Stones in the highlands: The three forgotten stones of Bario Lembaa Longhouse prior to 1963


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Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

This is the first part of a two-part series on stones in the highlands. Read Part II here: Stones for other practical uses.

By Datu Robert Lian@Robert Saging

THE Kelabit Highlands had been marked with well described stone artifacts by researchers and anthropologist. The more well-known are batu sinuped, standing stones or batu nangan, pot stones, batu ipak, batu perupun, batu iran, batu penerang, megalithic stones or batu narit, carved stones and batu belad or flat stones.

At Bario Lembaa Longhouse, prior to 1963, there were three humble household stones that bypassed the notice of anthropologist and researchers: batuh tetel, batuh angan, batuh kaab.

Batuh tetel — fireplace/hearth stones

These were essential stones placed around the length and breadth of the tetel (fireplace). No tetel is complete without proper placement of batuh tetel around its fringes. These are small to medium size river stones specially chosen with care for the purpose. The purpose is to prevent fire spreading from burning firewood to the floorboard, setting the house on fire. It’s a safety requirement for every fireplace but often overlooked by onlookers. A responsible family couple always take it into consideration when starting a family fireplace.

Some men will be on the lookout for tastefully flattish and longish stones in stream beds when on hunting trips and will carry the weighty stones home with the meat in their bekang (rotan carrying basket) to be placed around their fireplace. It can reflect a man’s character to have nicely placed batuh tetel for guests to see, especially at the veranda hearth where guests stay during their visit. In Bario where the river and streams are not of stones and pebbles, procuring such stones for the fireplace is significant.

This was the norm at Bario Lembaa Longhouse when there were two fireplaces in each household up to 1963. That year the longhouse was moved to a new location and redesigned without a fireplace on the veranda and the main house to prevent smoke from corroding the newly purchased galvanized or zinc roofing. The kitchen area was in a separate building as it is today.

Some of the fireplaces still keep some batuh tetel but some have been edged by angle iron of British military vintage, going back to the Confrontation. The role of hearth tetel is getting replaced by the use of gas stoves.

Batuh angan — pot placement stones

Before the advent of steel cooking pots in the 1950s the Kelabits used homemade earthenware pots such as kuden, tuning pawa, tuning and dunguq for cooking.

Up to 1963, these were still widely used at Bario Lembaa Longhouse as not everyone could afford more than one or two basic steel pots.

To use these earthenware utensils, they had to be placed on a tripod of placement stones known as batuh angan. These were carefully chosen cylindrical stones about 10” or more to place the kuden pots with enough space to light the cooking fire underneath. Shorter batuh angan were selected to place smaller pots like the tuning which were used for cooking vegetables, meat or fish or the traditional Bario Lembaa kikid tengayen, a wild vegetable porridge.

A small number verandah fireplaces also had a set of batuh angan for placing the cauldron (kawah) used for cooking large game meat. These usually belonged to active hunters who often landed a wild boar or sambar deer which was then cooked on the verandah for community sharing (oh what a sharing culture it we used to have!).

The kawah was also used during cooking for irau (feasts). The batuh angan were loaned and borrowed from fireplace to fireplace according to who had shot a big game or who was hosting an irau.

After 1963, the batuh angan of the veranda fireplace became a casualty of change as the longhouse design changed. Furthermore, the people began to use half 88-gallon fuel drums to cook meat during irau. I wish I could obtain a set of batuh angan and kawah these days.

Batuh kaab — washing area stones

These were a pile of stones of assorted sizes piled under the kitchen section of the house where the washing up was carried out.

The ka’ab was a specially assigned washing up area made from well-placed round logs by the kitchen area. The tabang (bamboo water carriers) and the tegaq (bamboo pig swill) containers were placed in the ka’ab.

The batuh ka’ab were placed on the ground under the washing area to catch water poured in the ka’ab to prevent water gouging out soil under the house and causing a muddy mess. This collection of stones was often washed and carried to a new longhouse site for reuse especially in Bario Lembaa where stones were not readily available. In 1963, batuh ka’ab were brought to the present longhouse site and were still in use until the mid 1970s. They were replaced by change when piped running water replaced tabang with PVC drain pipes from kitchen sinks.

Fig 1: Batu kaab washing stone in the river at Pa Dalih. Photo courtesy of Monica and Kaz Janowski.

This is the story of the three humble domestic use stones of Bario Lembaa Longhouse prior to 1963. This story is told to inform and remind younger Bario Lembaa Longhouse of their longhouse past.

Balangalibun Tepun. 23.12.2022

Datu Robert Lian-Saging/Balangalibun Tepun is a respected elder in the Kelabit community, well-known for his extensive knowledge of adat and history. He is a retired civil servant and was the Director of the Sarawak Immigration Department for many years, followed by a stint as a member of the Public Service Commission, Sarawak.

This is the first part of a two-part series on stones in the highlands. Read Part II here: Stones for other practical uses.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.