Meet the ‘engkeramba’ — The Iban longhouse guardian who wards off evil spirits

The engkeramba is the guardian of Iban longhouses who wards off evil spirits.

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By Wilfred Pilo

KUCHING, June 16: If you happen to be greeted by a mystic-looking wooden statue at the entrance of any Iban longhouse in a rural setting, do not be scared, but take a deep breath and treat it as a rare piece of respected artwork.

This carved wooden figure is what the Iban call ‘engkeramba’, with some calling it ‘antu engkeramba’ (ghostly figure)— and is the guardian of Iban longhouses to ward off evil spirits.

However, not many of these wooden statues are left, and seeing one sitting beside the concrete footstep of Rumah Sambau, Mengkak Ulu Engkari in Lubok Antu is a rare treat.

According to the longhouse elder, Buda Malang, the engkeramba was carved out of belian ironwood and erected at the site since they built the longhouse some 30 years ago.

Buda Malang

“The old belief is that we are to respect the engkeramba as it is our brave guardian who protects us and the longhouse from evil spirits. It is to welcome visitors too.

“Many visitors are fascinated by the figure, and has become an attraction. The figure here is well-photographed and videoed.

“Our guardian is very happy as it probably has travelled to many parts of the world,” he told the DayakDaily.

Buda said the engkeramba was carved by their skilled craftsmen.

“It is big and is about five to six feet tall. The figure is intimidating to many people who are not used to seeing such an image. But we are used to it,” he shared.

He also shared that the longhouse folk still practice the pagan way of life.

“Our longhouse folk’s side income is through tourism, and miniature versions of this engkeramba have been carved and sold as souvenirs.

“These days, this ancient Iban guardian or engkeramba is also printed as a motif in the ‘pua kumbu’ and even as tattoos,” he said.

Rumah Sambau is a riverine longhouse comprised of 31 doors with some 300 residents in the farming community.

The longhouse is along the Engkari River in Lubok Antu and is a 30-minute boat ride from the Nanga Sapaya longhouse, accessible by timber road or an hour boat ride from the Batang Ai hydro dam main jetty. — DayakDaily