In Focus

Betel nut bag (kalimbut hada)

Betel nut chewing is practiced from India to New Guinea and northward to the Philippines. Its origins are not known, but it is assumed that the practice began thousands of years ago. The ingredients for a chew consist of a betel (areca) nut, the leaf of a pepper vine, and a touch of lime. Chewing acts as a mild stimulant, somewhat similar to a cup of coffee. In addition to its physiological attraction, betel nut chewing is firmly embedded in the social and religious fabric of Indonesia. Betel nut is offered as a sign of hospitality and friendship throughout the region and to the spirits during rituals and ceremonies.

Betel nut containers are made from diverse materials, reflecting culture, class, and region. Those composed of plant materials, wood, and cloth, are often decorated with valuable and precious beads and shells. Metalsmiths fashioned skillful designs in gold and silver that were sometimes embellished with precious gems.

Gold and silver containers for betel nut, pepper leaves, and lime, as well as their accompanying spittoons, are beautiful examples of technical virtuosity and aesthetic genius, but few complete betel nut sets have survived. Honored guests of the royal courts of Java were served betel nut as a gesture of friendship and welcome at rites of passage, including marriage, circumcisions, ritual tooth-filings, death, and burial.

In the more remote regions of the country, indigenous islanders carried the ingredients for a betel chew in less ostentatious containers that were especially made for this purpose. While their function was similar, their decoration and ritual use varied.

Men's beaded betel nut bags (kalimbut hada) from East Sumba are among the most striking and ornate. These exceptional ceremonial bags were highly valued and imbued with symbolism associated with status and power. Heirloom bags were included in the sacred treasuries of noble families, and were displayed at important ceremonies including funerals for men of the nobility. During the mourning period, they were brought daily to the grave site.

Bags were completely covered with beaded designs and motifs associated with the ruling nobility and could be made only by women of noble lineage. Beads were said to be gifts of the ancestors, indicating their sacred nature and value. Most seem to be of European origin, and colors include white, pink, green, blue, orange (gold), and rust. Birds form the primary motif on many bags, but examples also feature deer, chickens, and a Dutch coat of arms. Similar beaded images and configurations were also worn around the neck as part of traditional funerary finery and as headbands.

The royal, beautiful, and rare Dallas piece, acquired in the 1970s in East Sumba, features a large white male figure with raised arms that dominates the bag. The background is filled with various abstract forms and figural elements that represent birds, possibly deer and horses, and other anthropomorphic creatures. Attached to both sides and the bottom of the bag are openwork circular pendants. A handle and strap hangs at one side. This exceptional example is a bold aesthetic statement that proclaims the exalted status of its owner and the prominent role that betel nut chewing played among the Sumbanese people.

Excerpt from

George Ellis, "Betel nut bag (kalimbut hada)," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 222-223.