In Focus

Headhunter's jacket (baju kirai)

Known in the literature as kelambi sungkit, or sungkit jacket, this type of war vest is called baju kirai by the Saribas Iban. It has often been mistakenly referred to as baju taya, which is a war vest containing rough cotton padding between two layers of fabric.

The baju kirai was worn by all Iban warriors when they went into battle, and it was also handed down through the generations, often passed on to the eldest male in the family, not only as an heirloom but as a real and practical war vest to be worn with pride. Such vests would see constant repair and alteration as the years took their toll.

This war vest, recorded as being six generations old in 1970, is tailored out of two sets of fabric woven from homespun and homegrown cotton. The inner lining was left undyed, while the outer garment was dyed in engkudu (noni) and then embroidered (by means of the supplementary weft technique) with various motifs. Once the motifs were completed, the dyed fabric with the embroidered motifs was sewn onto a lining of woven homespun cotton.

Three upper rows of floral motifs decorate the front, while two lower bands comprising fruitlike motifs complete the frontispiece. The front of the vest is typically sparsely embellished, as a warrior did not appear in battle with loud and bold patterns that would attract his enemies' attention. The back of the vest, however, is a veritable masterpiece. The deity Indu Dara Tinchin Temaga (in the Saribas) or Dara Meni (in the Batang Ai) is paired with a partner. In the Saribas, the partner could be eithe#r her son Sera Gunting (who taught the Iban the rules of war) or her husand, Ketpong (the principle omen bird and most senior son-in-law of the god of war). Either way, the principle deity here is Indu Dara Tinchin Temaga (or Dara Meni), the eldest daughter of Sengalang Burong (the god of war), and, as suggested by being prominantly displayed on the back of a warrior's jacket, the tutelary spirit or familiar of the weaver. She advises and assists supernaturally through dream encounters with the wearer and in some oral histories of the Saribas, even causes the wearer to be invincible to all manner of weapons (blades, spears, and even darts). Interestingly, this depiction of Indu Dara Tinchin Temaga and her paired partner has the all-important "dangling prize" (in the shape of a pendant with a cross inside) hanging between them—the much coveted trophy head.

Below the two rows of Indu Dara Tinchin Temaga (or Dara Meni) and her male partner are more rows of well-embellished representations of trophy heads, taking the innocuous forms of fruit and droplets of seeds. In battle, the Iban warrior's back is the most vulnerable, which is why his back must always be supernaturally shielded with powerful motifs of deities and offerings of trophy heads to appease them.

Adapted from

Vernon Kedit, "Headhunter's jacket (baju kirai)" 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), 164-165.

Web Resources

  • Wikipedia
    Learn more about the Iban people.