Cultures & Traditions

A Dayak Worldview

In the creation story of the Ngaju, a Dayak people from Borneo, the supreme being of the upper world, Mahatala, was the creator of the first tree of life (sanggaran). From its buds, Mahatala’s sister, Jata, goddess of the underworld, proceeded to create a parallel tree where she placed a female hornbill to eat its fruit—the first rice. Mahatala reacted by changing his sword into a male hornbill that alighted on this parallel tree. A terrible conflict ensued in competition over its fruit. Driven by their hunger, both birds relent­lessly tore at the tree’s riches until it was completely decimated. In the process, they also destroyed each other. The tree’s detritus and the birds’ deaths figured in a series of transformational events that eventually resulted in the formation of the upper, middle, and lower worlds; and the creation of the first ancestors. The birds’ bones also formed another tree of life that guaranteed eternal happiness in the land of departed souls. In drawings and on bamboo containers, the upper world of the dead was often depicted under the tree’s boughs, and amid its branches was an idealized land of the living filled with earthly abundance.

For the Ngaju, a stratified upper world was the home of the higher gods, the heroic, and the elite. Its symbols included the sun, soul-ships, birds, trophy heads, and all that is jewel-like in life. Potency, maleness, and heat also belonged to this realm. These particular qualities were associated with carved images, iron weaponry, and ceremonial metal objects. In contrast, the tiers of the underworld possessed their own deities and spirits. The lower realm was the final resting place of slaves and lesser beings, a shadowy region where watery serpents, crocodiles, and powerful underworld beasts dwelt. Its attributes can be described as regenerative, cooling, fecund, and female. Material goods often associated with these qualities include mats, basketry, beadwork, and woven cloth. In Dayak art, upper-world animals such as the hornbill were often depicted together or in conjunction with their complementary opposite, a serpent or dragon from the underworld. Upper- and underworld animals were also fused with one another to repre­sent a composite creature, or depicted naturalistically in the order of their cosmic alignment.

In the Dayak’s worldview, every important state possessed its oppo­site or inverse complement: upper world/underworld, living/dead, male/female, high/low, upriver/downriver, hot/cold, and so on. These states or forces had to be in harmony with each other in order to maintain a proper balance in life and death. During important rituals and rite-of-passage ceremonies, verbal constructs, objects, and artistic creations were often paired with their complementary opposites to represent the dualistic nature of life. For traditional peoples in Borneo and throughout Indonesia, ceremonial renewal was expressed not only through dyadic presentations but also in the differences between ordinary speech and ritual language.

Adapted from

Steven G. Alpert, "Borneo: The Island-Its People," 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), 117-123.

Related Multimedia

Learn about the Dayak people.