A note on the conservation of the Pandan Klirieng

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak by FoSM

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Calvin Agau Jemarang

Following up from an earlier article on klirieng, here is an account of the actual preservation and restoration of a klirieng.

Efforts in progress to lower the jar (tajau) housing the remains of Orang Kaya Saghieng, Klibaong, and Kiu, aiming to facilitate the subsequent restoration and maintenance activities. The photograph was captured on December 21, 2023.

IN the southeastern reaches, approximately 60 kilometres from Bintulu, lies the hamlet of Pandan, a locale bearing historical imprints that echo the transformations of the Brooke era. Originally named “Pedan” by the indigenous inhabitants, Pandan underwent a metamorphosis during the colonial period. The colonial legacy extends its influence to various toponyms in Bintulu, including the river that was once simply Bintulu and now encompasses the present-day Batang Kemena, stretching from the Jelalong and Tubau estuary to the coastal expanses.

The nomenclature “Bintulu” itself is steeped in colonial lore, as documented in a record from 1877, revealing its original name as “Ba Tulau,” (Anon, “Bintulu August 25,1877 (Sabit and Baiod),” Sarawak Gazette, August 25, 1877, Vol. VII, No. 134 edition)—a phrase resonating with the meaning “rice pounder” in the tongues of Punan and Vaie.

Among the early denizens of this region were the Punan, renowned for their klirieng, a funerary structure for the esteemed “Tengelan” and “Melagi”—designations akin to “aristocrat” in the English lexicon. Dr Peter Metcalf, now an emeritus professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia, categorises this cultural practice as a shared substratum among the Melanau, Punan (or Punan Ba), Berawan, and affiliated groups, forming a geographical arc along the north coastal expanse of Borneo. Metcalf aptly refers to them as “a nulang arc people.”

The communities, engaging in the ancient practice of secondary burial known as “nulang” in Berawan and “menoleang” in Punan, reveal a cultural substratum predating the ascendancy of the Kayan and Kenyah in the 19th century, according to Metcalf. This ritual entails the construction of intricate structures like klirieng and kludan in Punan, kelidieng and jerunei in Melanau, and lijeng in Berawan. Metcalf delineates the widespread distribution of Punan structures, reaching farflung locations such as Niah, Suai, Jelalong, Bintulu (now Batang Kemena), Tatau, Balingian, Siteng, and Upper Rejang.

Dr Antonio Guerreiro, delving into this tradition in 2019, posits that the roots of this cultural practice trace back to an ancient tradition of tree burial, notably within the present-day confines of Brunei (Antonio J Guerreiro, “Perspectives on Carving Traditions, Local Knowledge and Heritage Conservation in Sarawak,” Sarawak Museum Journal LXXXI, no. 102 (New Series) (December 2019): 27–114).

Punan oral traditions indicate the inception of klirieng construction during their sojourn in the Niah and Suai region, eventually migrating westward to Bintulu, Tatau, and Upper Rejang due to incoming groups.

The jar (tajau) housing the remains of Orang Kaya Saghieng, Klibaong, and Kiu.

The term “klirieng” carries profound spiritual connotations, symbolising protection from malevolent spirits. Within Punan society, klirieng and kludan serve multifaceted purposes, serving as mausoleums for aristocrats (tanom tengelan), territorial markers (tadak baliu), and repositories of history (tadak selitak).

Traditionally, klirieng is erected within the longhouse compound, strategically positioned at river mouths, aligning with the Punan belief that control over a river mouth through a longhouse bestows dominion over the entire river. This elucidates the strategic placement of klirieng in contemporary locations within the Bintulu Division, including Pandan, Lavang, Jelalong and Tubau, Selitut, Jelai, Rantau Belak (Lulau Belak), Kakus, Takan in the Upper Anap, and in the Upper Rejang from Baleh to the Belaga area.

Klirieng at Pandan

In the heart of Pandan, a village steeped in historical resonance, stands the in-situ klirieng that has become a focal point of local lore. According to the oral traditions shared by the community, this sacred structure is affectionately known as “Saghieng’s klirieng” in homage to the revered figure Orang Kaya Saghieng. However, despite the locals’ steadfast nomenclature, a bureaucratic twist unfolded in 2019 when authorities officially designated it as “Klirieng Klivang,” eschewing the more colloquial “Klirieng Saghieng.”

Delving into the annals of history, this official title is now under scrutiny. Historical records indicate that the inaugural occupant of the klirieng was not associated with “Klivang” but rather with “Kliboang” or “Klibang.” Erected in honor of Orang Kaya Saghieng, who departed this world in the early 19th century, the discrepancies in historical narratives add layers of intrigue. Oral traditions posit Saghieng’s demise shortly after his return from the coronation of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II in 1828, suggesting a timeline aligning with that period. However, a conflicting 1878 record proposes Saghieng’s passing in 1868 at Pandan, creating a puzzling disparity with the local accounts.

Piecing together Saghieng’s life, it is postulated that he was born in the latter part of the 18th century to Lasa Paso and Kulan. Given this timeframe, it becomes implausible that he lived for an extended period. Bestowed with the title “Orang Kaya” by Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin I (1740-1778) (Awang Muhammad Hadi Muhammad Melayong and Awang Abd Rahman Nawi, eds., Sejarah Sultan-Sultan Brunei, Syarikat Percetakan Juta Jaya, 2015), Saghieng’s noble lineage traces back to his grandfather, Orang Kaya Paso’s second wife, Tijah (also known as Pangeran Anak Siti Khatijah), who held a significant position in Brunei royalty (Anon, “Bintulu January 22, 1878 (Orang Kaya Saghieng),” Sarawak Gazette, January 22, 1878, Vol. VIII, No. 138 edition). Thus, Saghieng enjoyed a status of “high birth,” acknowledged by the sultan and pangerans of Brunei. The 1878 record further reinforces Saghieng’s connections to Brunei royalty, detailing his third wife Sisa’s ties to “Juatan Gador,” a Pangeran diGadong.

Saghieng’s marital journey was intricate, beginning with a union with a Punan woman from Ba, a commoner, leading to the birth of his son Tugang. Subsequent unions, notably with Lahei, created tensions between the Punan and Kayan communities in the Rejang region. Saghieng’s complex personal life saw him briefly returning to Lavang after parting ways with Lahei, only to discover later that she bore his daughter. His travels took him to Miri and Brunei before he established roots in Tubau.

The narrative unfolds with Saghieng’s third wife, Sisa, experiencing isolation in Tubau, prompting her return to Brunei. Saghieng’s subsequent romantic entanglement with Jatti Miriek girl Lamat, followed by a strained relationship, exemplifies the twists in his personal saga. His fifth wife, Jingade, entered the picture, bearing Klivang or Kliboang, a name now associated with the klirieng in question.

This historical account challenges the authorities’ alterations to local history, as reflected in the renowned “Tipuong Tuloi” salong in the museum compound, which, in reality, represents the klirieng linked to Saghieng’s daughter from Balu Lahei (Edmund Ronald Leach, “Social Science Research in Sarawak: A Report on the Possibilities of a Social Economic Survey of Sarawak Presented to the Colonial Social Science Research Council, London, March 1948–July 1949” (HM Stationery Office, 1950).

Klivang (Kliboang), Saghieng’s daughter, shared a complex family dynamic, having two siblings named Kiu and Savai. Tragically, Savai passed away in infancy. Klivang’s marriage to Jangoh, a Melanau with the title of Orang Kaya at Niah, marked a significant chapter in her life (Anon, “Bintulu.”)

Sadly, her time in Niah was short-lived, and she departed around the 1860s. The narrative, emerging in the 1990s, unveils her final resting place alongside her father in the same klirieng. In 1877, the klirieng also became the eternal resting place for Kiu, another daughter of Saghieng from his union with Jingade (Edward Peregrine Gueritz, “Kiu Saghieng Killed by Crocodile near Pandan,” Sarawak Gazette, April 16, 1877, Vol. VII, No. 130 edition).

The burial pole, referred to as the klirieng, underwent maintenance and restoration works by a contractor of the Sarawak Museum Department, resulting in its condition as of December 22, 2023.

The passage of time has taken its toll on the sacred klirieng. A fire in 1960 prompted the construction of new shops behind it, and by the 1970s, signs of decay and tilting emerged. In 1978, thieves attempted to pilfer the jar, leading to the displacement of most bones. Efforts to restore the klirieng in 1980, spearheaded by Mering Paran, faced challenges, and by 2000, the bottom section began to rot, causing another tilt.

Addressing the plight, personal communications in 2017 and subsequent investigations by Dr Antonio Guerreiro in 2019 paved the way for legal protection under the Cultural Heritage Ordinance 2019. A meeting in 2023, which included various stakeholders, reflects the ongoing commitment to preserving this cultural landmark, echoing the voices of the Punan community and living descendants of Orang Kaya Saghieng. The story of Klirieng Klivang transcends its physical existence, encapsulating a rich tapestry of history, identity, and the relentless efforts to safeguard cultural heritage.

A collective photograph was taken following a meeting convened at the Sebauh District Office on December 11, 2023. The purpose of the meeting was to deliberate on the restoration and maintenance plans for the klirieng located at Pandan. In attendance were government officers and leaders from the Punan community.

Calvin Agau Jemarang is a blogger, journalist, and avid reader of the history of Sarawak’s minorities.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.

— DayakDaily