Helping departed family members reach the highest place in heaven is what the tiwahceremony enables in Dayak mythology. It is also a right of passage for the survivors to show their worthiness and financial ability to plan and carry out the tiwah ritual, which will in turn bless them with greater harvests and wealth. Background planning over 3 months has gone into preparing every detail for the giant send off ritual pesta tiwah over the final 3 days.

The colour of the banners, the placement of ritual objects and of the totem poles, all made during the lead up, the constant throbbing of gongs, which animals are sacrificed and the way meat is shared and the heads are suspended from the totems, is prescribed. Any variation is shunned. The ceremony is orchestrated by kaharingan or local religionbasir who are rare and highly sought after these days. The basir prays to Ranying Hatalla Langit, the Kaharingan God, in the old Dayak language.

The hornbill symbol is placed above all as a reminder of how the soul is transported to the next life in lewu tatau, the bejeweled village. The sacrificial animals accompany the souls on their journey and symbolic weapons give them the means to overcome seven challenges on the way.

Carved, personalized totem poles, quirky and brilliantly adorned, are made for each soul, and are offered baram and other favourite foods and drinks during their last meal.

Imagine holding a pesta tiwah and inviting not only your own village, but all the villages nearby, the local council members and their families, Dayak adat leaders and elders as well as opening your doors to strangers and curious tourists who happen to turn up. All are warmly welcomed inside the community, fed and given lodging. But visitors have to pass a test, well, many tests, many related to determining that they have come with good intentions, not to disrupt the ritual.

Spirits are taken seriously. Wearing sack cloth and sababuka, or frightening masks, painted a few days before, and staying anonymous throughout, two bukung prowl the village scaring the kids and disruptive spirits. The good spirits are welcomed and housed in structure of bamboo poles decorated with batiks and the spiritual yellow banners in the centre of the activities.

The music keeps all at a pitch of excitement, as families farewell and keen over their ancestors, whose cleaned bones are placed in newly carved and decorated coffins before the final transfer to the sandung, or family bone house.

These days resonate with with parades, sacrifice rituals, vast cooking areas, sharing of food, drinking the rice wine or baram, chewing betelnut, gossip and gambling. The Kaharingan tiwah is still very much alive in this area.

Note that I have used the more commonly known language of the Dayak ngaju tribe or the peoples living near Palangkaraya. This tiwah was held in the Katingan region, where the language and customs differ. There are in fact some 40 different Dayak tribes, with their own languages and customs in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.

Tiwah are held at irregular intervals. WOW Borneo can help you attend one.