In Focus

Door with protective symbols (baa betamen)

While they vary greatly in size and architecture, the most impressive traditional Dayak houses consisted of a long row of contiguous apartments. Each family unit was connected to an unimpeded veranda that stretched the entire length of the longhouse. In precolonial times, these structures were sometimes raised on tall pylons and, in times of strife, sometimes surrounded by stout stockades. Among Kayanic peoples, the entrances to the living quarters of aristocrats (amin aya'), particularly those at each end of the longhouse, and that of the paramount chief residing in its center were often decorated with elaborately carved panels, posts, lintels, and doors. The longhouses in this area were dismantled by government decree during the 1950s and 1960s and replaced with smaller single homes for housing extended families.

This door depicts a stylized dog-tiger (aso'lejau), a motif that was reserved exclusively for aristocrats. Mythical tigers were considered the protectors of both a chief's mortal body and his soul. Antonio Guerreiro has observed that from a stylistic point of view, this door is characteristic of "Kayaan people, either from the Mendalam River, Daa'Kayaan [West Kalimantan] or the upper Mahakam [East Kalimantan]." He further suggests that it most likely originates from the "Uma' Suling subgroup or the Apo Lallang Kayaan in Long Kuling [formerly Long Paka']. In the latter region, the Uma' Suling are known also as Busang, or deha' Busang."[1]

Originating in the mythic realm, the composite animals emerging from doors and house panels are above all else protective guardians. According to Wellem Ingan, a master carver who has created numerous doors and panels, a composition with complex and conjoined mythical animals is infused with spiritual heat, is powerful, and is highly attuned to the spirit world. Such imagery not only glorified the owner's status but also underscored the constant need to maintain a harmonious relationship between a temporal longhouse and the spirit world. Here, two aso lejau share one body that serves as the door's handle and symbolizes the transition from a chief's apartment to the outside world.[2] The placement of smaller, less defined aso, orbital dependents or "children" to the handle's larger figures, alludes to the complementary relationship between a leader and his people. Seen in this manner, the designs not only prayerfully beseech protection but also acknowledge the cosmic order and linkage of all things.[3]

Generally, older doors from the era before the end of headhunting were designed to be smaller than are modern ones. In times of strife, invaders, in order to gain entry, would have had to momentarily lower their heads and bend their bodies. House defenders could thus make use of smaller doorways to slow an enemy's advance, while simultaneously using them to form a defensive position from which to launch their own counterattack. In times of peace, visitors would have had to briefly pause and slightly genuflect before crossing the threshold into an aristocratic family's apartment.

[1] Personal communication between the author and Antonio Guerreiro, 2011.

[2] Personal communication between the author and Wellem Ingan, 2010.

[3] Ibid.

Adapted from

Steven G. Alpert, "Door with protective symbols (baa betamen)," 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), 132-133.