Stone and cosmic power in the highlands

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak by FoSM

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Monica Janowski

Tales from the Heart of Borneo

This is the second of a four-part series titled ‘Tales from the Heart of Borneo’. The other parts can be read here, here and here.

There are many stories about stone in the highland area of Borneo inhabited by Kelabit, Lundayeh, Lun Bawang and related people. Some have been shaped by humans—stone carvings, stone tables, stone jars. Others are said to have once been houses or field huts that have been petrified. Many are associated with culture heroes from the past such as the Kelabit hero Tuked Rini and the Lundayeh/Lun Bawang hero Upai Semaring. All stone is associated with high levels of what is called lalud in the highland area—cosmic power. Highlanders relate that it is only through the flow of lalud that stone can come into being.

Pic 1: Huge hearth stones, batuh angan, at Ba Kelalan, said to have been used by the Lundayeh culture hero Upai Semaring and his family. Photo: Monica Janowski

The ability to work and move stone is linked closely to leadership, as leaders are believed to possess higher levels of cosmic power than ordinary people. Until the Second World War, the people of the highlands held huge feasts, irau, at secondary funerals for leaders. At irau feasts, stones were often carved or erected, to act both as a memorial of the lalud of the leader and to mark the lalud possessed by the hosts of the feast.

The leaders of the long-ago past—the ‘time of joining with cosmic power’, getoman lalud—are said to have been much bigger than people are nowadays—they were, in fact, giants. They were also much more powerful. Culture heroes like Tuked Rini and Upai Semaring had much more cosmic power than people nowadays do. This meant that they had supernatural abilities that people cannot do nowadays—and it also meant that the stones that they worked and erected are much bigger than those that have been worked or erected more recently. There are many stones in the landscape of the highlands that are said to have been placed there by the powerful culture heroes of the past, such as huge sharpening stones—batuh pian—said to have belonged to Tuked Rini and Upai Semaring and circles of huge ‘hearth stones’—batuh angan—said to have been used by Upai Semaring and his family.

It was through possessing high levels of lalud that the culture heroes of the highland past were, it is said, able to work stone. The very bodies of culture heroes—both male and female—shimmered with lalud, and when they touched stone they made marks on it. They were able to draw on stone with their fingers, as Tuked Rini did when he traced the outline of the spirit tiger that he had killed on a stone by the river at Remudu in the southern Kelabit Highlands.

Pic 2: Mark on a stone in the river said to have been made by Tuked Rini’s foot as he leapt across the landscape. Photo: Kaz Janowski

Lalud is believed to flow through the landscape, and to coalesce in certain spots. All living beings possess lalud. However, certain animals and plants are believed to possess inherently more lalud than others—medicinal plants and the strangler fig (Ficus aurea) have more than other plants and trees, for example. Generally speaking, the harder a living thing becomes, as it grows bigger and older, the more lalud it possesses. So an old tree has accumulated more lalud than a young sapling, and an old person has more lalud than a baby.

Stone, the hardest substance in the landscape, is regarded as the ultimate repository of lalud. It makes sense, then, that the ability to work stone and to make marks on stone is regarded, in the highland area, as a mark of the possession of lalud. The long-ago ancestors of the highland people are believed to have carved and worked stone in a way that people now cannot.

Pic 3: Stone carving near Pa’ Bengar in the Kelabit Highlands, said to have been made in the time of ‘joining with power’. Photo: Kaz Janowski

It also makes sense that the dead were associated with stone. Kelabit pre-Christian cemeteries, menatoh, which were in use until the 1950s, contain stone jars and stone dolmens said to have been made at the time of ‘joining with power’. In the period before the Second World War, the dead were placed near the stone jars and dolmens, in dragon jars or in wooden coffins, near the stone jars and dolmens made by ancestors with much more lalud. It is believed that the menatoh are like villages of the dead, and it is said that if one visits a menatoh one can hear people talking, calling their chickens in, and so on.

Pic 4: Stone jars in the Pa’ Diit megalithic cemetery, southern Kelabit Highlands. Photo: Douglas Cape

Menatoh were essentially an accumulation of lalud, with the dead being regularly added to the pool started by those long-ago ancestors who, with their great lalud, made the dolmens and jars that are at its core.

The flow of lalud across the landscape is said to sometimes occur quite suddenly and dramatically, and to lead to petrification. This can be triggered, it is said, by certain human actions that contravene the natural order. One of these is laughing at animals, something that is widely regarded as very dangerous by all the people of Borneo.

Pic 5: Pa’ Dalih in the southern Kelabit Highlands—in the distance is the ridge said to be a longhouse petrified when Ronan caused the inhabitants to laugh at a frog. Photo: Kaz Janowski, 1987

There is a mountain visible in the southern part of the Kelabit Highlands, known as Apad ke Ronan, ‘Ronan’s Mountain’ which is said to have once been a longhouse, which was petrified when a lady living in the longhouse, Ronan, set a frog jumping across the longhouse floor with a bell around its neck, causing everyone to laugh. She did this because, according to the story, her child had been hurt or killed by others in the longhouse. Everyone in the longhouse was turned to stone—except Ronan herself. She escaped at one end of the longhouse through a Chinese dragon jar that she had placed in the entrance. She is said to still be in the forest near Apad ke Ronan, where people have encountered her.

Pic 6: Lugun Bala pointing at the hole through which some of the inhabitants are said to have escaped through a dragon jar, at the end of the longhouse (rumah kadang) or field hut (daan) turned to stone when cosmic power (lalud) flowed across the landscape following the petrification of the longhouse at Apad ke Ronan. Photo: Douglas Cape

The story about Ronan and the frog illustrates the somewhat unpredictable and potentially dangerous nature of the flow of lalud. Lalud always flows across the landscape, and indeed it must do so or life would cease. However, the flow of lalud across the landscape can become rapid and uncontrolled, as is demonstrated by what happened when Ronan set the frog hopping across the longhouse flow. It is said that the flow of lalud that was triggered by Ronan led not only to the petrification of the longhouse in which she was living, but also to the petrification of other buildings further downstream, such as field huts. Lalud must flow within and across the landscape, or life would not be possible—but it does not always flow at the same rate, and it can be dangerous if it flows too fast or too suddenly. When that happens, petrification can, it is said, rapidly ensue. For a living being, this means death.

Dr Monica Janowski is a social anthropologist who has been doing research in Sarawak since 1986. She has published many articles and books, including Tuked Rini, Cosmic Traveller: Life and Legend in the Heart of Borneo (NIAS Press and Sarawak Museum, 2014). She began researching Borneo dragon stories and legends in 2017. She is currently Curator of the SE Asia Museum at the University of Hull.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.

— DayakDaily