Ceremonial cloth (pua sungkit)
This pua sungkit, dyed the deepest burgundy with images of deities bursting forth like flames of white fire devouring rotting corpses, is called Menyeti Lebur Api Mansau Tisi Dilah Kendawang, or “the Beautiful White Heat with Deep Red Edges like the Tongue of the Krait.” It is arguably one of the most sought-after Iban cloths in existence and is surely the crowning jewel in the Dallas Museum of Art's entire collection of Iban textiles for three reasons: its age (as indicated by its loose weave), the dexterous skill that went into its creation, and the designs it bears. Both side borders have only the one colored selvedge, a prime indicator of old cloths before the advent of imported threads. The weaver’s great skill in the sungkit method is evident from the exacting level of detail, the composition of the intricate flourishes embellishing the main motifs in the central panel, and the elongated nabau, or water serpent, on both stitched-on side borders. The nabau is a ferocious giant serpent, and when it is placed on the side borders of a pua sungkit, the weaver is incorporating a very powerful image meant to contain the spirits in the main body of the cloth. The nabau in turn would be “fed” smaller creatures that would inhabit narrow bands on either side of it. This cloth terrifies yet dazzles the Saribas Iban beholder with its use of powerful mali, or taboo motifs, that only the most daring master weaver would attempt.
The tableau at the bottom of the central panel displays the celebrated “dancing figure” that has excited, confused, and confounded collectors of and commentators on Iban textiles for some time. The "dancing figure" was possibly copied by Iban weavers who had come into contact with Indian trade cloths. However, upon closer inspection, it is clear that the dancing figure depicted on this textile is not just one generic image but actually represents three very different figures, each with its own name and visual characteristics.
It is important to note that in the Saribas, the dancing figure is not perceived as dancing at all but rather is clearly understood by Saribas weavers to be “kneeling” or “stooping” with arms outstretched in anticipation of receiving an object. This figure is faceless (with no distinguishable eyes, mouth, nostrils, or ears), but the bun of hair indicates female gender. Iban deities, especially of the upper world, are hardly ever woven as themselves onto cloth, whether on ikat or sungkit , but when they are, they are always portrayed without distinguishable faces.
In the Saribas, the kneeling figure is Indu Dara Tinchin Temaga, the eldest daughter of the god of war, Sengalang Burong. Indu Dara Tinchin Temaga lives in the heavens at Tansang Kenyalang (Sengalang Burong’s longhouse) and is married to Ketupong, the most senior son-in-law of Sengalang Burong, who takes the earthly form of the principal omen bird, called ketupong (Rufous Piculet). Ketupong, a god himself, is never given a face by weavers. Whenever Indu Dara Tinchin Temaga is portrayed in the kneeling position with arms outstretched, she is often paired with either a fellow deity or a demigod. In this pua sungkit, she is paired with a demigod wearing a loincloth, his sword belt decorated with charms, amulets, and, dangling in exaggerated fashion, a rattan basket containing a freshly taken trophy head. The demigod has a face with distinguishable eyes, mouth, and ears.
Indu Dara Tinchin Temaga had a son with an Iban generally known as Menggin, but called Ming in the Saribas, and named him Sera Gunting, who was then brought back to the upper world and taught the rules of warfare, augury, and the laws against incest by his grandfather, the god of war, Sengalang Burong. Sera Gunting, at the command of his grandfather, accompanied Ketupong on raids to learn the craft of warfare. He then returned to earth to teach this divine lore to the Iban and became known as both the archetypal war leader and lawgiver. When Sera Gunting is paired with his mother, Indu Dara Tinchin Temaga, the connection is apparent. The son returns from a successful war with his trophy head; the mother prepares to receive it, albeit depicted without a Lebur Api in hand—why that is so remains a mystery lost in time.
How do all these figures in the tableau tell a story? Reading the weaver’s unspoken “prayer” from the bottom of the textile, Saribas fashion, first she invokes Ketupong, the principal omen bird of war, and begs for his assistance in dispensing good omens for a favorable outcome in battle. She then calls on her patroness Indu Dara Tinchin Temaga to protect her menfolk and to bring them home safe and triumphant, like Sera Gunting. In tribute to Indu Dara Tinchin Temaga, the weaver delicately depicts the pivotal scene of the son handing over a trophy head to his mother. And as she reaches the end of the central panel, she weaves three rows of six humanlike figures that look deceptively like the Bong Midang, or “War Boats on a Journey,” except that the true Bong Midang figure is characterized squarely by a cross-piece extending from its waist, which the figures on the Dallas Lebur Api are conspicuously lacking. Could the weaver, who so accurately executed the deities of the upper world, have intended these figures to mean something completely different (deliberately leaving out the cross-pieces), and therefore have had no intention of weaving war boats on a journey? Might not a Saribas eye most likely interpret these grotesque caricatures as representing enemies, slain, with limbs twisted, jaws gaping, and eyes bulging out of their rotting skulls, the weaver cursing her menfolk’s enemy with every prayerful stitch and pull of the thread? In this case, the cloth becomes not just a potent prayer for protection, but also a damning curse—a stroke of genius where the pièce de résistance becomes not the so-called dancing figures but rather the soon-to-be-dead enemy.
Nevertheless, this interpretation of the kneeling figure as the goddess Indu Dara Tinchin Temaga attending her son, or possibly her husband, is strictly a Saribas interpretation. The Ulu Ai and later the Baleh interpret the kneeling figure as Dara Meni, the goddess of dyeing. Neither of the goddesses is a principal protagonist in warfare, yet both find themselves on the ritual textile woven to soothe and console the “crying severed head” of the enemy. Could it be Indu Dara Tinchin Temaga’s protective motherly qualities, or Dara Meni’s ability to control the elements, that the weaver is secretly invoking when she finally uses the Lebur Api to swathe her first trophy head? Then again, could the weaver simply have meant to depict very potent motifs so as to imbue her Lebur Api with as much spiritual efficacy as possible, but with no particular story to tell? We will never know, as only the weaver and her family would possess the answer. Nevertheless, one point held in universal agreement across the Iban weaving diaspora is that the motifs do represent named figures in the Iban belief system. The female figure has a name, and depending on whether it is a Saribas Iban or Batang Ai/Baleh Iban beholding the cloth, she is either Indu Dara Tinchin Temaga or Dara Meni, respectively, and never just an anonymous and speculative dancing figure copied from an ancient Indian trade cloth.
Vernon Kedit, "Ceremonial cloth (pua sungkit)" 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), 166-171.
Learn more about the Iban people.