In Focus

Ceremonial cloths (pua sungkit) with Lebur Api (White Heat) design

These cloths are a type of textile known as pua sungkit, a term that refers to their production technique, that of weft wrapping. Pua means "blanket" and sungkit is a verb meaning "to raise it up," thus the phrase might be translated "blanket whose design is raised." The ritual name for such a blanket in the Saribas is Lebur Api, best translated as "White Heat." This design name has multiple levels of meaning. First, it describes the distinctive composition: a predominantly undyed white supplementary weft accompanied by concentrated indigo supplementary weft highlights on a rich maroon wrap background, dyed repeatedly with engkudu (Indian mulberry) and left out in the sun to oxidize. The name also refers explicitly to the blanket's supernatural ability to incinerate negative energy.

The Lebur Api was reserved for use in a critically important religious festival celebrating the introduction of a new trophy head into the longhouse, known formally as the Gawi Enchaboh Arong (Festival of Clearing the Path). The event is also referred to as Sekali ke Tanju (Once at the Open Terrace), referring to its limited practice of calling the gods to attend just once during the day; or Gawai Mata (Fledgling Festival), referring to the festival being celebrated only within one day. Although the festival was short in duration, it was absolutely imperative that the rites were carried out correctly in order to keep the cosmological balance undisturbed; otherwise it would have been catastrophic for the entire longhouse. Severed heads had to be welcomed appropriately so as not to turn them against their new owners. This welcoming ceremony was critical for a warrior who had taken his first trophy head. The pivotal moment in the Gawai Enchaboh Arong in the Saribas was when the trophy head was placed by its possessor in the Lebur Api held by a woman of high rank, almost always a master or grandmaster weaver, who stooped on her knees to receive it like a midwife delivering a newborn baby. She would then cloak the trophy head completely in this blanket, place it in a ceramic bowl called a jalong, and then cradle it in her arms, singing to the head as though singing a lullaby to a child. Other senior women would join her in a procession and respond in chorus. The procession would traverse the entire length of the longhouse. This highly dramatic ritual was known as Nyangkah (in the Saribas, from the noun sangkah which is the name of the chant for receiving trophy heads) and Naku' Pala (in other Iban regions). In stark contrast to the Saribas where the women sang soothingly to the trophy head, in the Batang Ai region, the women yelled jubilantly. It was believed that the intense spiritual force of the blanket, coupled with the hypnotic, magical chanting, would transform the head from an object of potential malevolence to one of good will imbued with potency and fecundity.

Only 19th-century master weavers who possessed great spiritual maturity would weave the Lebur Api, regarded at the time as the highest-ranked Iban textile because of its supernatural ability to render harmless an enemy’s decapitated head. By the 20th century, the activity of head-taking considerably diminished in the Saribas, and the need for the Lebur Api became uncertain. Instead of the Gawai Enchaboh Arong, attention transferred to the Gawai Burong (Festival of the Gods), which was hosted and celebrated by promi­nent warriors, successful war leaders, and men of high rank as an ostentatious affirmation of their advanced status. Within the lexi­cography of Saribas textiles, by the end of the 19th century, the pua sungkit came to be eclipsed in rank by ikat cloths displaying designs reflecting the nine ascending stages of the Gawai Burong. These designs depict the tiang chandi (ceremonial pole) of the ranyai (shrine created by draping pua kumbu around the ceremonial pole).

These two Lebur Api in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art, provenanced to the Baleh region, are fine examples of the best sungkit work. That they were used in the ceremony of receiving trophy heads is more than probable, but not in the Baleh as by the time the Iban entered the Baleh, they used pua kumbu for receiv­ing newly taken heads. Both textiles have a central panel, each with side borders stitched onto it. Each central panel displays tableaux depicting deities, spirit familiars, and fallen victims with their decapitated heads. The added side borders accentuate the visceral theme of head-taking while maintaining subthemes of their own. When "reading" a pua sungkit, the Iban would start at the beginning of the main design at the bottom and make his or her way through the design to the end at the top.

Adapted from

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.