the woman with big ears in Borneo

Dayak people with dilated lobes are said to be only one hundred living along the Mahakam River. This is on the island of Borneo.

This 920 km river has always been a vital artery and the only means of communication for residents living in this remote area of ​​East Kalimantan [Kalimantan is the name given to the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. This region includes five provinces: East, West, Central, South and North Kalimantan]. It is on this river that depends on the flow or not of human movement and transportation of goods from Samarinda, the provincial capital, to the most remote hamlets.

When the water level rises during the rainy season, navigation becomes very risky, because the river carries many tree trunks that can hit the boat at any time. But when the level drops, in the dry season, the ship can no longer pass, because of the risk of crashing into rocks. along the journey from Long Bagun to the headwaters, the natural beauty of the dazzling scenery is crossed: giant karst walls, green forests, bird concerts, dizzying waterfalls.

The Dayaks are divided into several ethnic groups, one of which is the Bahau Dayak ethnic group. They built huts in their fields on the banks of this river with clear water. Bahak Dayak is a sub-group of Dayaks who live along the Mahakam upstream. To go to their fields, which are quite far from the village of Long Isun, they use a boat attached to a propeller motor which is the main means of transportation for Dayaks.

The ring was hung since the first week of life

A few weeks after birth, the lobes of Dayak girls are pricked with bamboo points and sticks inserted into the hole to keep them open. They are then replaced with thicker sticks, so the hole grows larger as the child grows.

When approaching adolescence, a copper ring hung in his ear. These rings are called sangs in the Dayak Bahau language. Every year Hisangs are added to add weight to the lobes. It is under this ever-increasing weight that the ears are stretched out. Among Dayak Kenyah, the same operation was carried out on women belonging to the nobility. Once perforated, the two lobes are connected to each other by a wire, to create tension and make the hole widen. Belaung – a term used by Dayak Kenyah to designate this ring – is hung as soon as the baby grows.

Is lobe lengthening a specific Dayak practice?

The rings in the ears are found practically everywhere in Southeast Asia. Dayaks are distinguished by the number of these rings and the length of the lobes they carry. But the practice falls under canons of beauty which are far from being limited to Kalimantan (think, for example, of giraffe women, whose rings lengthen their necks). These are aesthetic practices, but also markers of social status. Among the Dayaks, like everywhere else, jewelry is a sign of wealth.

But among the Dayaks, the modification brought about by these jewels is spectacular and probably painful…

Dayak women do not speak of the pain they may have felt when their ears were pierced. Presumably because, as with little Western girls, this is done at an early age, which does not really leave any memories. Then the progressive elongation is not painful. Little girls learn to run and play by supporting the weight of the rings with their hands. Tattooing, on the other hand, is often described as very painful.

When did the custom of long ears start to disappear?

At the time of the “confrontation” – as the conflict with the Malay in the 1960s is called – the Indonesian army recruited the Dayaks as porters, guides or combatants, which generated interference between the Javanese world – dominant Muslim of the centralized state and these peripheral tribes, hitherto isolated. Shortly thereafter, primary school was established in all villages and the teachers aroused the shame of the little girls wearing big ears. This rather brutal opening to the outside world led to their abandonment.

It seems that the tradition is currently arousing renewed curiosity. Is it correct ?

The village of Pampang was created for tourists. Its inhabitants give dance performances, give blowgun demonstrations. Some old ladies with long ears get paid to be photographed. It is known and visitors tend more and more to turn away from this type of folkloric staging.

We must be careful, in general, to focus too much on the long ears. They are only a marginal part of these endangered cultures. In the villages today, the Dayaks all have smartphones. There are karaoke bars there. These villages are already globalized.

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