Wednesday, April 18, 2007

SIHAN & tradition


The Sihan are a very small indigenous group of approximately 150 persons who live in one longhouse two hours inland from the Rejang River. They speak a dialect of Kayan and their tattooing traditions are very similar. The Sihan, however, carried their indelible arts further into the present than the Kayan, abandoning them only 30 years ago. The Kayan stopped tattooing 50 years ago.

Konok, a 50-year-old Sihan woman, told me she received her first tattoo (arm) at 18 years of age, just before marriage. Tattoos were pricked in with thorns and were requisites for marriage. Men would not marry a Sihan woman without them. Sihan women were the tattoo artists and employed the same methods and motifs as the Kayan. The position of tattooist was hereditary, usually passed from mother to daughter. At death, the tattoo artist was buried with her equipment.

The Lahanan, a larger neighboring group, also excelled in tattooing. Tattooists were women and the profession was hereditary in the female line. One 60-year-old woman, Bangu, gave me a vivid account of her circa 1950 tattoo experience and the price list for each tattoo in Malaysian Ringgits (RM). “Several women held me down, each took a limb, and another woman stretched the skin for the tattooist who began working once I was calm. I wanted to get through it because I wouldn’t get a husband if I didn’t. It took four days to tattoo one arm (60 RM) and four for the other (60 RM); four days for one foot (3 RM) and four more for the other (3 RM). I was 15 years old at the time and we did all the tattoos in those 16 days! It usually took much longer, but I wanted to get it over and get married.”

Two Lahanan men, who were tattooed by women, mentioned that if you had no money you paid for your tattoos with a gong or a parang (short sword). One of these men, 85+-year-old Pugwun Bapai, told me he was tattooed for a 25 RM fee at the age of 15. A special party was held in his honor after the ritual, because he was “no longer a boy but a man.” Lahanan men who were not tattooed were shamed by their peers, because only true “warriors” were tattooed, men who had partaken in perilous journeys or headhunting raids away from the security of the longhouse.

Sihan woman with arm tattoos. Her forearms are tattooed with hornbill (tingang) and kalong kelunan motifs, while the wrists are marked with “shoots of bamboo” (fertility symbols). Kalong kelunan, a stylized human figure in a squatting position seen between the S-fret designs, has various forms and usually is reinforced by a stylized hornbill motif (at top): at other times it is anchored by aso’ or the dragon-dog design. Aristocratic women wore the kalong, because it was believed that they were closer to the spirit world than laypersons and only they could resist any negative magic associated with the design. In the distant past, the motif may have represented a ritual offering, depicting a slave sacrifice, or a guardian spirit.
Photos © 2003-2006 Lars Krutak

Lahanan woman with full compliment of protective, traditional arm tattoos. Many motifs, reminiscent of tendrils and hooks, symbolize floral imagery and fertility. To the Orang Ulu, plants are regarded as major living things, sharing the same fundamental properties of life and death as humans. The hornbill (tingang) and kalong kelunan tattoos appear on her forearm. Both designs are protective in nature repelling evil spirits. Double moon motifs also comprise this intricate tattoo.
Photos © 2003-2006 Lars Krutak

Elderly Lahanan man tattooed by woman tattooist approximately 70 years ago. On his shoulders are bunga teduk (“starfruit”). His tattoos represent a stylized combination of hornbill and aso’ (dragon-dog) motifs. Some art historians insist that these tattoos are neither bird, dog, or dragon designs (water spirit), but tigers. Tigers never lived in Borneo, but their teeth and skins, which were believed to have special powers, came to the Orang Ulu through trade with other Indonesian islands. Different Orang Ulu groups associated the tiger with high rank and the male qualities of strength and bravery that were needed during the traditional headhunt. Regardless of the associations, this tattoo design represents a protective symbol. Photo © 2003-2006 Lars Krutak

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