Ibans are a branch of the Dayak peoples of Borneo.
Malaysia, most Ibans are located in Sarawak, a small portion in
Sabah and some in west Malaysia. They were formerly known during
the colonial period by the British as Sea
. Ibans were renowned for practising headhunting
and tribal/territorial expansion. In
ancient times the Ibans were a strong and successful warring tribe
in Borneo. They speak the Iban
Today, the days of headhunting and piracy are long gone and in has
come the modern era of globalization
for the Ibans.
population is concentrated in Sarawak, Brunei, and in the
Kalimantan region of
They live in longhouses
called rumah panjai
rumah panjang 
. Most of the Iban longhouses are equipped with
modern facilities such as electricity and water supply and other
facilities such as (tar sealed) roads, telephone lines and the
internet. Younger Ibans are mostly found in urban areas and visit
their hometowns during the holidays. The Ibans today are becoming
increasingly urbanised while (surprisingly) retaining most of their
traditional heritage and culture.
The origin of the name Iban
is a mystery, although many
theories exist. During the British colonial era, the Ibans were
called Sea Dayaks
. Some believe that the word
was an ancient original Iban word for people
. The modern-day Iban
word for people
slightly modified Malay loan word of the same meaning
) of Sanskrit Root.
The Ibans were the original inhabitants of Borneo Island. Like the
other Dayak tribes, they were originally farmers, hunters, and
gatherers. Not much is known about Iban people before the arrival
of the Western expeditions to Asia
. Nothing was
ever recorded by any voyagers about them.
The Ibans were unfortunately branded for being pioneers of
headhunting. Headhunting among the Ibans is believed to have
started when the lands occupied by the Ibans became over-populated.
In those days, before the arrival of western civilization,
intruding on lands belonging to other tribes resulted in death.
Confrontation was the only way of survival.
In those days, the way of war was the only way that any Dayak tribe
could achieve prosperity and fortune. Dayak warfare was brutal and
bloody, to the point of ethnic
. Many extinct tribes, such as the Seru and Bliun, are
believed to have been assimilated or wiped out by the Ibans.
like the Bukitan, who were the original
inhabitants of Saribas, are believed to have been assimilated or
forced northwards as far as Bintulu by the
were also believed to
have been nearly wiped out by the Ibans.
The Ibans started moving to areas in what is today's Sarawak around
the 15th century. After an initial phase of colonising and settling
the river valleys, displacing or absorbing the local tribes, a
phase of internecine warfare began. Local leaders were forced to resist the
tax collectors of the sultans of Brunei.
the same time, Malay influence was felt, and Iban leaders began to
be known by Malay titles such as Datu (Datuk)
and Orang Kaya
In later years, the Iban encountered the Bajau
, coming in galleys from the
Philippines. These were seafaring tribes who came plundering
throughout Borneo. However, the Ibans feared no tribe, and fought
the Bajaus and Illanuns. One famous Iban legendary figure known as
from Entanak, near modern-day Betong, fought
and successfully defeated the Bajaus and Illanuns. It is likely
that the Ibans learned seafaring skills from the Bajau and the
Illanun, using these skills to plunder other tribes living in
coastal areas, such as the Melanaus
. This is evident with the existence
of the seldom-used Iban boat with sail, called the
. This may also be one of the reasons James Brooke
, who arrived in Sarawak around
1838, called the Ibans Sea Dayaks
. For more than a
century, the Ibans were known as Sea Dayaks
Religion, Culture and Festivals
An Iban woman prepares cotton for
The Ibans were traditionally animist
although the majority are now Christian
some of them Muslim
and many continue to
observe both Christian and traditional ceremonies, particularly
during marriages or festivals.
Significant festivals include the rice harvesting festival Gawai Dayak
, the main festival for the
Ibans.Other festivals include the bird festival Gawai Burong
and the spirit festival Gawai Antu
. The Gawai Dayak festival is
celebrated every year on the 1st of June, at the end of the harvest
season, to worship the Lord Sempulang Gana. On this day, the Ibans
get together to celebrate, often visiting each other. The Iban
traditional dance, the ngajat
, is performed accompanied by
, the Ibans' traditional
music. Pua Kumbu
, the Iban traditional
cloth, is used to decorate houses. Tuak
, which is
originally made of rice, is a wine used to serve guests. Nowadays,
there are various kinds of tuak
, made with rice
alternatives such as sugar cane
The Gawai Burong (the bird festival) is held in honour of the War
God, Singalang Burong. The name Singalang Burong
means "Singalang the Bird". This festival is initiated by a notable
individual from time to time and hosted by individual longhouses.
The Gawai Burong originally honoured warriors, but during more
peaceful times evolved into a healing ceremony. The recitation of
(traditional chants by poets) is a particularly
important aspect of the festival.
For the majority of Ibans who are Christians, some Chrisitian
festivals such as Christmas
, Good Friday
other Christian festivals are also celebrated. Most Ibans are
devout Christians and follow the Christian faith strictly.
Despite the difference in faiths, Ibans of different faiths do help
each other during Gawais and Christmas. Differences in faith is
never a problem in the Iban community. The Ibans believe in helping
and having fun together. This is ironic for a tribe who once waged
war with others due to differences.
Musical & Dancing Heritage
Iban music is percussion-oriented. The Iban have a musical heritage
consisting of various types of agung ensembles
ensembles composed of large hanging, suspended or held,
which act as drones
without any accompanying melodic instrument. The typical Iban agung
ensemble will include a set of
(small agungs arranged
together side by side and played like a xylophone
), a tawak
(the so-called 'bass'
), a bendai
(which acts as a snare
) and also
a set of ketebung
(a single sided
The Iban as well as the Kayan
also play an
instrument resembling the flute called 'Sapek'. The Sapek
is the official musical instrument for the Malaysian state of
Sarawak. It is played similarly to the way rock guitarists play
, albeit a little slower,
but not as slow as blues
. One example of Iban
traditional music is the taboh
The Ibans perform a unique dance called the ngajat
serves many purposes depending on the occasion. During Gawais, it
is used to entertain the people who in the olden days enjoy
graceful ngajats as a form of entertainment. Iban men and women
have different styles of ngajat. The ngajat involves a lot of
precise body-turning movements. The ngajat for men is more
aggressive and depicts a man going to war, or a bird flying (as
a respect to the Iban god of war, Singalang Burong
women's form of ngajat consists of soft, graceful movements with
very precise body turns. Each ngajat is accompanied by the
or the body.
Branches of the Iban People
Although Ibans generally speak a dialect which is mutually
intelligible, they can be divided into different branches which are
named after the geographical areas where they reside.
who settled in areas in Serian district
(places like Kampung Lebor, Kampung Tanah Mawang
& others) are called Remuns. They
may be the earliest Iban group to migrate to Sarawak.
- Ibans from Undup are called Undup Ibans. Their dialect is somewhat a cross
between the Ulu Ai dialect & the Balau
living in areas from Sarikei to Miri are called
Rajang Ibans. They are the majority group of the Iban
people. They can be found along the Rajang River, Sibu, Kapit, Belaga, Kanowit, Song, Sarikei, Bintangor, Bintulu and Miri.
Their dialect is somewhat similar to the Ulu Ai dialect.
In Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo), Iban people are even
more diverse. The Kantu
, Air Tabun
& along with many other groups are classed as
by anthropologists. They can be
related to the Iban either by the dialect they speak or their
customs, rituals & their way of life.
- The episode, Into the Jungle from Anthony Bourdain: No
Reservations included the appearance of Itam, a former
Sarawak Ranger and one of the
Iban people's last members with the Entegulun (Iban
traditional tattoo design) (hand tattoos)
signifying his taking of an enemy’s head.
- Sir Steven Runciman, The White Rajahs: a history of Sarawak
from 1841 to 1946 (1960).
- James Ritchie, The Life Story of Temenggong Koh
- Benedict Sandin, Gawai Burong: The chants and celebrations
of the Iban Bird Festival (1977)
- Greg Verso, Blackboard in Borneo, (1989)
- Renang Anak Ansali, New Generation of Iban,
- Matusky, Patricia. "An Introduction to the Major Instruments
and Forms of Traditional Malay Music." Asian Music Vol 16. No. 2.
(Spring-Summer 1985), pp. 121-182.