Iban Longhouses: Structure, Space, and Philosophy

Iban longhouse model (Sepan house) usually at the foot of the mountain. Illustration by: Bon Jon

The Iban longhouse model, known as the Sepan house, is typically situated at the base of the mountain. 

Dr. Stefanus Masiun, the Chairman of Keling Kumang Credit Union (CUKK), has plans to construct an arbor house on a specific piece of land. The chosen location is along the banks of the Sikui River, behind the CUKK office in Tapang Sambas, West Borneo.

The Iban longhouse model

As can be seen from the illustration, this is the result of reimagining the traditional Iban longhouse model from the past.

This is the visualization of two traditional Iban house models from the past based on research findings. It includes the residents and social classes of the past who lived in these two typical Iban houses.

This depiction draws inspiration from the historical novel "Keling Kumang," which I thoroughly researched and published in 2015. In the narrative of jeman ari kelia — a bygone era, there are three types of Iban houses: Arbor House, Barley House, and Sepan House.

The Sepan House, found at the foot of the mountain, is inhabited by noble daughters like Kumang. The surroundings are adorned with numerous flowers, notably the mandikmala. Kumang, once umbung (initiated), remained confined to the house until her first menstruation.

Rumah Punjung, on the other hand, houses noble sons such as Keling and Dabung. It serves as an ideal locus—safe and easily observable. The arbor house, the longest in the entire Buah Main kingdom, spans 70 x 7 resin rays, roughly 1 km. The 160 families occupying it each have a room measuring 6 meters wide and extending 3 times that width (18 m) backward.

Strategically located on a headland at the foot of the tatai (hill/munggu), the arbor house is considered the "land of heaven." It is often referred to as the "upper humans" by neighboring countries due to its profound influence. Gemuring Gading and Keling, harvest leaders of the arbor house, also oversee the sepan and downy mildew houses.

In Sarawak, Malaysia, the arbor house where Keling resides is known as the longhouse of Panggau Libau Lendat Dibiau Takang Isang.

The sepan house, home to noble daughters like Kumang, is renowned for its vibrant surroundings with flowers like mandikmala. The Ibans in Sarawak, Malaysia, refer to Kumang's residence in Sepan as the longhouse of Gelong Batu Nakong Nyingit Nyingong Nyimbang Nyerabang. Other princesses, Lulong and Ndai Abang, are said to live there as well.

Conversely, the downy mildew house is occupied by commoners.

An Ibanic longhouse

An Ibanic longhouse, as outlined by Jensen in Noriah and Chemaline Osup (2013), consists of seven parts:
1) the bilek, where core family members reside, with distinct sections for children and the elderly;
2) the upper area of the bilek for storing household items;
3) los or ruai, an open space separated by roof posts;
4) tanju, an uncovered area outside the ruai used for drying agricultural products;
5) a nearby kitchen covered/warmed by a head resembling a cup, known as "antu pala" (head cup);
6) padong, a recliner for relaxation and sleep; and
7) a retreat or corridor.

Sungai Utik Longhouse is actively preserved across various aspects

At present, two surviving longhouses in West Kalimantan are the Ensaid Panyae Longhouse in Sintang and the Sungai Utik Longhouse in Kapuas Hulu. While the Sungai Utik Longhouse is still inhabited, retaining around 80% of traditional practices, the Ensaid Panyae Longhouse has largely lost its Iban identity due to modernization, resulting in unoccupied rooms and spaces.

To prevent its decline and sustain traditions, particularly in terms of social relations and kinship, the Sungai Utik Longhouse is actively preserved across various aspects. 

In addition to maintaining international sanitation standards, where there are washable rooms, ongoing repairs and standardization efforts are regularly undertaken due to frequent visits from foreign tourists.

(Masri Sareb Putra)

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