A group of female dayung or ritual leaders were rhythmically dancing, forming a circle around an altar with Dayak woodcarvings.
They were clad in colorful embroidery and beads, with bracelets on their wrists and ankles, and wearing head ornaments made of the feathers of hornbills — a bird endemic to Kalimantan and considered sacred by Dayaks.
The dayung chanted mantras and waved cloths above their heads to symbolize the removal of clouds over the lepo dange, or ritual hut and altar, so that the prayers conducted and sacrifices offered could reach the Almighty without a hitch.
This was ngamping langat, part of the dange ritual of the Dayak Kayaan Mendalam ethnic group. The ritual proceeded one July day at noon in Rumah Betang in Pontianak, West Kalimantan.
This annual ritual is a manifestation of gratitude to God for the current year’s harvests and a plea for abundant yields in the coming year.
Dange ceremonies can be observed between April and May in eight villages along the Mendalam River in Kapuas Hulu regency, part of Betung Kerihun National Park. In Pontianak, the ritual has only been held three times, in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
The ceremony is derived from local folklore describing the Dayak Kayaan departing from Apo Kayaan in Malinau regency, East Kalimantan. The Dayak Kayaan adhere to ancestral traditions, including the ritual acknowledging the blessings of Tipang Tenanggaan (God) known as dange.
The centuries-old ritual also serves as an occasion when family members gather after a period of crop cultivation for mutual apologies and an exchange of experiences.
The Dayak Kayaan group comprises sub-ethnic groups of Umaa’ Pagung, Umaa’ Tadaan, Umaa’ Suling and Umaa’ Aging, from which the Dayak Kayaan people in Sarawak in East Kalimantan and those from West Kalimantan arose.
As indicated by their dayung’s oral histories, dange was created by Kayaan Umaa’ Aging and Kayaan Umaa’ Pagung. The Umaa’ Pagung’s ritual space is called saa’, an open 4-by-6-meter platform about one meter high.
“Based on oral lore, the dange ritual is performed every year,” said Agastalis Loding from the event’s organizing committee, who is of Dayak Kayaan descent.
According to Agastalis, dange should be headed by a dayung aya’ or chief priestess. On this occasion it was led by Kuu’ Fransiska Buaa’ Anye’, a Kayaan Umaa’ Suling from Datah Diaan village in Kapuas Hulu.
Women like Fransiska traditionally have elongated ears, and Fransiska and the other elderly women in the Mendalam River area are part of the last long-eared generation.
She used to live in a rumah betang (communal house) in Tanjung Kuda, Putussibau. A longhouse, it was located on the banks of the Mendalam River and had 90 doors. Built of belian wood — a variety of wood that lasts for centuries — the house was destroyed by fire.
In the dange ritual, Fransiska was accompanied by eight assistants from the Association of Hulaan Apo Kayaan of West Kalimantan. They conducted ten Dayak Kayaan dange ceremonies that noon in the city’s rumah betang.
It began with a mela halam dange, a purification rite executed by a dayung by chanting a mantra and whisking all those present with the leaves of select plants to rid them of disease and bad luck.
Then followed ngiaan ngetdo and maraa’uting dances to introduce the altar as a means of offering prayers and sacrifices. In the past, Kayaan Umaa’ Pagung used human heads as sacrifices, which were later replaced by pig heads.
Before the slaughter of the pigs, a dayung sought permission and apologized to the pigs so they wouldn’t be sad and angered as they were made substitutes for the souls of dange participants.
Then the dayung team headed for the lepo dange to purify the audience with the blood of the pigs slaughtered in front of the altar and to strengthen human souls and free them from disease and misfortune.
The ritual continued with a childrens’ fight for fortune. After chanting mantras, children scrambled for banana leaves and beat each other with them, which represented the struggle for prosperity.
In a pejuu’lasah dance procession around the lepo dange, a group of people shook and hit the hut with spears as a gesture of making travel to God easier.
According to Fransiska, the dange is not allowed to proceed beyond midday. If the rule is violated, there will be an ill omen and the next season’s paddy harvests may fail.
Before noon, the group of dayung formed a line, holding the backs of those in front of them, walking back and forth in the longhouse. They eventually entered the hut, gathering closely and holding hands. They then crowed in chorus to mark the conclusion of the dange.
Tanjung Kuda hamlet chief Imang Putang said Dayak Kayaan Pastor AJ Ding Ngo had been working to combine the dange with Catholic mass. The “dange mass” now has Kayaan language songs and prayers, including dayung poetry to express joy and to beg for God’s favor.