The Culture & Lifestyle

Traditionally, the Iban community lived in longhouses, just the same as other Dayak community like Bidayuh. However, some have now abandoned the longhouse style of living as their whole family move to the city to get more prosperous as they now mostly works as a businessman or an engineer. Despite that, many still maintain ties to their ancestral longhouses.

A traditional longhouse is built of axe-hewn timber, tied with creeper fibre, roofed with leaf thatch. It is nearly always built by the bank of a navigable river, and the visitor approaches it from the boat jetty. He climbs up a notched log that serves as a staircase and finds himself on the open veranda face to face with a scene of community and domestic activity. The long covered gallery that runs the length of an Iban longhouse is called the Ruai. Each settlement has two important officials: the tuah burong (religious head) takes care of all religious activities; and the tuah rumah (village head) is the administrator and custodian of Iban customary law and the arbiter in community conflicts. However, the Iban are a very democratic and egalitarian people. All adults have a say in how the community is run.

Farming is the main occupation of the Iban community traditionally and even today, despite many of them went to city and get an even greater job. But not many are self-sufficient as they must buy additional food to supplement what they grow. They grow cash crops such as pepper, rubber, cocoa, oil palm, and fruits. Some still hunt wild animals in the jungle. Traditionally, the Iban people hunted by setting traps or using blowpipes, but today many train hunting dogs to run down their prey. They no longer rely on the rainforest’s resources to survive. Increasingly, younger Iban are becoming qualified professionals and migrating to major towns and cities.

The Iban peoples’ are unique and colorful people. They have many festivals celebrated every year. One of them are the Gawai Dayak  or harvest festival, Gawai Kenyalang or hornbill festival, and Gawai Antu or festival of the dead. Among of those three celebrations, Gawai Dayak were among the famous celebration in Malaysia, particularly in Sarawak itself. Gawai Dayak or Gawai Day, is usually celebrated in 1 June every year, marking the end of the paddy harvesting season and the beginning of the new planting season. The word Gawai means a ritual or festival, so Gawai Dayak bought the meaning of Dayak festival. Tracing its roots back to as early as 1957, the Gawai Dayak festival was formally gazetted on 25 September, 1964 as a public holiday in place of Sarawak Day. Normally, this festival is conducted in the longhouse, despite that many of them now are just celebrating at their modern house nowdays. Gawai Dayak have since became a symbol of unity, aspiration and hope for the whole Dayak community and is an integral part of Dayak social life today.

The Iban people are traditionally animists, just like the other ethnic groups in Sarawak. Many still hold strongly to their traditional rituals and beliefs, many of which integrate closely with rice planting and harvesting. Rice agriculture is a highly ritualized activity and is really a complete way of life, rather than merely an economic pursuit. Nearly all of their religious ritual has to do with ensuring the success of the crop. Like the Bidayuh people, rice is believed by the Iban to have a soul. At the annual Gawai Dayak, the rice harvest festival, many Iban gather to witness the rice spirit appeasement ceremony.

In the present time, many of the Iban are Christians, while a growing number are marrying into Malay Muslim families. It is a common sight to see a mixture of traditional Iban and Islamic Iban families living together in a modernized Iban longhouse for the time being.


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