When travelling up the Kapuas River, you will pass typical Dayak longhouses, with smoke wafting from atop roofs disappearing behind leafy ferns and rows of coconut trees. Inside, mothers will have just extracted the coconut juice to prepare a big dinner that smells most inviting. A Dayak longhouse consists of more than 50 rooms with many kitchens, making it one of the largest houses built. Although many may look delapidated, nonetheless, they are very sturdy, most built decades ago, and are made of strong ironwood.
The Dayaks are the original inhabitants native to Kalimantan, this large island which was once better known as “Borneo”. They live in the interior upper regions of this huge island, amidst dense rainforests and along banks of wide rivers. Once feared for their headhunting raids, the Dayaks today live peacefully from agriculture, forest products, weaving and wood carving.
The Dayak longhouse is a large communal dwelling, where an entire community of extended families resides. These longhouses, known as betang or lamin, are normally located along river banks and are built on strong posts raised above the seasonal flooding. Such longhouses, therefore, are usually built on 5 meters and sometimes even 8 meter posts, while entry to the house is by a tangka or ladder, notched into a huge log. As the ladder is pretty precarious, visitors must be careful when climbing.
The river is necessary for the community for the supply of water and food, and of course as a means for travel, and communications with the outside world. But today such longhouses are fast disappearing or falling into disuse as people prefer to live in smaller homes rather in one large communal dwelling.
One longhouse takes a large number of families. The longhouse at Putussibau, in the upper region of the Kapuas river, for example, counts 54 cubicles, called bilik, for as many families. There is however one long veranda set aside for communal meetings, rituals, ceremonies, cultural performances or other common activities, where daily, women may be seen busy weaving and the men carving their intricate woodwork. The longhouse, therefore, provides shelter and builds a framework for continuous, informal contacts and harmonious social relations.
In the village of Saham, some 158 km. from Pontianak, the longhouse is 186 meter long and 6 meters wide, and is inhabited by no less than 269 persons.
In these houses, each family is assigned the tasks of taking care of communal safety, each must be involved in ceremonies and rituals. In all, there is a division of labour but also emphasis is on cooperation. Nevertheless, distinction is still made between aristocrats and commoners. The leader is positioned in the center of the house, with the lowest ranking on the outer side near the entrance
The original longhouses are dispersed in various places, among which are in the district of Sunge Uluk Apalin, at Melapi, Semangkok, Sungai Utik, and at the Bukung district, all in the Kapuas Hulu Region, or the Upper Kapuas. Such longhouses have become part of Indonesia’s rich national heritage.
But, if you are not prepared to visit these tribal, long, train-like dwellings, a replica longhouse has been built for visitors in downtown Pontianak on Jalan M.T. Haryono. Standing inside and under this house, you can picture in your mind how incredible it must be if you were in the genuine dwelling itself together with some 50-odd families and livestock living below deck. This, together with the river cruise and sincere hospitality of the Dayak, would be an exceptional experience indeed.