Legends Of Iban Handycrafts



The Legends Of Weaving…Courtesy of http://www.reocities.com/



The Legends Of Weaving


The Iban handycrafts include textile weaving, mat weaving, basket weaving, horn carving, iron smithing, silver working, wood carving, wall mural drawing and human tattooing. The pua kumbu, the hand-woven warp ikat textile of the Iban, represents the quintessence of Iban culture. It is, depending on the design, historical archive, a mythological or religious story or a personal tale. It is a statement about the soul of the weaver and her relationship with the spirits.

Throughout history, women have been inextricably associated with textile arts. No matter what materials are used, no matter what form of culture is referenced, their participation has remained constant in influencing, shaping and evolving numerous varied techniques. When one reviews historical and anthropological literature, this fact is seldom recognized or is relegated to rather insignificant cultural importance. Thus it is not surprising that although much has been written on Iban culture, emphasis has been on male dominated activities. As a result, very little research has been made into women’s contribution on the technical aspects of weaving, there has been little study of the pua kumbu in a cultural and social context. Discussion and ensuing interpretation of the symbolism has been limited to the study of individual motifs rather than examining the pua composition as a whole.

The first objective of this article is to appreciate the application of the technical, creative and artistic skills of the women, who are weavers and dyers, that signify the social values of Iban traditional society, the second is to examine the evaluation of a hierarchy of women’s status, identified through attainment of weaving skills and the third is to examine the traditions and related functions of the symbolic language of the textile design in the pua kumbu. Such information is important for a greater cultural understanding of Iban textile weaving.

As there is no written documentation of Iban cultural history, it is impossible to trace an accurate record of the origin and development of this textile tradition. History is best remembered through oral traditions passed from generation to generation in the form of pengap, timang, pantun, sabak and renong by the bards (lemambang) andbelian by shamans.

According to legend, some twenty-four generations ago, Singalang Burong, the God of War, taught his grandson; Surong Gunting the use of the most sacred of all the pua, the lebor api, after a period of warfare. The tradition was established that heads captured in war should be received ceremonially on this cloth, which has to be dyed a deep red colour, and was often woven using a special supplementary weft technique (sungkit). This pua was woven at Batu Gelong the longhouse abode of the goddesses of weaving, Kumang, Indai Abang, and Lullong, Indigo (tarum) and other plants used for dyeing were planted around the longhouse. Beyond the longhouse on the farm, cotton (taya), the most important crop next to padi, was planted.

The following sections of this article will discuss the basic technical skills required to make the pua kumbu.

In the old days before commercial thread was available, the Iban prepared the yarn form a locally grown cotton plant called taya (Gossypium sp). The taya was planted on a farm-fallow soon atter the hill padi was harvested. The taya plot is called empalai kasai.

After the cotton had been picked and the remains of the pericarp removed, it was dried in the sun for a few days. The raw cotton was then put through a gin (pemigi) to separate the seeds from the fibres.

After ginning, the cotton was threshed out on a mat with a cotton-beater (pemalu taya). The threshing of the cotton would always be done outside the longhouse on the shingle beach of the river (kerangan), for fear that this particular process would bring bad luck to the longhouse concerned. The cotton was threshed to form a flat mass ready for spinning.

The fibre was spun on a simple wheel called gasing which was turned by the right hand while the fibre was twisted with the left. The rotation of the spindle supplied the necessary twist to the drawn out fibre. The process was intermittent since each length of yarn had to be wound onto the spindle before another length was spun. When the spindle was full of thread, it was wound off into a ball or onto a separate piece of wood, ready for dyeing. It has been noted that Iban yarn is strong and the colours wear well.

The Iban have traditionally made use of a large number of plants to produce a wide range of rich beautiful dyes. It is the dyers’ ingenuity in making creative use of the different botanical resources available in their environment that has made Iban weavers renowned in this part of the world.

Many types of roots, bark and leaves may be used in addition to the three basic ingredients discussed below, in order to create the shades of colour desired by the individual dyer. Each dyer had her own special recipes, the details of which were a closely guarded secret. However, with natural dyes no two shades are exactly the same, and the results are sometimes not always to the dyer’s satisfaction. For my ancestors, who were I am told among the great weavers of the past, the dyeing process was laden with pitfalls, but little did they know that the chemical content vary depending on the chemicals in the soil and the condition of the dye producing plants. This unpredictability has created a whole folklore of beliefs and taboos which have evolved around the art of dyeing.

Engkudu (Morinda Citrifolia) This plant produces, in combination with other ingredients in a mordant bath, shades varying from vibrant red through to deep maroon and brown, depending on the skills of the dyer in combining and mixing all the ingredients. A skilled dyer will know the secret of achieving a deep red colour which will be woven into pua embun. Pua embun is highly prized and is recognized by its deep colour, and the distinctive smell of ginger and oil of the kepayang fruit (Pangium edule) both of which are respectively the most important mordant and preservative used in Iban weaving.

Engkerabai (Psychotria Virdiflora) The leaves of this shrub are mixed with lime. The yarn is soaked in this solution only there is no need to use a mordant bath. The resulting colour is a dull brown and the yarn used in this is made up into pua mata as distinct from the more prized pua embun.

Tarum (Marsdenia Tinctoria, Indigofera) The indigo producing plant used by the Iban grows wild, but may be cultivated near a longhouse. It grows as a shrub to a metre high. It has light feathery leaves which are collected, pounded, placed in a wooden trough, and soaked in water. To render the dye soluble in water, slaked lime (Kapur) is added to the solution. The yarn is completely submerged in the dye overnight, and then hung out to dry in the sun the following day. This drying process, after dipping, is necessary to oxidize the dye so as to form the indigo colour on the fibre.

Dyeing in the indigo solution (tarum) will produce black and different shades of blue. The parts of the pattern that are to be dyed blue are untied and exposed to the solution. Shades of blue-black are achieved when yarn that has been previously dyed in engkudu is exposed and dyed in indigo solution. Thus during this stage of dyeing with indigo (narum) two colours may result. A white colour in the pattern is the result of excluding the tied portions from the engkudu and tarum dyes.

The raw yarn is treated with mordant prior to dyeing. The basic utensils required are a wooden trough (dulang), a wooden mortar and pestel (lesong alu), and a small coconut shell cup (tachu).

All the ingredients, which usually include ginger, salt, and oil are finely pounded in a wooden mortar, then are carefully measured out – one coconut shell each, and put inside a wooden trough, where hot water is added; half-filling the wooden trough. The officiating master dyer (indu nakar indu gaar) and experienced weavers then plunge their hands into the mixture to stir the concoction. This is a test of their competence, and also offers them a chance to find an amulet (Pengaroh), which may miraculously appear in the mixture.

The yarn is dipped into the mixture, trodden with the feet, turned three times and it is then left in the bath for three days. During this time great care is taken to see that the yarn is well saturated. After the three days of soaking, the yarn is taken out and washed thoroughly in clear water, usually in a river. It is then stretched on a mat for twelve hours and afterwards hung on an upright frame and put on the outside platform (tanju) of the longhouse during the day time as well as at night for roughly sixteen days, so that the sun and dew may complete the process. Throughout, great care is taken to ensure that the yarn gets the right amount of sun, and that it does not get wet from the rain. This process of drying the yarn out in the sun during the day, and putting it on the outside platform (tanju) at night to be subjected to dew (ambun) is called ngembun ubong and the pua made from this yarn is called pua embun. The yarn is now ready for dyeing.

The ikat technique is one of the most widespread techniques of patterning cloth in this region. It is a process by which designs are dyed onto the threads prior to being woven. The ikat technique may be applied to either the warp or weft yarn, but the Iban only employ the warp ikat. The patterns are produced by excluding parts of the web from dye by tying them with a dried fibre from a leaf known as lemba (Curculigo villosa) which grows in great abundance on old cultivated fields or rubber gardens near longhouse. Beeswax is used to coat the lemba strips for strength and waterproofing. This work is highly complex requiring great skill.

Before the tying process is done, the thread is unwound and stretched in the weaving loom to ascertain the length of pua to be woven. This is usually done by two women who sit in front of a weaving frame and continuously pass between them two balls of thread placed in containers made of coconut shells, to prevent the threads from twisting. This process is called ngirit ubong, (literally ‘pulling the threads’). The threads are divided into strands of three to make one kayu, using two large rods (lidi).The threads are carefully counted to determine the number of kay used; this in turn would determine the pattern and the width of the pua.

The yarn is then taken out of the loom and fixed to the tying frame (tangga ubong), where another thread of a different colour is inserted into the divided strands (kayu ubong), to tighten them and to keep them in place. The large rods (lidi) are removed. A weaver then begins her tying process to create the desired pattern.

Using trips of ‘lemba’ coated with beeswax, the threads which are to remain white, or become black or blue, are tied, leaving the background part of the pattern exposed.

A set of weaving equipment (pereka tenun) consists of the following a warp beam (tendai), breast beam (rakup), beater-in (belia), heddle road (karap), shed stick(blabungan), two pairs of laze rods (lidi), back strap (sengkabit), spool and spool case (jengkuan).

Men, in the old days, would make the weaving equipment for the women in the family. Bamboo spool cases were lovingly carved with intricate designs, and the head of the beater (belia) might be carved with a special design. The weaving equipment would be a source of great pride to the men in the family.

The back strap loom has no rigid framework so that the warp beam can be set up in any part of the longhouse, wherever there are two convenient posts. The breast beam is attached to a back strap that goes round the weaver’s waist and so by a slight movement of her body she can manipulate the tension on the web. The warp is wrapped continuously round the warp and breast beams and the threads are prevented from becoming entangled by laze rods. When the odd numbered threads are first lifted, one rod is passed through, and then the evenly numbered threads are lifted and another rod is passed through the shed. The ends of each pair of laze rods are usually tied together by a cord. Rods are used at the beginning of the weaving to keep the warps evenly stretched. The raising of alternate warps or of groups of warps is effected by a shed stick and the single heddle to which one set of warp threads is fastened by loops or lashes. A sword-shaped beater is used to press home each pick of the weft, which is carried on a spool.

On removal from the loom, the unwoven warp threads are cut at each end between the upper and lower webs which have been tied together during dyeing. The upper and lower webs are identical pieces of cloth that are joined together along a selvedge with a lacing stitch to form a large blanket-sized textile called pua. There are generally one or two rows of coarse twining to give firmness and good weaving quality to the edges of the pua.

The secrets of making a pua kumbu are passed on from mother to daughter. In adolescence a young girl will begin to accumulate the knowledge and expertise in a process that will continue throughout her life. She will be guided through each stage from the preparation of the cotton yarn, the tying of threads, the dyeing process and the selection of a design. Each stage is circumscribed by ritual to appease the spirits. Her progress and ultimate success is dependent on a acceptance from the world of the spirits. As she develops her skills, she learns a larger lesson, that of establishing a relationship with the spirits through her art. If she fails in this relationship, by attempting a skill which she is not ready for, she will fall into a state of lifelessness (layu). This is because she has transgressed the boundaries of a naturally sequenced order sanctioned by the spirit world. Every woman fears and dreads such a fate as in such a condition she may fall physically or mentally ill, the only release being death.

Weaving is a means of evaluating status for women in the Iban community. A woman, depending on her use of dye, design and skill, will fit into a certain rank within the community. In order to be a master weaver, a women has to move up from rank to rank. To be successful, a woman has to have a tacit acceptance as an individual of a variety of spiritual agents as well as a creative understanding of the art of weaving. A good pua kumbu is not only a demonstration of her relative success in terms of knowledge and expertise but also the state of her soul. Even though Iban society has moved ahead and new ideas are replacing old beliefs and traditions in many respects, a pua kumbu is still valued by criteria of the important ritual and technical processes which determine the way it has been woven. The criteria for evaluating the status of weavers is discussed below.

The first category is for women who do not weave. They are ordinary housewives, who may not come from weaving families, and thus have not had the opportunity to learn. It may be difficult for them to accumulate wealth to pay for the services of a dyer, or to obtain designs. They may have scarce food resources, and all their time is taken up making sure there is enough food to eat.

This category is for women who are good hostesses. An indu temua indu lawai may be a headman’s wife; she has enough rice to entertain guest, and she has enough time to weave. She is able to accomplish a basic pattern such as a creeper or bamboo design, perhaps with the help of another woman.

A beginner will always start by weaving a simple design buah randau takong randau, on a small piece of cloth. She is only allowed to start weaving a piece that is fifty kay wide. A kayu refers to the warp in groups of three single threads. By the time she is ready to weave her tenth pua she will be weaving a piece that is a hundred and nine kayu in width. These restrictions are rigidly adhered to, as they are prescribed by the spirits.

Once a woman is recognized as being adept she is considered indu sikat indu kebat. She can weave basic patterns, but she is unable to make up her own. She is dependent on copying the designs of her mother and grandmother. If she needs or wishes to widen her repertoire, she has to make a ritual payment to obtain a design from a more proficient weaver. If the master weaver, the indu nakar indu gaar does not posses the required design, she might obtain it from the next category down, the indu nenkebang. However, both women will expect ritual payment.

A women of this status can invent her own designs, inspired by the spirits in her dreams. She is an extremely proficient weaver, and will have the power to attempt potentially dangerous patterns. She is widely respected by the community and wears a porcupine quill tied with red thread as a mark of distinction. She is likely to be quite wealthy, being paid well by other weavers for designs.

A woman reaches this position if she is able to judge the correct quantities for the mordant bath and the dyeing solution. She literally knows her salt. She is primarily a chemist able to complete the dyeing process (nakar) successfully through the application of mordant and natural dyes, which prior to the arrival of imported commercial threads and chemical dyes, was the only way of dyeing the cotton. Although the ingredients of the mixture which comprise the mordant are common knowledge, the completion of the nakar process, which is the application of the mordant to the raw cotton and fixing the dye to the cloth, is a difficult ritual process. It is the acquisition of the knowledge of these various ingredients which determines the essence of the position of indu nakar indu gaar, because without spiritual intervention, the desired colour is not achieved.

To achieve status as a member of this respected class a woman is required to excel in all areas of knowledge, skill and behaviour. In addition, she must win the approval of the spirits in the metaphysical world who will appear to he in dreams to bestow their acceptance and consent to he requests in recognition of her abilities. The appearance of spiritual forces to an Iban woman serves as both an initiation and an important confirmation of her new role. A spiritual visitation in a dream is an event that is eagerly anticipated not only by women but by the community as a whole. It can be also happen that someone else dreams for an indu nakar indu gaar confirming her status.

It is likely that a woman of this position comes from an ancestral line of weavers and dyers, and she will inherit the knowledge of designs and dyes and precious amulets from her ancestors. More often than not the men of the family will be war leaders (tau sarang), having provided extra labour in the form of captives in war to work in the fields. In this way, the indu nakar indu gaar does not have to worry about farming but can devote all her time to her weaving and dyeing skills.

It is also possible for an exceptional woman to work her way up to the position of indu nakar indu gaar. She will need to be courageous and daring to overcome the fear of transgressing the ritual prohibitions and becoming layu.

The indu nakar indu gaar leads the rites for the mixing of the mordant bath. An animal – a pig or a fowl – is sacrificed, offerings are made and prayers are said. The ceremony is referred to as kayu indu which means women’s warfare. It is essentially a private ritual, and the officiating expert has to be as courageous and as daring as any warrior, in order to control the unseen and dangerous forces present at the ritual. If she fails, lie a warrior, she faces death, but in her case it is the spiritual lifelessness of being layu.

The indu nakar indu gaar is also recognized as a leader in other public rituals. For example, at the Gawai Burong she is conferred the honour of throwing glutinous rice at the ceremonial kelingkang pole. She will also prepare special garong baskets to commemorate the deceased indu nakar indu gaar of previous generations at the Festival for the Dead (Gawai Antu). At her death, in her funeral eulogy, the highest honours will be bestowed on her as she enters the afterworld. He worth is deemed equivalent to a highly prized jar (satu igi rusa). Her widower also will be conferred high honours.

Thus the weaver of each pua is accorded an important status which is of ritual and economic significance within the community. The pua is valued by the same criteria as its weaver: the complexity of the design, the width of the cloth, the ritual significance of the pattern. It is also important to consider the purpose for which each pua has been woven. It cannot be emphasized enough how important the pua kumbu is to a person who practices Iban traditional religion and culture. The textile is used for the entire gamut of life rituals, and none would be complete without it. The designs of a pua kumbu define the rituals for which it is to be used, and the ritual itself is given a special individual quality by the use of a particular pua kumbu. Thus in the next part of this article we will look at some of the different kinds of pua kumbu, their use, and their designs.

The designs and patterns on each piece of textile represent meanings which have resulted in varied interpretations by collectors. An attempt to individualize and itemize every single design or represented symbol in a given piece often distorts the true meaning, and there is often a danger of misunderstanding. The interpretation of the true spiritual significance of the design on a piece of pua lies in the combination of the symbols and the general layout of the design. The literature to date on the subject pays attention only to the individuals symbols and has missed this most important point.

A detailed description of the appearance of these symbols alone has little meaning and falls short of why a piece of pua is designed in a particular way. It is important to consider factors such as the purpose for which the pua has been woven, its date and historical context, the life story of the weaver herself, as well as to be aware of a rich repertoire of references to Iban legend, religion and oral history. The pua kumbu is essentially a sacred cloth, which may tell a mythological story, or a personal tale, or represent a historical archive.

The pua kumbu is used for the many rituals of a person’s life from birth to death: to wrap a baby for the ceremony of its first bath (meri anak mandi) and at death to screen a corpse (sapat) while it is laid out in state on the verandah before burial. The latter is an example of the way the pua can be used to define ritual space, or a sacred area, forming a boundary between what is mortal and what is considered transcendent. A pua kumbu can mediate between man and the spirit world, and for this reason, the cloth has spiritual power woven into it with its design. Only a very experienced weaver can make one of these sacred pua and there is a particular type of design which is woven as evidence of a weaver’s power in handling the potent forces in a sacred design.

This is a particularly rare type of pua kumbu, as it is considered sacrilegious (mali) for a weaver to undertake it unless she is sufficiently experienced and spiritually mature. Kelikat refers to the abstract zig-zag pattern which is repeated in horizontal rows the length of the pua kumbu. These motifs combine to form a rituallly powerful cloth which is a challenge, even for a master weaver. In all pua kumbu, the potency is in the central panel, and this has to be confined by well-defined vertical borders(anak) and vertical bands (ara) on each side, and horizontal border patterns at the top and the bottom (punggang). On the border (anak) of this pua are half bird motifs, and the stripes on the edge (ara) are in a combination of black, white, red and yellow which denote the proficiency of a master weaver. At the top of this bali kelikut pua kumbu is the sepit api or fire tong motif. This is a metaphor for strength, endurance and the supernatural power to withstand fire, a virtue of Selampandai the supreme spirit who created man with fire tongs at his balcksmith’s forge.

This is one of the most sacred of pua also known as pua sungkit. It was woven for a ceremony called encaboh arong, the first stage of the most significant Iban festival,Gawai Burong. During this ritual, it was customary for the wife of a war leader to receive on the lebor api the trophy heads which her husband had brought back from war with the other longhouse warriors. This particular example has been a family heirloom for seven generations. The characteristics of a lebor api are its deep blood-red colour, dyed in a mordant bath using the embun process, and the weaving technique sungkit which involves the use of a supplementary weft, giving the design an embroidered effect similar to tapestry. The motifs woven into the central part of the pua are unique to the time it was woven, and even perhaps to the weaver, they elude contemporary interpretation and have to be left as secrets of history. On the border (anak) are bird motifs, important in Iban thought, as earthly apparitions of spirits, or augurs of omens, mediating between the mortal world of mankind and the heavenly abode of the spirits. The punggang or horizontal border consists of a design typical of the lebor api, leku sawa, a moving snake. This is a reference to Keling, the archetypal Iban warrior reputed for his strength, bravery and handsome form, who often appears to humans in the shape of a snake.

This is another pua woven for a ritual purpose, for the eighth stage of the Gawai Burong, when a ceremonial pole tiang ranyai is erected. The central part of the pua is woven with decorative patterns bubol aja and gelung paku. Out of these abstract motifs the two vertical poles (tiang ranyai) emerge down the length of the cloth, culminating in two branches opening out into stylized trophy heads (tangkai leka balang). At the base of each pole (tiang ranyai) is a face with pierced ear lobes representing Nising, a demon giant, who is keeping watch over the trophy heads. This pua kumbu comes from the deep area where there are restrictions on the weaving of human forms, and for this reason the face of Nising is of minimal size. Underneath Nising is the final border design of sepit api, three sets of fire tongs, again the metaphor of the creator god Selampandai known for his supernatural powers to endure fire. At the other end is a border composed of motifs of the tail feathers of the argus pheasant(tugang ruai) which are highly prized as decorations for traditional costume. This piece was woven by Nangku anak Dingat, a master weaver and indu nakar who acquired considerable wealth through her commissions. She would weave out of inspiration and not cease until her task was completed. This piece is typical of her work, as there no side border (anak).


A Living Tradition





The very mention of Sarawak (north-west of Borneo Island) brings to mind images of mysterious jungles, headhunters and Iban longhouses. Indeed the land of the White Rajahs is far cry from the teeming metropolis of many busting Asian cities but, given just half the chance, this exotic destination will grow on you.

The Iban were friendly and hospitable, majority of Sarawak population, especially in the lowlands, living mostly in longhouses along the main rivers and their tributaries. They were Christians but still maintain their strong cultural identity and heritage., which keep to their traditional beliefs whereby reverence is paid to mythical and legendary heros and deities. Traditionally Ibans used dreams and bird augury as a means to determine whether or when to commence an important undertaking.

Iban have many festivals called ‘Gawai‘. There are the ‘Gawai Kenyalang‘ (hornbill festival), ‘Gawai Antu‘ (festival for the dead) and ‘Gawai Dayak‘ (harvesting festival). During such festivals, besides the customary observance of ritual, there is usually much drinking of the locally brewed rice wine called tuak, much merriment and dancing called ngajat and displays of elaborate traditional costumes. Please bare in mind that whenever you visit a longhouse, at the enterance you will be given a glass of tuak for warm welcoming and never say no because if you resist you are not respecting their kind offer.

As regards their material culture, they are well known for their textile weaving, woodcarving and weaving of intricate mats & baskets. Their valued creactivity & artistic skills in both men & women. A well rounded Iban man would not only be eloquent in argument, strong & courageous in male pursuits like hunting & war, but would also be skilful in the use of adze & knife. With these two implements he is able to fashion wood into all kind of objects and particularly into those which gladden the eye and help to mediate between mortal man & extraterrestial spirits which bring both harm & good to Iban. Any Iban man possessing all these qualities could be expected to play a major role in longhouse affairs. As a young unmarried man, he would be regarded by both parents and young girls as a very desirable & eligible bachelor.

An Iban boy starts to use the implements of th wood-worker and carver from an early age. He gains his first lessons through observational learning.The gallery of an Iban longhouse is an open area in which men talk and ply their skills. Often the skill is exhibited in the carving of some subjects. Well before the age of five, young boys will imitate their fathers, grandfathers or men well disposed to them. They would use a blunt duku (all purpose Iban sword). As a boy enters into adolescence, he starts to caarve objects such as toys for younger siblings to test his emerging skills. Those who show little skill or talents quickly desist out of fear that derision would greet their paltry offerings. In contrast, the gifted continue to hone their skills, probably decorating the head of their first perau (longboat) with some abstract figure, carving the decorated paddle to use on ceremonial ocassions, and armlets to enchance their good looks when they dance. Carving would use abstract mofits at this period of a boy’s apprenticeship. For the Iban, the carving of any figure represented something powerful in spirit world. Consequently, when a person carved such a figure, he would enter into a close relationship with that particular spirit. In this process the spirit would get to know him and thus know how to attack him if provoked or if it felt so inclined. Only a man of experience and spiritual strength therefore, would be able to resist the powerful presence of the spirit he was trying to represent. Being experienced, he would also have acquired a number of charms which would help him to resist the presence of spirit and any aggressive act perpetrated by it.

The aspiring young male would probably come to the general attention of a longhouse for the first time when he etched a bamboo for a girlfriend. The fact that etching bamboos first occurs early in an artist’s career might help to explain why motifs are usually stylised patterns of common flora and therefore purely decorative. Only rarely are figures found on Iban decorated bamboos. They usually found on the staffs of lemambang (Iban bards who recite the sagas of the gods at festivals) and therefore would be carved by experienced men.

Decorated bamboo containers are sign of a bachelor’s affection for a young, unattached women as well as being a mark of his own accomplishment and refinement. Traditionally, the Iban have a highly developed and refined process of wooing nayap which take a prospective couple from initial interest to a love affair and thance, if enduring, to eventual mariage. As an affair starts, the bachelor will fashion a pair of jew’s harps ruding and accompanying by her bedside so that the pair can play love songs to each other at night. A really gifted person might take the jew’s harps out of brass.

Once an affair progresses beyond the first largely physical attraction, the young man carves a decorated bamboo container as a permanent token of his affection. The is designed to hold weaving equipment like bodkins. Such a gift spurs the woman to weave some small object to reciprocate the token of affection and to demonstrate her skills at the loom. Weaving is the skill most desired in a woman because it enables her to produce the beautiful textiles which men wrap themselves in for sleep. The textiles, because the designs are given to women by the gods through the medium of dreams, are objects concieved in heaven. They therefore help the man’s soul to travel to the heavens when the body is asleep and obtain the right dreams to ensure success in his endeavours. Carving is equally important for a man because it demonstrates a capacity to make almost all the objects an Iban needs to survive and prosper in a very harsh environment. A skill in working wood also demonstrates that a man would be able to carve the kinds of figures which would protect a growing family from the ravages of the many malevolent spirits which share the world with the Iban. For the Iban, an ideal is for a gifted carver to marry an accomplished weaver. Such a union, by the very nature of the objects it is able to produce, would be amply blessed by the gods.

On marriage, the Iban groom either moves to his wife’s family or the bride moves to the husband’s family. In either case, where accomplished carver and weaver join in matrimony, one of th first task of the husband is to make a set of weaving equipment for his new wife so that she no longer has to borrow her mother’s. For the Iban, beautiful equipments is much more likely to inspire beautiful weaving that purely utilitarian equipment. Every weaver when performing her craft, likes to be seen with beautiful equipment. It enhances her beauty; beautiful equipment produces an aura of confidence in the woman which helps to release all her creactive power. The result is a textile of great beauty to complement the beauty of both the woman and the equipment she uses to make it.

The confidence of a woman is also important in another realm. Weaving, because of its central importance, must be guarded against the acts of mischievous and malevolent spirits, particularly when the woman is absent either at work or when sleeping. Consequently, a man will carve strong protective figures on pieces of equipment – especially those which are permenantly attached to the yarn – in particular on the spinning wheel to protect the undyed yarns and on the warp beam to protect the developing pattern.

For the weaver, the two most important and personal pieces of equipment are the beater belia which sometimes can also have protective designs on it and the shuttlejengkuan. The belia is usually carved out of tapang, a jungle hardwood of exceptional strength which, with use, develops a very smooth surface and attractive polished patina. Again, like decorated bamboos, the fact that both implements are normally first carved early in marriage, before a man is usually regarded as sufficiently exprience to carve figure, might explain why designs on both of these implements are purely decorative foliate scrolls and arabesques. A third important decorated piece of weaving equipment is the bobkin which would be kept in the bamboo container carved at the outset of the love affair and which is used by the weaver to pick out the threads while working on a supplementary weave called sungkit.

About two years after marriage, especially if a child has been born, the couple will move out of the parental apartment to start its own bilik (strictly a bilik is an apartment in a long house but the word also denotes a discrete family unit within a longhouse). The new bilik family takes only personal belonging from the parental bilik. The personal belongings include the weaving equipment made by the husband, but little else.

It is the man’s role to protect his family and fields from terrstial and extraterrestial pests & predators. By the time he has established his own bilik, the Iban male would have embarked on a long journey (berjalai) in which he would have been away from his longhouse for a substantial amount of time. On his expedition he would have striven to earn a significant amount of money so that he would be able to return to his longhouse with some tangible reward for his enterprise, like an old chinese jar or agong. A hundred years ago, a man establishing his bilik would also have been on a raiding party which, if successful, would have resulted in his returning with trophy heads and other booty. In the course of all these adventures and other experiences, he would have acquired a number of charms. Some would make him invulnerable to the darts of enemies, others successful in his ventures, immune to sickness, eloquuent in arguing a case in his dispute, or irresistable to women. His maturity, success and resourcefulness would ensure his ability to carve the figures of powerful spirits which would be called upon to protect him and his immediate family from the malevolent.

Spirits and individuals of evil intent, like humans, normally enter into a bilik through the front door. Protection then is best afforded by carving powerful figures on the door into a bilik. While there are many designs carved on Iban doors, the most common one is in relief on a two-pannelled door. Down the centre of each panel is extended a twin tailed crocodile with twin pythons coiled along each side. Between the open fangs of the python and the head of the crocodile is a frog place there to serve as food for these voracious reptilian spirits in the belief that should no food be provided, the hungry spirits might turn and feast on the inmates of the apartment. Crocodile and python are both reptiles of immense power in the Iban spirit world.

Farming is a critically important activity for the Iban because it provides the substance which keeps a family alive. The young head of a new bilik family might decorate two pieces of farming equipment used in the planting and the harvesting of padi. He would carve a dibbling stick out of hardwood with a clapper as an integral part of the shaft. He might also carve the harvesting knife with some decorative design.

As important to protect as the bilik are the fields in which the family will grow its very sustenance and the bins in which the harvested padi is stored. Protection is secured by carving two kinds of figure called agom. Each has a similar purpose; to guard the padi. Agom are small carved figures placed either on the pathways leading to padi fields or in lofts where the harvested padi is stored. The two kinds of agom are quite distinct in form.

Agom are figures carved on pointed stakes. They are inserted into the ground after the padi has been planted at a ritual called pemali umai. In this ritual, offerings are made to the gods, a hen is killed to purify the ground and all those taking part, an elder calls on the gods to make this a bountiful harvest and curses all evil spirits which attack growing padi. The agom is usually placed in the ground on a pathway leading to the field or, together with others provided by other bilik beside a path leading to the main body of fields. The spirit of the agom then either singly or en masse attacks all malevolent spirits which might be found in the vicinity of a padi field.

Most agom are carved quickly, simply and crudely. When carving an agom, the carver follows the instructions of Pulang Gana, the Iban god of fertility and of the earth. He carves them in the form of a human being with head, arms and legs and dresses them appropriately to their sex. Male agom are given arms. Those that clearly are carved for effect tend to be carved in the hunkered squatting position so popular in Iban figurative carving. They are clothed and given arms when placed in situ. Most have teeth bared in wide voracious grins to frighten and consume malevolent spirits caught in the vicinity of a farm. The figures also frequently display a peculiar characteristic often found in Iban carving. They have their sexual members carved on the post below the squatting body.

Pulang Gana’s instructions about the agom which guards the stored padi are equally clear. First the carver hews the rough form of the agom. He then must make an offering to the gods to ensure that the powers of the agom are in no way circumscribed. If these rites are not held, like its counterpart guarding the paths to the padi fields, the agom would completely ineffective (ala gulu-incmpletely made). In such a case the carver would find himself a mortal danger from the malformed spirit of the agom . Once the ritual has been held, the carving becomes an agom and part of the heirloom property of a household. It is cared for in much the same way as other belongings of value and people are expected to treat it with respect.

Agom which are placed in the lofts of a longhouse are quite different in form from their counterparts guarding the fields. However, they are also dressed according to their sex. Male agom wear loincloths and carry spears and swords. Female agom wear skirts and carry small seed baskets. They are placed in the loft either on the floor beside a padi bin or in the bin itself, where they are usually accompanied by a dried fish.

One of the purposes of these agom is to protect the harvested padi from the malevolent spirits of animals like rats and of insects like weevils which eat stored padi. Their principal purpose, however, is to protect the belongings and padi of the household from tau tepang (usually translated as ‘people with the evil eye who ruin everything and anything they look at’). Tau tepang are the living Iban invariably from the poorer strata of Iban society, who project loss and failure onto the successful. Because they are poor and lack success, they hunger after padi.

Tau tepang operate by detaching their heads from their bodies at night. These voracious appendages go off in search of padi and other food. In the absent of any agom guarding the padi, the heads are able to gain access to the padi bins where, it is said, they fill two or three large baskets of padi taking them to a kind of perch they have constructed below the longhouse. There they gorge themselves until satiated.

Agom prevent tau tepang from gaining these evil ends. They can adopt the character of baya (crocodile) or menarat (monitor lizard), both fiercesome reptiles from the underworld. With the ability to adopt these characteristics, they are able to guard a family’s belongings effectively. Equally importantly, they prevent the wandering heads from invading the slaves of a household and turning them into tau tepang. The dead fish placed in a padi bin complements the agom. With its all-seeing eye (the one uppermost), it prevents a tau tepang from being able to see the padi stored there. It is also able to watch the head return from whence it came. With this knowledge, the household believing itself to be disturbed by a tau tepang is able to curse the ‘bilek’ of the wandering head and attack the bilek family at the source.

As the couple’s children begin to walk and enter into their mischevous early years, they run the risk of endangering themselves if they do not need their parents’ or caretaker’s admonishments. A concerned father carves one or two wooden masks. Known as indai guru (literally, mother teacher), the masks are used to frighten naughty children. The indai guru resides in the loft. Like the witch, or Rosina Sugarfoot in Hansel and Gretel, she gobbles up little children. The masks are usually worn by an older woman whose immediate family has no young children (so young children never happen upon a bodiless mask). She would put up on the mask and cover her hair with a cloth. With no part of her person visible she would then peer out from the opening into the loft and moan at the child. Most children are transfixed with fear at seeing the apparition and immediately cease doing what they were doing and run for protection to a parent or caretaker.

Indai guru masks vary from the painted cross-section of a gourd to intricately carved and painted wooden masks. Traditionally they were stained black with the outline of eyes, forehead and mouth picked out in white lime. Most have two things in common: wide staring eyes and an open mouth with teeth bared and lips everted. Great prominence is usually given to the teeth.

After carving his figures, the skilful carver could now test his talents at carving a tuntun, the piece which came to epitomise a truly gifted artist. Tuntun essentially are utilitarian and prosaic objects crafted to set the trip wire of a pig trap at the correct height. To ensure that the trap is successful in its purpose of attracting and killing a pig, the Iban carve a figure at the top of the shaft. When animated, the tuntun operates in the spirit world enticing the spirit of the pig to the trap. Tuntun are carved to be beautiful so that they catch the eye of visitors to the longhouse. Attracted by a beautiful tuntun, a visitor is expected to approah it, take it down and admire it. A tuntunwhich has the power to attract a discerning Iban is also believed to have the power to attract a pig. As it attracts the visitor with it physical beauty so, at the same time, its powers entice a pig inexorably towards a trap. Cultural beliefs, consequently, place a great value on the beauty of the design of a tuntun and the skill with which it is executed.

At much the same time as he carves his first tuntun, a carver also begin to fashion sword hilts into objects of beauty. Iban carve sword hilts out of the antlers of rusa(sambur deer) for both his straights shafted parang ilang and curved nyabur swords. They frequently carve figures on hilts of their ilang. Iban hilts can be distinguished from those of others only with difficulty, they are freer in their designs. Consequently the range is large, one feature of Iban sword hilts is that they tend to fill in the spaces round their figures with interlocking scrolls, raised incisor teeth and hatched raised circles. In contrast, the hilts of the nyabur are simple with abstract foliate designs not unlike those found on the decorated bamboos.

While most Iban are farmers, hunters, and adventurer, some enter into a profession. Traditionally there are two. Both are dependent for entry on a man having the right dreams. With those dreams, a man can choose to become a manang (a shamanistic healer) or a lemambang (a bard). To become either requires a formidable memory, both manang and lemambang as they practise their craft, must be able to recite long, rhyming sagas which can literally last for days. Both require a staff with which to beat out the rhythms of his verse. The lemambang often carves a memory board which acts as mnemonic to help him remember the sequence of verses in the journey of the gods to visit the Iban. A board consists of sections, each of which has a pictogram to jog the memory of the lemambang. The boards are also used to train aspiringlemambang trying to remember the long sequence of events in the Iban sagas. The manang also requires a lupong (medicine box) and sometimes carves small figures(penting anak yang) to assist him in his search for the errant soul of the sick person he is treating.

Lupong manang are usually simple bark boxes. Some, however, are distinguished by having a pair of squatting figures attached to their sides. Carving these figures is one of the riskest undertakings an Iban can embark on, for they protect the contents of the box from spirits which hail from the abode of the dead. Carving these figures take the carver to the very gates of the dead, for it is there that the spirits of these figures must perform their protective tasks. Consequently, the figures on lupong manang are always carved by extremely experienced men who possess most powerful charms which can protect them from the dangers of such an extraterrestial adventure.

The manang uses pentik to help him cure the sick. They are often a threesome – male, female and a third. When a manang embarks on the dangerous journey to recover the soul of the invalid, the pentik become fierce spirits which confront all obstacles and act as guildes for the soul of the manang.

Any Iban might also carve a pentik to help stave off some disaster afflicting a longhouse. These figures are carved on the end of rods and are rarely longer than a finger. They are carved when a serious epidemic or other misfortune has been visited on a longhouse. A rite called ngampun is held to exorcise the longhouse of evil spirits. In this rite, pentik are driven into the ground by the base of the ladder into the longhouse or at a specially constructed hut called a langkau ampun (submission hut). There, offerings of food are placed to appease the malevolent spirits invading a house. Once the spirits have eaten their fill the pentik provide a barrier beyond which the satiated spirits cannot proceed.

In his early forties, an experienced and gifted carver will be commissioned to carve a kenyalang, an icon carved to represent the rhinoceros hornbill and used in a festival to commemorate the successful headhunter. A man carving a kenyalang place himself in great ritual danger, for the kenyalang is a powerful spirit of war. In the carving, it will consume a great amount of spiritual energy of the person carving it. It would also get to know the charms and other protective devices possessed by the carver. Consequently, a carver waits at least five years before carving another kenyalang to guard against the possibility that in a weakened state and with spirit which understood his charms, he would be unable to resist the power of the bird.

A kenyalang is carved from pelai (Alstonia) in two stages. In the first, the bare outline if the kenyalang is shaped and, after attendant ritual, it is brought into the apartment of a person holding the festival. Later, detail is added. Decoration is refined and the bird is painted. It is then animated in a ceremony in which offerings are made to it and its tongue symbolically cut to set it free.

The kenyalang is the most monumental of Iban carvings. Early examples made around the turn of the century show a much smaller figure than the present one metre high and one and a half metre long one (though an examination of the early examples in museum collections strongly suggests that they were made as models for the collectors concerned).

Embelishment has been added, especially around the casque and on the tail. The casque is extended backwards into a sweeping curve and surrounded by colourful foliate designs filling in the spaces between casque and body. On the tail are placed figures which have no intrinsic value other than to please the eye and fill what would otherwise be an empty and undistinguished tail.

Finally, on death, after burial and a period of mourning, a man of note of the kind we have been describing would expect some kind of monument to be erected over his grave. The monuments take two forms. In the Balau, a carved, painted board usually of foliate scrolls and arabesques is placed above the grave. Occasionally, one side of the board is carved with serpents (nabau) or dragons (naga) representing the spirits of the underworld and consequently, the afterworld. It seems probable that other graves across the border from Pantu also had small huts placed over them with the head of a dragon at one end and the tail at the other acting as finials, These graves or graveyards also had figures placed around them, the purpose of which is unknown.

In certain area, a sungkup ( a small decorated hut) is placed over the grave after a major festival, the Gawai Antu (literally, festival for the departed souls) has been performed to honour the recently departed. The traditional sungkup consists of an ‘A’ frame structure with four finials carved in foliate scrolls extended upwards from the gable ends (which are similar to the finials on Ngaju houses). More recent sungkup are clearly influenced by Kayan burial houses (salong), in which the external walls of the hut are carved and painted with foliate scrolls.

Iban carving is distinctive. Much of it can clearly be distinguished from that of others. Sometimes it have a signature which distinguishes them from those of others. They have genitalia carved on the shaft below the body. The Iban also have a stylised mask which is unique. It is black and has its eyes and forehead outlined in white lime.

In sum, the Iban have made a marked contribution to the great wealth of Sarawak art. Iban carving ranks with the best produced in Borneo. With the tuntun, the Iban have converted a humble measuring stick into an outstanding art from. Iban decorated bamboo or artefacts and sword hilts are also outstanding in their genre. Individual artists have porduced works of great beauty to serve many different functions. To dismiss Iban carving as inconsequential, as many people have done, is to depreciate a great carving tradition and numerous great Iban artists who have passed on to Sebayan (the Iban abode of the dead) unremarked, unheralded and, as a group, hittherto unsung.


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