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James Ritchie: An Iban veteran tells how heads are smoked in Sarawak, Borneo

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jun• 07•10

James Ritchie

WoWasis correspondent James Ritchie on how headhunters smoke heads. You may also want to read: How Headhunting originated in Sarawak, Borneo and The religious basis for headhunting in Sarawak, Borneo .

TEMENGGONG Jinggut anak Atari, who is in his early 60s and is the titular chief of the Ibans in Kapit, has seen heads being taken during his lifetime. He claims that Iban soldiers lopped off the heads of communist terrorists during the Emergency. 

Temenggong Jinggut, who was among the first Iban trackers recruited to fight the terrorists in Malaya, says: “During the initial months of the Emergency in 1948, some Ibans hacked off the heads of the enemy, not knowing that it was an offence. In one instance in Perak, members of my unit were caught cutting off the heads of some communist terrorists. 

“The British officer in charge reprimanded the offenders and ordered the heads to be stitched back to the corpses so that they could be photographed. “After the incident several Gurkhas who had helped the Ibans were court martialled. We were warned not to do this again or we would face the same consequences.” 

In 1965 during the Malaysian-Indonesian confrontation, Iban members of the  security forces also took many heads. In one incident at least 30 enemy heads were taken in gunny sacks back to Sri Aman (then called Simanggang). 

Temeoggong Jinggut says the only time he witnessed the smoking of a head was when he was a young man during the Japanese occupation. He says: “We had killed two Japanese soldiers. Their heads were taken to a longhouse just below Nanga Mujong (in the Baleh district) for the ceremony. Our heroes returned with the heads, walking the length of the longhouse ruai (the roofed verandah) past a long line of admiring spectators.  After various rituals the heads were taken to the stream by an elderly and experienced expert in preserving heads. 

“I noticed that the man first made a clean cut from under the chin and close to the jaw, right to the back of the head, removing the stump of the neck. He then proceeded to widen the occipital hole with the pointed end of his parang. He next sliced one end of a piece of rattan. 

“He then placed the splayed end of the rattan strip into the occipital hole and dug out a bit of the brains. He placed it in some glutinous rice and swallowed quickly. He did not vomit. (If he were to throw up, the Ibans believe that the man would fall ill and die because his semangat (spirit) was weak). 

“He then began cleaning out the hole with the rattan strip with a vigorous twisting and poking movement (Eike using a bottle brush) while holding the head in She water.  In this way the soft matter was -easily washed away by the water and removed.” 

After that the expert removed the eyes of the victims with his parang (sometimes the eyes are not removed, in which case leaves are placed to cover the eyes so that they will not bulge or pop out during smoking). The heads were then wrapped in several large scented leaves gathered from the river bank, and tied with rattan strips. The heads had to be tied properly so that the jaws would not fall off. The heads were hung on a bamboo rack, consisting of a horizontal pole with both ends attached to a pair of angled uprights tied together and smoked for three days until they were completely dried out. During the smoking of the heads more ceremonies were held. 

James Ritchie worked with the New Straits Times for 25 years, before joining the Sarawak Civil Service as a Consultant Public Relations Officer in the Chief Minister’s Department in 1998.  He writes for the Sarawak Tribune, Borneo Post, and The Malaysian Today.  A prolific writer on Sarawak affairs, he has written hundreds of newspaper articles and authored or co-authored about 15 books, including Man-eating Crocodiles of Borneo, Bruno Manser: the Inside Story, Mystical Borneo, Changes and Challenges: Sarawak 1963-1998, and Tun Ahmad Zaidi, Son of Sarawak.  He has won numerous journalistic honors including the prestigious Shell-Kenyaland Award.

For more James Ritchie on headhunting, visit these two WoWasis posts:

 How Headhunting originated in Sarawak, Borneo 

The religious basis for headhunting in Sarawak, Borneo

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  1. […] James Ritchie has written some magnificent documents on the practice of headhunting, including a primer on how heads are smoked. But Mowe takes another approach, incorporating the practice into a mythological story by taking an […]

  2. Isnur says:

    That is indeed a btaueiful Iban parang illang that you have. I’m very glad to see it still has its tufts of human hair which once upon a time no Iban parang could be without, even when supplemented with large amounts of goat’s hair. Unfortunately today, many parangs have had their human hair removed in the interests of political correctness. Your respondent Bunjank, is, I’m afraid, quite wrong to refer to it as a mandau’. This was a term used by the Dutch in Indonesian Borneo to refer to simolar weapons used by non-Iban ethnic groups in their half of the island prior to Dutch Borneo becoming Kalimantan. I’m not sure which indigenous language the word comes from.Among the Iban the term has always been parang’ and this is the term used among most of the indigenous population of Malaysaian Borneo.I had the opportunity to study the Iban people and their use of the parang from 1963 to 1964 in the Kapit region of the Rejang in what was then Sarawak’s Third Division.At the time the war between Malaysia and Indonesia known as Konfrontasi’ or Confrontaion’ (1963-1966) provided the Iban with an opportunity to practice their old headhunting skills. I counted somewhere between 16 and 22 heads being taken.In the 19th century Iban headhunting has rightly been described as a mania’, and equally rightly the Iban themselves referred to as the most inveterate headhunters of the country ‘ (Hose C & McDougle W, 1966 [1912]:32). Unquestionably, their enthusiasm for the practice surpassed all the other Borneo peoles. Contrary to some accounts headhunting never entirely disappeared up to the point when I was in Sarawak during the early 1960 s, and there were still plenty of Iban willing to discuss the matter.As you correctly recount the chosen weapon for this activity (headhunting)was the parang. It is basically a cutlass -the kind of weapon so beloved of pirates and sailors. This 19th century description is as good as any, in which it is referred to as the ilang’, carved at the angle in the rude shape of a horse’s head, and ornamented with tufts of hair, red or black; the blades of these swords are remarkable, one side being convex, the other concave, the othe concave. They are usually very short, but of good metal and a fine edge.’ (Greenwood J, 1865:99).I would go further, and say they are of quality unsurpassed by any other similar weapon. When sharpened properly they are incredibly sharp (mine would cut a piece of paper with no more effort than just the weight of the parang laid upon it) and they would keep their edge through a whole day of hacking through arms, legs, or heads, or the jungle, so I am told with no reason to disagree. Alas, I do not know all the secrets of how such an edge was obtained.The Iban clearly had an unequalled knowledge of metal-working to make swords of this quality. My close Iban friend in more recent times tried to have his grandfather’s sword (which had taken numerous heads) copied by a Japanese swordsmith. I do not know how to make a blade like this, the Japanese smith confessed, shaving metal off an iron bar with the parang in question.Using the parang required strength and agility which once upon a time all Iban men (apart from the manang, or shaman) possessed in abundance. I heard of warriors who would leap high into the air and take a head on the way down. I once saw a warrior display his skills with the parang by twirling it with his feet!A boy would learn how to handle a parang from the age of three up from his father, elder brother, other men and distinguished warriors. He would practice the moves through dance. Not the effete parodies we now see in tourist displays, but real real war dances where all the fighting-moves were practiced.Fighting was done traditionally with sword and wooden shield. Crouching low, using the shield to protect the body, the warrior would first attempt to main an enemy by striking at his legs or feet. The shield was used, not only to fend off blows, but to trap an opponent’s sword (or parang) and whisk it away.I was told the best way to take a head was not to hack at it, but to aim a hard slap at the neck with the parang, allowing the weight of the weapon to carry through. I would emphasise that I have never attempted any such thing for real, I’m very happy to say. I was told also that success required much practice and skill, besides the strength and agility already mentioned.In a crowded situation, or in the jungle, the short parang illang made much better sense than a longer sword, since it was less likely to get entangled. At one time there was a fashion for longer swords, similar to the Indian tulwar, but I doubt if these were ever used much in anger (someone please correct me if I’m wrong). I’m afraid that your Filippino sword would be slightly disadvantaged in combat with the parang, because despite its fine point, it lacks the weight and concave design (from what I can discern) for real head removal! (Imagine also use of the shield in a fight of this nature).If I can be of further help, please contact.Best wishes,Black Jake.

  3. magictr says:

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