Another group of ethnic minorities struggling for recognition in the 1980s were the peoples of southern Kalimantan. Traditionally, most of the scattered ethnolinguistic groups inhabiting the interior of the vast island have been labelled collectively by outsiders as Dayak.

Dayak dance performance.
Dayak dance performance. Photo by Masmusdjeprat – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88159942

Among the Dayak are the Ngaju Dayak, Maanyan, and Lawangan. Although they have traditionally resided in longhouses that served as an important protection against slave raiding and intervillage raids, the people of this region are not communalistic.

They have bilateral kinship, and the basic unit of ownership and social organization is the nuclear family. Religiously, they tend to be either Protestant or Kaharingan, a form of native religious practice viewed by the government as Hindu. The Dayak make a living through swidden agriculture and possess relatively elaborate death ceremonies in which the bones are disinterred for secondary reburial.

A number of the peoples in the region practice the Kaharingan religion. Through its healing performances, Kaharingan serves to mold the scattered agricultural residences into a community, and it is at times of ritual that these peoples coalesce as a group. There is no set ritual leader nor is there a fixed ritual presentation. Specific ceremonies may be held in the home of the sponsor. Shamanic curing or balian is one of the core features of these ritual practices. Because this healing practice often occurs as a result of the loss of the soul, which has resulted in some kind of illness, the focus of the religion is thus on the body. Sickness comes by offending one of the many spirits inhabiting the earth and fields, usually from a failure to sacrifice to them. The goal of the balian is to call back the wayward soul and restore the health of the community through trance, dance, and possession.

Modern recognition of the legitimacy of Kaharingan as a religious practice has been the culmination of a long history of struggles for autonomy. Since the southern coast of Kalimantan has long been dominated by the politically and numerically superior Muslim Banjarese, Christian and Kaharingan adherents of the central interior sought parliamentary recognition of a Great Dayak territory in 1953. When these efforts failed, a rebellion broke out in 1956 along religious lines, culminating in the establishment of the new province of Kalimantan Tengah in May 1957.

Dayak tribe crafts worker
Dayak tribe crafts worker, Kalimantan Tengah Provinc

The abortive coup of 1965 proved that independence to be fragile. With the unity of the republic at stake, indigenous religions were viewed as threats and labelled atheistic and, by implication, communist. Caught in a no-win situation, the Dayak also were told that they did not have an agama and thus became suspect in the anticommunist fever of the late 1960s. By the early 1970s, negotiations began between Kalimantan Tengah and the national government over recognition of the indigenous religion of the peoples of the province. This process culminated in official recognition in the 1980s of Kaharingan as an agama.

Library of Congress, Country Studies
Data as of November 1992

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Bjørn Grøtting

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Photographer based in Norway. See a collection of my best photos in the portfolio. Licensing of images is done through Photoshelter or alamy.
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