Iban bejalai body art, Borneo

Borneo is the third largest island in the world and divided among three countries: Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. The natives of Borneo consist of different tribes where each has its own language and culture, but all tribes share something in common: the tradition and practice of tattooing.

For many centuries, the tattooing has been a way of life for the Iban, one of the largest tribe, and there is a big mythos and mystery behind the Iban bejalai. The bejalai can 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 where lessons were learned and skills were taught (shamanism, hunting, boat building, etc). With each lesson mastered, the “traveler” would add a tattoo to the body creating a biographical constellation of designs.

Traditionally, an Iban would get the first tattoo around the age of 10. The initiating tattoo is the eggplant flower (bungai terung), drawn on each shoulder. The design is rich with symbolism, and commemorates the beginning of one’s journey as a man. After receiving the eggplant ornaments, the Iban was ready to leave home and scores of tattoos, as the popular crab design inked on a man’s arm or the coveted throat tattoo for the bravest travelers, followed. The bejalai never stopped during a warrior’s life, although when they returned to their village, and the tattoos acted like stamps in a passport: recounting stories of adventure. The number of tattoos acquired greatly increased one’s desirability as a bachelor and it was believed that it enabled a soul to shine brightly in the afterlife.

For women, tattoos on the arm meant that they were skilled at craft making and the designs enhanced their beauty. It is believed that the darker the color of the tattoo, the more beautiful the tattoo and the bearer is. Women were also tattooed as proof of their accomplishments in dancing or singing. Aside from these, the Ibans also bore tattoos for protective purposes as it is said to help ward off harm and disease. There are also several taboos surrounding the bejalai tradition. The most important one was to avoid getting a tattoo on the top of one’s hand, as this area of the body was strictly reserved for those who had taken heads. Also, every animal inked facing inward must have something to eat, because if the design was left hungry it would feed on the bearer’s soul. Over the last century the tattooing materials have greatly changed and the tradition has evolved as well. Traditionally, the ink was made from soot mixed with sugarcane juice, and needles were made from bone or bamboo. Nowadays standard surgical steel needles are commonly used. In recent years, fewer Iban are getting inked, and those who do generally get designs commemorating trips to other countries, or military service.

Although it is by no means a lost art, the tradition of bejalai body art is beginning to fade…

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