Pudarno Binchin
Anthropologist, Curator of Ethnography and Manager, Malay Technology Museum, Brunei Darussalam

The Dusun people of Brunei Darussalam, amounting to roughly 10,000 people, are traditionally swidden rice cultivators. They used to live in longhouses called alai gayo (big house) that could accommodate three to four generations of bilateral family members, each administered by a council of elders known as tetuwo. The tetuwo were composed of both male elders (usually shaman and medicine men) and female elders called balian (Dusun religious priestesses) who are responsible for Dusun religious ceremonies referred to as temarok. Nowadays, they live in single houses distributed into small clusters of hamlets, due to the erosion of the traditional administrative system as a result of British colonialism in Brunei beginning in 1906.

Dusun temarok belief is comprised of a series of ritual performances that are divided into the monthly temarok diok (minor temarok) ceremony and the annual temarok gayo (major temarok) rice festival. These ceremonies are performed to propitiate a mystical group of supernatural beings called derato who are believed to live in pagun sawat (the upper world) located in the sky. According to Dusun myth, the origin of temarok rituals, these deities gave the Dusun people their first rice seeds. Before the first seeds were bestowed to them, the Dusun people were said to eat charcoal instead of rice. For this reason, Dusun balian regularly perform temarok ceremonies to invite the derato down to earth to give blessings to the people and share in entertainment with the balian and Dusun audience. Until today, the newly harvested rice has classically been presented in specific manners, typically in the form of ‘games’ with ceremonial names such as temarok berayo (crocodile temarok ceremony), temarok lanut (snake temarok ceremony), temarok dulang (rice tray temarok ceremony).

Having temarok rituals to maintain, the Dusun also retain a repertoire of sung epic tales known as siram ditaan, amounting to roughly forty titles. Siram is a traditional Dusun song sung in the form of verses that follow the rhythmic beat of a dumbak drum. There are two main categories of siram: siram sindir and siram ditaan. Siram sindir is used to convey criticism (also known as siram nasihat, i.e., a siram song to advise) and is sung both by female and male siram singers. The siram sindir is composed spontaneously in the presence of the criticized person(s) using allegories and metaphors to conceal its real meaning from the general listeners.

On the other hand, siram ditaan consists of epic narratives about derato that normally take several evenings to recount by talented siram singers who are generally female; sometimes they are also balian. These epic tales depict the romantic lives and feuds among members of the derato community. These narratives are composed of stocked phrases that are archaic and some words carry no meaning to modern Dusun listeners. Siram ditaan is very difficult to master and proficient singers are very rare nowadays. Therefore, most raconteurs prefer to narrate the epic tales in the ordinary Dusun language where in this form they are known as kata-kata (narrated words vis-a-vis sung verses). Both types of siram are usually performed in major Dusun social gatherings such as wedding ceremonies, ‘cleansing’ ceremonies for newly completed houses and temarok ceremonies.

Siram performance is a dying Dusun tradition. First, both the Dusun language and its related oral traditions are losing their bearers as Dusuns younger generations have no interest to inherit and continue them. Second, migration of the Dusun population from rural to urban centers with limited shared social spaces to accommodate traditional ethnic practices naturally deprive and hinder the continuation of rural tradition in the modern Brunei urban environment. Third, conversion of Dusun ethnic members to other major religious faiths—namely, Islam and Christianity, by some measure and restriction, forces them to totally abandon their former animist practices. With such radical social situations to deal with, the Dusun tradition that has been built on the backbone of rice cultivation must ultimately succumb to the forces of modern Brunei social development which is generated by its oil industry.

Nowadays, many Dusun farmers have abandoned their rice cultivations in search for stable salaried jobs both in the government and private sectors. Consequentially, these oral traditions may one day disappear if no drastic measures are taken to safeguard them.