THEIR presence across the smaller towns in the interior of Sarawak for special functions often leaves spectators awestruck.
Dressed in animal skin vests, headgear decorated with the head of kenyalang (rhinoceros hornbill) and the feathers of enggang (other types of hornbill), boar tusk necklaces and swords decorated with human hair, the members of Kelab Gagung Sarawak (KGS) are a sight to behold.
It was a sight that evoked terror in the hearts of some of the audiences, while others say it awoke the warrior spirit in them.
The emotions felt are befitting of what the costume represents — it was how Ibanese warriors used to dress before going to war.
However, the members of KGS did not dress as such to go to war. Their presence at special Iban community functions was to welcome the arrival of dignitaries and help make the events livelier.
Many are proud that the members are reviving a part of the dying culture and tradition of the Iban community, which many of the younger generation would not have a chance to witness otherwise.
KGS was born in 2004 out of the deep interest of Sammy Ngelambai, 58, in making animal skin vests called gagung and the lelanjang headgear adorned with the head of a kenyalang called Tangkung Kenyalang.
“Originally, there were only 12 people, including Sammy, who were interested in making the Iban warrior outfit. His interest attracted others who helped in collecting accessories to complete the costume,” said club president Jabang Juntan.
According to Jabang, the idea to form the club came after they were called to welcome dignitaries at a longhouse in Melipis, Kanowit, while dressed in the full gagung attire.
“Our first pro-tem committee meeting was held on Dec 12, 2015 at a coffee shop in Sibu Jaya. We registered with the Registrar of Societies on March 3,” he added.
Difficulty in sourcing material
In the past, Iban warriors used the skin of large animals like bears to make gagung, but now the number of these animals is dwindling and they are thus protected.
As an alternative, Sammy uses Jamnapari goatskin bought from Indonesia to make the gagung.
“Local goatskin cannot be used because of its small size,” Jabang explained, adding that darker hide was preferred and would be handsewn by Sammy.
The Tangkung Kenyalang and hornbill feathers are also difficult to obtain, as the birds are protected wildlife.
“These items are inherited by KGS members from their ancestors. These items are impossible to get these days. It is possible to make imitation tangkung using other materials like wood, but there are no (substitute for) imitation feathers,” said Jabang.
According to folklore, only warriors skilled at hunting could shoot hornbills using blowpipes, which usually perch on tall trees. The kenyalang, meanwhile, are easier to shoot at as they tended to perch on lower trees or branches.
Besides that, the feathers of the great argus (a species of pheasant) are frequently used for the warrior dress as they are easier to obtain. The birds live on the ground, making it easier to collect their feathers.
However, there is a distinction among the types of feathers used.
The feathers of the enggang or kenyalang represent a warrior’s rank or hierarchy while feathers of the great argus are merely decorative and are more for adorning costumes for festive functions like the ngajat (the traditional dance of some tribes in Sarawak).
Jabang said they sell gagung for between RM650 and RM800, but they do not sell the headgear.
“For the headgear, people need to get their own material and we will help make it for a fee of RM250,” he added.
Other accessories such as boar tusks, armlets, swords and cigarette containers are easier to get, either from hunters, longhouse residents or craft shops.
“No, we don’t wear loincloths like those people commonly see. Instead we wear long black pants and black leather shoes,” he clarified.
From only 12 members, KGS now has 71 registered members in Sibu, Kanowit, Kapit, Miri, Bintulu, Tatau, Kuching, Seratok and Sri Aman.
Normal membership is open to Iban males who have the complete costume, while associate membership are for women and those who do not have the full costume.
A women’s gagung shows no warrior elements but are instead beautiful costumes that exude femininity.
Honorary memberships are open to leaders who have contributed to the community, while teenage membership is for teens below the age of 18.
According to Jabang, the club hopes to revive the glory of the gagung and preserve it for the coming generations.
The club, which is now increasingly accepted by the Sarawak community, hopes to contribute to tourism development activities in the state. — Bernama