The Mark of an 'Invincible' Iban

In days gone by, an Iban warrior needed to have tattoos of different shapes and meanings all over his body because without them, he would never be complete.

Such was the importance of tattoos in the life of the Iban community in the old days.

Tattoos in the past symbolised strength and bravery as well as the status of an Iban man.

The mostly Iban Sarawak Rangers, the soldiers of the White Rajah, had tattoos on their bodies.

In Iban mythology, the semi-god Keling had tattoos all over his body.

Legend had it that tattoos gave Keling mystical powers -- his body could not be pierced by a spear or parang and he could disappear and reappear in split seconds.

A group of Iban elders from Kapit gave a stark reminder of the "mysterious" old days.

Calling themselves the "Parang Ilang" group from Rumah Tang, an Iban longhouse at Sungai Paku in Kapit Division, they were once volunteers who fought the communist terrorists when Sarawak was under threat in the 1960s and 1970s.

Each tattoo on the hands, fingers and thighs has different meanings. Their backs are also tattooed.

The tattoo on the throat shows their manliness.

The one on the shoulder is a drawing of a bungai terung (an apple-like Dayak brinjal flower). The drawing is reserved for a "warrior", for example a soldier who had killed an enemy in war.

In the old days, an Iban who had chopped off the heads of enemies during the tribal wars also deserved to have the bungai terung tattooed on his shoulders.

Tattoos, which can be in the form of a hornbill, dragon, centipede, illipeanut flower (bungai engkabang) and python, are part and parcel of Iban culture which is fast disappearing.

Tuai Rumah (village headman) Tang anak Alang, when met at his longhouse recently, said: "In the Iban belief, different tattoos have different places on the body. Each tattoo has a specific place on the body. Bungai terung must be on the shoulders and throats. Hornbill tattoos must be on the chest while illipeanut flower tattoos at the back."

Tang, 75, said bad omen would befall a person if a tattoo was wrongly placed on his body.

Source: Sulok Tawie, The mark of an 'invincible' Iban, New Straits Time, 9 April 2010.