Ikat weavings for Iban

Wright: Iban/Ikat – p. 16 the combination of two materials which immediately brings to mind the traditional women’s attire of ikat skirts and row upon row of bangles of split bamboo, covered with small brags rings. In this way the padi is dressedup as a woman in her ceremonial garb, in accordance with the female imagery used in the descriptions of the padi’s growth noted earlier.Since both men and women wear brass bracelets, another possible interpretation is that the combination of threads and metal here represents a bringing together of female and male materials, an act which was exhibited dramatically in the verbal media in the above-quoted image of ‘male pregnancy’. After the first of the padi pun (the sacred strain of rice planted in the middle of the field) is harvested, a pua is laid over the reaping-basket, in the same way a pua is laid over the belly of a woman about to give birth. The pua play a vital role in the headhunting-festival. (Today’s occasional enacting of these ceremonies are performed with old heads, the most recent of which are said to be those of Japanese soldiers taken during World War II). In the past, the men returning from a successful raid would fire a messenger ahead, so the women could prepare to receive them. They would put on their ikat skirts and proceed down to the riverbank, where they would receive the newly-taken heads in the puas, and then followed the only ceremonial dance performed by the women: “women who knew the prayers took the heads,one after another, sat down, rested the heads on their knees and prayed to them. The prayers they used were not known to the men” (Geddes 1957:128). There are also reports of women dancing in such a way that it seemed they were pretending to be nursing the heads in the pua (Vogelsanger 1980: 119). Other examples of community-based uses of pua or other cloth in ceremony are rituals to wave away an eclipse or to remove an incest-taboo. In the latter ceremony (which has taken the place of laying the offenders alive in a grave and then stabbing them with sharpened bamboo-poles) a procession of men and women carrying various artifacts proceeds from the longhouse down to the river, accompanying the incestuous pair. The imagery employed reveals the belief that an individual’s breach of taboo may threaten the whole community with natural disasters resulting in agricultural sterility. During the ceremony, a pua carried by a male is said to, metaphorically, ”cover riverbanks and prevent flooding of the river and riverbank erosion”. Similarly, a woman’s skirt carried by a woman prevents heavy rains. Men carry metals to “stabilize the soil” and women carry plates and jars to “receive the soil and the dew”. An old loincloth functions as a sacred railing, which the couple, after having been cleansed in the river, holds on to while being escorted back to the village. The ‘railing’ protects them against the demons on the path who might attack them in their vulnerable state, and also, it seems, emphasizes the newly regained unity of the community (Rubenstein). The ikats also play protective and mediating roles on a number of occasions throughout a person’s life-cycle. At birth, if it is a difficult one, the manang (one type of shaman) ties a long cloth above the womb ofthe birthing woman and tries to press the baby downwards by tightening it gradually. The manang’s progress is communicated to another manang outside the bilek, who mimics the process with a cloth wrapped a largeWright: Iban/Ikat – p. 17 stone held tight around his or her body. During the child’s first ritual meeting with its grandmother, it is covered with a pua. If a child is adopted (a fairly common event) a ceremony is enacted where the manang cuts off the child’s ayu (one of a person’s two souls), which is likened to a bamboo-shoot growing on a mythical mountain, in a cluster with those of the rest of its family. In the case of adoption, the manang cuts it off and replants it with the cluster of the child’s adoptive family. One of the three gifts the child receives is an ikat, which metaphorically provides shade against the heat of the sun over the tender transplanted ayu (Freeman). During sickness or in seeking omens through dream-messages before an important under-taking, a person will sleep outside in a place where spirits are known to dwell, covered by a pua. In cases of exorcism, the family-bilek’s walls are covered with pua, to prevent the exorcised demons from getting back in (Freeman 1967). Similarly, pua will be hung up to enclose sacred space, such as that around a corpse being ritually tended to, or to create a temporary bilek-shrine. In the ritual enactment of the myth of the spirit’s voyage to land of the dead, while the officiating shaman wears a bidang, one or several pua cover the newly-dead andform the roof of the boat which brings the spirit down to the river. Women as Transmitters of Ikat. A song sung by a girl to her lover, who has used her lack of experience in weaving as an excuse for not taking their relationship seriously, illustrates the great feeling of pride and material/aesthetic/ritual/spiritual empowerment both felt by women (here, represented by the girl) and desired in women by men (here, the insolent lover): At the time when the top beams of the house are first seen, while the cross beams of the verandah are still shadowed, I reeled thread into the bamboo tube so fast, its mouth sounded broken. I began measuring the ginger water, dear bachelor liar, in the trough made of the medong tree. I dissolved salt in the water, my companion, into the ring of water in the big hollow bowl. I measured out the oil, companion who cares for me, oil bubbling as it flows out over the face of the bottles. Afterwards I began weaving with the threads made dark. While the dew was still heavy, mist cloudily pouring, I began knocking the shuttle of the loom from side to side, spinning out the store-bought thread from the hanging bamboos. The speeding sound of my knocking was no less than that of the woodpecker knocking at the broken tree trunk. I was making, dear companions, the pua mata blanket- – – – – – – The knowledge that I, dear companion, truly have inside of me, is truly, dearest beloved, a gift of the spirits. Aye-o-o-o-o-o. (Rubenstein 1985:256-257) We have seen how “ready-made” ikats were originally given to the Iban by a goddess; now we turn to look at how Iban women of later generations have learned to make them. In Cornelia Vogelsanger’s interviews with older, experienced Iban weavers, the women speak of how their ancestors, through dreams, learned to dye and weave from the goddesses Kumang and Lulong, both married to the hero Kling, who all live

Wright: Iban/Ikat – p. 18 in the heavenly longhouse Panggau Libau. The goddesses themselves were sought as wives by demi-gods because of their exceptional skill at weaving pua. The personal stories elicited by not unique revelations: Kumong and Lulong continue to help individual Iban women, from generation to generation, up to the present day, and always through the medium of dreams. It is not only the general technique of weaving which is thus transmitted but at times even the concrete patterns themselves, such as in<the case of Kerja (Vogelsanger 1980:ll8). Kerja dreamed she saw Kumang traveling upstream with her husband Kling. Kumang left a pua with her, saying she would call for it later. Kerja at once set to work copying it and worked at great speed, completing a pua by the time the divine couple returned and reclaimed it. Kerja said later to Vogelsanger that she, in her dream, could see the pattern of Kumang's pua with great clarity and in colour. The weaving had seemed extraordinarily fast and easy in the dream – but when she awoke she couldremember every little step and later copied it with no problem. There are also interesting examples of women overcoming technical problems in weaving, or reluctance to the activity, after detailed dreams of encouragement or admonitions from the goddesses. However, the danger involved are potent are known by all, and a young girl just beginning to learn the art, will copy pua of her mother’s or grandmother’s. The girl will weave the borders and simple patterns, the older women weaving the most powerful and potentially dangerous parts of the design. Later the young woman graduates to more difficult designs, as she develops the necessary mental strength, but only after she has been called to do so in a dream may she create a new pattern of her own. While weaving a new pattern transmitted by the gods through a dream, a woman is in a constant state of danger and must take ritual precautions so as not to irritate the spirit in the pattern, who otherwise might make her ill and even kill her. One woman told of the giant she was weaving, who had bothered her by making frightening noises the entire time she wove on that pua (Vogelsanger 1980:118). Therefore women seek to protect themselves with charms such as stones found after dream encounters with gods, with medicines, and by developing “a strong heart”–in other words, becoming brave. It is because of the dangers involved that the weaving of ikats and especially the creation of new designs, can be likened to the men’s headhunting activity (nowadays replaced by the bejalai – long expeditions away from the longhouse, to the cities and even abroad) and the rituals surrounding it. This is born out by the facts that weaving is called the “women’s warpath” (Gittinger 1979:219), that bravery plays such an important part in it, and that the women who have created their own pua may tattoo the end joints of their fingers–a type of tattoo which, among men, was reserved for those who had taken heads successfully. It has been noted that, during the time of applying the mordant to the threads, the same taboos apply to the longhouse as when a woman is giving birth–another sign that the textiles are tied into the same body of fertility-promoting rites as headhunting and the padi-cult.

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