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Rabu, 21 November 2012

Creation, Concept of God and Death in Dayak Ngaju Culture

Contextualizing the Gospel to the Culture of Dayak Ngaju People,

Central Kalimantan, Indonesia

By: Naomi Fortuna
(Student of Discipleship Training Centre/DTC, Singapore)

  1. Introduction

The first missionary came to Kalimantan island recorded at 1835. But before that time, at 1718, Daniel Beekmann an England officer reported that a padre from Pourtugese came to Kalimantan inland, but before he accomplished his mission, he was murdered by local people1.

Tjilik Riwut in his book “Maneser Panatau Tatu Hiang” stated that Dayakness people were so strong to hold their ancestor belief, Kaharingan Religion before the missionaries come. Because of the indefatigable efforts of the missionaries, the dayakness people know the gospel and by the time the people are converted to Christian. After Dayak community know the bible and the Christian Doctrines, the Kalimantan Church gives an order which is called “Aturan Ungkup”. It is an order for Dayakness Christians do not involve to custom ritual ceremony of their ancestors. If they want to be baptized in Christ, they must leave their ancestor's religion with all the ritual embedded in it. This order causes most of Christian dayakness people disengage and lost the connection with their ancestral culture. That is why that many young dayakness Christian now could not acknowledge their own ancestral culture2.

In this article, I try to contextualized the gospel to the culture of Dayak Ngaju based on their concept of God, creation and death in the Kaharingan religion, the ancestral religion of Dayak Ngaju people. The first section I explore about the concept of God, creation and death in Kaharingan religion. And the second section, I try to explore about the concept of God and salvation in the Bible. And the third section is the contextualizing of the gospel to the culture of Dayak Ngaju.

  1. The Concept of Creation, God and Death in Dayak Ngaju Religion

A. Brief Description about Dayak Ngaju People

Dayak Ngaju is the people who live on the lower and middle of Rivers : Kapuas, Kahayan, Katingan, Rungan, Manuhing, and Mentaya of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Central Kalimantan has numerous rivers from the catchment areas to the north in the Schwaner Mountains, flowing to the Java Sea.

River-water becomes main point in the life of Dayak Ngaju people. Most of them live along the bank river (on their early development), and use water supply from the river for life, transport, etc. The bank river of the Kahayan regarded as the true tribal area of the Ngaju from where they spread over other rivers.

The name of Dayak, means "native", apply by the immigrant Malay who settled at coast part of Borneo. The name "Ngaju" means "unplander" to distinct themself from other tribes in Central Tumbang" means that they live in the river's mouth (Tumbang), "oloh Ot Danum" means that they live at the headwaters, and settled in the part of Central Borneo. They name themselves after the various rivers on which they live.

Kalimantan Island is divided into three countries : Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Indonesia's part, Kalimantan, consists of more than two thirds of the island and is divided into four provinces: Kalimantan Barat (West), Kalimantan Selatan (South), Kalimantan Tengah (Central), and Kalimantan Timor (East).

Name of rivers in Central Kalimantan and their length in km.

 Barito (900 km), Kapuas (600 km), Kahayan (600 km), Katingan (600 km), Mentaya (400 km), Seruyan (350 km).

B. Dayak Ngaju Religion

Kaharingan is the name of religion of Dayak Ngaju people in Central Kalimantan. According to Dayak people, Kaharingan Religion has been existed thousands years, from the beginning of the world, when Ranying Hatalla Langit (the name of their God) created the universe. It has been existed before the coming of Hindu, Budha, Islam and Christian religions to their territory. After the coming of other religions to Dayak people, Kaharingan become known as the religion of dayak's ancestor, or ancient religion. Kaharingan means “life, exist by itself”. 
The religion itself from time to time has been unified with Dayak people's life from their birth (process of giving name), marriage, and death, before other religions give their influence to the people's life. Dayak people have three relations which needs to be in harmony and balance. First, their faith to Ranying Hatalla. Second, the relation between man as community or individual. Third, their relation with the nature and universe3

C. Source of Dayak Ngaju Conception of God

The Source of Dayak Ngaju conception of God are from sacred literatures (sacred story in songs, story from priest-auh oloh Balian), Religious drawings (made by priest ex: Batang Garing), Traditional law, and Traditional Rituals (Tiwah ritual/mortuary ritual, etc).

D. The Concept of Creation, God, and Death in Kaharingan Religion

The conception of God is the center where the whole of Dayak Ngaju culture and religion determined by which their entire life and thought must be interpreted. Their conception of God is to which everything must be refer to4.

(a) Hornbill (the sacred bird in Dayak religion)

  (b) model of Dragon Ark (The ark to deliver soul to heaven),


  (c) a Rattan art of Batang Garing Tree (Tree of Life) in Dayak Ngaju Culture

The Story of Creation

Kaharingan, Dayak Ngaju religion, believe that there are two great power that create the universe. The name of these two great power are Ranying Mahatala Langit dan Jata Balawang Bulau. The universe itself is divided into two world : Upper World and Under World. The Upper World controlled by god Ranying Mahatala Langit, and the Under World controlled by Jata Balawang Bulau5. The two gods is one in essence, because Jata is the shadow of Ranying Mahatala Langit.

On the creation story, Ranying Mahatala Langit throws away lawung (a head bend) which is made by gold and diamonds. The lawung grows become a tree, which is called batang garing or tree of life. The tree has leafs and fruits from all kind of gold, diamonds, amethyst, and all of the precious stone. Jata Balawang Bulau also releases a Tingang female bird (hornbill) from the cage. The female hornbill goes to the tree and eats the fruit of the tree. Ranying also throws his gold sword. The sword transforms to be a Tingang male bird, which is called tambarirang. The male hornbill (tambarirang) comes to the tree of life and eats the fruits of tree. The two hornbills strikes each other caused a sacred war.

The holy war makes a devastating war which destroys the batang garing. The devastated pieces of batang garing make up life of other creation, which are male, female and two arks. The arks made from golds and diamonds. The first ark, named banama bulau (golden ark) navigated by the first woman who is named Putir Kahukup Bungking Garing. The second ark, named banama hintan (diamond ark) navigated by the first man who is named Manyamei Limut Garing Balua Unggom Tingang.

The man and woman are in their own ark and wandering in the ocean, which is the source of every flowing water. Finally, the man asks the woman for married. The woman accepts the man's request, with one condition that the man will give her a land and a house to build. The request is fulfilled by the help of the two supreme power, Ranying and Jata. After all, the man and the woman become husband and wife. For them born the descendants of human : (1) Maharaja Sangiang; (2) Maharaja Sangen; and (3) Maharaja Bunu.

  • The two hornbill (tingang) and the sun: hornbill and  sun symbolized the deity of Ranying Mahatala Langit, as the source of all the living. There was a sacred war between the two hornbills of Upperworld and Underworld.
  • Spear : point out to upper world, symbolized Ranying Mahatala Langit
  •  The fruits of Batang Garing : three fruits symbolized the three major  descendants of men. The fuits points to upper and under world, signifies that man always direct their view to this two worlds as a balance life
  • The leaves and branches: the leaves has the form of the feathers of hornbill (symbol of upperworld), and the branches  has the form of curve which symbolized underworld (Jata). The harmony and untiy of this two world
  • A Jar (balanga) of holy water : symbolized under world (Jata)
  • The island of Batang Garing is the island of men origin where the first men come to the earth. The island called Pulau Batu Nindan Tarung.
Symbol of Batang Garing (Tree of Life)6.

The tree of life is dead and devastated to bring life for people and universe.

The Concept of Deities

The story of Batang Garing (tree of life) tells us the the philosophy of Dayak Ngaju people about life. Life is a result of collision of two great power. From the collision of the two power formed the universe and life. After creation, they have their own distinctive power but the two power create balance and harmony in the universe. If one of the power is removed, the balance harmony of the cosmic will be disrupted7.

In Kaharingan world view, the origin of men at the beginning is in one nature with the deities (Upper World). The relation between men's world and deities' world are never ending. Men can ask help for their relatives in the deities world (Upper World). From this perspective has been built an understanding of Dayak Worldview for deceased people, they called buli, which means going home (back to their origin).

In the perspectif of Kaharingan etnoreligion, the concept of God can be seen from the division of authority of the two deities. The power of Upper World is ruled by Ranying Mahatala Langit , represent by Enggang bird (hornbill). The power of Under World is ruled by Jata Balawang Bulau, represent by Tambun (dragon). This two power is two but in one essence. The two power have other deities to control cosmic-order of the human life. They are Raja Pali, Raja Untung, Raja Sial, Raja Hantuen and Raja Peres. This other deities has role as the representatives of the Upper World and Under World to control order over the human life.

Raja Pali (King of taboo) will give punishment with thunder if someone break the custom law (taboo law). Raja Untung (King of fortune) gives fortune, wealth and riches. Raja Sial (King of badluck), his tasks is to make misfortune, accident, cruelty, even death. Raja Hantuen (King of ghost), king of ghost which is source of disaster and everything that disruptive to human, they drink human blood. And the last is Raja Peres (King of Peres) which is the king of disease and plague.

These deities has the role of maintaining cosmos-order of the human life. The deities gives fear to Dayak people worldview in doing something wrong to deities, men and nature because of the punishment from the deities (thunder, disease, plague, death, natural disaster, etc). In dayak people worldview, the realities of these deities is real and embedded to their life. They believe that if something bad happen in their life, it has connection with the intervention from the deities. That is the reason they live under the fear and respect to these deities power which is dwell within the upper world and under world and interfere the human world.

Life After Death

In Kaharingan religion, there is a ritual for a mortuary sacred ceremony. The ritual called Tiwah. Tiwah is a sacred ceremony to bring the deceased soul to the “prosperous land” or the village of the souls. Tiwah is both death and life ritual8 . There are seven objectives of Tiwah9:

  1. Summon the soul from their temporary Upper World home and from the grave
  2. Bathe the soul
  3. Providing clothing for the souls
  4. Provision the soul with the food that never spoil
  5. Give the souls an opportunity to bid their kin farewell
  6. Escort the souls to the “Prosperous Village” (Lewu Tatau)
  7. Reunite the three souls

The only way for a deceased person to begin their journey to the Prosperous Village is to wait for others to open their tomb. At the Tiwah ritual ceremony, the bones of deadly person bring out from their old grave to a new place with a sacred ritual. The bones of the deceased then place into a miniatur tomb house called “Sandung” together with the precious treasures of the deceased person. 

Sandung, a place to preserve the bones of deceased person , whose souls guard the village.

The bones bring out from the old grave to "Sandung" (miniature tomb house) with a ritual ceremony called Tiwah

III. The God of the Bible

A. The story of Creation

The central point of creation in the bible is that the sovereign God is the creator of the heaven and the earth. God creates heaven and earth by words. He is an ordered God, and He is the source and creator of all the living by His creative works.

God creates heaven and earth (Gen 1). On the first day He creates light and separate light from the darkness. The second day, God creates firmament and divides the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. The third day, God separates water and land and creates vegetation. The fourth day, God creates sun, moon and stars. The fifth day, God creates living creatures in the water and birds. The sixth day, God creates animals and man. The seventh day, God rests from His creation work.

God creates man and woman from his own Image (Gen 1:26-28). This means that man and woman gives by God attributes for rational, moral, social, creative and spiritual capacity. Man is created from the dust of the ground. God breathes into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man becomes a living soul. God takes one of man's ribs and makes a woman from the rib, and brings her to the man.

B. God of the Salvation

After the fall, the condition of men is under the dominion of sin and death, guilty before God, and under the grip of Satan10. God calls men to His amazing salvation plan in Christ. The response needed from men is conviction of sin, repentance from sin, and faith in Jesus Christ11. Salvation is the whole process that results from the finished work of Jesus Christ as He died in space and time upon the cross12. Salvation results sanctification of the people of God and glorification when Christ returns.

IV. Contextualization The Gospel

A. Initial Point of Contact

Initial Point of Contact can be developed to The Kaharingan Concept
  • Ranying Mahatala Langit is the source of the creation and all the living
  • God is the sovereign God over the Nature
  • The dwelling place of God (Upper World, Under World)
  • There is a life after death
  • Journey to the village of the soul (Lewu Tatau/prosperous village). There is a place for the soul to stay eternally after death (represents by a small tomb house-Sandung)
  • Tree of Life. Christ work in the cross, His suffering, wound and death (devastated and ruins) to bring life and blessing for people.
  • The only way for a deceased person to begin their journey to the Prosperous Village is to wait for others to open their tomb (Tiwah mortuary ritual)-- entering point to the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the believers

B. Constructive and Corrective Engagement to the Gospel

The Kaharingan Concept Transformation concept by the Gospel
  • The creation 
    • The universe is the result of collition (disordered power) 
    • Man and woman is created from the ruins of the devastated tree of life
  • God is a sovereign God, He creates the universe in an ordered and creative works
  • The Lordship of the Creator and Ruler of the nations
  • There are no other gods
  • God created man and woman in God's image
  • Concept of God 
    • no distinction between evil spirit and Ranying Mahatala Langit (duality and unity between evil and good spirit)
    • evil spirit have their role to control and order at human life (with the law of taboo, punishment, etc)
  • The Sovereign God13: 
    •  God who owns and rules the universe 
    •  God is sovereign over all the power in the universe 
    • God is sovereign over the destiny of the nations
  • God is Holy
  • Concept of death and life, resurrection 
    •  the deceased person will go to the prosperous village directly without judgement of their sin 
    •  there is no resurrection of the body, only the soul
  • The supreme revelation of God is in Christ, validated by Jesus resurrection from the dead
  •   Jesus Christ will judge the world because of their sin
  • Concept of man and sin 
    • there is no concept of sin in dayakness people 
    • the concept of 'taboo' before the deities
  • The universal need for repentance (because of sin and guilt) and conversion of their worldview & belief

  • Concept of future judgement 
    •  there is no concept of future judgement. All the deceased souls will be go to the village of their relatives in the Upper World.
  • The reality of a future judgement (moral accountability
  •  The assurance that God will righteously judge the world by Jesus Christ 
  • Bodily resurrection

  • Live under fear to the deities (taboo, punishment, etc)- punishment by deities

  • God made us free from the bondage of sin and Satan power
  • The forgiveness of sin and the grace of God in redemption work of Christ
  • - The cross of Jesus was basically a place of conflict with Satan14


We can find some point of contacts with the Kaharingan religion and the gospel from the story of creation, their concept of God and death. This point of contacts need to be develop more in order to contextualized with the message of the gospel. At least from the perspective of creation, concept of God and Death, we can find “identificational” approach to proclaim the gospel to enter the worldview of Dayak Ngaju People through this points of contact.

There is a need of contextualizing in Dayak Ngaju culture. The decision of the church about “Aturan Ungkup” makes the Christian people lost of relation with their ancestor's culture. Before too late to preserve our cultural inheritance, we need to find a way to preserve the culture and in the same time build a biblical contextual approach of the culture.


  1. Hans Scharer. Ngaju Religion: The conception of God among a south Borneo People. Netherland Institute for International Cultural Relations. 1963
  2. Taya Paembonan. Batang Garing. Jakarta: PT Dunia Pustaka Jaya..1993.
  3. Anne Louise Schiller. Dynamics of Death: Ritual, Identity, and Religious Change among the Kalimantan Ngaju. Faculty of the Graduate School of Cornell University, August 1987.
  4. Sinclair B. Fergusson, Know Your Christian Life. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1981.
  5. Chris Wright, Salvation belong to Our God, Nottingham:Inter-varsity Press, 2008. p145-185
  6. Francis Schaeffer, Death in The City, Chicago. Inter-varsity Fellowship, 1972. p 74




4Hans Scharer. Ngaju Religion: The conception of God among a south Borneo People. Netherland Institute for International Cultural Relations. 1963

5Hans Scharer. Ngaju Religion: The conception of God among a south Borneo People. Netherland Institute for International Cultural Relations. 1963

6Taya Paembonan. Batang Garing. Jakarta: PT Dunia Pustaka Jaya:1993. P 123-125. (Summary)


8Anne Louise Schiller. Dynamics of Death: Ritual, Identity, and Religious Change among the Kalimantan Ngaju. Faculty of the Graduate School of Cornell University, August 1987. p 81-82


10Sinclair B. Fergusson, Know Your Christian Life. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1981. p 9-15.


12Francis Schaeffer, Death in The City, Chicago. Inter-varsity Fellowship, 1972. p 74

13Chris Wright, Salvation belong to Our God, Nottingham:Inter-varsity Press, 2008. p145-185

14I Howard Marshall. The Work of Christ. The Paternoster Press. 1969

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