In Focus

Figure from the top of a funerary post (jihe)

Throughout Southeast Asia, indigenous tribes have always honored the dead, as well as their ancestors, in elaborate ceremonies. In the case of the most exalted aristocrats, structures were often erected to glorify their memory and hold their remains. Arguably, the most impressive funeral monuments in Borneo are the ornately carved burial poles said to have originated with the Punan (Punan Bah') of Sarawak and later adopted by other peoples including the Kayan, Lahanan, and Kejaman.

Known in Sarawak as kelirieng, these poles often supported small houselike structures or were topped with large slabs of stone. The largest known surviving kelirieng is a majestic thirty-two feet tall with an impressive width of approximately six feet. Such monuments were costly in terms of manpower, feasting, and ritual payments so that only the very wealthy could afford them. Their erection necessitated the sacrifice of slaves both to stabilize the structure, which straddled both upper and lower worlds, and to provide "helpers" for the deceased.

Before the early 19th-century, the Bahau Saa' also used impressive secondary burial poles. Over time, their primary burial practices changed, and like other neighboring group in the Mahakam Basin they began to place their dead in coffins housed in elaborate mausoleaums (bilah). Resting on the top of these poles were the carefully cleaned and prepared bones of an illustrious chief or high-ranking aristocrat (hiuy aya'). In the case of the Dallas figure, the bones were placed in a ceramic jar of Chinese or Southeast Asian origin (now lost) that was once snugly nestled and pinned within the three prongs protruding from the figure's head. The human figure carved in relief on the central prong represents the deceased individual.

Supporting the jar with its remains is the protective spirit-being Panlih. His distinctive heart-shaped face is reminiscent of the one found on Dallas's headdress ornament (1994.248). This type of facial treatment is of ancient origin and is perhaps best known from its depiction on the "Moon of Bali," the world's largest Bronze Age drum, which is thought to be about 2,000 to 2,300 years old. The historical persistence of the heart-shaped face on statues and other traditional objects from Borneo and throughout Indonesia continued into the 20th century; this convention has entered mainstream Indonesian culture and can be seen on tourist art and advertisements. In the Dallas figure, Panlih's engaged and ever-watchful stance reminded the living of the exalted status of the deceased, while his taut masculinity and superhuman strength assured a safe journey for the aristocratic class to the land of the departed souls.

Excerpt from

Steven G. Alpert, "Figure from the top of a funerary post (jihe)," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 138-139.