Saturday, August 9, 2014

Bejalai Body Art

Ernest K. Umpie, renowned Iban tattoo artist describes Bahakau body art.  The bejalai, he explains, can loosely be defined as a journey, or a voyage of discovery.  After leaving the safety of the village, a warrior-to-be would head out into unfamiliar lands.  Lessons were learned and skills were taught, like boat building, hunting, shamanism and even traditional dancing.  With each new task mastered, the traveler would add a tattoo to their body creating a biographical constellation of swirling designs.

Traditionally an Iban would get their first tattoo around the age of 10 or 11.  The initiating tattoo was the eggplant flower, or the bungai terung, drawn on each shoulder.  The design was rich with symbolism, and commemorated the beginning of one's journey as a man (women were known to get them as well).  The squiggly center of the flower symbolized new life and represented the intestines of a tadpole, visible through their translucent skin.  The plant's petals were a reminder that patience was a virtue, and that only a patient man could truly learn life's lessons.

After receiving the egg plant ornament, the Iban was ready to leave home.  Scores of tattoos followed, including the popular crab design, usually inked on a man's arm.  The design symbolized strength and evoked the strong legs and hard shell of the crafty sideways walkers.  When animism was more widely embraced, the Iban believed that the design, when drawn with magical ink, could act like the actual shell of a crab, protecting bearers from the blade of a machete.  For women, tattoos on the arm meant that they were skilled at craft making.

Later on, the bravest travelers received the coveted throat tattoo as they evolved into "Bujang berani" (literally meaning "brave bachelor").  The design - a fish body that morphs into a double-headed dragon - wanders up from the soft spot at the center of the human clavicle, known as the "life point' to the Iban.

The top of the hands was reserved for those who had taken heads.

Also every animal facing inward must have something to eat - dragons were always depicted with a small lizard near their mouths- because if the design was left hungry it would feed on the bearer's soul.

The number of tattoos acquired on the journey greatly increased one's desirability as a bachelor.  It was also believed that a large number of tattoos enabled a soul to shine brightly in the afterlife.

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