Mon, 08 Nov 1999

Dayak rituals drink in meaning of 'tuak'

By Yetie M.G. Tamen

PONTIANAK, West Kalimantan (JP): The majority of the Dayak subethnic group in West Kalimantan consider tuak, its local alcoholic beverage, a drink with cultural and highly social values.

It is therefore not surprising that in a traditional ceremony, be it a wedding, a rice harvest, a death, a circumcision or other ritual, tuak is always served.

"The Dayak community knows tuak as a cultural drink. It is presented as an offering at traditional ceremonies," says Andreas Deka, a researcher on oral tradition in West Kalimantan.

The way of drinking tuak differs from one place to another. There are people who drink it together from a tempayan (large jar). Others consume the drink individually from a bamboo container or a glass.

Andreas, 53, says that the essence of tuak is life itself. "There is life and death, there is day and night, there is woman and man, there is food and drink. For the Dayak, the drink is tuak." That is his analogy.

Tuak as a cultural drink is strongly rooted in the Dayak communities of the regencies of Ketapang, Sintang, Kapuas Hulu, Sanggau, Bengkayang and Sambas.

There are various types of tuak. Each subethnic Dayak group proceeds in its own way and uses different raw material in making the drink.

The most common ingredient for making tuak is glutinous rice. However, other material such as rice, ubi (sweet potatoes), tebu senjoli (a kind of bulgur) and fruits can also be used.

Generally, tuak does not cause drunkenness except when the drink has been stored for a long time. Then it is called tajok. Unfortunately, sometimes people make use of a traditional ceremony to get drunk.

Andreas rejects the opinion of some people that tuak is an intoxicating drink that may shorten a man's life.

"Formerly, the life expectancy of many Dayak was more than 100 years old. If people get drunk, it is because they drink excessively. Now with many prohibitions and the community's knowledge of health, the age of the average villager has declined to 50 years," Andreas said.

On the other hand, a health analyst, Corry said that drinking a large quantity of tuak can cause heartburn. Many inhabitants in her village suffer from coughs because they drink too often or too much tuak.

"Because tuak is not strong enough (its alcoholic content is not too high) some people distill it further to make white wine. This white wine can damage the nerves and cause heartburn," Corry says. However, until now, no laboratory research has ever been made on the alcoholic content of tuak.

The taste of tuak varies: sweet, sour, bitter and hot, or a combination of them all. The taste is determined by the process of distillation.

Although the Dayak cannot be easily separated from tuak, not all of them, especially the younger generation, know how to make the beverage.

In short, cooked rice is cooled and yeast is put on it, and then placed in a container protected from air for a smooth process of fermentation. The container is tightly closed. After one month, the mixture becomes watery tapai (fermented rice). It is this water that is called tuak.

There are a few prohibitions to remember before starting the process. First, women having their menstrual cycle are not allowed to make tuak. Second, if a relative (especially a sibling) has died, people are forbidden to make tuak. If these directions are violated the product will be bad for sure. Tuak will show some mucus and its taste will certainly be below expectation.

Meanwhile, many Dayak are concerned that the tuak tradition will vanish from their life's rituals.

This concern is well-founded with the coming of religious values that forbid all things smelling of alcohol.

The reality is the paddy variety that is good for making quality tuak is becoming harder to obtain with the reduction of good soil for this type of paddy and this has contributed to the concern.

Sunarti, a housewife, 28, hopes that the tradition of tuak will continue. "There is tuak at every ceremony. Our elders say there must be tuak at each offering, so we must obey them," she said.

Benyamin Efreim, 25, a graduate of ethnomusicology at the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI) in Yogyakarta, has expressed worry that the tuak tradition, which identifies the Dayak, will vanish.

"I am worried that if this drink becomes extinct, the Dayak culture will vanish. I cannot imagine what the situation will be if there is no more tuak. The values of togetherness, harmony and solidarity in the Dayak will also disappear," he says philosophically.

Actually, tuak itself has become the symbol of the sacredness of life for the Dayak. A number of community figures well-versed in custom link tuak with an homage to the paddy and rice which is seen as life itself. The traditional Dayak society considers the paddy as having a soul. Therefore, it stands to reason to treat it in a special and respectful way. Rice is the main raw material for tuak.

The sacred value of the beverage is so high that many people believe a traditional ceremony will fail if tuak has no part in it.

Theresia Game, a Dayak of Kayaan Mendalam, a subethnic Dayak group mostly residing in Putussibau, 400 kilometers from Pontianak, was a witness to the sacredness of tuak when her dance group participated in a competition in the city.

"At the time, we forgot to include tuak in the offering when our dance group was to make the pelangkah (a custom for certain activities, distant travel and ritual ceremonies). The priest leading the ceremony reminded us about it, but since tuak is difficult to obtain in urban areas, we were compelled to go on without tuak. The result was ... we lost," said Game.

It is certainly not easy to believe Game's story that the defeat of her dance group was due to the absence of tuak in the pelangkah ceremony, but, whether you like it or not, that is one of the values that people still adhere to in the Dayak community in West Kalimantan.