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Tiwah Life and Death in Dayak Country

Recommended by Stephanie Brookes  
Written by David Metcalf   
Photos by David Metcalf 


Napin Dalin, the chief of Tewang Rangas village, looked me straight in the eye and said, “The spirits of the dead are all around us and we must help their souls reach the highest place in heaven. The offerings that we make, including the sacrifice of cows, chickens and pigs, will please the ancestral spirits who will guide them on their journey. But we also need to celebrate with some baram, locally brewed rice wine, as this is a happy time when the soul departs to the supernatural world”.

He was right about that. Shrieks of laughter and singing could be heard as very inebriated women and men celebrated with such happiness and joy determined to help guide the souls of the deceased to Heaven.

Tewang Rangas village is located in the province of Katingan, in Central Kalimantan, about three hours by car from the provincial capital of Palangkaraya in the heart of traditional Dayak country. A Tiwah is held in this area every year and in more recent years the Government has provided funding to ensure this tradition continues.

The Tiwah ceremony is a central part of the Kaharingan (literally meaning “life”) faith, which has around 330,000 loyal followers only found in Central Kalimantan.


It is classified officially as Hindu only because it must fall into one of the five official religions of Indonesia. While there are some similarities with Bali Hinduism, it is a religion or faith in its own right. Mostly two Dayak tribes, Ngaju and Katingan follow the Kaharingan faith.

A Tiwah is effectively a second funeral. Tiwah rituals take place after a person dies, and the body is buried. In this particular Dayak culture, it is believed the spirit remains with the body, in the lower part of heaven, and a Tiwah is necessary to send the soul to its ultimate resting place.

Day one of a Tiwah involves digging up the bones of the deceased. They are cleaned and placed temporarily in a small wooden coffin until the third day. Then, the bones are transferred to a sanding, a special mausoleum, alongside the bones of the ancestors of the family. The sanding is a very sacred place.

Any bad spirits are shooed away by masked dancers or Babukungs who parade around the ceremonial area during the entire time of the funeral.

The wearers of the masks remain a mystery, since it is forbidden to know their identity. When they get tired or need a rest, they are expected to go far away from the area and sleep alone in the forest.


The children in Tewang Rangas were terrified of these Babukungs. I heard many screams as the Babukungs would creep up behind the little ones and scare the wits out of them.

I met a most impressive 23-year old man, Apri, in Tewang Rangas village. This young man carried a wisdom about him way beyond his years. He was chosen at age seven by the wise council with help from the ancestors, to be a priest. He was given the task of communicating with the spirits to find answers to questions and solutions to problems regarding the overall wellbeing and balance of the village and its inhabitants.

Apri played a central role in the Tiwah and sat on the floor of the ceremonial house among bowls of rice, animal blood, coconuts, cigarettes, fruit and cows’ heads. He chanted ancient mantras as he communicated with the other world, searching for answers.

He explained that everything attached to the Pasar Sawawulu, a tall bamboo structure, was to honour the dead. Every item had its meaning including the lalsir (flags), which bring happiness to the dead spirits, and each colour of the flags held a distinct meaning.

The alang bird (brahmini kite) is very significant in Dayak culture. It is thought to communicate with human life forms but only among the chosen ones such as Apri.


The Dayaks believe the bird has a direct connection with the spirits of the ancestors. This kind of link with the animal kingdom is central to Dayak beliefs and observances, as it is to other indigenous cultures, and provides a firm connection with nature and the source of wisdom.

Another important aspect of the Tiwah is the significance of numbers.  Each number holds a special meaning and relates to something important.

There were seven bamboo sticks I noticed, with small symbols representing the boat, deer, crocodile, snake, bird, and trees.

Despite the influence of other religions, such as Islam and Christianity, the Kaharingan faith is still very strong and is supported with an educational centre in Palangkaraya, which Apri attended for seven years. In 1981, after years of sourcing information, a 300 page book was written titled Study Book of the Kaharingan Religion, which explains many of the practices of this faith.

I felt very fortunate to be invited to attend and then to experience the three days of a Tiwah in a tucked away little village in Central Kalimantan.

It is something I shall never forget.


To learn first-hand about the culture, which is still steeped in ancient tradition, including their storytelling, ritualistic dance, music and baram drinking was a real honour. I was blessed to be part of ceremony that witnessed the passing of souls and be part of a ceremony that has remained unaltered for thousands of years.

What I hold in my memories most of all was the incredible generosity of the Dayak people of this village who offered me food, drink and a place to sleep, expecting nothing in return, but who simply wanted to welcome a foreigner into their world for a few days to share their love of their culture through their unique ritualistic Tiwah.

Fact File

How to Get There
Fly to Palangkaraya, Garuda fly direct Jakarta to Palangkaraya, then arrange a car and driver to take you to Tewang Rangas Village, about a four hour easy drive.

Recommended guide  Yun Pratiwi   ph   0857 52419730  or  08115233389

Location | Tewang Rangas Village, Central Kalimantan

Tour Guide | David Metcalf has a special arrangement to bring a small group of people next year.  Date – August, 2016.   Expressions of interest – please email

David has many projects happening in Kalimantan aimed at protecting the original forests and giving the Dayak people a voice. He has recently opened a photography Gallery in Ubud promoting images that raise awareness and promote photography as a way to educate and change current destructive practises in Indonesia and abroad.

More info can be found on his website



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