KAHARINGAN Not Just ‘Decaying Wood’


(Klokke, H. Arnold. 2021. “Along the Rivers of Central Kalimantan: Cultural Heritage of the Ngaju and Ot Danum Dayak := Langs de Rivieren van Midden-Kalimantan: Cultureel Erfgoed van de Ngaju en Ot Danum Dayak. Leiden: Museum Volkenkunde, National Museum of Ethnology; First Edition)

Origins of the Kaharingan Religion       

Kaharingan is the name of the religion of the Ngaju Dayak in Central Kalimantan.  According to its adherents, Kaharingan did not originate at a specific point in time but has existed since the creation itself, since Ranying Hatala Langit created the universe. It has existed since the first man and the first woman, Manyamei and Kameloh, were created, in the far distant past, before the arrival of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. With the arrival of these world religions, Kaharingan was thought of as the primordial or ancient religion (Agama Helo, Agama Huran) or the religion of the ancestors (Agama Tato-Hiang).  The missionary Hans Schärer in his influential dissertation used the term “Ngaju religion” to refer to their system of beliefs and practices (  Schärer 1985: 13).

The term “Kaharingan” was first used as the name of this religion in 1944, in a publication bearing the title ”Kaharingan”, written by Tjilik Riwut, an important Dayak leader during Indonesia’s independence struggle, and the first governor of the province of Central Kalimantan. The following year, when the Japanese were still in power, he specifically used the term    “‘Agama Dajak Kaharingan” (Kaharingan Dayak religion) in his publication “Beberapa keterangan tentang bangsa Dajak” (Various explanations concerning the Dayak people). Another Ngaju Dayak leader, Yohanes Salilah, also explained that the Dayak religion was called “Kaharingan” which meant “life eternal from Ranying Mahatala Langit” (Salilah 1976: 1).

In the sangiang language, the language used by the ritual specialist when he or she relates the sacred myths, the word kaharingan means “life” or “existence” (Baier et al. 1987: 48). In everyday Ngaju Dayak language, the word also means “life” or “that which exists of itself” (Weinstock 1 98 1: 34: 1983: 18).

When I did research about the concept of the human being in Kaharingan, I found that there were four elements that constitute a human being. One of these is haring kaharingan, that is, the soul that originates from Ranying Hatala, and that the fetus after three months and ten days and that brings about life and movement. The priest or basir Uwak Lenjun stresses that Ngaju Dayak call their religion Kaharingan because it is the soul originating from Ranying Hacala, the soul haring kaharingan.    that enters the body of the baby when it is still in its mother’s womb.

One Kaharingan leader, Lewis KDR. explains the word meaning as “the power of God” or simply “life”,”the source of life” or “the life’s force” (interview 2008). It is clear that the term ”Kaharingan” is derived from the teachings of the religion itself.

Kaharingan, as the official name of the religion of the Ngaju Dayak, was ratified during the early 1950s by local people during meetings at several villages (Schiller 1997: 23).        However, after Indonesian independence in 1945, Kaharingan was not acknowledged as an official religion in Indonesia. The    Indonesian government regarded it as a “tribal religion” or “spiritual grouping” (agama suku) or as an aspect of “tradition”    (adat) and “culture”. As a result, Kaharingan was placed with the Department of Education and Culture rather than the Department of Religion, and its adherents were thus classified as people without a religion, with the connotation of uneducated, backward or primitive (Atkinson 1 987, 1989).

This stigmatization and humiliating negative label put the Kaharingan adherents into a position facing two dangers.    First, they could become targets for Christian and Islamic proselytizing (Ramstedt 1999, 2004); and second, within the Indonesian political climate, they could be considered communists or even traitors. Their position became even more threatened at the time of anti-communist sentiment in the mid-1960s (Kuhnt-Saptodewo 2000: 64). For the adherents themselves, this situation gave rise to the feeling that there was intent to destroy the religion (Kaiteng Pos 2003). Various efforts were made to have Kaharingan declared an official religion, but this was thwarted by the unique requirements demanded for the acknowledgment of an official religion: monotheism, the existence of a holy book, the existence of a holy prophet, and a worldwide adherence.

Nevertheless, despite obstacles, Kaharingan religious and intellectuals continued their efforts to strengthen the religion’s presence in Indonesia. On 20 January 1972, two Kaharingan leaders, Simal Penyang and Liber Sigai, took the initiative to establish an organization with the name Majelis Besar Alim Ulama Kaharingan Indonesia (MBAUKI) (Indonesian Supreme    Council of Kaharingan Religious Scholars). Later, in 1979, they sought contact with Balinese Hindu leaders.

In the name of the Supreme Council, Lewis KDR, a Kaharingan leader, submitted an official letter requesting affiliation with Hinduism. On 19 April 1980, the Directorate-General of Hinduism and Buddhism, Department of Religion, officially recognized the newly-named Majelis Besar Agama Hindu    Kaharingan (High Council of Kaharingan Hindu Religion) as the religious body with the task of managing the interests of the Kaharingan membership. The Kaharingan religion was thus integrated within Hinduism and received the new name Kaharingan Hindu Religion (Agama Hindu Kaharingan).

Popular Image and Empirical Factors       

Even in pre-colonial days, during the colonial period, after independence, Dayak peoples are closely associated with such images as “wild people” “primitive’ and”uncivilized”. Their simple way of life and isolation identified the    “without civilization’ and without religion”.

This popular image gave rise to the idea that the Dayak had to be civilized and converted. There arose the view that Dayak religion was not only a religion of darkness that could not bring spiritual welfare, but that it could not survive. In his 1942 publication, Hermann Witschi, inspector of the Basler Mission,    described his meeting with youth and elders of the Siang Dayak and quoted them in these words: The young people said “The old religion is like a piece of decaying wood from a neglected landing stage. If you stand on it, it gives way.” And the elders said, “Our practices have no future. The branch we sit on has become dead” (Witschi 1 942: 85). As a tribal religion, it was doomed to disappear, since it was incapable of being co-ordinated and organized (Kraemer 1 938: 23 I ). However, it turned out quite the opposite. Witschi did not realize the adaptive power of Kaharingan religion in the face of social change and processes of modernization. As noted later by the German missionary and ethnologist Martin Baier, “At the beginning of the twenty-first century it became Indonesia’s largest, now monotheistic tribal religion’ (Baier 2007: 1 24). The difference in 65 years is striking!

The greatest number of Hindu adherents in Indonesia, out-side Bali, is now in Central Kalimantan, with a total in 2003 of    141,168 people (Departemen Agama 2003). According to the provincial office of the Central Statistics Office, the number of Hindus (including Balinese migrants) in Central Kalimantan was 196,946 in 2006 and 223,349 in 2007 (Kalimantan Tengah Dalam \Angka 2008).

The growth of Kaharingan is not limited to the Ngaju Dayak of Central Kalimantan, it is reported that Kaharingan as a religion has spread to the Luangan Dayak (Weinstock 1983), and that the Ma’anyan Dayak of the Barito river area also call their religious system by the name Kaharingan (Hudson 1967, 1972).    From recent studies (Suryadinata 2003) it appears that almost all the Dayak ethnic groups of Central Kalimantan, including the Tomun Dayak in the west of the province and the Siang Dayak in the east, use Kaharingan as the name of their religions

Kaharingan has even spread outside Central Kalimantan.    The Meratus Dayak of South Kalimantan call their religion Kaharingan (Tsing 1993), as do the Tunjung Dayak and Benuaq Dayak of East Kalimantan (Baier 2007), and those Ot (Uud)    Danum Dayak who live in the districts of Embalau and Serawai in West Kalimantan (Musfeptial and Purwiati 2004).

Kaharingan and Dayak Culture       

There is no doubt that Kaharingan is an important element in the formation of Ngaju Dayak culture. Indeed, there is almost no aspect of Ngaju Dayak culture that does not have some connection with Kaharingan. The tiwah ritual, the important final ritual in the cycle of mortuary rites, is the arena for cultural production and presentation. This ritual, in which the soul of the deceased is guided to the upper world known as lewu tatau, village of riches, requires the production of a number of cultural objects: sandung, the bone repository in the form of a small house on posts, where the bones of the deceased are placed following the ritual; sapundu, the carved post to which the sacrificial buffalo is tied; pantar, comprising pantar panjang, the wooden pole decorated at the top with a Chinese pot, and pantar sangggaran, the wooden pole ornamented with hornbill, serpent,  and “weapons” whose function is to mark the location of the sandong erected in honour of famous and honoured persons. The tradition among the Ngaju Dayak of carving sculpting wooden figures is realized in the production of sapundu and sandung.        In the course of the tiwah ritual, performances of masked dances are held, called habukung or sababuka, which represent the attendance of the ancestors at the ritual. Communal dances,    known as manganjan, also take place, in which men and women dance in a circle around the sangkaraya, which consists of lengths of decorated bamboo which later are stuck into the ground forming a circle.

Music also accompanies the tiwah ritual, played on the traditional garantung or gong. A special building called balai nyahu is erected where the instruments are kept and played.

Especially for the tiwah ritual, certain traditional (adat) customs are put into effect whereby participants are organized according to sacred ancestral rules. Dayak identity and origin are clarified and expressed when the ritual specialists known as basir or balian chant the sacred songs that relate the origin of the universe and the creation of humankind.

In essence, through this sacred ritual, the Ngaju Dayak construct their culture and identity. The ritual cannot exist without Kaharingan. It is clearly evident that Kaharingan is not just”a piece of decaying wood” [*MM*].


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