A Bridge to the Upper World: Sacred Language of the Ngaju. (Research Notes)

By Kuhnt-Saptodewo, Jani Sri | Borneo Research Bulletin, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

A Bridge to the Upper World: Sacred Language of the Ngaju. (Research Notes)


Kuhnt-Saptodewo, Jani Sri, Borneo Research Bulletin


General Remarks

The Ngajus are a major population of Borneo. They live in the Indonesian Province of Central Kalimantan along the Barito, Kahayan, Kapuas, Katingan, and Mentaya rivers and their tributaries. The word Ngaju means "upper-river"; the uluh Ngaju are thus people from upriver, in contrast to the uluh Ngawa, downriver people. They do not call themselves Ngaju, but identify with the particular river along which they live, such as uluh Kahayan, or uluh Rungan. While anthropologists describe the Ngaju as one ethnic group this should not obscure the fact that there are marked regional differences in speech and in rituals. Thus the death ceremonies along the Rungan and Kahayan rivers appear similar, but they are unlike those practiced along the Katingan. It is likely that what is conveniently lumped together under the word Ngaju combines quite separate and varying groups.

Research on the Ngaju Dayak has a long history in Germany. Around 1830 Christian missionary work was begun among the Ngaju by the "Rheinische Missionsgesellschaft Wuppertal". These missionaries, and later on, after World War I, missionaries of the "Basler Mission" were among the chief researchers to study the Ngaju. These missionaries devoted most of their attention to religious practices and concepts rather than other cultural fields. (2) Their aim of attempting to understand and describe Ngaju religion was primarily to improve their knowledge so as to be in a better position to deal with their "adversary" (heathen beliefs and practices). The missionaries' ultimate aim of language learning was also to prepare themselves for proselytization. Their activity resulted in the publication of some dictionaries that contain the rudiments of a Eurocentric grammar. (3) On the other hand the documentation about the Ngaju brought together by these missionaries provides a never-ending source of data that can be used for comparisons with the present situation. The famous work of Scharer (1946) was a major influence on the Leiden School and also on the work of Mircea Eliade. After its translation into English (1966), interest in Ngaju culture rose among English speaking experts. (4)

In this paper I describe the rhetorical structure of the sacred language of the Ngaju, called basa sangiang. Although basa sangiang contains dyadic aspects, this does not necessarily mean that the whole worldview of the Ngaju is dualistic. Hardeland already discovered that the priests' chants contain stanzas that consist of two parallel, synonymous parts in 1858. He also noted that the first part of each stanza contained words that were usually taken from everyday speech, while the second part was made up of words that were more often derived from basa sangiang. (5) Neither Hardeland nor Scharer, however, progressed very far in their analysis of the rhetorical structure of these parallel, synonymous sets. An analysis of this rhetorical structure shows that the Ngaju also use codified phrases called tandak to designate places, objects, persons, and ritual activities during ritual. The most sacred tandak are powerful tools which the priest needs in order to accompany the souls of the dead to the upper world. Th e final stage of Ngaju death rituals (tiwah) is the biggest ritual in an individual's lifecycle, and it alone takes 33 days.

The Ngaju celebrate their death rituals in two stages: primary burial called tantulak matei is performed from three until seven days after death; and secondary burial called tiwah is held about nine months or more after primary burial. (6) The Ngaju texts published by Scharer (1966) are taken from tantulak matei, or primary burial. These texts contain a great amount of material which, up until now, could not be sufficiently evaluated. Hardeland (1858) and Mallinckrodt (1928) transcribed and translated only short extracts from the tiwah which are insufficient for an exploration of the entire soul-concept of the Ngaju as it is represented in the ritual texts for primary and secondary burial. …

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