Written by David Metcalf
Packed in with hundreds of jukungs you float around small boats with piles of vegetables, towers of fruit, a bounty of fresh fish carefully laid out and hardware items for sale. The activity kicks off just after sunrise and fills the next three hours. Hundreds of local villagers converge every day and trade their wares as they have done for hundreds of years on the Barito River.
The town’s history dates back 488 years, when, in 1526, the Sultan Suriansyah established his kingdom on these lower reaches of the Barito River. The township of Banjarmasin is situated just 22 kilometres from the Java Sea and some parts of the town are now actually below sea level, which is not a favourable situation in these days of climate change. However, the Banjarese have adapted well to their environment, building their simple dwellings – known as lanting – on semi-floating planks of wood that rise and fall with the tides. The sturdiest structures are built on tall stilts.
As I cruised on my small canoe, accompanied by the constant high pitched motor whining from the back of the boat, I settled in for a lively ride which included passing the locals bathing, rounding a corner to find a concert of synchronised slapping and beating of wet clothes, cruising alongside groups of villagers playing cards, and watching the kids frolicking and playing games in the murky brown waters. As I continued navigating the series of small canals, I was greeted by enthusiastic waves and genuine smiles and on occasion the kids blew me kisses in an endearing show of welcome and greeting.
There are three distinct groups of Banjarese people: the Banjar Kuala, the Banjar Batang Banyu and the Banjar Pahuluan. The Banjar Kuala, who were formerly farmers but who now get their livelihood from the Barito and Martapura rivers, are known as the “down- stream” people.
The Banjar Batang Banyu live on the upper reaches of the Barito and Nagara rivers and speak the same language as the Banjar Kuala but with a different intonation. The Banjar Batang Banyu live together with the native Dayak tribes of this area, notably the Dayak Bakumpai, Ma’anyan and Lawangan tribes. There is also a Javanese influence which stems back to the days of the fourteenth century Majapahit Kingdom. The Batang Banyu are mostly traders and are very skilled in handicrafts.
The third group is the Banjar Pahuluan or “up-stream” people who live mostly on the Nagara River although some inhabit the Meratus Mountains and are predominantly farmers.
In September a huge ceremony is held over three days and many of the ancient animist and cultural rites are performed at this time. As my guide, Guntur explained, “This is a very special occasion for Banjarese culture. During these three days the younger generation are exposed to the history and age-old beliefs passed down from the ancestors. Much of the traditional dancing, music, mystic rituals and games are dying out, so it is good to be able to share this with our families and elders. We consider it an honour if outsiders pay their respects to our culture by visiting at this time and we love receiving guests”.
The Muslim influence and traditional beliefs of the Banjarese blend harmoniously in this region and the people live side by side with the native Dayaks. As Guntur said, “We consider all people as our brothers and sisters. There is a deep respect and harmony between the two cultures, and in fact there have been cases where Dayaks have married into the royal family, thus Banjarese Kings and Queens have Dayak lineage in their blood”.
The largest of the Dayak groups is the Ngaju who live in both central and south Kalimantan and many of Ngaju are mixed with the Banjar Kuala. Many Ngaju also speak Banjarese.
Located in the very far north, the Dayak Ma’Anyan tribes’ people live very traditionally and have a strong spiritual connection with the forests and the rivers. Shamans still practise their natural healing techniques and large elaborate funeral ceremonies are held in the villages to this day.
Further into the hills the Bukit Meratus Dayak group live as they have done for centuries. Their rice growing practises date back to 2,500 BC and they still hunt and farm in the traditional way and their language is unique. They speak their own dialect.
South Kalimantan is yet another great example of Indonesians from different ethnic backgrounds and religions living together in harmony, reliant upon the land and the rivers for their survival, both physical and spiritual.
Kalimantan is a vast land for adventurers and travellers who wish to explore the Dayak culture, visit the many interesting villages, and meet with the unique tribes’ people who hold true to their ancient ways and beliefs.
Story & Photos by David Metcalf