Bornean Religions

Doctrines The beliefs and practices of the religions in Borneo exhibit wide variation, but there are features which are commonly characteristic to all.
Though the indigenous peoples all speak Austronesian languages, there is complex ethnic diversity which is reflected in the religions since the religions are rooted in the local communities and contribute to much of their identity.
Religion in fact is integral to the way of life in Borneo, without there being the concept of a separate domain of religion. Ritual observance is an essential part of life in marriage, etiquette, law, and other aspects. Each religion has its own ritual forms and there is no such thing as conversion from one religion to another. If an individual moves to live in another community through marriage or some other reason, then they follow the ritual of that place.
In the interior the religions are rich in ritual and cosmology. The Ngaju have doctrines of an upper world and an underworld together with multi-layered heavens. Such doctrines of extensive spirit worlds are found with other peoples in Borneo. Some scholars see Hindu influence on these beliefs, as with one of the names of the Ngaju supreme god. In north Borneo there are indications of influence from China. But overall there is no similarity in the religions of Borneo to Indian and Chinese religions.
There is a focus on death, especially on the secondary treatment of the dead. This is most prevalent in the southern third of Borneo and is only of scattered practice in the rest of the island. In cosmologies the dead play an important part.
The agricultural cycle has associated major calendrical rituals, particularly with the Iban whose rituals are concerned with the soul of the rice in rituals held at each stage of its cultivation.
Rituals are performed by priests, shamans, and augurs, though there is great variation in their roles. Women play an important part. Priestesses of the Dusun in north Borneo conduct all the major rituals. Psychopomps guide the deceased to the land of the dead. There are special ritual languages. Priests and priestesses recite long chants in these languages about mythical events. These chants have a complex structure of parallel phraseology. Even prayers in family rituals have a formal structure. Sacrifices of chickens, pigs, or buffalo often take place with the rituals.
All the religions have shamans who recover lost souls in seances. Soul loss is the most important factor in theories of illness involving all types of nonhuman and evil forces. However, there is a complementary theory of illness being caused by the breaking of primordial taboo.

History Though features of the religions in Borneo are commonly shared, especially with neighbouring groups, the patterns of distribution of these religious doctrines and forms are complex. There has been migration and borrowing for many centuries.
Since the earliest times travellers going between the ancient civilisations in Asia have visited the coasts of Borneo. There is archaeological evidence of ancient contact with India. In the Kutai area on the Mahakam River in eastern Borneo the oldest inscription in Indonesia has been found. Dated to the beginning of the fifth century CE it is in South Indian Palava script saying " a gift to a Brahman priest." There was also contact with China. The importance given to death in the religions of Borneo reflects the influence of a basic element of ancient South East Asian religion.
A common practice until the first decades of the present century was head-hunting, which was associated with war and mortuary rites. Dried skulls also gave vital transfusions of energy for villages and as they symbolised the procreative power of nature, a special head could stop epidemics, remove evil spirits, cause rain, and boost the rice crop. Heads were needed to terminate the mourning period for community leaders, and they were the focus of much ritual. In central north Borneo the Kayan and Kenyah periodically held large festivals to honour the heads.
From the sixteenth century Islam has spread slowly from trading centres on the coast, such as Banjarmasin in the south and Brunei in the north. Chinese immigrants have introduced Chinese religion. In the nineteenth century Christian missionaries became increasingly successful in the interior, giving rise to syncretic revivalist cults.
Many of the indigenous religions have become extinct. Others are in imminent danger of vanishing without being thoroughly studied.

Symbols The religions of the Ngaju and the religions of other peoples have complex animal and colour symbolism. The hornbill is sacred and is associated with the creation of the world. Hearing or seeing certain birds and animals indicates good or evil omens. Traditional coffins are boat-shaped and modelled on the water snake for men and the hornbill for women. Burial canoes drift down river, taking three days to reach heaven, of which the Dayaks have maps. Before the sailing of the burial canoe men dance around the coffin wearing animal masks and grass cloaks. The dead are given painted hats for their journey to the afterworld. Balawang poles outside villages hung with rotten eggs symbolises katang, a yearly driving out of spirits. The religion found in north Borneo has number symbolism which may be derived from China.

Adherents In the south and west are large populations, which are politically fragmented but have considerable cultural-religious uniformity. These include the Ngaju and Iban, who number in the hundreds of thousands. In the north it is mountainous and the rivers are difficult to navigate. Here there are many small groups, each numbering a few thousand.

Main Centre
 Each of the religions of Borneo has its own main centre.