Harmony of Culture and Nature Inside Sentarum Lake

Deep Inside Sentarum Lake West Kalimantan, remains seven virgins of Iban who live in small village named Pengerak. These Iban women belong to Dayak ethnic group whom inhabiting Sentarum Lake area. It was lively evening in Pengerak village, where I’ve spent my night after a long full day trip by boat from Lanjak to Sentarum Lake. The dry season makes our trip faced a lot of difficulties due to the low tide of water that slowing our boat, but a warm hospitality from the villagers seems has covering all the tiredness during the trip.

I stay in one of Dayak Iban traditional longhouses called “rumah betang”, with a single-family dwelling located along rivers. They are still maintain strong links with the forests, as they still harvest non-timber and minor forest products, and practice some form of shifting cultivation. Dayak inhabiting Sentarum area are belong to three ethnic groups: Iban, Embaloh and Kantu’. The Embaloh and Kantu’ inhabit the areas east and west of the lakes, and the Iban mainly occupy the area to the north and northeast of Sentarum. The flat area to the north and northeast of the lakes is called the Emperan, and the Iban in this area call them selves the Emperan Iban.

Dayak Iban very famous for its skill in producing ethnic handicraft, one of the most well know is their weaving skill in “bemban” material (Donax cannaeformis). The bemban reed grows on wet ground near streams or on more hilly terrain. Iban’s bemban is one that famous for its strong, light to deep green plant with broad shiny leaves growing to a height of several meters. Two varieties are used in waiving; “bemban ai” or “bemban paya” (water or marsh bemban) grows closer to water, is fragile and only used in mats. “Bemban batu” or “bemban bukit” (stone or hill bemban), a very close species is tougher and lives on higher ground. It is of a deeper green than the other varieties and is used for baskets.

It was early in the morning when I saw two middle-aged villagers woman start weaving on a mat and a basket. For women in the Iban community weaving is a means of evaluating status. A woman, depending on her use of dye, design and skill, will fit into a certain rank within the community. In order to be a master weaver, Iban woman has to move up from rank to rank. To be successful, a woman has to have a tacit acceptance as an individual of a variety of spiritual agents as well as a creative understanding of the art of weaving.

The Life Above Motive

The handicraft motives made by Iban women represent the identity of the Iban community. Various pattern like nature, plants, animals and creature’s spirit were waved using bemban. One of Iban’s seven virgins named Kancak than offers me several waved mats with different pattern, she told me the name of each motives, and there is one motive that kind of attract me most. The motive called “anak amoi” which means sons of dew; morning moist that dropped in leaves has inspired her when she made this mat.

Iban woman originated those motives from their imagination and dreams that believed coming from the spirit of their ancestors “antu”. Several motives named “buah bernama” considered special and normally used for traditional ceremonies. Each motive illustrate the skill level of the creators and a way of recognizing the ability to compose motives was presented in the form of tattoos named “tegulun” that were drawn all over their knuckles. These tattoos than become their pride and status.  The seven virgins of Iban have been weaving bemban into handy every objects since early age. Today, they are equally expert at weaving this useful reed into modern fashion items such as purses and handbags or household objects like wastepaper baskets or laundry hampers.

To support the development of this community livelihood, most of Iban woman that live in Pengerak village are given economic empowerment training by local NGO’s so they are able to purchase their handicraft directly with visitors with a fair price. Each mats priced differently according to the size, for an average they priced 50,000 IDR for a 1×1 meters un-colored mat.

Villagers are very welcome to train you with the weaving process; you can just sit beside them and learn how to split the bemban properly, helping them with their works, this probably an immeasurable cultural exchange experience you could have.  Although the elders might find some difficulties in using Bahasa in explaining the how-to step, but some of the young villagers already know how speaks in Melayu, they will help you to explain what the elders mean, kind of warm-hearted open hospitality that makes me falling in love with this village at first.

Pengerak village and its people somehow had leaving a deep worth life experience. They had taught me a lot of knowledge and wisdom in how people and nature can life in harmony without too much exploiting on nature. Their modest, traditional way of lives has gives me much more enlightenment in preserving the culture for the balance of the ecosystem, a value that almost forgotten by modern people now days.

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