Palang – penis piercing

Rituals of Life: Researching the History of Body Piercing by Paul King no.2 The App-Pallang


This article will be on the horizontal or vertical piercing of the Glans of the penis. 


In Sulawesi it was called Kambi or Kambiong, in the Philippines, Tugbuk. In southern Borneo it was called Kaleng, and while the Kenyah called it Aja, the Kayan called it Uttang or Oettang. A few anthropologists made the Iban’s name for it the most famous; Palang or Ampallang. An Indian scholar gives a description of it and calls it Apadravya. First of all, the reader will come to know that what we have called the Ampallang and the Apadravya piercings are, historically, one and the same. This article will cover origin, practices and mythology around this very extreme and ancient piercing.


As to the exact origin of this piercing, no one knows. Scholars have devoted their careers to dissecting trade patterns, in particular in South and South-East Asia. The complexities of trade influence over time can most simply be described as the overlapping of cultures, like waves crossing from different directions. Based on knowledge that all known occurrences of this custom are recorded on the same trade routes and the intense nature of the piercing and healing the Glans of the penis, one can safely deduce that this piercing custom did not spontaneously originate in various locations, but was shared.


The only known reference of the Apadravya is the 6th century Kama Sutra. I know of no other mention or art depictions of the piercing in India. If the practice survived until substantial European contact, in the 17th century, then surely there would have been some recording. One can only speculate that this piercing was probably neither widespread nor lasting in the Indian culture.


According to Vatsyayana, the author of the Kama Sutra, Apadravyas are any one of a number of devices which a man “puts on or around the lingam (penis) to supplement its length or its thickness, so as to fit into the yoni (vagina). “The people of the southern countries think that true sexual pleasure can not be obtained without perforating the lingam, and they therefore cause it to be pierced…now when a young man perforates his lingam he should pierce it with a sharp instrument, and then stand in water as long as blood continues to flow. At night he should engage in sexual intercourse, even with vigor, so as to clean the hole. After this he should continue to wash the hole with decoctions and increase the size by putting into it small pieces of cane…and thus gradually enlarging it.” There should be some debate on the definition of the term “southern countries” used in the Kama Sutra, it could mean Southern India or it could mean South-East Asia. If it means South-East Asia, again this would argue that the origins of the piercing are probably not India.


The first known depiction is on a bronze dog from South-East Asia, 4th century. The earliest record in European literature of the piercing on a man is from 1588. The explorer, Cavendish, is said to have been to the island of Capul (Philippines), “Every man has a nayle (nail) of Tynne (Tin) thrust quite through the head of his private part (Glans of the penis)…”*


The the Indian culture was extremely prolific, there is another good argument against Indian origins. Statuary predating Hindu influence in Bali depict possible penile piercings. One anthropologist has cited the visual influence of indigenous certain rodents and the rhinoceros on the island of Borneo, that naturally have barbed penises, as the origin of inspiration for the piercing.*


The only traditional practice of this piercing still known to exist is on Borneo. The Kayan people are believed to be the oldest practitioners of the Palang. All current tribes practicing the Palang give credit to the Kayan. This is interesting since they are inland and considered by anthropologists as the most isolated adn oldest inhabitants. Current history dates the Palang to other tribes only about 100 years.*


Just as interesting as the mysterious origins are the variations of materials, practice and mythology around this extreme piercing.


Other than the mention in the Kama Sutra, the oldest accounts of this piercing come from the Philippines. Popular in the Philippines, was a device called Sakra (believed to be a derivative of the Indian Sanskrit word Chakra-a center of force and energy). The apparatus could be a round wheel with projecting points (like a spur held in place by the pin), stars, rings, fine twisted wire, pig bristles, bamboo shavings, seeds, horn, coral, agate, hornbill ivory, beads, broken glass, and in one case an object that looked like a snake head. Quills were used as nonfunctional retainers.  The early explanations from the Codex say the woman insisted upon [the piercings] to discourage the men from sodomy. The Spanish quickly set about eradicating the behavior…” a custom invented by the devil…”*


 Certainly the greatest volume of documentation for this piercing is from the Borneo. The Iban would sometimes tattoo a rosette or sometimes a fishhook to show they had a Palang. Palang in Iban means “cross or cross bar.” The Pins would be made of gold or brass.  Often a bushing (sleeve insert to reduce friction) was in place and the pin could be removed as desired.* Sometimes up to 3 Palangs would be worn at a time.* The Iban also refer to the Ampallang asBurah Palang or Tanduh Duri, which translates as spout thorn or point. The ends of the pin could be smooth or maybe “little pins, coins discs, brushes, rings/rowels.”*


On Borneo and Sulawesi a splint is used to hold the penis for the actual piercing procedure. It varies in length from several inches to a foot, approximately a 1/2” thickness with a hole in both sides.* The slats are placed on either side of the penis and then tightly secured, flattening out the penis. After sufficient time has past for the lack of blood and cold water to decrease sensation, the penis is pierced.* Sometimes a Pigeon’s feather anointed with oil, taken out and freshened each day. The piercing takes about a month to heal. The word Ampallang is the name given the device inserted into the piercing.*


There are many myths of origin for this piercing. The Kayan say, a woman complained of a man’s penis size, saying it was no better than a rolled leaf used to giver herself satisfaction… the insulted man ran off into the woods and pierced it himself. The Kelabit say, a visiting Kayan warrior used his piercing on a woman, causing her death, but she was so satisfied the Kelabit continued the practice.* “The lady had various ways of indicating the size of the Ampallangdesired. She might hide in her husband’s plate of rice a Betel leaf rolled about a cigarette, or with the fingers of her right hand placed between her teeth she will find the measure of the one she aspires. The Dayak women have a right to insist upon the Ampallang and if the man does not consent they may seek separation. They say the embrace without this contrivance is plain rice; with it is rice with salt.”*


In the mid 1970’s, Doug Malloy labeled the vertical piercing of the Glans as “Apadravya” and horizontal as “Ampallang.” Doug passed this folklore onto Jim Ward, founder of Gauntlet and editor of Piercing Fans International Quarterly.* For posterity it’s important that the piercing community knows the historical origins, however, continuing the practice of differentiating the same piercing as two, honors our own Western traditions.


*Male Infibulation,  by John Dingwall


* Tom Harrison is an anthropologist from the 1950’s and 60’s. He wrote several articles, a book and collected artifacts on the Palang, for the Sarawak Museum, Kuching, Malaysia. This author was able to go there and obtain photocopies of his work.


* Tom Harrison


* The Penis Inserts of Southeast Asia, Donald E. Brown, James W. Edwards, and Ruth P. Moore


* The Sexual Relations of Mankind, (SRM) (per researcher Von Graffin), by Montegazza


* A Stroll through Borneo, by James Barclay


* Tom Harrison


* (Kayan- Ketip Utang widespread Borneo called Katiputan Iban called Selong, if left in place as a retainer, its called a semong)- Tom Harrison.


* SRM, states, they will sometimes leave the device on for 8 to 10 days. (?!) An Iban personally told this author, “2-3 hours”.




* Tom Harrison




* per telephone conversation with Jim Ward, August 3, 2002.





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