Dayak Longhouse – How Well Do You Know Your Neighbours

Submitted by mumunmumun on 12 November 2014   •  Destination   •  Borneo

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Dayak Longhouse

A famous attribute to the Dayak culture is their traditional longhouses or ‘rumah betang’. Vira and I had the chance to practice our visit to a longhouse model at Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (TMII) in Jakarta. A few years later, it was time we visited the real thing. It was partly made possible by the Betung Kerihun National Park and the Tourism Department of Putussibau. Thanks, Guys!

As its name, it’s a long house made of wood, with smaller units lining up within them. Usually there are 20-30 units in one longhouse, but it’s relative to whatever the community wants. The number can grow if the community decided to add some more units and make it an even longer house. Although not necessarily inherited, resident Dayak tribe usually owns the units.

Dayak longhouse main hall

Dayak Tamambaloh longhouses are said to be relatively higher than Dayak Iban. To enter the house, one must climb a stair made of a single wood, with steps carved within it. Turns out it was very similar to the one in TMII. At the top of the stairs, the end of the wood is carved into a human-like statue. It was an interesting reward after the wobbly amateur-climb up the stairs. This height of the house has to do something with the past, during war amongst sub-tribes, where people used magic to transport themselves underground and pop up to the surface. There wasn’t much detail to what the best height was to avoid enemies, but Dayaks transporting underground is enough information to digest for the time being.

 Stairs to Dayak Tamambaloh Longhouse

The house is spacious and airy, with gaps between the woods. The ceiling is high, also circulating the air. The wood surface is a bit dusty, but understandable as it’s such an open space. There’s often smells of animals, as dogs and cats run freely within the hall, and fighting roosters are seldom found tied within the main hall.

 Spacious and airy Dayak longhouse

The main hall, that connects all the units, also function as a common space. Residents can use it for their activities, events, or the whole village can use it for gatherings. Most of the weaving is done in the main hall, as seen in the Dayak Iban longhouses we visited. Children can also use it for a place to play when it’s raining outside, I suppose. Although a bit spooky when totally empty, it actually is a very warm communal space when filled with people. We had mobs gather around us just to mingle-in on what we were up to, whether it was buying handicrafts or just small talk. It’s easy to mingle once you sit in this common area.

Visiting the longhouses and getting to know more through chats with its residents got me thinking. I live in a flat, somewhat similar to the longhouses, and yet I don’t know my neighbors well.

 The mob of Dayak Iban Longhouse at Sadap Village

Communal Life in Dayak Longhouses

Communal life has always been the way of living in longhouses. One unit can consist of more than just the parents and children. Grandparents can also be found living in the same unit, also aunts and uncles. As if living with parents or in-laws wasn’t enough, the units within a longhouse are often without private rooms. How’s that for a communal life?

Inside of a unit in a Dayak Longhouse

A unit within the Dayak Longhouse. That’s just about it.

On the other hand, this way of living can bring a lot of benefits. Some of the unit walls can be dismantled, making connections between units and creating parallel space at one time.

“During a wedding or a big event, our residents can have it here. They don’t have to rent a hall, ‘cause the longhouse can fit a lot of people. It saves money. You can’t do that in a normal (modern) house,” the main guide at Semangkok Longhouse explained.

Chatting with Yacobus, third son of the Banua Tengah Village chief and probably the future chief, I wondered a bit. How can you choose a life so simple? Living with less privacy and far from the conveniences of life?

 Yacobus of Banua Tengah Dayak Longhouse

“My brothers choose to live up front (close to the main road). They live in normal houses,” said Yacobus, referring a modern house as ‘normal’. “One of them has a unit here, but it’s mostly unoccupied, unless there’s an event. I choose to live here with my father. Well, this is life. It’s not much, but what else can a high school graduate do?” there was a hint tone of embarrassment in his voice. I smiled, not knowing how else to respond.

As I continued chatting, I realized that their simple life is a choice I respect mostly because it’s people like Yacobus, and the residents of longhouses, that preserve their culture long enough for me to see it. I don’t know if I was being subconsciously mean or not, but I was happy that some people maintained the simple ways. They showed me communal life on a whole other level, one that I’m contemplating. How well do I know my neighbours?

Resident of Dayak Longhouse

There’s a lot more that I learned about the Dayak Tribe as we chatted with other residents of each houses. One example was that Dayaks have treasures of their own, ones they inherited from their ancestors. Yacobus in particular, owns a few metal gongs, which would be very rare in Borneo a long time ago, and a cannon. Yes, a cannon. Another thing we learned is that most Dayak Tamambaloh people bury their dead on at a separate land. In the case of Semangkok Longhouse, their cemetery is located a few meters down the river. On burial methods, it depends on the wishes of the deceased, whether they want to be in the ground or just stored in their wooden vessel like coffin, so they can sail to the other life. There’s just too much to say about their way of living and I learned a lot.

Dayak cemetery

Houses to store coffins of the deceased Dayak Tribe.

Allegedly, the oldest Dayak Longhouse in West Kalimantan

According to Yacobus, Banua Tengah is the oldest longhouse within the area. It was built in 1864 and still maintains its original ironwoods, which function as its main structure.

“It has been lowered a few meters. See the holes in the wood? That’s where the old floor used to be,” Yacobus pointed out some holes in one of the main masts, about 2 meters higher than the current floor. It has been lowered during the rejuvenation of the house.

 The height of the old floor - Dayak Longhouse

He explained that these woods were from 1864 and has never been replaced, nor has the house been moved, unlike some longhouses. Hung from the ceiling in front of each unit, are original boxes of sacrifices made, when the longhouse was first built. Yacobus pointed out, it was another proof that this longhouse is as old as it claims. Like many of his elders, he didn’t understand why people wouldn’t recognize Banua Tengah as the oldest longhouse, nor did he understand why others would claim to be so.

“Maybe it’s politics, so more tourists can visit. But, no good would come of it,” he and his wife, assured us. They were referring to Uluk Palin, another Dayak Tamambaloh longhouse not too far from Banua Tengah.

Uluk Palin was promoted to be the oldest longhouse around these areas. It was also the longest reaching 284 meters in length. Unfortunately, it burned down in September 2014 and it wasn’t the first time. According to Yacobus and his wife, accidents have been occurring ever since the debacle about being the oldest longhouse started.

Uluk Palin - Dayak Longhouse

“We’re not going to argue much about it anymore. We just know what the truth is,” his acceptance has some wisdom of a chief, knowing that the best would come out of those who are right.

I grinned as I hugged one of the original 150 year-old ironwood, wrinkled by age. It was a nice feeling to know I was in the presence of something authentically very old and yet still functioning well. That was true enough for me.

Dayak Longhouses that you can visit:

Sadap Village: The entrance to DAS Embaloh of Betung Kerihun National Park. It’s located about 2-3 hours drive from Putussibau.

Banua Tengah Longhouse: a bit far from the main road, better bring your own vehicle. It’s about an hour drive from Putussibau, with the gate located on the left side of the road.

Uluk Palin (remains): Not far from the Banua Tengah Longhouse. Also a bit far from the main road, about 1,2 km. Private vehicle is preferred. Located on the right side of the road if you’re going from Putussibau, it has a very obvious gate.

Semangkok Longhouse: located upstream on the DAS Mendalam area. Accessible from Putussibau by land vehicle or by speedboat. Takes about 20 minutes on speedboats.

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windy ariestanty
6 years ago

dayak longhouse is one of the oldest symbol of living in harmony. thought you had experienced one of the great moments. instead of feeling envy, i am happy reading this article and am hoping one day, i can experience it too.

5 years ago

You should try visit Betang Toyoi in Malahoi village in Central Kalimantan. I’ve been there once and I was really impressed. I’m a Dayak, born from a Dayak Ngaju mother and a Dayak Bakumpai father, but I don’t know much about my own culture. It was the first, and hopefully will not be the last, time I saw a longhouse with my own eyes. I don’t think I will ever forget the feel of smooth, old ulin (ironwood) beneath my feet. It felt strangely like home. God, I’d love to visit that longhouse again. And hopefully other longhouses in other… Read more »

5 years ago
Reply to  Rinni

Hi Rinni, it’s so nice to have a Dayak read this post!
We haven’t been to a lot of Kalimantan, but we sure would love to explore more of it. We’re taking notes on your recommendation, hopefully we can make it to Betang Toyoi (it’s a cute name!).