And so we reach that time of the year: Kuching's month of food that stretches…
QUICK READ/MEDIUM READ/LONG READ
QUICK READ/MEDIUM READ/LONG READ
The Ngar is arduous. The complete ceremony lasts many days and its many stages must be conducted precisely, filled with difficult work, and involving considerable outlay of effort as well as expense for a rural community in Sarawak. Now, as in the past, the welfare of an entire longhouse can depend on its successful outcome. At the end, a community of women will have all the threads they need, properly set, for the production of pua kumbu, the ritual cloth once created by every Iban community in Sarawak, depicting characters both natural and supernatural engaged in carefully constructed scenes from indigenous cosmology.
At Rumah Gare, one of the last kampungs in Baleh to regularly practice this ritual, the Ngar involves a good proportion of the women in the community. They are overseen with martial attention to detail by one of the last dream weavers in Sarawak, Bangie anak Embol, a woman sought out by anthropologists, pua kumbu afficionados and craft devotees from across the world for her skill at weaving and her standing in a lineage of master weavers. She and her family have been singled out by the spirits for seven generations, accorded the ability and the authority to properly lead the Ngar.
It can be a heavy responsibility. For the Ngar, huge hanks of cotton thread are carted down to the river at sunset to be washed in the flowing water. Great gunny sacks of ginger and galangal are chopped, pounded (more often than not blended in the modern world) to the rhythmic thump of the parang on the log or the pounder on the lesong. Various vats are boiled over hot hours and hot coals, sending clouds of aromatic steam into the air. The clean threads are placed in the dulang, long belian troughs laid under a rough wooden structure hung with heavy hooks, one for each woman weaver. The boiling juice splashes over the sleeping fibres and, almost immediately, even before the steam has a chance to dissipate, the multiple feet of many women are on top of it. They tread the ginger into the scalding threads, weaving in and out, holding onto the hooks and each other for balance, working their way down the length of the dulang and then doubling back, before hopping out into a waiting and welcome bath of cool water.
The treading continues at intervals, day and night, the many feet working the mixture into the cotton. The women occupy the ruai (communal area), the men relegated to the bilek (apartment) behind. The sodden hanks are hung up to dry on the waiting hooks. There is one for every weaver and each hank is tied with a different string to identify its owner, but this is a communal effort. As dawn breaks on the third day, the culmination approaches. The concoction will be complete this time – piles of pounded kepayang and its pungent oil, charred blocks of salt from the Nipah palm, buckets of turmeric, more mounds of ginger and crushed cekor are burned, pounded and boiled in the dawn light. The aroma is intense, fresh and musty at once. It is the odour of the earth, of sweat and spices.
The women emerge en masse, in pua kumbu patterns from head to toe. The miring ceremony is conducted entirely by the weavers, from the preparation of the offerings to the berbiau (ritual chant) before they dive in for the final dunking and treading. Threads hung, the women race to the river to wash away any laziness, foolishness or failure in its waters. The last in the river will inherit all this from the rest and so the race is fierce. The whoops of elation ring round the kampung in one giant splash.
All this effort is only so the dye from the engkudu root will take. It’s the mordanting process alone, to give it a technical term. Two further days of hanging and untangling inside plus a further four outside to catch the sun and the dew await but, at its conclusion, Bangie looks relaxed for the first time.
This process is almost entirely unchanged since their grandmothers practised it. Once the community cultivated their own cotton, meaning that the entire cloth was made in the kampung, but this has now been replaced by imported threads from China. Apparently one lonely cotton tree still survives in the Kapit area, but it is long past its productive life. All other materials in the Rumah Gare pua kumbu are both entirely natural and entirely original. The plants for the dyes – Tarum, engkudu, engkerabai, janggau and akar penawar landak – are foraged from the surrounding forest, the roots unearthed and the leaves gathered by hand. Of course, the Ngar is only the appetiser. The final cloth requires months of ikat weaving – tying the threads to mark out the patterns, dying them and retying them, many times over for cloths of many colours, and finally weaving them on the backstrap loom. Back-breaking indeed.
Bangie, at the age of 77, is on guard throughout. She guides the others in every aspect of the ceremony because, in the end, she believes that, if the Ngar is improperly performed, then the hard-won colours will quickly leach out and the pua will lose its value. Once she received a warning in a dream that her Ngar was not quite right and she was forced to repeat the painstaking process from the beginning. On many occasions, she looks exhausted, eyes dipping closed before popping open with a start but, somehow, she summons up the energy to go on. To her, the correct conduct of the Ngar is essential because the price of every pua that comes out of Rumah Gare, and the standard of its excellence, is the future of her people.
The pua kumbu has always been more than a cloth to this indigenous community. It has played a central role in the life of the longhouse and its cosmology. There are multiple origin stories, connected to both nature and the spirits. In one, a hunter shoots a beautiful bird only to find it transformed into a pua kumbu skirt belonging to Dara Tinchin Temaga, the daughter of Sengalang Burong. This is the foundation of Iban cosmology, in which the human, natural and spirit worlds co-exist and therefore must find a happy harmony. Channels of communication are opened between these worlds through rituals, chants and, most importantly through mimpi, lucid dreams that contain messages from the spirits. These dreams inspired entire communities to migrate, resettle, go to war and, of course, to weave.
The motifs came from mimpi and so the weaving inspired action. It was once both the initiation of headhunting and the ultimate destination for the head. Heads were believed to bring kuasa (power) and fertility back to the community and the Iban men were widely renowned for their thirst for its power, but it was the pua kumbu that would receive the severed head and transform the skull from enemy into ally. Once the women began to weave, the men were incited to answer their expectations, communicated in the designs on their cloth. It is no wonder that anthropologist Traude Gavin titled her seminal work on pua kumbu: ‘The Women’s Warpath’. The protective power of the pua was woven into the stories of the cloth, defining space at rituals, at weddings, at funerals, at births. A woman with a pua kumbu skirt was considered an icon of beauty. Every major moment in an Iban’s life was encircled by these threads.
But the women weavers were the conduit for enormous spiritual energy, and it was not taken lightly. One slip, of the eye or the ego, and they risked spiritual retaliation. The weavers needed to earn their abilities in a lifetime of study and, most importantly, to follow the rules. Helen Manjan anak Atong, Bangie’s sister in life and in weaving, lists out the members of their family who fell foul, dying young or falling ill, all a result of some spiritual intervention in her explanation. But still the women weave on. Just as the men counted their prowess in the heads, the women counted theirs in the pua kumbu and their quality. Headhunting might have been gone for a hundred years but the practice of pua carries on. More importantly, so does its meaning. The women continue in their role of bringing kuasa (power) to their community, this time as much in the form of commerce.
Rumah Gare is now the undisputed centre of this cottage industry in Sarawak. More than twenty weavers continue to create pua kumbu of the highest quality, in technique and design, and they are very much in demand. Many communities have abandoned the practice entirely and still more have switched to the simplicity of synthetic materials. The machine loom can now churn out close approximations of the original but bereft of all its handcrafted power and spiritual meaning – easily accessible and affordable nonetheless. Rumah Gare is remote, a long ride by river on a longboat or a terrifying logging track, and work is scarce. In the absence of their income from pua kumbu, this community, like so many others in Sarawak with the forest now depleted by logging and oil palm plantations, might have fled their mountains and streams in search of an alternative.
Bangie herself is acutely aware of this. She raised five children after the early death of her husband, and they are all clever, she says, with jobs. She not only earned the money for their upkeep on her loom, but she has also taught them a skill that they can trade on. Many of the women in her village, including her daughter Rose, have learned from her. It is Bangie’s will which maintains the quality. The pua kumbu from Rumah Gare are tied off after every warp thread while other practitioners tie off every four, meaning the pattern remains tight. They can come in five colours – red, black, blue, yellow and white – each an extra ikat. They remain absolutely natural and original. On the final day of the ritual, the ruai is hung with pua kumbu, old and new, but the colours still bright as if they were woven yesterday. It is a long thread of connecting the women in this community. When asked why the practice still sticks at Rumah Gare while other communities have forgotten, Bangie replies: “Sebab Bangie tidak lupa (Because Bangie hasn’t forgotten)”.
This is not ego. This is simple fact. Bangie and her family are an inspiration to the others in more ways than one. She has the spiritual authority to weave, and especially to dye, transmitted through the women in her family. Her grandmother, Jebau anak Tuah, received a dream from a river spirit, Kumang Wong, that this standing would continue for seven generations, each with their own spiritual guide, of which Bangie and Helen are the third and Rose the fourth. If weaving is a dangerous undertaking, the other women take some courage from their very existence. The women in this family know the Ngar. They can weave dangerous designs. And also, Bangie dreams.
It is indeed a calling. She had never intended this life for herself. She resisted the hard work of the Ngar until a series of mimpi, each more urgent than the last and each ignored until one threatened that her longhouse would burn if she didn’t answer. Her final capitulation saw her own guide reveal herself as Bunsu Genali, the Goddess of Snakes. So, Bangie sees the stories and the designs in her sleep, sent by spirits of air and water, and then she translates them into cloth. In spite of her conversion to Christianity at a young age, she knows that she can create original designs with spiritual significance under the old ways and accord them new praise names. She never copies. For the Iban, there is no greater value.
So, Bangie is the undisputed master. Her position puts the success of the Ngar in her hands. The other women, none of whom have dreams, take her semangat seriously, following her every instruction. They even lick the mixture from the Ngar bath from her hands as a way to take in the magic she has imbued it with. While women once competed for their individual status through the completion of pua kumbu, now it must be a collective effort. They each have their individual threads, but they steep in the same spiritual concoction.
“Bangie never copies.
For the Iban,
there is no
Bangie’s magic also extends beyond their community. The presence of a dream weaver has brought in academics and craft experts from far and wide to meet this almost mythical creature. Academics like Janet Rata Noel of the Tun Jugah Foundation, Welyne Jeffrey Jehom of the University of Malaya and Jacqueline Fong of Tanoti House, a community concern dedicated to reviving the art of Kain Songket, are now part of this new network of women ensuring the existence of pua kumbu into the future. Taking the title of Puan Sri Margaret Linggi’s book on pua kumbu, these are the ties that bind.
As a result, these women have an income. Each weaver sells their own pua but, when big orders come in, the spoils are shared. Thus, the kuasa of the community is increased. As Helen puts it: “Everything in this kampung has come from pua kumbu; every brick and every tile even”. Bangie says that men can now weave but there is not one taking part in this Ngar. It is exclusively a female preserve. Their excited chatter fills the air down at the riverbank, sarongs hitched up around their knees, as they weave in unison, as they tread the threads together, as they celebrate after the ceremony with copious bottles of rice wine. The men are absent or entirely spectators. Bangie’s son was heard to ask: “You want the women to weave; what are the men supposed to do?” But then, as Tuai Rumah (Village Headman), it is his name, Gare, that fronts the brand that is now synonymous with pua kumbu in the modern world; studied, filmed and feted as far away as Scotland and Santa Fe.
These women are not just the bringers of kuasa but also now the guardians of the culture. While it was always impossible that the pua kumbu would survive the onslaught of the modern mass-market textile unscathed, Rumah Gare at least is likely to ensure its continued existence. Bangie longs to have a gallery as a means to keep the stories of her community alive. In the meantime, she is keeping food on the table, not just for herself but for the whole longhouse. It is not an easy living. Although the Rumah Gare pua kumbu are famous across Sarawak, the price they fetch is a small return for such an extreme outlay of skill and time. It must remain a pursuit driven by purpose and passion as much as profit.
Bangie has one further responsibility as master and that is to anoint her successor. She is waiting for her dream. There are two clear contenders – her sister Helen and her daughter Rose – both of entirely different characters but each with the authority to lead. Rose understands the requirements all too well, having been by her mother’s side through many pua kumbu in process. A modern master weaver now needs a manager, it seems. She worries about her mother constantly, especially her health. “Her role is very big,” she says. “I can feel the weight on her shoulders.”
Rose too has learned pua kumbu the hard way. For her first, her mother helped her to ikat and then vanished to Kuala Lumpur for a month on the instruction that the weaving needed to be finished by her return. Apparently, with other students, Bangie will take them step by step, but a long line of master weavers comes with a heavy expectation. It was a hard test for an eight-year-old. “I cried and cried”, Rose says. “The design was very simple but, when she got back, it was done”. She has watched the women in her family for generations and now she knows the ways to weave.
The spirits might choose the path, but they don’t leave a manual, especially one for the modern world. As the pressures grow on rural communities to survive, a new harmony must be found, one between a family’s spiritual legacy, a community’s physical necessities and a culture’s continuation. For Rose, this is a new network, entirely interlinked. One aspect cannot survive without the rest. But she quietly welcomes the possibility of being chosen. She says: “I would like to take over. It is my family. So, I must make myself ready. But in the end, the spirits will decide.” Already Rose knows every aspect, except one. The dream. But even Bangie didn’t dream until after she was anointed. Does Rose want them? She genuinely doesn’t know and doesn’t want to want them. “I want her to be proud of me. But I must be myself. Rose is Rose and Bangie is Bangie.” Regardless, when it comes to Bangie, there can be only one.
BANGIE ANAK EMBOL
OF THE NGAR