Thursday, August 22

Not all lost to modernisation

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A sheltered verandah at the Annah Rais longhouse.

SOME are related, some are not but they all share a common lifestyle at a countryside longhouse.

The families live side by side at the settlement set up about three centuries ago, and grow crops.

At Annah Rais, there are two traditional longhouses raised on belian posts and are home to about 80 families of the same clan.

One is called Batang Sijo (upstream row), about 150 feet long and 50 feet wide, and the other, Batang Saba (downstream row), about 100 feet long and 50 feet wide.

The floor of the longhouse verandah (or tanju in Bidayuh dialect) is made of about threeinch wide strips split from large bamboo, and belian planks about eight inches wide.

The nearly fl at bamboo strips are tied down firmly with rattan or lianas or woody vines to either the woody or bamboo joists beneath, making the fl oor delightful to walk on – even barefoot.

The parking area and the information centre (sharp roof) at Annah Rais longhouse.

In fact, the rounded surface of the bamboo, being smooth, is quite agreeable to the feet, at the same time, affording a firm hold.

Putting a rattan mat over the floor can make for an excellent bed as the elasticity of the bamboo and its rounded surface are superior to a flatter and more rigid floor.

The bamboo-strips floor, both in the open and sheltered verandah, could have been at the longhouse for a year or two already.

Constant rubbing of the feet has made some of the bamboo strips and woods dark and polished like walnuts – so much so that the original material sometimes can hardly be recognised.

Bamboo strips kept under the roof may last up to two years.

The longhouse rooms are quite simple – equipped with a kitchen, dining and sleeping areas.

The attic may be used to store handicrafts like the tambok, a basket strapped to a carrier’s back and used to carry produce, and rattan mats.

“Annah Rais longhouse is the oldest Bidayuh longhouse in Sarawak – about 300 years old,” said Edward Kurik, who claimed to be the ninth generation of the longhouse dwellers.

A villager gives tourists a briefing at the longhouse.

He said centuries ago, the traditional longhouse structures were tied with rattan, woody vines or creeper fibres and roofed with sago leaves.

As time went by, renovations were carried out, resulting in some changes to the materials, especially for the roofs, he added.

Sago leaves can last five to six years.

As they are considered not long-lasting, constant maintenance is necessary after their lifespan.

Nowadays, metal roofing materials – zinc and aluminium – are occasionally used for repairs.

The main pillars, forming the basic structure of the Annah Rais longhouse, are made of belian.

The pillars have withstood the ravages of time, remaining strong till today – and can be expected to last hundreds of years more.

Looking at the belian posts and other wooden structures, which have stood for centuries, one can’t help but marvel at the high level of construction skills involved, considering axes and parang were only the tools used back then.

Today, there are chainsaws to chop down even the biggest trees and cut the hardest wood.

Unlike the old days, fire no longer burns day and night at Annah Rais longhouse as it now has electricity and gas cookers.

Also gone are the days of frequent ritual ceremonies – from dispelling illnesses in men to the birth of children.

According Edward, like other Bidayuh tribes, the ancestors of Annah Rais longhouse believe that in all animate objects, including man and rice (the community’s crop), there is a living principal called semangat or semungi or spirit.

The view of the open verandah.

Since past religious inclinations were influenced by beliefs in the supernatural, sicknesses were said to be caused by a temporary absence and death through the total departure of this principal from the body.

Sickness in man in the old days was believed to the workof evil spirits or mundua in Budayuh or hantu in Malay.

Edward said rituals at Annah Rais longhouse were normally held in the ceremonial house called panggah.

Both Batang Sijo and Batang Saba longhouses have a panggah.

He added that in the old days, rituals were held at the panggah before the “heroes” went out to fight in tribal wars or headhunting.

“That’s why the panggah remains a very sacred place for the community till today.

Everytime a ritual is held in the panggah, those living around it cannot even dry their clothings outside otherwise bad things can happen to them.

“For example, a person could have hysteria if he or she failed to observe the pantang (taboos) because the spirit of the dead could enter the body of the living person.”

The renovated panggah or ceremonial house.

Edward said both the panggahs were built at almost the same time with the two longhouses.

The panggah’s main pillars, also made of belian, remain strong despite being centuries old.

He revealed the panggah at Batang Sijo was used to keep skulls belonging to the enemies of the ancestors of the longhouse folk.

At that time, bravery and valour of the community was measured by the number of beheaded enemies and the heads brought home.

And the panggah was built to store the skulls.

Previously, at Batang Sijo, the skulls were arranged on a special rack in the middle of the panggah but later transferred to the upgraded panggah at Batang Saba.

In the old days, the panggah is said to have played a significant role in the mukah ceremony – worshipping of the skull spirit.

According to the elders, the pantang for the ceremony included a ban on going to the river for four days.

The ritual was held to celebrate the return of the warriors after a head-hunting expedition.

Edward said the panggah also used to be a place for ritual healing.

When a patient could not be cured with traditional medicines, he or she would stay in the panggah and given ritual treatment for a certain time.

The ritual healing was normally done by the Gawai chieftain (ketua Gawai) on a big scale on the fi rst day.

Edward said the last person to be treated in the panggah was the late Penghulu Minah Ranggo in 1984 at Batang Saba.

“During the nursing period, lasting four days, nobody was allowed inside the panggah, except the ketua Gawai and his helpers, normally the patient’s family members.”

Nowadays, the ritualistic ceremony is no longer practised as headhunting and ritual healing have died out.

No one knows exactly the actual procedures involved.

Edward said the present generation at Annah Rais longhouse and the Bidayuhs as a whole now are Christians.

However, even though the present generation has been overtaken by modernisation, Annah Rais longhouse and its panggah still retain a large part of their rich history.

Indeed, Annah Rais longhouse reminds us that not all in Kuching have been lost to modernisation.

The longhouse and its panggah have been around for a long time but they have not lost their authenticity, said Edward, the Annah Rais longhouse tourism coordinator with Padawan Municipal Council (PMC).

“It’s already about 300 years old but the villagers still manage to keep some of their traditions alive.

“The longhouse itself is still about 80 per cent authentic while the panggah about 60 per cent different from what it was 300 years ago.”

Edward said it was not easy to maintain the authenticity of the longhouse, especially the ceremonial house, considering lifestyles changed with time.

“We all change – so do natural resources deplete – with time.”

He recalled before moving to the present site, the ancestors of the Annah Rais community settled at four hilltops – Bung Sikajang and Bung Tiparang before moving down to Bung Simbuu and Bung Ribuaan.

Bung is a Bidayuh word for hilltop.

“When they found the places not suitable, they moved down to Bung Mataan and Bung Sikinjie before settling at Kampung Annah Rais.”

Edward, a PMC councillor, explained their ancestors settled on higher ground for security reasons as head hunting was widely practised in those days.

Today, Annah Rais is among the popular tourist spots in Kuching.

About 60km from the city, the longhouse consists of about 80 doors.

Most the dwellers, especially the elders, still live the traditional way, planting padi, cocoa, pepper and rubber for living.

Many tourists visit Annah Rais Longhouse everyday.

Some of the villagers are participating in the homestay programme, offering a clean rooms for guests.

Under the homestay programme, visitors will live with one the family, sharing meals and taking part in tours and activities organised at Annah Rais longhouse and its surroundings.

Edward said visitors would have the opportunities to experience the lifestyle of the villagers, adding that they may join in the gardening, farming, hunting, fishing and rafting activities.