Borneo - a Bejalai

Borneo - a Bejalai

Going to Borneo was a childhood dream, an adventure that had finally come to fruition. One of the main reasons for my going there was to experience a culture that was so different to that of the western world in which I grew up. A culture that included tattooing, head hunting and an intricate knowledge of their surroundings.

After leaving Kuching, Sarawak, we found ourselves in Pontianak waiting for a bus to theBornean interior and Putussibau. This is virtually the "capital" of an area they call "the heart of Borneo" so we knew it was going to be an experience from the start.

The bus journey took 18 hours and was on some of the bumpiest roads I'd ever been on, my head literally hit the roof on several occasions. We arrived and headed off to the forestry department to get some more info. We managed to hook up with an organization calledKompak, a locally run organisation that puts travelers and local guides together. They advised us of where the best places to go tattoo hunting were and the best places to try and make contact with different ethnic groups. Whilst we were sorting out plans, the head honcho aka "Hermas" asked if we wanted to stay in his long house, we couldnt believe our luck. In fact we ended up using it as a base (his choice not ours!) for the rest of our travels and stayed their on and off for a month! The level of hospitality was incredible, i have made a life long friend in Hermas and am going back to see him later this year.

We found a family group of Iban that still knew how to tattoo in a long house called Sadap, which is in a national park that borders Sarawak. We did a little recon trip there just to check everything out, meet and greet, sort out somewhere to stay etc. Then we returned about 10 days later to start one of the most unique tattooing processes on the planet.

On our first night we had dinner with our host family and went to visit the man who did all the tattoos for the tribe.

The following is an extract from my diary:

"Whilst talking to the tattoo master of Sadap in the Kapuas Ulu district, unfortunately he was blind but he still recounted the original system of tattooing and the significance of each design. This man was tattooed with original designs from head to toe, whilst ironically having a plane, rosary and a naked woman tattooed on his chest. When asked how he had come to have such modern designs along side his traditionally covered body several comments arose that made me smile.

The reason for having a plane was as follows; someone else in the village had paddled up into Malaysian Borneo and had managed to catch a lift back into Kalimantan with a missionary. This journey had taken weeks and he was very grateful to have been brought back so swiftly and in such style, having never seen a plane before, so he asked the tattoo master if he could tattoo a sketch of a plane on his chest. The tattoo master did as he asked but found himself jealous, so he set about on a quest to find a plane. He paddled for weeks up through Sarawak until he found an airfield, he looked at the machines with awe, yet was denied a lift back. After deciding there was nothing he could do, he paddled all the way back to Sadap, where he decided that seeing a plane was enough and had a similar design tattooed on his chest.

Now this may be seen as a horror story for those that like tradition to be kept pure, however, the Iban tattoo is a part of their Bejalai, which is similar to the aboriginal concept of Walkabout. Therefore, a plane had been part of their lives, it may not have been a traditional symbol or following the normal structure, but the whole point of a Bajalaiis to gain knowledge through experience. This for me is what tattooing is all about, a map of one’s life, a successful joining of both the old and the new ways in something that could be appreciated by all that came across him."

The following photos show the mans tattoos:

We also learned that all Iban men are required to go on a bejalai when they come of age. This is equivalent of the Australian aborigines walkabout. The Iban men must leave their homes and go in search of wealth, knowledge and wisdom for a period of up to one and a half years. During this time they were tattooed by different villages as a map of what they had accomplished. The majority of tattoos bestow protection on the bearer in various different forms and also, due to variances in designs, show the regions and peoples that he has visited.

The tattoo master told me that the order of tattooing for his village was quite precise. They have 5 distinct levels that went as follows:

1. Throat

2. Shoulders (front)

3. Back

4. Lower Body

5. Ribs

Each tattoo represented an animal or sacred spirit in Bornean mythology and or a piece of protection. For example, the tattoos on the mans ribs represent an elephant and the elephants tusks, which protect him from both sides. The tattoo on the back of his neck prevents another tribe taking his head off.

After some discussion they agreed to tattoo me and my traveling partner Sean. We had to follow the specific order but I declined to have one on my throat. This led to further discussion and he agreed that I could have my shoulders done with the Bunga Terong, what some of you may know as the Bornean Rose. I was overjoyed and felt really privileged to be given such an opportunity. It was clearly a big decision for him but one that he felt happy to do. That night we had a few drinks of the local palm beer, Tuak (approx. 5-8%)

I awoke with the sun, after spending the night in the forestry departments hut, finding the man preparing the ink outside with a candle and a bowl.

These photos show the collection of soot, the binding of the needles and the creation of the ink:

There were two sets of tools in use, the outliner had 4 needles and the filler had 7 needles, much like with modern tattoo guns. At some points i was being tattooed with both at the same time to speed the filling up.

We then began with my outline, centre design, filler, second one and a bit of self tattooing by myself:

The whole process took 9 hours in total and was excruciatingly painful. I was told that complaining was unacceptable as I was being honored and had to be brave. I meditated and stared at a spot on the roof whilst the constant tap tap tap went on and on. The pain shooting down my arm in one direction and into my head the other. The force of the needle hitting my collar bone eventually caused my fingers to start twitching independently and regular breaks were needed to ensure both my body and the of the artist could withstand the constant effort required.

The two people who worked on my tattoos were apprentices as the original master had gone blind. This led to mistakes in places and overall, my tattoos being rather unusual. They aren't very symmetrical, they aren't filled very well and they took longer than they should have. At first I was a little disappointed, but then realized that what I had was better than any perfect tattoo. I was part of a revival. I was part of something that had gone on for centuries, almost been lost and was now coming back. The fact that it isn'tperfect means that for me they are the most valuable tattoos i have. I hope that now they have learnt a bit more that they will continue this tradition through generations to come.

Finally, what do they really mean? I have read many things on the Internet about the BungaTerong and its significances. Some are right, some are totally wrong and some are almost there.... The thing is, this design has been copied, changed, edited, artistically adapted and each tribe does it differently. The first tribe to do this design, called it the "eye of the dog" This tribe calls it the "egg plant tattoo" I have chatted to various tattoo anthropologists, experts and artists alike and no matter what they call it, the meaning is always quite similar.

For the Iban of Sadap, the Bunga Terong represents a cross section of the Egg plant. A plant that is commonly seen all over Borneo in the right season. The spiral in the middle is called "Tali Nyawa" which loosely translates as the rope of life. (If you take a tadpole from Borneo and turn it upside down, it has this pattern on its stomach) It also represents protection from harm, from both directions as its on both shoulders. Finally, it represents the start of a mans Bajalai, his walkabout and his progression to adulthood. For me it represents all of those things and so much more....