Burial Poles

Audrey Low, University of Technology, Sydney
Contact details: audrey.lpl@gmail.com,
Blog: papayatreelimited.blogspot.com/
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(photo by Audrey Low. Detail, burial poles on the grounds of the Sarawak Museum, Borneo)
I came across Hedda Morrison’s books on Borneo, and saw a photo of these exact burial poles in their original location in a Kayan area in Sarawak. It was incredibly evocative seeing the poles, called kelirieng, surrounded by mature trees in the forest. Morrison noted that because the poles were situated in such a densely forested area, it was really difficult to photograph. Today, the poles are situated in the grounds of the Sarawak Museum in Kuching.
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(photo by Audrey Low. Burial Poles (kelirieng) and hut (salong))
These burial poles have had a very interesting biography.
Lucas Chin, the previous director of the museum, told me that he was involved in the negotiations with the original owners, the Kayans, to bring this object downriver to Kuching.


The story behind this object is that a renowned warrior in Sarawak’s Belaga district, grief stricken by the sudden death of his young daughter, commissioned elaborate burial poles and a hut to be constructed in her honor.
The funerary objects were carved and erected in the forest as a proper resting place for her. Five years of skilled labor, from the time the selected tropical hardwood trees were felled, to the final sanding of the intricate carvings, resulted in the magnificently carved kelirieng and salong (burial poles and hut) . The kelirieng consists of two logs hollowed out and joined together to form the burial poles. The salong or hut is also made of wood and is placed above the two poles. The bones of the child would have been placed in the hut. I refer to the three elements (two poles and the burial hut) as one consolidated ethnographic burial object.
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(photo by Audrey Low. detail burial poles)
In the 1970s, there was a surge of interest in ethnographic objects in the West, and the burial poles became the focus of negotiations with overseas collectors. The condition of the sale required that the object be dismantled and removed from its original location in the forest in Long Segaham and shipped overseas.
The death of the young daughter and the associated grief that occasioned the creation of this object, the skill and inspiration of the artists in designing and crafting these poles and the erection of the kelirieng in a favored place in the rainforest in Long Segaham, all made this an object of emotional, cultural and historical significance to the people of the Belaga district.
When negotiations proceeded with overseas buyers for the sale and removal of the object from the country, then many more people from the wider Sarawak community became involved, and the status of this object was raised from that of local and marginal cultural importance to one of value to the state of Sarawak. The threat of losing the object forever effectively made it part of the cultural heritage of Sarawak, and a symbol of state-wide pride.
When the object was located in the middle of the jungle in the Upper Rajang River, it was surveyed by government agencies, but there was no great importance attached to the object. There was intention, but no urgency on the part of the government, to salvage it before the construction of hydroelectric dams. The threat of losing these poles to overseas buyers however changed everything.
Museum staff were suddenly mobilized and intense negotiations began, with the aim of salvaging the object. Lucas Chin, the director of the Sarawak Museum at the time, was personally very concerned about the imminent loss of this object of cultural heritage. The Sarawak Museum however, could not match the prices offered by overseas collectors. Fortunately for the museum, after long and delicate negotiations with the elders and customary owners of the burial poles, the tribal elders decided to relinquish the poles, and present the composite object as a gift to the museum and the people of Sarawak.
As it was a sacred burial object, several ceremonies had to be carefully performed in accordance with customary law, by all involved, even the Christian and Muslim staff. Chin relates that non-tribal museum employees were involved in animist ceremonies in elaborate processes of ritual prohibitions, taboos, or pemalis, to propitiate spirits.
This biography of the burial poles has effectively made it a contact zone, bringing together multiple players in the wider community. The present director, Sanib Said, who is Muslim, told me that the animist and non-Islamic rituals performed to obtain this object are now the cause of friction for the Sarawak Museum today.
In this object, many people and government agencies that would not normally have any contact, had to work together. These included the customary owners, the carvers and artists, the aristocratic family that commissioned the poles, together with the Malaysian public and the local government, Islamic leaders, shamans, the museum staff involved in shamanism as part of the bequest ceremony, and even the museum grounds as the venue for a non-Islamic funerary object.
After complex culturally sensitive negotiations, came the logistic difficulties of transporting overland, what is effectively two hollowed out tropical hardwood trees with intricate carving along the whole length. The journey was over rough terrain and down rapids-strewn rivers. Lucas Chin, now retired, still remembers the adventures of its acquisition in 1972 as one of the most exhilarating adventures he had as part of his job as director of the museum.
When the gift was finalized, there was celebration. Acquiring the poles was a symbolic coup. In this case, individuals from a newly independent nation had mobilized to prevent an object of significant cultural heritage from being shipped over to the west. Lucas Chin and the museum staff overcame obstacles, and in so doing, wrested a prized heritage from the international market in ethnographic objects. The museum staff had in effect managed to retain physical ownership of the object in Sarawak and maintain control over the representation of its meaning, thereby creating a new story for the newly formed state.

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9 Responses to Burial Poles

  1. Punan National Association November 6, 2008 at 7:28 am #

    In Sarawak Kelirieng our burial poles are associated with the Punan people.
    However, earlier this year five of the oldest kelirieng found in Punan Bah (Belaga) were destroyed by fire.
    check the story here:
    punan.info/blog/2008/05/photos-after-the-tragedy/

  2. Audrey Low UTS November 11, 2008 at 12:51 am #

    Thanks for that link – it is indeed a great loss.
    Apologies for not mentioning all the tribes associated with keliriengs. Ethnic classifications in Sarawak are particularly fraught with difficulties, with tribes straddling different classifications, but I hope the following addition amends the omission.
    Keliriengs are indeed associated with the Punans. The Punans have been classed under the Kajang tribe, along with the Kejaman and Lahanan, but they have also come under the Orang Ulu group which includes the Kayans.
    The Sarawak Museum Journal (xxxii, no 53, 1983) avoids specifying tribal classification by stating that the poles are carved by the Kayan / Kajang / Punan peoples.

  3. Calvin A.J November 12, 2008 at 1:53 am #

    Hi Audrey,
    As far as I know the Kayan have never associated with the Keliriengs. It is always been a Punan traditions. It’s kinda sad that they often claimed to own it (without Punan knowledge).
    Yes indeed – ethnic classification is Sarawak is so confusing. The Kajang for example is not an ethnic name. There is no Kajang people in Sarawak.
    It is a named given by a Sekapan leader to ethnic Punan, Sekapan, Kejaman and Lahanan grouping – that was intended to rival Kayan’s sponsored “Orang Ulu” grouping.
    The Sekapans, Punans, Kejamans and Lahanan – thought that by forming a group that they called “Kajang” which literally mean “roof” in their language, they hope they can neutralized Kayan political dominance in Belaga area or at least wrestled some political power from them.
    But they failed and eventually paddled back to join the Kayans, Kenyah under the “Orang Ulu” grouping.
    Orang Ulu – is actually a term that popularized by the Orang Ulu National Association (OUNA) in the late 1960s. The association uses the term “Orang Ulu” referring to all the smaller tribes in Sarawak (at least more than 10 smaller tribes).
    OUNA is a Kayan and Kenyah sponsored association. It was intended to further consolidate their political power over the peoples they refer to as “Orang Ulu”.
    At the height of OUNA popularity – the Kayan were given a ministerial position in Taib’s cabinet.
    However lately many non Kayan and Kenyah detest being called “Orang Ulu” due to the negative connotation attached to it.
    Being an “Orang Ulu” implied – ones are ‘lipen” or slave to the “Kayan” and Kenyah!

  4. Audrey Low, University of Technology, Sydney November 14, 2008 at 3:51 am #

    Dear Calvin,
    Our discussion takes place under the sad circumstances of the devastating fire that swept through Punan Bah settlement, leaving a great many people homeless. I hope that our discussion here assists you in your effort as publicity manager for the Punans to further highlight the desperate plight of the people, and that they will receive the help they need. I sympathize with you in having to deal with the less than impressive response from the logging companies and the government.
    In light of this tragedy that also, as you pointed out, destroyed five of the oldest keliriengs, our discussions, unravelling the intricacies of a history of tribal affiliations and on-going tactical name changes, or the origin of mortuary architecture, pale into insignificance.
    Your comment above demonstrates the fact that indigenous identity politics in Sarawak is internally and externally contested, and exists within changing power structures. Identity in Sarawak, as it is elsewhere, is constantly rearticulated, and every period and shift in political context adds new layers to definitions and redraws boundaries.
    A long history of association and disassociation with other groups continue to affect how the tribes in Sarawak have been defined under various political regimes, and how they (re)define themselves. No doubt negotiations over identity, land, resources and the ownership of cultural objects will persist, but they are beyond the scope of this article.
    Over the years, the people who make these objects have used different names, as your comment indicates. Some of these names have come to mean different things, and are considered unacceptable, and are then discarded. But at some point in time, these names were used, and they therefore became part of the documentation of the objects in museums, and in books and articles published on Sarawak in the last 100 years or more.
    For example, Winzeler, in The Architecture of Life and Death in Borneo talks about the keliriengs at the Sarawak Museum, commonly attributed to ‘the great Kajang chief’, Tama Tipong Tuloi, as ‘having been moved from the Kejaman (Kajang) village of Lasah on the Balui River just above Belaga Town’ (Winzeler, p 184), and again, ‘The kajang term “klirieng”’ (Winzeler, p 41).
    My article, as noted, discusses two objects, the salong and the kelirieng, and regards them as one ethnographic object. Winzeler maps different, yet interconnected origins for each object:
    ‘In Sarawak at least, salong … were probably brought by the Kayan and / or Kenyah and adopted from them by the Kajang and other practitioners of secondary mortuary treatment.’ (p 185)
    ‘Salongs are made by various peoples, including the Kenyah, Kayan and related groups. They are also constructed by the Berawan and the Punan Bah Kajang.’
    I will end by restating the point of the article, which is that this particular ethnographic object, consisting of burial pole and salong, has become an area of ‘friction’, which according to Anna Tsing, can be a constructive thing.
    I wish you every success in your very important work as one of the guardians of your cultural heritage.

  5. Audrey Low UTS December 13, 2008 at 5:37 am #

    See also insideindonesia.org/content/view/1132/47/
    for a story on the new meanings of Papuan Asmat bisj-poles ‘traditionally carved from the buttress of a mangrove tree to honour recently killed warriors in some Asmat communities’

  6. Kaleb Anyie Udau/Univesity technology Mara August 13, 2009 at 9:05 am #

    hi, audry
    …right know im doing my thesis based on ‘salong’or ‘keliring’.My skop reseach on Kenyah Belaga and Baram. From my observation and colleting data there not far what there practic and believe, Orang Olu come from one line, mitos from pleteau Apu Julan said that because of ate wild mushroom make them drunk?and cannot know each other my be language?.
    But im very sad that this art of Orang Ulu(kenyah) was gone, and this show there civilzation that very unique.

  7. Audrey Low September 5, 2009 at 8:14 am #

    Dear Kaleb Anyie Udau,
    I’m very pleased to read you are researching this area. I wish you well in your studies.

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  9. Julia charles March 27, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    Keliriengs are indeed associated with the Punans. The Punans have been classed under the Kajang tribe, along with the Kejaman and Lahanan, but they have also come under the Orang Ulu group which includes the Kayans.

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