles Hose,Pagan Tribes of Borneo.

In Kayan women tattoing contributes to a series of complicated process. Designs can run from the back of hands to thighs, below the knees and on the kneecaps. Tattooing in women can begin early as witnessed at the age of ten the girl will probably have had her fingers and the upper part of her feet tattooed. About a year hiatus, her forearms should have been completed; the thighs the following year and by the fourth year, the tattoos should be completed. Women can only tattoo until she is pregnant, as it is considered inappropriate to tattoo themselves after becoming a mother. The Kayan women believe that tattoos are the torches to the next life and that without these to light them they would remain forever in total darkness.

The tools used by a tattoo artist consist of two or three prickers, ULANG or ULANG BRANG, and an iron striker, TUKUN or PEPAK, which are kept in a wooden case, BUNGAN. The pigment is a mixture of soot, water, and sugar-cane juice, and it is kept in a double shallow cup of wood, UIT ULANG. The best soot is supposedly obtain ed from the bottom of a metal cooking-pot. The tattoo blocks are commonly carved by men. The artist first dips a piece of fibre from the sugar-palm (ARENGA SACCHARIFERA) into the pigment and, pressing this on to the area to be tattoed, aligns the patterns to be tattoed; along these straight lines the artist tatus the IKOR. Then taking the tattoo designs that are carved on blocks of wood, KELINGE, she smears it with the ink and then impresses on the part to be tattoed between the two lines. It is a painful process with no anaesthesia.

Weapons & tools

tools used to make weapons

The weapons of war used by the orang ulu especially the Kayan and Kenyah are generally the wooden shield, the sword and the spear. The prized weapons are often decorated with human hair from the rewards of warfare. They accentuate the beauty of their weapons with designs which they also lend to designs in tattoo, beadwork, as murals to adorn the house walls, tombs, boats and Padi barns, woodwork and musical intruments. One of the musical instrument much regarded in the Rainforest festival is the Sape.

The Kayans are also the best ironsmiths amongst all the peoples of Borneo . In the olden days, the iron ore were collected from riverbeds but later bars were procured from Malay and Chinese traders.

If you really would like to meet the true Orang Ulu, take a trip to Long Bedian

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