Tuked Rini, cosmic traveller: A Kelabit culture hero

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak by FoSM

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Monica Janowski

Tales from the Heart of Borneo


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

In Borneo there are many tales about culture heroes who have superhuman powers, told in the past around the fire in longhouses. One of these is the Kelabit hero Tuked Rini, known among the Lundayeh and Lun Bawang as Tuked Reminii. Tuked Rini is said to have led expeditions to make war and bring back heads, drawing on his amazing powers to venture to strange and wonderful parts of the cosmos and do battle with powerful spirits, ada’. I was privileged to hear and record the tale of Tuked Rini as recited by Balang Pelaba of Pa’ Dalih in the southern part of the Kelabit Highlands on 25 November 1986. (A full exploration of the legend of Tuked Rini can be found in my book Tuked Rini Cosmic Traveller: Life and Legend in the Heart of Borneo, published by NIAS Press and the Sarawak Museum in 2014.)

Tuked Rini was the leader of the central longhouse at Luun Atar, said to have been situated near the current longhouse of Pa’ Mada in the southern part of the Kelabit Highlands. He led the longhouse together with his wife, Aruring Menepo Boong. While Tuked Rini led the men in expeditions into the forest and the wider cosmos, Aruring led the women in rice-growing. Tuked Rini’s name means ‘Rini who is Support for All’. This underlines the role of leaders in the past, which was to care for, support and defend others in the community. Aruring Menepo Boong means ‘Aruring who Gathers Huge Things’, which refers to the fact that she had many huge and valuable beads, a marker of status and wealth in traditional longhouse society in Borneo.

In order to be able to lead and care for the others in their community both men and women leaders needed to have a good deal of cosmic power, known among the Kelabit as lalud. Tuked Rini and Aruring had very high levels of lalud, and because of this they had supernatural abilities. This is described in the sedarir chants which form part of the tale of Tuked Rini. In sedarir, Tuked Rini speaks of his powerful knife:

‘My sharp shiny knife
Which is so powerful that it causes thunder to roll and blood rain to fall
Which causes huge thunderclaps and rain to fall’

And of his powerful kit call:

‘My call will fill the whole world
Under the Highest Sky, the Langit Temubong.’

Aruring speaks of her powerful rice mortar:

‘I have a huge mortar that pounds rice all by itself
There is so much chaff from my pounded rice that it looks like smoke from burning fields
Like clouds spreading over the Biring Agong river…’

And Tuked Rini speaks of his lady wife as:
‘The well-known lady who shimmers like a rainbow
The well-known lady like a shining rainbow, sometimes visible, sometimes not.’

The fact that Aruring was not always visible was because of the high levels of cosmic power—lalud—that she possessed; and rainbows too are associated with lalud. Possession of lalud brings the heroes and heroines of the tale closer to the spirit world and causes them to flicker and shimmer as they come and go from the physical world. The lalud that Tuked Rini and Aruring possessed was so great that when they met early in the morning at the beginning of the tale as recited by Balang Pelaba the encounter with the lalud of the other was almost too much even for them:

‘Aruring was so beautiful and so full of lalud that she looked as though she were half human and half a child of the god Derayeh up in the sky, thrown down to earth. Her face was as bright as the sun in the middle of the sky and Tuked Rini couldn’t look at her face. She too was blinded by his beauty and lalud. Their two eyes pierced each other like the tips of bamboos, and they had to break off their gaze. The whole world went blurry and shimmery in front of their eyes.’

Pic 1: Tuked Rini shimmering with lalud. Painting by Stephen Baya, 2009.
Pic 2: Aruring Menepo Boong inside Tuked Rini’s earring, on her way to a feast at Above the Sky. Painting by Stephen Baya, 2009.

Tuked Rini’s close male kin went with him on expeditions out into the cosmos, using their powers against their spirit enemies. There was Balang Katu, Great Spirit Tiger, whose father was Belawan, Iron; Agan Bulan Makub Lungung, Agan of the Moon who jumps up to touch the Clouds; Lanawa Balang Tolang Kayuh Ngelungung, Spirit Tiger Tree Trunk with Bones of Wood who makes a Huge Shadow; Agan Pun Tolang Na’am Mitun, Agan whose Bones Go Straight for His Target; Lian Balang Olong, Lian the Spirit Tiger who Raises Many Poles at Feasts; and Tagio Balang Pekeling Kuman, Havoc-Causing Spirit Tiger who Exchanges Food with Others at Feasts. These heroes were followed by lesser men, who relied on the supernatural abilities of the leaders to enable them to travel across the cosmos.

In the tale as told by Balang Pelaba, Tuked Rini and the other heroes set off from a large stone in the river near the longhouse, flying up into the sky. The lesser men hang on to the sword sheath of Agan Whose Bones go Straight for His Target. They all land at a place called the Ru’ib Boong, the Huge Waterfall—which some say is the waterfall on the Diit river, a tributary of the Kelapang river, itself the source of the mighty Baram River. Here, they encounter and do battle with the Batu Balang, the Spirit Tiger Rock. The Batu Balang is an astounding entity that is both a spirit tiger and at the same time also a huge rock into which the heroes enter, through the spirit tiger’s mouth, to do battle with the spirit heroes who live in a longhouse inside.

After aeons of fighting, the heroes from Luun Atar, led by Tuked Rini, (naturally) win the battle. Only two heroes on the other side are left standing—Sewan Balang Iat Apui Nalan, Sewan the Spirit Tiger with Breath of Walking Fire; and Siok Balang Tetam Depun, Siok the Spirit Tiger Who Distributes Smoke with His Fingers’, son of Lanawa Lemulun, He Who Encompasses All People. And then (perhaps unsurprisingly) it turns out that these two are, in fact, Tuked Rini’s relatives! The lesser men of Tuked Rini’s band, who have all been killed in the battle, are brought back from the spirit world (where they have been enjoying the amazing produce of the fields of the spirit world!) by the Water of Power (Pa’ Lalud) dispensed by Tuked Rini’s brother-in-law Balang Katu. They all return to Luun Atar and a great feast is held to celebrate the victory as well as the rice harvest.

In other versions of the tale of Tuked Rini, Tuked Rini and his companions travel to other places in the cosmos, such as Above the Sky (Palai’I Langit) and the Roaming Moon (Bulan Nalan). Sometimes Aruring Menepo Boong accompanies Tuked Rini into other parts of the cosmos, when they are invited to feasts. Many of these places have mysterious names that are difficult to interpret, something that expresses the fact that the cosmos is portrayed in these tales as full of strange, wonderful and terrifying potential, and inhabited by entities that have powers that are much greater than those of normal humans. Normal humans only see flickers of these cosmic depths. Powerful culture heroes are portrayed as possessing some of these powers and able to travel into some of those cosmic depths—and even to win against the spirits inhabiting them!

The culture heroes of the past are said to have such high levels of lalud, of cosmic power, that they could make marks on stone just by touching it with their hands or feet. There are marks on stones in the river Kelapang said to have been made when Tuked Rini leapt from place to place across the landscape. Culture heroes of the past are also said to have been giants. Near Pa’ Mada, where Tuked Rini’s longhouse at Luun Atar is said to have been situated, there is a huge stone that is said to have been Tuked Rini’s sharpening stone.

Pic 3: Tuked Rini’s giant sharpening stone near Pa’ Mada, with the late Bayeh Ribuh. Photo: Monica Janowski

Tuked Rini’s abilities and qualities, as a hero and a leader, are pointed to in a story told about his battle with a spirit tiger, balang, that was threatening the longhouse. There are, of course, no physical tigers in Borneo, and balang are spirit creatures and very powerful. This one is said to have been absolutely enormous. It had carried off a young woman from the longhouse to its lair in the forest. Tuked Rini followed and killed the balang, which he then butchered on a stone by the river near the longhouse at Remudu nearby. He is said to have distributed the pieces of the spirit tiger to all of the peoples of the world. This is said to be the origin of the different languages spoken by different people.

Pic 4 Marks on a stone near the Kelapang river near Remudu in the Kelabit Highlands said to have been traced by Tuked Rini with his finger around the spirit tiger which he had hunted down and butchered. Photo: Kaz Janowski

Thus not only did Tuked Rini, through this, make safe his own longhouse—he also set the scene for the cultural world in which we now live.

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