Klirieng: Vanishing culture of the Punans

The klirieng taken from Lo'o Pila (known today as Nanga Pila) in 1925 and erected within the compound of the Sarawak Museum. This particular klirieng is believed to belong to a group known as "Punan Lukap and Punan Ayok".

Kenyalang Portraits

By Calvin Jemarang

IN THE EARLY 20th century, Rejang Resident D A Owen visited Belaga. On his way up the Rejang River, about 50km to the northeast of Kapit, he saw an imposing receptacle below the Pila River. He must have been awestruck by its beauty and intricate carvings as he immediately issued an order for one to be relocated to Kuching.

Manggoi, a headman of one of the few Dayak longhouses above the Pelagus rapids was tasked with uprooting and rafting the huge object made of belian (ironwood, also scientifically known as Eusideroxylon zwageri), downriver passing through the treacherous river. It arrived in Kuching around the middle of 1925. Owen unfortunately did not live long enough to witness its arrival.

The Sarawak Gazette, a semi-official publication of the colonial government on July 1, 1925, noted the removal by describing the death edifice as “Kayan salong” (totem pole). But it is neither a salong nor a totem pole. According to anthropologists, Professor Noboru Ishikawa and Jayl Langub, totemism as practised by Australian aborigines and North American Indians has never been known in Borneo.


“Klirieng is certainly not related to totemism,” noted Jayl, who spent over four decades researching various aspects of Sarawak culture. Even more interesting, although attributed to Kayan, klirieng is foreign to Kayan.

Kuching-based photographer, Ho Ah Chon, in his book “Kuching in Pictures 1841-1946” speculated the klirieng contained the remains of distinguished aristocrats of the Lugat. He claimed it was taken from Nanga Gaat.

This has been revealed to be a misleading statement. Firstly, the klirieng as reported by the Sarawak Gazette was taken from Lo’o Pila, as it was then known to the Punan. Into the second quarter of the twentieth century, the Pila River region was occupied by the Iban, henceforth becoming known as Nanga Pila. The Iban successfully chased out the few remaining Punan living in the area after a battle known as the “battle of Pila”.

Second, nomadic peoples such as the Lugat, researcher Dr Antonio Guerreiro argued, would not have the motivation nor resources to build such a structure. Guerreiro is believed to be among the handful of scholars who have studied the burial pole. Guerreiro is no stranger to Sarawak, especially among the Orang Ulu of Belaga, where he is affectionately known as Kulleh. He has also spent considerable time in Central and East Kalimantan for his research. Dr Antonio’s last project in Sarawak was the establishment of the Sarawak Museum campus.

The klirieng that was relocated from Pila River, was subsequently resituated within the Sarawak Museum compound sometime in the last quarter of 1925 and has since fascinated visitors and travelers who are often awestruck by its meticulous construction.

One of the few remaining klirieng situated in front of Punan Ba village, Belaga. There were once more than 20 klirieng dotted the area around the village. Many had been destroyed by fire, village extension and the construction of SK Punan Ba in 1965.

“Burial poles always evoke a “certain air of mystery surrounding it,” Peter Metcalf, an emeritus professor at the University of Virginia wrote in 1976. “Impressive in size and elaborately carved, they immediately fire the imagination. What great chief originally built them? What armies of men laboured to erect them?”

It is hard to disagree with Metcalf’s observation. As anyone lucky enough to see them in situ—in the jungle—would readily admit that when seen in person, a klirieng’s presence is felt even more powerfully. Looming out of the sombre forest draped with jungle vines, they suggest the glories of a lost civilisation.

According to Metcalf, the peoples who practiced the custom, generally referred to as “secondary burial” are distributed across Central North Borneo, from Oya River to the Kelabit Highlands. The distribution appears like an arc if plotted on a map, and thus, he called it the “nulang arc”. “Nulang” is a Berawan term for secondary burial or ‘menoleang’ among the Punan. He contended the custom represents a cultural substratum that predates the arrival of the Kayan and Kenyah in the area.

Burial poles were constructed by these peoples to honour their dead aristocrats, and were commonly made of belian. Among the Punan, however, a much earlier form of the burial pole was reportedly made from “kayu lalou” or “kayu laja” as the wood was used exclusively for “laja” or “king”. Elsewhere throughout Borneo, this tree is widely known as “tapang”, or “tanyid” in Berawan, “tualang” in Peninsular Malaysia, and scientifically as Koompassia excelsa.

The Saghieng Selawik klirieng located in front of Pandan bazaar. This klirieng was erected circa 1840.

This death edifice, although widely known by its Punan name “klirieng” has other names in other cultures. Among the Melanau, in particular the Liko, depending on the region, it is known by two names. In the Dalat area, it is called klideng or kelidieng (spelling varies), while in Mukah it is generally known as jerunai. To the northeast, in the Baram region, the Berawan called it lijeng.

Klirieng, among the Punan, has three main functions. First, as the “luvuong laja” or “mausoleum” of their aristocrats. Laja is the top-ranked stratum in Punan society, although today, Punan society is mainly divided into laja and panyin. Second, klirieng is also a marker of territorial domain (baliu kano). Lastly, it serves as a major ritual centre such as for swearing (pesupa) in cases of dispute and oaths to protect the community during wartime.

In Sarawak, klirieng belonging to Punan or Punan Bah as anthropologists often label them, are found along the Kemena, Tatau, and Rejang basins. Unfortunately, nature had taken back many of them. The more than 10 pieces which once majestically lined the banks of Penyarai, Takan have toppled over into the river. The five burial poles on the banks of the Tatau River at Lulau Belak or Rantau Belak which is a short distance to the northeast of Tatau town are precariously close to the river.

“If nothing is done immediately,” Tuai Rumah Jalong warned, “the klirieng and kludan will be in the Tatau River in a few years.”

The kludan situated in front of the Laveang bazaar (sometimes identified as Labang bazaar on maps) belongs to Kulan. It was constructed in the early nineteenth century for a panyin jian named Kulan, kin of Saghieng Selawik.

There is a klirieng in Pandan, belonging to Saghieng Selawik, who died in the early nineteenth century. It was erected circa 1839 or 1840. The highest concentration of klirieng still existing today, is along the upper Rejang, at Punan Ba village. The last klirieng built by the Punan people was circa 1897, for Jiui Nyalang — the ancestor of present-day Punan Sama headman, Ladang Keluka, and Penghulu Nicholas Mering Kulleh.

The second type of burial pole built by the Punan is called “kludan”. It was for the “panyien ayok or jian” or kins of the chief. Kludan is peculiar to the Punan. — DayakDaily