“Thirty-one years ago, at Seputin, just across and slightly upriver from where we met, Derek Freeman told me that Iban folklore “probably exceeds in sheer volume the literature of the Greeks.” At that time, I thought Freeman excessive. Today, I suspect he may have been conservative in his estimate.” Vinson H. Sutlive, Jr.
To truly understand Iban ritual textiles is to understand Iban cosmology. The two are inseparable. Iban ritual textiles are canvasses on which Iban myths, stories, histories, and philosophies are woven.
For the Iban of Sarawak, the pua kumbu is not just a blanket. It is a sacred, ceremonial and ritual textile. The word pua means blanket and kumbu means to wrap. However, the pua kumbu is seldom used as a sleeping blanket today. It is reserved for the times when men and women seek an encounter with the spiritual.
The weaving of an Iban textile represents a deeply spiritual undertaking. Every Iban woman weaves to establish her womanhood and worth in a society where gender roles are specific and where spirituality is intrinsically linked to every aspect of daily life. As a weaver, she takes her place in the spiritual regeneration of the traditional values and norms of her people.
The Lebur Api depicting Sera Gunting and his mother Tinchin Temaga
Iban mythology tells us that ancient Iban were taught by a cultural hero demi-god called Sera Gunting the use of the pua kumbu in receiving trophy heads. He prescribed that women use the great pua kumbu called Lebur Api Mansau Tisi Dilah Kendawang (The Blazing All Consuming Fire with Edges Coloured like the Poisonous Mushroom) when ceremonially receiving freshly smoked heads from their warriors on their return from successful war expeditions.
Head-taking is a recurrent theme in many designs, and arguably, the most important leitmotif in almost all narratives that are woven onto cloth.
Copulating Water Serpents
From the Underworld, she summons the Nabau (Water Serpent), a terrifying creature that protects her menfolk when they go to war, and weaves it as testament to her spiritual maturity; a lesser woman without the skills and experience would not attempt to conference with the King of the Waters.
Nothing is ever straightforward on a textile. Crocodiles are often mistaken for monitor lizards, meandering rivers for vines and severed trophy heads for fruit.
The acolyte Iban weaver is schooled in her novitiate never to boast of her work or draw attention to par- ticularly powerful motifs lest she provokes the jealousy of the patroness of weaving or, worse still, invites the wrath of the spirit of the object she has woven.
Iban oral history, mythology and cosmology reverberate with the use of textiles as sacred cloths. The earliest mention of the use of textiles appears in Iban creation myths, the first man and woman who were brought to life by the shouts of Raja Entala Keri Raja Petara, the Ancient Creator God, created under a pua kumbu. According to this account, the pua kumbu already existed at the beginning of time, even before man was created, and its use as a sacred object throughout Iban history was preordained.
Iban mythology tells us that ancient Iban were taught by a cultural hero demi-god called Sera Gunting the use of the pua kumbu in receiving trophy heads. He prescribed that women use the great pua kumbu called Lebur Api Mansau Tisi Dilah Kendawang (The Blazing All Consuming Fire with Edges Coloured like the Poisonous Mushroom) when ceremonially receiving freshly smoked heads from their warriors on their return from successful war expeditions. The life-force harnessed within such a blanket would disarm the malevolence in the severed heads, which themselves were potent symbols of fertility and male martial aggression.
The repertoire of images, pictograms, motifs, patterns, and designs found on Iban textiles is extensive. The flora and fauna of the rainforest of Borneo provide the keen mind with wild animate images, allowing the weaver to draw inspiration from both her world-view and the Iban pantheon. The heavens, the rivers, the magical worlds of Gelong (the longhouse of beautiful and clever goddess Kumang the patroness of weavers) and Panggau (the mythical home of the archetypal brave and handsome cultural hero god Keling), Land of the Dead, and all their inhabitants would find themselves captured onto cloth, their reflections caught and harnessed to sustain power. A plethora of motifs and representations have evolved through the centuries, each one invested with meaning and life-force.
Motifs and representations of objects and the dramatis personæ from Iban cosmology take on various shapes and forms on cloths. Animals can be represented as themselves in pictorial images easily identifiable; sometimes, the weaver can show these in abstract form when she wants to hide their identities or conversely, highlight certain characteristics that flow seamlessly with the narrative she is telling in her warp threads.
Nothing is ever straightforward on a textile. Crocodiles are often mistaken for monitor lizards, meandering rivers for vines and severed trophy heads for fruit. To add to the confusion, banal names are attributed to motifs that give a textile the life-force that suffuses it with potency; a device used by master weavers to camouflage the true and hidden meaning of their designs.
Added to this complex use of metaphors and symbols is the convention of naming of cloths. All pua kumbu have more than one name: its nama buah pua (design title) known to all weavers (often commonplace, as a self-deprecating ruse to not draw attention to one’s work) and used in public by the weaver who made it; its ensumbar (secret praise-name) known only to the weaver and her immediate family (which hints at the true meaning of the design); and the name of a part of a cloth like a buah punggang (edge pattern) which can be used to refer to the entire cloth. So, when a weaver says she has created a pattern of dolls or frogs, one must understand that in her social context, she is being modest. Any human-like figure resembling a doll or an anthropomorphic figure that looks uncannily like a frog is not what it seems or what she says it is; she has captured the likeness of a terrifying demon or a benevolent deity. To the Iban mind, this is no mean feat. The acolyte Iban weaver is schooled in her novitiate never to boast of her work or draw attention to particularly powerful motifs lest she provokes the jealousy of the patroness of weaving or, worse still, invites the wrath of the spirit of the object she has woven. She is modest, restrained and evasive when speaking about her finished works.
Nevertheless, she is no such person when working on her textiles. Threads are her canvas and she is expected to demonstrate her prowess and give full flight to her powers of creativity and dexterity in working the warps and wefts. It is here that marvellous creatures are birthed and expressed in a myriad of interpretations.
A funeral in a longhouse
Using pua kumbu to create sacred space during a funeral in the Saribas, Betong.
Pua kumbu define ritual space at any number of occasions – births, marriages, mortuary practices, padi cultivation rites, healing offices, and ceremonies of offering and animal sacrifice.
The Sickle Moon
Inhabitants of the firmament like the stars and moons also appear on cloths.
From the Underworld, she summons the Nabau (Water Serpent), a terrifying creature that protects her menfolk when they go to war, and weaves it as testament to her spiritual maturity; a lesser woman without the skills and experience would not attempt to conference with the King of the Waters. Warriors and war-leaders of old had animal familiars, both mythical and real animals, which they appeased with various offerings, and the womenfolk recalled these propitious arrangements and paid homage to these familiars with their cloths. The Remaung (Leopard Cat or Clouded Leopard), Aki Baya (Crocodiles), and Kendawang (Krait) are just as ferocious, and demand no less attention. The Kendawang, for instance, is portrayed as a snake on cloths, but the Iban beholder would immediately understand that it is the earthly representation of Laja, the sidekick to Keling. And when Laja is present in a design, it means Keling is not very far away. The weaver’s ingenuity by her choice of motifs is apparent; she is paying homage to Keling, who is not depicted, but starkly alluded to.
The pantheon of characters from the Upperworld are the most exacting; they are depicted either as diamond pendants innocuously called fireflies or lozenges that look nothing like a human form, or diminutive anthropomorphs that bear closer resemblance to a flattened frog, or when the weaver is sufficiently confident of her spiritual métier, in a human likeness that is embellished with appropriate finery and attendant sycophants. Iban deities, like their Greek counterparts, are flippant, mischievous, and temperamental. No weaver wants to attract the fury of a deity or demon spirit, so she keeps their likenesses hidden or undecipherable.
Inhabitants of the firmament like the stars and moons also appear on cloths. These are rare, and a competent weaver will know that the designs, though comprising stars or moons, are not really stars or moons but will nevertheless tell you they are stars or moons. What they really are remains the secret knowledge jealously guarded by master weavers who constantly add to the encyclopaedic lexicography of Iban weaving designs.
The ubiquitous fruit motif that comes in all shapes and sizes appears on almost all Iban textiles except women’s skirts. Weavers, as a rule, do not weave edible fruit like durians or rambutans or table vegetable like pumpkin or cucumbers. When they weave seed-like motifs and call it a fruit, they are employing the metaphor for trophy heads. This is the prize every warrior seeks and his womenfolk do not shy away from reminding him of his duty to replenish the skull baskets hanging outside their apartments in the longhouse. Head-taking is a recurrent theme in many designs, and arguably, the most important leitmotif in almost all narratives that are woven onto cloth.
Iban weavers are much more sophisticated than most think. They know the difference between showing an object in its likeness (nunda gamal, literally ‘follow the look’), and showing a representation of the object (ngambi juluk, literally ‘take the name’) which looks nothing like it. This subtle difference in Iban pattern and design lexicography has caused much confusion in the literature, and thrown collectors and curators alike into whirlpools of controversy.
Besides being imbued with supernatural energy and furnishing spiritual protection upon individuals and families, pua kumbu also provide a transcendental element in creating a link between the human and the spiritual dimension. This is given expression in the concept of sacred space; pua kumbu define ritual space at any number of occasions – births, marriages, mortuary practices, padi cultivation rites, healing offices, and ceremonies of offering and animal sacrifice. Blankets are sometimes buried with their weavers or their owners. The pua kumbu literally accompanies the Iban throughout his life; from birth to death and beyond.
As the possession of pua kumbu demonstrates wealth, status, prestige, and spiritual currency, it is incumbent upon the women of the family to create new textiles of the finest quality. These and other Iban textiles like jackets, skirts, wraps, sashes and ceremonial loincloth badges, are passed down through the family, to be used at life-crises and treasured as heirlooms. In short, every design on an Iban textile tells a story; weaves gods and monsters and all manner of wild imaginings. The sophisticated weaver becomes not only artist, but also storyteller, historian and commentator.