Main Article Content

Reuben Ramas Cañete


The use of avian ‘spirit’ images is documented among several ethnolinguistic groups across island Southeast Asia. Perhaps of most relevance to the study of Borneo's cultural heritage are the kenyalang sculptures of the Iban, Kenyah, and Kayan Dayak peoples of Sarawak State, Malaysia. The kenyalang are utilized within the complex of rituals associated with traditional warfare, social prestige, modern Thanksgiving, and the visualization of the Dayak spirit world through the iconography of the rhinoceros hornbill (buceros rhinoceros L.), a bird prized for its feathers (traditionally used for ornamentation), as well as its perceived role as a messenger between the human and spiritual worlds. The carving, presentation, and patronage of kenyalang figures became part of a socially central activity among the Iban Dayak in a way that eerily parallels the significance of the sarimanok among the Maranao peoples of Lanao del Sur, Philippines; and the manuk-manuk of the Toba Batak peoples of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. This paper is a preliminary attempt at connecting these geographically disparate practices of avian ‘spirit’ iconography across Southeast Asia. Utilizing a combination of cultural ethnography, iconographical analysis, and ethnolinguistics, the paper speculates on a common cultural link centered in Borneo that has successfully disseminated the idea of avian spirit mediums in pre-Islamic and pre-colonial times across maritime Southeast Asia, from northwestern Sumatra to as far as north Luzon Island, Philippines. Premised upon the movement of peoples and ideas (such as the Austronesian thesis of Bellwood, or the Nusantao thesis of Solheim) across the region, these indicators of common acculturation places Borneo at the crossroads of a thriving iconographic practice rooted in a shared premise: the celebration by peoples of the imagery of spectacular bird species as an index of their own ascendant social and political stature.

Keywords: iconography, Iban Dayak, cultural ethnography, ethnolinguistics, kenyalang


Download data is not yet available.

Article Details