Ceremonial cloth (pua) with monitor lizards slumbering on watchtowers (bandau bepadung)
Reptiles such as monitor lizards, crocodiles, pythons, and water serpents on Iban ritual textiles always suggest two things to the Iban eye. First, the beholder would perceive tua, or spirit familiars of warriors—guardian spirits who take the form of reptiles or certain other animals to help, protect, advise, and warn men through dream encounters when they go to war. On a second, more mystical level, the beholder—especially another weaver—would appreciate that whoever had woven these representations had successfully captured the spirits of such beings. If she wove monitor lizards with leathery scales, it would indicate that the weaver had magically taken on such scales as further protection for herself from malevolent spirits. This design is known as the Bandau Bepadung, or "Monitor Lizards Slumbering on Watchtowers," and it recalls the days of headhunting when warriors would often sit atop high platforms to survey and keep watch over their territory.
The Dallas Bandau Bepadung shows six monitor lizards confronting six others. Monitor lizards are easily distinguished from crocodiles by their conspicuously elongated and curled tails, which almost always form a circular pattern. Designs of crocodiles, creatures that stalk on land as well as in water, are reserved for more mature weavers, while the less lethal monitor lizards are the first reptiles a maturing weaver would attempt to depict.
At first glance, one is almost deceived into thinking that the weaver folded her warp threads during the knotting process in order to create a mirror image, leaving a small line gap where the fold would have been. Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear that the weaver has flawlessly created twelve monitor lizards from the pun, or foundation, of the design at the bottom to the pengabis, or conclusion, of the design at the top without folding the warp threads in half. This is a major and painstaking technical achievement, and one that entailed a fierce battle between her spirit and that of the monitor lizard. Technically, this design constitutes a further exercise or study for maturing weavers to attempt to display their skill at knotting minuscule patterns, as demonstrated in the evenly spaced leathery scales of the lizards—a laborious but essential exercise in positioning, spacing, and duplication.
The lizards are hedged in with upper and lower bands of selaku, or borders, which contain a variant of the trophy head motif as spiritual nourishment for the reptiles so that they do not break free and devour the weaver and her family instead. Edge motifs of the Bali Mabuk, or "Drunken Decapitated Corpse," complete the cloth and ensure that there is plenty of decaying flesh for fodder. The line or gap is the "spiritual chasm" that separates the lizards and keeps them from attacking one another, which would bring about unending chaos in the weaver's life.
The Dallas Museum of Art's outstanding Bandau Bepadung is a prime example of a very old ritual blanket from Bangkit in the Saribas, most likely woven in the middle of the 19th century. The deep maroon background of the cloth accentuates the uncolored lizards and their sharp claws. When a weaver weaves the kukut, or claws, she impresses upon her audience that she is ready to progress to the next level of maturity as a weaver and "claw" her way through the spiritual realm. This Bandau Bepadung is a magnificent display of both womanly courage and ferocious guardian spirits captured in cloth.
Vernon Kedit, "Ceremonial cloth (pua) with monitor lizards slumbering on watchtowers (bandau bepadung)" 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), 158-159.
Learn more about the Iban people.