A Note on Luta, An Immortal Man (by Linda Christanty)

Posted in Fiction by Linda Christanty on 02/28/2015

Helmut Herzog, a German anthropologist, had shown the picture of this man to me three years ago. At the time Helmut was studying immortal men. He went to various places in Kalimantan for two months to collect stories about them.


The man in that picture was smiling broadly as he crouched holding a chicken. Helmut had met him once and then returned to Germany for the summer holiday. But he didn’t go back to Indonesia. He wrote me an email, saying, among other things, that he had met his college sweetheart and fallen in love again, and they had decided to build a family. He asked me to continue his research and gave me contacts to help me meet those immortal men. I didn’t fulfil Helmut’s request immediately as I was busy studying poisonous plates in Aceh.

On 17 September 2012, I went to Kalimantan. I decided to search for the man in the picture, someone who had at least met Helmut and understood the goal of this research. Luta, that was the man’s name, apparently no longer lived in the same place. I was quite desperate until a young man of the Meratus tribe knew Luta’s new abode and was willing to take me and an interpreter there.

When we met, I told him Helmut said hello. This Iban man was about 160 cm tall and skinny. His arms and legs, chest and back were covered in blue and green tattoos. In this plantation he lived with seventeen tigers, that is three adults, two females and a male, and fourteen cubs. Those tigers came from Sumatra, the Sarawak border and Riau Island. He had them flown from those places. Before moving with his house and seventeen tigers to Kuala Kapuas, he lived on Meratus Mountain. He said he had just moved in the week before, by flying. Sometimes he rode a golden Garuda inherited from his father to go to other islands or to cross the sea by himself. He preferred to ride a white tiger to travel on land.

Several tigers roamed around his yard that morning. They seemed to be oblivious to Luta’s guests. I was actually afraid and trying to hide my emotions. Luta suddenly said, “These tigers are tame.”

Luta was three hundred and fifty years old. He only ate once a year in a ceremony. He ate lemang, the glutinous rice cooked in bamboo for offerings. His religion was Hindu-Kaharingan. This latter word means “life”. Hindu-Kaharingan adherents praise Sanghyang Jagat Dewa Bhatara and believe that they are the direct descendants of Bhatari Maluja Bulan and Sanghyang Babariang Langit, or Mother Moon and Father Sky.

Luta lived eternally to keep his people from extinction. He had meditated for thirty years for that. Those who failed in their meditation immediately died. Luta had three friends of the same persuasion: Datu Pasir, Datu Kutai and Panglima Burung, whom he called brothers.

Panglima Burung was the oldest of the four of them, eight hundred years old. He used to be about three metres tall, but had turned into a man of Luta’s height, 160 cm. In this time and age, a body too tall will scare people, Luta said, repeating Panglima Burung’s words about his changed height. This brother of his was tending a field on an island, Luta added, without saying where the island was. Luta wasn’t sure whether Panglima Burung was willing to be interviewed by me.

While we were conversing, Luta suddenly pointed to the wooden floor and said, “This is Datu Pasir.” A small skink was crawling there.

Helmut had never met Datu Pasir. I was pretty lucky to meet this best friend of Luta’s. He was willing to be interviewed, Luta said. He would morph into a human being again to answer my questions.

Luta’s mother too was immortal, and so was his brother, Menoa. Both of them today lived in a village of Kenyah people. His mother was fluent in the Kenyah language and only spoke Iban when she met Luta. Menoa was the tribal chief there. According to Luta, his mother was mandiwata: she had become a goddess. Like most Iban women, she had long ears with metal rings hanging from the lobes. Her strength had diminished and her body was dissolving. Luta had to hold a bebalian, a ceremony, so that her mother could have a tangible body again. He also diligently burned incense for her. Its aromatic smoke wafted all the way through the Kenyah village. His mother was delighted. When he wanted to see her, he simply materialised in the village. He didn’t transform into any other creature.

Some of his acquaintances turned into skinks, birds, squirrels, zephyrs or golden jars. His teacher, a powerful balian, or shaman, called Datu Garuhuk, always morphed into a dry twig. Datu Garuhuk lived inside a cave on Mount Bondang. He was the king of all ghosts and had tens of thousands of black-art soldiers. He was five thousand years old.

Luta had another immortal best friend, Datu Papua. They had met as Luta was meditating on Mount Jaya. Datu Papua once offered to fly a pair of tigers from the Riau jungle to the courtyard in front of Luta’s house on Mount Meratus. But those two tigers were too heavy for Datu Papua, who finally gave up. Luta understood. He was worried too that those tigers would fall from the sky all of a sudden and crash onto men working in the plantation or rowing boats on the canal just because Datu Papua couldn’t carry them in the air. He didn’t want either to see the tigers fall on a bustling market or a government office in the middle of a town, creating tumult.

Eventually Panglima Burung helped him. Not only by moving that pair of adult tigers, but also by hauling fourteen cubs and a tiger mother from the Sumatra jungle and the Serawak border. Luta wanted to give all the tigers to Harimau Garang, the grandchild of Datuk Tingkas, the king of tiger-men in Sumatra. He had run into Harimau Garang in the jungle by accident. That young man was on his way to Sarawak, fleeing from the police for a crime he didn’t commit.

Luta told me that Harimau Garang by now was in Malacca. He gave Luta a cell phone so they could communicate easily. A young man from the Ngaju tribe had taught him how to use it.

At night Luta took all the cubs to sleep with him. But when he was awake not a single tiger was there around him. The cubs left the house before daybreak. They actually can’t stand man’s smell, Luta said. The three adult tigers preferred to sit under the house or take a nap in the daytime. The fourteen cubs loved to play and bathe in the river. One of them was rather different from the rest. Its ability surprised Luta. The little fellow nimbly leapt at a fish in the river then dragged it, almost as big as itself, to its siblings so they could eat it together. This cub had brighter fur than the others, shining like gold.

Luta left home when he was eleven and never returned there, never saw his mother again, and living on his own hadn’t been easy. It was at that age that he had joined a war and practised headhunting for the first time. Afterwards, he was tattooed and received the title of bujang barani, brave bachelor. Headhunting and travelling were important traditions for Iban men, although headhunting is no longer done today.

In the 19th century the Dutch colonial government forbade Dayak tribes to headhunt. Though headhunting only happened among the tribes, with Dayaks as targets, the colonial government was worried lest the tradition spread and white people became targets as well. Quite a few soldiers and priests were victims indeed. According to a memo of the anthropologist Jan van Kampen, hunting for white people’s heads was actually a way to strike against the colonialists. The priests, who had nothing to do with the colonial administration, were considered colonial accomp-lices because of their skin colour. However, headhunting was also detrimental to the Dayaks. Those tribes were threatened with extinction if the tradition continued. When one tribe lost ten of their men they had to headhunt for ten men of the enemy tribe…

In history, Iban men also pirated. In the 18th century, Sulu people taught them how to pirate after failing to conquer them. At first Ibans were on board the ships of Sulu pirates but later they made their own fleet and sailed to the Gulf of Tonkin, to Siam and to India.

By the time he was twenty, Luta had chopped off two hundred enemies and received the title of pamegen. The spirits of those enemies, according to his belief, would serve as slaves in the next world, or jipen. His father’s grandfather was the greatest pamegen, the one who had decapitated King Mempawah, the ally of Mahapatih Gajah Mada in a war in Siam.

Majapahit was a large kingdom then. Its fleet ruled the coasts and waters of Siam while the Siamese ruled only the cities. The Kingdom of Siam and all the coastal states had to pay tributes to Majapahit so they wouldn’t be robbed in their own territories. From the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Tonkin and further to the South China Sea, that strongest fleet ruled Southeast Asia.

Majapahit also conquered the Kutai Martadipura kingdom in Muara Kaman. Rather than surrender, many fled inland. Luta didn’t experience this. He wasn’t born yet. But several centuries later, bumburayas, creatures that ate human and animal corpses, threatened the lives of people in many places on the island. A typical bumburaya was three metres tall, stocky, swarthy, and with thick hairs all over his body each as big as a thumb. He could morph into a dog or a buffalo, carrying a salipang – a rattan basket in which he kept a weapon such as a machete, as well as herbs and amulets.

According to Luta, his people and he didn’t mind living side by side with ghosts. They were accustomed to interacting with any kind of ghost. But the bumburayas weren’t just like any ghosts. Ghosts of this kind didn’t want to live alongside human beings; they wanted to establish a ghost land. They destroyed worship halls and built houses in forbidden jungles, including in the first settlement of the ancestors of people with tattoos and long earlobes, Datah Otap. They had their own god, which was worshipped by buzzing. The buzzing made animals fall sick, dead or barren. Many trees collapsed. Rivers went dry.

Information about bumburayas was first provided at the end of the 19th century by a Dutch colonel who liked to walk outside his fort in Kuala Kapuas. The anthropologist Christopher Otten reported on bumburayas as “creatures of unknown origin”.

Bumburayas eventually killed human beings. They attacked pregnant women in the jungle. They took out the foetuses and ate them. Later on bumburayas hunted down pregnant women to feast on their foetuses. The tribal chiefs started to become angry. They agreed to do something. Panimba Sagara, Pembelah Batung, Garuntung Manau and Garuntung Waluh were the main tribal chiefs who proposed to hold an important ceremony. Admirals, generals and ordinary folk convened in a worship hall to carry out bedarak begelak, feeding the spirits of animals, humans and genies so that all of them fight against bumburayas together. Kamang Tariu would raise the fiercest mystical army.

The great hall was built on a patch of tassel land, a land of potency. Strange things happened in this kind of land, such as a snake failing to bite even when stepped on or a mosquito landing on your skin and not deigning to bite it.

To confront the ghosts, other ceremonies were also held. Deceased admirals were called upon the realm of human beings. This great bebalian would make them reappear. When a leader or an admiral died, his corpse would be laid down on a two-and-a-half-metre-tall wooden bench and covered with a cloth. Beneath the corpse a big kettle, or tajau, was placed. Incense was burned. The smoke touched the corpse. The flesh started to melt then dripped to the tajau. This fluid from the corpse would later be mixed with yellow coconut oil and other ingredients, and preserved as the sacred oil of the tribe. Whenever there was a big war, the tribe held a bebalian again to revive the leaders. They would materialise as humans to lead armies of humans and mystical creatures to defeat enemies. There were various offerings in the ceremony, such as buffalos, pigs, dogs, chickens and lemang.

The pole to hang the ceremonial accessories in the worship hall was made of pulantan wood. This pole couldn’t be made with any other wood. The leaders once held a contest to make the pole. Luta remembered that Marubai, a king of Malawi, was one of the contestants. He was famous for his power. But Luta wasn’t afraid. He immediately had a block of pulantan wood with a diameter of one metre flown from the Sarawak jungle and then had it set straight as a pole. In a normal situation, pulantan wood of this size could have only been carried by a hundred men. That was the largest block of wood his folk had ever seen.

The pulantan pole symbolised batang karing, the tree of life. In Luta’s ancestors’ belief, the tree was the origin of life. Gold, rocks, human beings, all that existed on Earth came from one tree. Not every tribe had a worship hall, though they shared the belief in the tree of life. Two hundred years earlier Luta had built a worship hall for the Meratus. Since then the tribe had been familiar with a worship hall. Luta had also been the chief of the Meratus at one time. As a real Iban, he always travelled. Wherever he went he was revered or made chief.

The bumburayas then came face to face with the armies of humans and mystical creatures. They lost and withdrew further inland. Luta slaughtered a thousand ghosts during that battle. Sometimes people reported catching glimpses of bumburayas in the jungle after the war ended. But the ghosts didn’t dare to get near men.

Immortal man has one problem only: eternal loneliness. Having a best friend is crucial for a life that lasts until the end of time. Most immortal men, according to Luta, put themselves in exile from the populace and lead their lives as hermits. Luta wasn’t like that. He took delight in meeting people of many places and in helping solve their problems. He had five foster children who helped him take care of the cubs.

Not long ago, however, one dream had disturbed him repeatedly. In that dream, he saw a giant bird standing in front of him. When he looked up, on the back of that bird was a man sitting with a spear in one hand and a harness in the other. Suddenly he heard a familiar battle cry. He saw giant birds advancing behind this leader. The riders were red-skinned men, like him. Black men wearing leopard skins faced the bird troop with spears and shields. But quickly they tumbled and lay on the ground once spears had stabbed their chests. The red-skinned soldiers deftly jumped off the backs of the birds, made for those dying bodies and chopped off their heads with their swords.

Luta had gone to an oracle to find out the meaning of that dream. The oracle opened tusut, the sacred book about the origins of the Iban people, including the first datuk and wars of yore. But the oracle didn’t find any story that matched Luta’s dream. The event must have been older than what had been written.

The oracle, an intermediate between the realm of men and the realm of spirits having knowledge of the past and the future, started to find the answer through another way. He entered the realm of spirits. According to him, they were Luta’s ancestors, the conquerors of Hujung Wulangga, the birth land of Pao Janggi. Hujung Wulangga meant Madagascar.

In the first century, Dayak people had sailed the sea to the west over tens of thousands of kilometres and had colonised and occupied the most important island at the east of Africa, which we know as Madagascar. They founded the Kingdom of Merina, mined the land profusely and paid respects to the alligator, a Malay tradition. These people held sway in Madagascar until they were defeated by the French as a modern Western imperialist power on the threshold of the 20th century.

The latest fact shows that people with long ears on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean originated from the Indonesian archipelago.

The giant birds in Luta’s dream were ancient fowl that lived in Madagascar, known as Aepyornis maximus. The British called them elephant birds. They could be up to three metres tall and weigh up to 400 kg; their eggs were one hundred and sixty times the size of a chicken egg. Those birds were last seen in the 17th century. The cause of their extinction is not known. H.G. Wells wrote a short story entitled “Aepyornis Island” which was inspired by this, the largest bird in history.

Luta planned to go to Madagascar but he would not carry his house and all his tigers. He would only look around the place. “Maybe Datu Pasir will come along,” he said, watching the skink crawling on the floor. They would fly there.

Jakarta, 2013

*) Translated by Dini Andarnuswari. Edited by Marcel Barang.




Linda Christanty is an author and journalist. Her writing has been recognized by various awards including the national literary award in Indonesia (Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2004 and 2010), award from the Language Center of the Ministry of National Education (2010 and 2013), and The Best Short Stories version by Kompas daily (1989). Her essay "Militarism and Violence in East Timor" won a Human Rights Award for Best Essay in 1998. She has also written script for plays on conflict, disaster and peace transformation in Aceh. It was performed in the World P.E.N Forum (P.E.N Japan and P.E.N International Forum) in Tokyo, Japan (2008). She received the Southeast Asian writers award, S.E.A Write Award, in 2013.

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