Sources and Elders

Every Iban longhouse is identified, in the first instance, with a menoa rumah, or territorial domain.[1] Here, within this territory, individual bilik- families clear their annual farms, grow rice and other food crops, and observe a common body of normative rules (adat) and ritual interdictions (pemali) which are enforced by the longhouse and express its status as the jural and ritual centre of its domain. The continued existence of the longhouse is thought to depend upon its members behaving as these rules and interdictions require (Heppell 1975:303–304; Sather 1980:xxviii-xxxi). Thus breaches of adat and disturbances of the ritual order are said to render a longhouse ‘hot’ (angat), leaving its inhabitants open to infertility, sickness, death and other calamities.

Until the imposition of Brooke rule,[2] beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, ‘elders’ (tuai) were acknowledged at the level of both the longhouse and the wider river region. Regional leaders, called tuai menoa, were drawn mainly from the raja berani, literally the ‘rich and brave’, and were self-made men with a reputation for military prowess, resourcefulness and judgment; they acted primarily as peacekeepers, go-betweens and charismatic war chiefs (tau’ serang or tau’ kayau), mobilizing regional followings for raiding and the territorial defence of the river. With Brooke rule, this former pattern of competitive regional leadership was superseded by the creation of formal administrative districts under officially appointed Penghulu, or ‘native chiefs’, and today the Penghulu act, together with the longhouse headmen, as the principal intermediaries between the local community and the state (see Freeman 1981:15–24; Sather 1980:xiv-xxviii, n.d.).

Responsibility for safeguarding the normative order that, for the Iban, centres in each longhouse domain, rests chiefly with the longhouse headman (tuai rumah) and other community elders (tuai). The most important of the latter are the tuai bilik (family heads). Thus, in matters of adat, longhouse and bilik elders are said to have ‘authority’ (kuasa) over or ‘to speak for’ (jakoka) other longhouse or apartment residents.

Complementing the role of the tuai (elders) in matters of adat is the role of the pun (sources) in matters of ritual and the custodianship of group sacra. When a longhouse is first built, its ‘longhouse source’ (pun rumah) supervises the rites of house construction. In doing so, he confirms his status as caretaker of its central ‘source post’ (tiang pemun). This post centres the house both ritually and in terms of the internal orientation of its parts. Every longhouse is believed to be susceptible to the intrusion of malevolent spirits and other injurious forces, and to disruptions of its ritual order from within. The task of the pun rumah as custodian of the ‘source post’ and its associated sacra, is to ward off these dangers and, should its ritual well-being be threatened, to perform rites of ‘cooling’ (penyelap) on behalf of the community as a whole, by which the longhouse and its domain are restored to a ‘cool’ (chelap) or benign state.[3]

Figure 3. Longhouse section and plan

 4.3. Figure 3. Longhouse section and plan

Each family, too, has a ‘source’ (pun bilik). The pun bilik, or family source, is the custodian of the bilik’s heritable estate, including ritual sacra that symbolize the continuing life of the family, notably its ritual whetstones (batu umai) and sacred strains of rice (padi pun and padi sangking). The family is ideally an enduring group and the pun bilik personifies its continuity (tampong). As the senior-most family member and the principal heir through whom family wealth and sacra are transmitted, the pun bilik represents the family’s living ancestor, the chief link between its present and past generations and the source through whom all family rights devolve.




[1] Menoa refers to the territorial domain held and used by any distinct community, not only a longhouse, but also an entire river region. In fact, the term menoa may encompass a number of regions; thus the Sarawak Iban describe as their menoa lama’, or old domain, the regions of the First and Second Divisions, including the Saribas, that were settled in the course of the first great Iban migrations into Sarawak some 300 to 350 years ago. The menoa rumah, or longhouse domain, consists ideally of the ‘house, farms, gardens, fruit groves, cemetery, water, and all forest within half a day’s journey’, the use of which is ‘only gained and maintained by much effort and danger and by proper rites to secure and preserve a ritual harmony of all within’ (Richards 1981:215). For a discussion of the major features of the longhouse menoa, including its forests, fruit groves and immediate longhouse precinct, see Sather (1990).

[2] Members of the Brooke family, the so-called ‘White Rajahs’, ruled Sarawak for a century (1841–1941) as an independent Raj under British protection (Pringle 1970). Following World War II, Sarawak was administered briefly as a British colony, gaining independence in 1963, as a State within the Federation of Malaysia.

[3] The roles of tuai and pun may be, and sometimes are, combined. Thus the same person may be both the longhouse headman and the pun rumah. In the Paku, however, it is preferred that the two roles be played by different persons, primarily because the disputes and trouble cases that the headman hears on his family’s section of the gallery are thought to jeopardize the central tiang pemun, potentially ‘heating’ it. The role of the pun rumah may, in addition, be combined with that of the tuai burong (longhouse augur). However, today in the Paku not all houses acknowledge an augur. Like the longhouse tuai and pun, the tuai bilik and pun bilik may also be, and much more often are, the same person. In addition, each community, for the duration of its annual farming year, selects at least one tuai umai (farming elder) to enforce its adat umai, the farming rules that regulate the behaviour of its members while they work their farms outside the longhouse.