Toady, many Punan especially those found along the Rejang river still practicing the traditional religious beliefs called Bungan and other forms of ancient religious worship. However those who had migrated to towns and cities had converted to Christianity and a tiny fraction become Muslim via inter-marriages with Muslim peoples. The Punan community at Pandan for example is now largely a Christian community who no longer celebrating ‘Bungan’ or ‘Gawai’ festival as other Punan community does.
Traditional Punan Religious Beliefs
Punan traditional religion or adet beyok were elaborate and complex. They contain well-developed cosmologies, profuse mythologies, and imaginative theories of creation and ideas about the natural order.
The religion features a pantheon of deities many of whom are conceived of anthropomorphically. There is often a supreme being like the Kavuk Oka and Kavuk Uka, perhaps also consort for the supreme being, and an assemblage of patron deities associated with a variety of day-to-day activities.
More often than not, there are in addition many complicated rituals and public ceremonies, sometimes conducted by specialized practitioners or ayok savik.
The arrival of Bungan religion propagated by Jok Apui as recently as 1950s, seeing certain aspects of adet beyok being abridged, trimmed-down, or made into “portable” version of those adhered to and practiced by their ancestors. The Punan have, in effect, extracted the once complex and elaborate beyok religious systems the bare utilitarian essence needed to provide a supportive ideology for their relatively simplified new way of life.
They have, as it were, left behind such cumbersome and unwieldy elements as agricultural rituals, feasts that go on for days and nights, and cosmologies taking hours to recite properly, and have brought away with them instead one special aspect of the old beyok religion that is perhaps uniquely suited to the rough exigencies of nomadic hunting and gathering, namely bird omenology or janei beyok.
Janei beyok (or spirit bird) belief system
Beyok religious beliefs revolve mainly around omens gleaned from the flight patterns of birds. Each and every Punan group possesses a small pantheon or beyok of certain birds that are believed to be able to communicate with human beings. They do this by flying overhead in a precise manner and by issuing various meaningful calls.
A Punan entering the deep forest to hunt game or seek jungle products watches and listen for advice. A certain bird flying overhead toward the left is a bad sign, informing him that the path he is taking is either devoid of game or fraught with danger. If the bird, however, flies overhead toward right, this is a good sign that indicates that the presently trodden pat is safe and will lead the man toward game and the jungle products he is seeking.
Most of the spirit birds within the pantheon of any Punan group issue two or more variant calls. A bird has what is described as a good call and a jetei or coarse, bad call. Good calls are interpreted as auspicious indications of imminent success; bad calls are warnings of impending danger or failure. The plethora of calls hear in the forest from the various spirit birds bear a variety of messages for those who know how to interpret them.
A call from one bird tells a man to halt for a day or two to make camp at his present location. Another advises that pigs will be plentiful if the man veers off toward the left. The call of another bird may warn him of danger at the spot where he is resting, while another forecasts a chance encounter with a seldom-met friend. Certain calls signify a crisis back at the camp, directing the hunter to return home at once.
As the Punan explain it, the calls and flight-signs of their spirit birds are simply a matter of friends helping friends. Punan regard these birds with fondness and respect. Most groups will not hunt or harm their special birds under any circumstances. The birds are seen as invariably helpful and concerned of the well-being of their human friends.
While many Punan have at present become nominal Christians or Muslims, depending upon the region in which they located, most, still retain varying degrees of belief in the spirit birds. They see no inherent logical conflict in this, and indeed perhaps there is none.
Many Punan groups, in addition to belief in spirit birds, also profess a belief associated with strange objects – for example stone strange formation – known as batu dong. Such stone often worship and sacrifices offered to appease bad spirit.