A Longhouse Engagement

15 September 2017

Iban weddings are expansive and elaborate in all forms – from their customs right down to their costumes.

While most indigenous Iban folk in Borneo have moved to the city and converted to Christianity, a majority still practise old customs – albeit selectively. Customs may be elaborate, but traditions are still respected, and these days, a traditional Iban wedding is rarely practised in full.

Traditionally, an Iban wedding would be set in a longhouse (rumah panjang) and involve intricate wedding processes. Today, most modern Iban weddings have incorporated Christian practices into their ceremonies, while the increase of interracial marriages has diminished the practice of old customs.

The melah pinang (splitting the betel nut) is the defining point of an Iban wedding ceremony, where the bride and groom are each sitting on a gong and draped under the pua kumbu.

When Baring Linggi married Vanessa Wong in Kuching, Sarawak, they had a Christian ceremony and a Chinese tea ceremony (as Vanessa is Chinese) all wrapped into their one-day, Western-style reception. But as Baring is Iban, they had also travelled to Kapit – two and a half hours by boat from Sibu – a few days after for a traditional Iban wedding ceremony.

The Iban wedding process happens in two stages – the nanya indu (otherwise known as the engagement), in which the literal meaning is “asking the girl” for her hand in marriage. Normally an unelaborate affair, the groom’s parents would ask the bride’s parents for permission with immediate family and close relatives present. This process traditionally includes entering the bride’s home to the beat of the tawak (gong) to discuss important matters: the size of the wedding ceremony, and the ngugi process – deciding which side the couple would live with after the wedding.

The merry-making festivities where both the groom and bride's family drink tuak together to celebrate the union and get to know each other.

The Ibans are well known for their Pua Kumbu, a multi-coloured ceremonial cloth that is the defining trait of any Iban wedding. Melia Linggi, director of textiles at the Tun Jugah Foundation (and also the groom’s eldest sister) carried out most of these customs for Baring and Vanessa’s wedding. “The traditional marriage ceremony is the melah pinang [“splitting the betel nut”] where both the bride and groom are decked in ceremonial wedding attire, each sitting on a gong and draped under the Pua Kumbu. They’re then blessed by the lemambang [an Iban bard priest] wielding a manuk labang [white rooster]. A miring [blessing ceremony] is also prepared and [the offering is] placed on a teresang [a receptacle],” she explains.

“The full ceremony also includes an exchange of Pua Kumbu and a gift of kain kebat, which is a woven skirt for the bride,” she adds. Finally, the significance of a melah pinang is when a betel nut is placed on a Pua Kumbu and chopped in half – a good omen is when one side faces up while the other faces down.

The Lemambang (Iban bard priest) wielding a manuk labang (white rooster) at a wedding ritual blessing.

“Traditionally, the ceremony would be held at the bride’s longhouse and the groom’s entourage would travel in longboats decked with Pua Kumbu canopies, laden with gifts for the bride,” shares Melia. Gifts include heirloom jars, gongs, woven textiles, harvested rice and livestock to be slaughtered for the festivities. After the ceremony, tuak (rice wine) is imbibed by both sides of the family – a festive and merry way to signify the union of both families via marriage.

The bride's two-piece top and bottom made up of antique silver Straits coins and separated by a rawai (corset).

A key feature of an Iban wedding is the attire: the groom wears a woven homespun cotton sirat (loincloth) and animal skin gaggong (a warrior vest once commonly used as armour). He accessorises with a pair of silver armlets and lampit (belt), topped with a ketapu silung (a woven ceremonial hat with hornbill and pheasant feathers and goats hair). The bride wears an embellished kain kebat (woven skirt with a hem of silver coins, tiny brass bells and/or a fabric fringe), silver and rattan rawai (corset), silver lampit, tanguk (beaded collar fringed with woollen pompoms), and silver bangles (tumpa pirak and simpai pirak), armlets and anklets (geland kaki pirak). To finish, a silver headpiece (sugu tinggi) rests atop the bride’s head, held in place by silver sunggul (hairpins).

The bride and groom in full Iban wedding costume.

“Vanessa’s costume was an updated version of our family’s heirloom pieces – hence her skirt was long and made in silver threads with the Karap technique. Her two-piece top and bottom is of antique silver Straits coins, separated by a rawai [corset]. She wore a long strand of marik igi peria [silver necklace in traditional bitter gourd seeds pattern],” explains Melia.

“Along with the bracelets and armlets, she carried two pairs of buah pauh – round, hollow silver containers that normally store betel nuts. Her white tanguk was made by myself and used pearls instead of multicoloured beads.”

A traditional Iban wedding photo published in a 1993 wedding brochure – a project with Sarawak Museum.

It’s clear that textiles play a very big part in Iban culture – from the Pua Kumbu to the heirloom pieces for both the bride and groom. Bridal attire even varies according to longhouse areas, but these variations are now rare. “Most heirloom pieces are either lost or divided amongst family members as Ibans move out of longhouses – a result of rural to urban migration,” says Melia.

By Mabel Ho
Images courtesy of Hollywood Bridal and Melia Linggi/Tun Jugah Foundation.

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