How The aristocracy Tradition was unique by the Kayans

Aristocrat background

Aristocrat society (hipun uma or maren or keta’u) are politically dominant and allied with each other through closed marriage over an area . Kayans live in highly stratified societies. In the past, their wealth is in the form of gongs, beads, and jars. They control everything from the land, rules, right to demand, and judge the others. 

Within the village, each longhouse has a headman, who is an aristocrat. In villages having more than one longhouse, each of the longhouse headmen is also an aristocrat as headman.


During the era of the headhunting of Borneo, Kayan people were regarded as one of the most fierce rural people. 

They were the enemy of the other Borneo tribes like the Ibans, Kelabit, Berawan, Lakiput, and so on. In those days killings were regarded as the most valuable jobs to gain reputation and adored by the ladies. 

kayanBefore getting married, the guy must prove himself that he is worthy by having at least one head in his record. When the men came back from the “kebitang” with enemies’ head and “salut”( POW), the ladies performed the special dance “sang Kayau” to commemorate the occasion. 

The celebration goes on for days with rituals performed by the village shamans.  It was believed that POWs were given to the Maren as proof of their honour to the Maren.


Kayan TatooHow the Maren or the Aristocrat came about was not really known now. Was it because it’s sensitive and controversial the prevent the historical background to be known?.

 Some writers in the 1800s mentioned that during the spice trade, Arabs were some of those traders in those times in Borneo notably current Indonesia’s Kalimantan. 

One of those Arabs traders was a Prince who fell in love with a Kayan lady in Batang Kayan who later became the Queen for the Kayans. He set many rules to advocate for them. His generations were scattered then.

What is the Proof inheriting Aristocrat.

If that was true, whoever claims that they are Maren should have an Arab blood DNA.  There were claims that one such “Queen” named Ubong was residing in Long Laput, a Kayan longhouse in the middle Baram river in Sarawak.

Complication among them

Let me describe some problems faced by the Kayan people now which may differ from longhouse to house. NO doubt, Kayan longhouses are scattered in Borneo and have many different types of policies or rules.

One of the foremost problems now is that there are so many claims to be from the “Maren” societies. But how many “Marens”  are actually “The Maren”.  

These are the Hipui society who were either the generations of the second wives of the Maren in the past. That’s bad, isn’t it !. That’s bad in today’s religious society to be involved in polygamy.  

Those who claim to be the Maren, are supposed to be ashamed because of these old customs. When so many Marens are around, it’s just like having so many cooks to make a soup.

The next problem is the “mahap” or the “must to do with” is a social obligation when come to help the Maren to do certain jobs at no cost.  “Mahap” is actually a social obligation by the “panyin”  to engage himself/herself with any tasks or jobs, like farming, building a house just for the “Maren”. 

In this aspect, the “Maren” has the biggest farmland and house for that respective village. They became lazier and not skillful. Some panyin even complained that they were not properly looking after their welfare.

While in some areas until now, the Maren claimed to be the legal owner of the panyin farmland and the panyin basically owned nothing in asset terms. In other areas, this system is not practiced at all.

The rule of the finger also applies when come to selecting who should lead the village after the “Maren” is dead when the descendant has no male. This is when the “hipui” group try out and lobby among the “panyin”  to conclude who shall be the next headman.  

The hipui later forget that there was actually grandson of the late Maren who shall later be the next Maren as headman. This also happens today.

In some places, the “Marens” displayed their power by preventing or approving development for his villages. If things turn lucrative, it’s the “Marens” who have exclusive rights. Within that perspective they are doing corruption practices without knowing it.

aristocracy greed

Transitional Era Kayan Aristocrat

The  “Marens” were the ones who get exposed to the outside world first due to their proxy with their peers and relationship with the government in the past. Their children were the ones who get first education. 

If the “Maren” can’t afford to support the children’s tuition fees, they seek help or assistant from the “panyins” and even up to the extend of other villages.  

Some of the “panyin” who can afford to foresee their children’s future also send their children to school.  This results in more educated “panyins” than the “Marens”( panyins numbers are the largest in any longhouse). 

Things became sour when the educated children of the “panyins” try to disseminate their knowledge to their villagers. The “Marens” and the “hipui” object to the ideas on spot with no reason. 

It is just that the “Maren” has overall power!.  This scenario carries on until the present era.


aristocracyObjection to the “panyins” by the “Maren” and the “Hipui” have a bad impact on the socio development of the longhouse. It hinders the socio-economic progress of the longhouses. The “panyins” are hard-working peoples compare to the “Marens”. So many claims by peoples from each longhouse to be a descendant of the “Maren”. So what?. Can’t even identify themselves as “hipui”. Actually they are hipui. There may be a real “Maren” somewhere but “ hipui” are seen everywhere. Its another product of the Aristocrat society.

To me, the so-called “Maren” have been lost because their forefather failed to legalized and recognized the actual “torch runner” for the ”Maren”. So the “hipui” are the actual problems of today’s Kayans society. They have inner fighting for power in the longhouse. They created confusion among society. They don’t support any “panyin” even how educated he/she is to be the village headman/woman. Often looked down on the ”panyin”.

I myself a hipui ( some say that I was a Maren descendant) feel ashamed because of the practices of polygamy by my forefather whoever he was. But some claimed to be “Marens” are very proud of themselves. That is a complete mess-up.


My grandfather was an excellent blacksmith who make spear, machetes, and knives. As a kid I used to help him when I was 3-4 years old blowing his glowing red charcoal to heat his metal using bamboo. 

In those days i have no idea how he got those metal in such remote places. No machineries in those time. Someone told me and I came to know that the Kayans did actually have our own iron called “ tetai keluh “.  This was locally called besi Kayan in the past. 

My uncle once told me that this “tetai keluh” was obtained from the river banks.  Said to be in the form of a hardened paste or soft rock. Things created from this “tetai keluh” were said to be very poisonous.  

How they made the metal have no known procedures. I think they do it like a normal procedure of creating an iron bar. Put it in between layers of charcoal and burn it red hot to separate the iron. Even in its soft form, it can cut cast iron. 

keluhThere was a story during those headhunting times. Whenever the enemy knew that the Kayans were coming, they just run away and hide. They knew that their weapons were of no match to the Kayans “tetai keluh”.


Social Lifes.

Kayans “marens” used to marry within their own classes from other longhouses.  Marriage among commoners or the “panyins”  is often within the longhouse community, and first-cousin marriage is prohibited. There is no bar to first-cousin marriage The dowry for marriage is in forms of gongs and beads which depends very much on their class. 

Even now, the “hipui” demands this dowry. Some “panyins” also do the same because they believe that they are also descendants of the ”marens” so and so. An aristocrat male marries first an aristocrat female; after this, he is free to marry polygynous a woman from any class. 

SO whenever you visit any kayan longhouse in the old days people always ask where is the Tua kampong (notable a Maren class) but now you may bump into a wrong Tua kampong (non Maren) that is a hipui.


Kayan stratified society created by the Aristocrat system created socio-economic problems for their longhouses. Disbelief, worthiness, trust, greed by the claimant of Marens  hinders progress of the any longhouses into the modern society whereby “everybody is created equal despite colors, rank, races-Martin Luther”.

There are many “hipui” but there should be only one “Maren” for the whole Kayan Tribe in Borneo. But where is he? There can not be so many “Marens”. 

These are the two Kayan traditions that have been lost because of the “trust” and greed of our forefathers. The kayan “tetai keluh” process and the “Maren” strata society.

In reality, this Aristocrat system was only created lately by greed of few relatives. Believe me! It seem to follow the British monarchy in a very thin doted line. That is because there is no good record of blood lines.

By the way Kayan used to lived upriver where dangerous river rapids exist and majority are now in the concrete jungle.


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