Dayak people


  • The Dayak or Dyak or Dayuh are the native people of Borneo.
  • Located principally in the interior of Borneo, each with its own dialect, customs, laws, territory and culture, although common distinguishing traits are readily identifiable.
  • Dayak languages are categorised as part of the Austronesian languages in Asia.
  • The Dayak were animist in belief; however many converted to Islam and since the 19th century, mass conversion to Christianity.


  • The Indigenous people of the Heart of Borneo are commonly known as Dayak.
  • There are seven main ethnic divisions of Dayaks according to their respective native language which are:
    • Ngaju
    • Apau Kayan
    • Iban (Sea Dayak)
    • Klemantan (Land Dayak)
    • Murut
    • Punan
    • Ot Danum
  • Under the main classification, there are dozens of ethnics and hundreds of sub-ethnics dwelling in the Borneo island.
  • There are over 50 ethnic Dayak groups speaking different languages.
  • This cultural and linguistic diversity parallels the high biodiversity and related traditional knowledge of Borneo.


  • Dayaks do not speak just one language, even if just those on the island of Borneo (Kalimantan).
  • Their indigenous languages belong in the general classification of Malayo-Polynesian languages and to diverse groups of Bornean and Sabahan languages (including Land Dayak), and the Ibanic languages of the Malayic branch.
  • The Dayak are very adaptable and also speak the lingua franca of the place such as those of Malay, Chinese and European origin.
  • Many of Borneo’s languages are endemic (which means they are spoken nowhere else).
  • It is estimated that around 170 languages and dialects are spoken on the island and some by just a few hundred people, thus posing a serious risk to the future of those languages and related heritage.


  • In the past, the Dayak were feared for their ancient tradition of headhunting practices (the ritual is also known as Ngayau by the Dayaks) .

dayak COLLECTIE_TROPENMUSEUM_Een_Dajak_met_oorhangers_en_een_lans_Borneo_TMnr_10005510

A Dayak with earrings and a lance (taken c. 1920, Dutch Borneo). The Dayaks are previously reputed to be headhunters by the Europeans.

  • Among the Iban Dayaks, the origin of headhunting was believed to be meeting one of the mourning rules given by a spirit which is as follows:
    • The sacred jar is not to be opened except by a warrior who has managed to obtain a head, or by a man who can present a human head, which he obtained in a fight; or by a man who has returned from a sojourn in enemy country.
  • Often, a war leader had at least three lieutenants (called manuk sabong) who in turn had some followers.
  • There were various reasons for headhunting as listed below:
    • For soil fertility so Dayaks hunted fresh heads before paddy harvesting seasons after which head festival would be held in honour of the new heads.
    • To add supernatural strength which Dayaks believed to be centred in the soul and head of humans. Fresh heads can give magical powers for communinal protection, bountiful paddy harvesting and disease curing.
    • To avenge revenge for murders based on “blood credit” principle unless “adat pati nyawa” (customary compensation token) is paid.
    • To pay dowry for marriages e.g. “derian palit mata” (eye blocking dowry) for Ibans once blood has been splashed prior to agreeing to marriage and of course, new fresh heads show prowess, bravery, ability and capability to protect his family, community and land
    • For foundation of new buildings to be stronger and meaningful than the normal practice of not putting in human heads.
    • For protection against enemy attacks according to the principle of “attack first before being attacked”.
    • As a symbol of power and social status ranking where the more heads someone has, the respect and glory due to him. The warleader is called tuai serang (warleader) or raja berani (king of the brave) while kayau anak (small raid) leader is only called tuai kayau (raid leader) whereby adat tebalu (widower rule) after their death would be paid according to their ranking status in the community.
    • For territorial expansion where some brave Dayaks intentionally migrated into new areas such as Mujah “Buah Raya” migrated from Skrang to Paku to Kanowit while infighting among Ibans themselves in Batang Ai caused the Ulu Ai Ibans to migrate to Batang Kanyau River in Kapuas, Kalimantan and then proceeded to Katibas and later on Ulu Rajang in Sarawak.The earlier migrations from Kapuas to Batang Ai, Batang Lupar, Batang Saribas and Batang Krian rivers were also made possible by fighting the local tribes like Bukitan.
  • Reasons for abandoning headhunting are:
    • Peacemaking agreements at Tumbang Anoi, Kalimantan in 1874 and Kapit, Sarawak in 1924.
    • Coming of Christianity, with education where Dayaks are taught that headhunting is murder and against the Christian Bible’s teachings.
    • Dayaks’ own realisation that headhunting was more to lose than to gain.


  • Dayak traditional dress for male is called sapei sapaq for male and ta’a for female, this is from Kenyah tribe, East Kalimantan.

Dayak busanaDayak traditional dress

dayak 3_Pesona-Suku-Dayak-Di-kalimantan-3Dayak’s traditional craft such as mandau (traditional blade of dayak, rotan craft)


Dayak’s traditional wooden shield/ Kelembit

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