Indonesia’s Cultural Tragedy: The Tragic Loss of Ulu Palin Cultural Heritage
Fire engulfed world’s former oldest, tallest and longest longhouse from 23:00 on Saturday, 13 September 2014. Caused by a fire coal for smoking meat that a resident had forgotten to bank, in a few short hours the longhouse’s entire 53 apartments and the surrounding villagers’ huts had been burnt down to the ground. Although no loss of human life occurred, nearly a hundred of exotic birds perished during the tragedy, The compound’s 538 residents that include babies and young children lost their homes and their entire belongings.
Perhaps, the saddest thing of all is the loss of the irreplaceable Sungulok Palin Longhouse. On 4 March 2003 the Indonesian Department of Education and Culture had declared this longhouse as a national cultural heritage site with registration number KM.10/PW.007/MKP/03, while the Regency’s registration number of the site is N0.212/2012 Ref: UU RI No. 11/2010 on Cultural Heritage. The plan had been to relocate the occupants in order to preserve the original longhouse as a cultural museum.
It’s still very hard for me to imagine that this place, that I had visited as recent as a few months back, is no more.
Situated in the fringe of conservation zone Heart of Borneo in Kapuas Hulu, the 240-meter longhouse was traditionally built near the embankment of Ulu Palin River and 1.7 km away from the road towards the regency town Putussibau, located some 38 km away.
Constructed on stilts, the floor of the longhouse was 7 to 8 meters high above the ground for safety reason. The longhouse occupants belong to the Dayak tribe Tamambaloh. Their headhunter ancestors regularly engaged in tribal wars with their surrounding neighbours, and keeping the floor high kept them safe from enemies’ spears during sleep. The longhouse had three entrances that used long, solid round ironwood carved with steps, which occupants in ancient times hauled upstairs during the night.
The entire building uniquely did not use nails or modern metals. The giant beams had been hooked to each other at the ends, while smaller parts had been tied together with rattan ropes.
Each time this longhouse needed renovation, the Tamambalohs worked together dismantling it and rebuilt at an adjacent location by the river. They habitually recycle the woods, and had been re-using the giant long poles of round ironwood for several hundreds of years, making Sungulok Palin’s the world’s oldest longhouse. Ironwood itself is the world’s strongest wood species that doesn’t get destroyed in water. Even after the fire when everything else had perished, the ironwood poles stood eerily against the backdrop of world’s oldest rainforest.
A forest community near an orangutan conservation habitat, the Tamambalohs of Ulu Palin are hunter gatherers. They grow their own rice and traditionally live a self-sustainable existence, taking forest products only for their personal needs. They chew sugar cane to brush their teeth, and chew betel leaves to strengthen them. They hunt with their local dogs, fish, collect non-timber forest products, build their own boats and fishing traps, weave their own textiles and jewelries, concoct their own medicins from local plants and produce other daily needs by themselves. Occupying a long row of apartments off the longhouse’s very long corridor which was the common area, almost everyone is a keen craftman or craftwoman.
I had been fortunate to visit this longhouse through WWF”s Kompakh, the sole ecotourism “operator” of Kapuas Hulu. On the night we arrived, the clan was observing mourning as a young resident had passed away. We were told to remove our jewelries and to keep very silent. However once the morning was lifted the people had been friendly, although remarkably shy. I had been weaving their stories in my WIP before the fire struck. Hopefully, my humble effort would preserve a little bit how they had lived.
A Call To Help The Fire Victims
As they are currently living in temporary shelters after losing their homes, I call on everyone who is able to help relieve their pain. To make a donation, please contact WWF West Kalimantan through Kompakh. Thank you.