Epics of the Ga'ay, the Most Hegemonic Kayanic Subgroups in East and North Kalimantan: Biographies of Chiefs in the Age of the Kayan Basin

By Okushima, Mika | Borneo Research Bulletin, Annual 2019 | Go to article overview

Epics of the Ga'ay, the Most Hegemonic Kayanic Subgroups in East and North Kalimantan: Biographies of Chiefs in the Age of the Kayan Basin


Okushima, Mika, Borneo Research Bulletin


1. Background of the study

Kayanic peoples, who were originally comprised of three different ethnic groups--i.e., the Ga'ay, the Kayan-Busang, and the Bahau--migrated over a period of several centuries from their early settlements in the Baram Basin and the surrounding regions (Sarawak, Malaysia) to the Kayan Basin (North Kalimantan, Indonesia) and then further scattered over Sarawak, East and West Kalimantan, as I have reconstructed from their ethnohistorical accounts (kesa?, w[epsilon]ah) and genealogies (pu?un, tekulun, on sekuyt puyp, etc.) as well as those of their neighbors (on the details of their origin, migration, and assimilation with the neighboring ethnic groups, see Okushima 1999, 2006, 2008). Theimpact of this Kayanic migration caused major socio-political changes, altered ethnic and language distributions, patterns of trade, and internal and external wars that effected not only neighboring people but also coastal sultanates and later British and Dutch colonial governments.

Inlast year's volume of this journal, I provided an overview of Kayanic oral literature, which consists of numerous epics (takna?, lekan), poems (telo.y etc.), religious chants (dayun, metaw, etc.), prayers (bara:?, sek[epsilon]an, etc.), and folk tales and songs (lun, sebutew) (on the details of the characteristics and differences between those genres, see Okushima 2018). Most of this oral literature involves real Kayanic ancestors and their villages, as in the ethno-historical accounts mentioned above, although the scenarios, motifs and other details are more or less mythologized. The oral literary texts are in fact strongly influenced by ancient literature from India and Indochina (including various local myths and preaching stories), not only regarding the manner of dramatization and mythologization but also the terminology referring to genres or categories of texts, such the takna?, lekan, and telo:y noted above. By using these patterned cultural tools to more easily memorize an enormous quantity of information about their past, Kayanic peoples have not only praised their ancestors, but also demonstrated, internally and externally, their power and prosperity.

Here I provide digests of the most famous epic series that are widely shared among Kayanic peoples. The significance of studying these epics can be summarized by means of the following three points.

First, comparative analysis of the epics tells us much about Kayanic literary culture, revealing the ways that past chiefs and nobles are glorified (as the main characters of the epics) with the use of various mythical and fantastic descriptions, many of which cite or copy from ancient Indian literature such as the R[bar.a]m[bar.a]yana, Hindu and Buddhist preaching stories, and Vietnamese myths of World Creation, in contrast to other simpler and more realistic texts (e.g., ordinary ethnohistorical accounts, religious chants, and poems) (see Okushima 2018: 164-167). Comparative analysis also indicates that the continuity of blue blood, namely, the genealogical lines of the Kayanic noble stratum, have been much respected by the Kayanic peoples, especially by the Ga'ay, the most hegemonic subgroup of the three. As a result, the scenes describing genealogies of the main characters are some of the highlights of these epics.

The degree of dramatization differs according to the Kayanic subgroups. Compared to those of the Kayan-Busang and Bahau, the epics of the Ga'ay tend to be more realistic and objective, including geographical details of the village locations, complicated family relationships among the characters, splendid scenes of rituals and feasts, and impressive lines and classic expressions. Such differences in dramatization also seems to be related to differences in ritual practices among the three Kayanic subgroups. The Kayan-Busang and Bahau conduct their rituals under the direction of priests (dayu[eta]), while Ga'ay rituals can be conducted not only by priests but also by any other elder who knows the procedures--except for healing rituals held only by priestesses (metaw, meta:, emta:). …

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