Heritage Snippets of Sarawak
By Datu Robert Lian@Robert Saging and Dr Valerie Mashman
This impressive door was carved out of a solid chunk of timber coming from a tree known as tumuh (Agathis Sp.) by master craftsman and carver Anyi Pirak@Telutu Ulun, Ketua Kampong of Pa Bengar longhouse, in the Kelabit highlands around 1954.
The door was fixed to the tawa (veranda) entrance of Penghulu Lawai’s dalem (family room) in the old Bario Lembaa longhouse at Long Arur Dalan.
Lawai was Anyi’s father-in-law and Anyi spent time in both his own longhouse and Bario. This photograph was probably taken by the museum photographer Junaidi Bolhassan during Tom Harrisson’s last official museum visit to Bario in 1962. At that time the longhouse was in the process of moving to the new site where Bario Asal is still located today. The door was presented to the Sarawak Museum by Penghulu Lawai. It was on display in the old building of the Sarawak Museum for many years.
This door was probably the last major carving Anyi made before he passed away in 1955 at Gerawat Aran@Ngimat Ayu’s house in Pa Main. Gerawat was Anyi’s cousin and the ulu dresser. Anyi’s demise coincided with the first Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) irau rayeh Easter Convention held in the highlands that year.
Anyi worked extremely hard to carve this door with the simple tools he had available. He possessed the only chisel in the highlands at that time, probably purchased during his time in Kuching when he was attached to the Sarawak Museum under his friend the then curator Tom Harrisson.
The people of Bario Lembaa longhouse remembered Anyi working hard way into the night carving the door under the flickering light of the dawan damar resin lamp. The door was a last present to his father-in-law Penghulu Lawai Besara BEM, before he died. The addition of a handle and lock to secure the door were innovations that indicated Anyi’s skill in bringing a new gadget to the longhouse and adapting it for local use. Few Kelabit had seen such a door handle and lock at this time.
Anyi came to know Major Tom Harrisson in 1945 as a local chief fighting with the Australian-led Semut guerrillas against the Japanese. After the Japanese surrender, he was brought to Kuching in 1948 by Harrisson to teach metalwork at Batu Lintang Teacher’s College. He became renowned for his skills as a craftsman. He was experienced in metal work and skilled in forging delicate patterns on the edge of parang blades.
It is likely that that the intricate patterns on the door were inspired by his visits to the Kenyah of the Bahau River where he learnt his skills in making elaborate parang (machetes). He was also one of two men commissioned to carve a stone in Ramudu to commemorate the death of Penghulu Tinggang with an image of the chief, a buffalo and a jar, amongst other objects. He was the subject of a whole article in the Sarawak Museum Journal in 1949 which he illustrated with traditional designs used for metalwork, tattoos and woodcarving.
Datu Robert Lian@Robert Saging 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.
Dr Valerie Mashman is currently Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Borneo Studies, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. Before this, she was a research fellow at the Sarawak Museum. She has published extensively on Borneo cultural objects. She is interested in the oral history, values and social change, indigeneity, and material culture of the indigenous peoples of Borneo.
“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.