The Rites of Iban’s Birth

I’ve asked my wife (Dr. Majorie) about the significant of the Iban-after-delivery tradition called ‘Bekindu’ and the part of ‘Penti’ have to do with the medical science. She explained that ‘Bekindu’ meant for warming the mother’s body – which is explainable. But, the part of ‘Penti’ however remain mystic – Unexplainable, through a scope of health sciences.

          According to Iban’s tradition – Following delivery, the mother is subject to a period of heating called ‘bekindu’ (literally ‘to heat’ or ‘warm by a fire’) which traditionally lasted from a month to forty-one days, its duration formerly reckoned by the use of a string tally. During this time the mother heats herself by an open fire kept continuously burning inside the bilik and is treated with ginger (Lia) and other heating agents so that her ‘body is made warm’ (ngangat ka tuboh). 

          At the same time, members of the bilik-family observe a series of ritual restrictions (penti). These have a disjunctive effect, temporarily setting the family apart from the rest of the community whose members are not subject to the same restrictions. Similarly, heating itself places the mother and infant in a ritual status antithetical to other longhouse members.

          For the mother, this status ends when she resumes river bathing at the ‘penai’, a ‘cooling’ act that marks her resumption of normal longhouse life. ‘Heating’ and ‘bathing’ are ritually antithetical categories, and before the mother resumes ordinary river bathing, she is first given a steambath (Betangas) inside a mat enclosure at the tempuan bilik in which she is steamed with an infusion of medicinal leaves meant to induce heavy sweating. ‘Steaming’ in this context can be interpreted as a mediating act between ‘heating’ and ‘bathing’. 

          For the infant, on the other hand, its first bath at the penai’ is made the focus of a longhouse ‘Gawa’ rite. This rite, the most elaborate of the series surrounding birth, gives social and ritual recognition to the infant’s entry into the longhouse community. 

          Following its first bathing, mother and child undergo a secondary bathing rite on the longhouse gallery marking their ritual incorporation. The movement represented is thus from seclusion to incorporation, from heating to cooling.

          What is significant here is that this series of rites is enacted as an ordered movement through the longhouse itself: 

1. beginning in the relative security of the bilik apartment; 
2. moving outward to the open-air veranda, 
3. the zone of the house most removed from the bilik; 
4. then journeying in ritual procession from the gallery to the river bathing-place, at the outer threshold of the longhouse, and back again; 
5. and ending in a rite of incorporation on the communal gallery. 

This movement gives cultural construction to the infant’s entry into the social and cosmological world — an entry signalled, at its beginning and end, by a fundamental ritual polarity: heating and bathing (or cooling). 

          This polarity recurs at other life transitions as well, including death, and is an integral part of the rites that preserve the longhouse as a ritual entity, symbolized especially by its hearths and posts — the one a source of heat, the other of cooling.


Kitai Iban sigi patut bekunsika buah penemu ti manah enggau pangan diri, baka ke beduaka lampang rusa, bebagika lampang babi, ngenjuk lampang pelanduk, betetakka lampang bayak. Ngambika utai ti berat tau nyadi lempung, utai simpi tau segala, utai bingkuk tau lurus. Bekunsi kitai buah penemu ti manah enggau pangan diri ngambi ke bansa kitai tau pegari ditemu dunya, bediri sama tinggi, duduk sama pemaruh enggau bansa bukai. - Nadai salah mejah seruri, sigi endang dianti-anti. :)

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