Unique! That’s the simple word to describe all about Iban,from the unique culture to customs, from poem to prose, from head to toe, and so was the famous old art of body tattoo called kelingai or pantang.
Today I would like to share my little thought of understanding about some famous choices of Iban traditional tattoo. Each of this tribe or motif represent something, such as the journey and so forth.
Here comes the example:
– Calf muscle: usually “Kowit” hooks, a sign that indicated the reaching of puberty.
– Shoulders: a rosette (“bungai terong”, “tandan buah”, “buah andu” or “ringgit saliling”).
– Thighs and arms: a “kala” scorpion, symbolizing a journey.
– Back: rosettes, also symbolizing a journey.
– Throat: a “katak” frog (derived from the Bakatan “hooks“), an imitation of the “burong lang” (war god) signs on the throat.
– Backs of hands: large tattoos or linear decorations. Symbols of success as a head hunter.
The Iban “war god” is a symbolic bird called “Singalang Burong” but it’s masked by “Burong Lang” (Eagle), which can be a falcon or a kite with signs on the throat similar to the “katak” of the Iban.
Iban women were also tattooed though not very extensively. The most common tattoo was a “bracelet” around an arm, probably indicating having been cured of a illness. They rarely tattooed their throats like men. Tattoos on the backs of their hands indicated skill in weaving, which was considered a worthy enterprise, much as cutting enemies’ heads off was for men.
The Ibans’ lifestyle has undergone many changes in recent years. Certain customs, such as the “bejalai”, have survived anyway and some Ibans still tattoo themselves with the sign that represents it.
The throat tattoo has stayed the same, like many other Iban tattoo motifs. The same rosettes can be seen today on shoulders and backs and more or less recognizable scorpions on legs and arms.
A lot of new motifs have been introduced, including ships and aeroplanes, often accompanied by the names of places visited. Men also get themselves tattoos in the style of the places they visit, where possible. A tattoo on the back of a hand nowadays probably means that a man has been to Thailand on his bejalai and not that he’s cut someone’s head off.