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Pua kumbu represents a quintessential part of Iban culture and a symbol of continuous female genealogy. Dr Welyne Jeffrey Jehom, the Head of Research at Universiti of Malaya’s Centre for Malaysian Indigenous Studies, explains the significance behind this sacred cloth.
Every culture has a unique heirloom synonymous with its people. In Iban culture, this heirloom is none other than the pua kumbu, a hand-woven ceremonial textile that helps bind its social fabric together.
The pua kumbu is made using a tie-dye resist technique that utilises fibres and dyes sourced from the jungles of Borneo. Traditionally used to symbolise rites of passage, it serves as an important feature which accompanies all facets of life; from the birth of a newborn, to decorating the longhouse for wedding ceremonies, furnishing a newlywed’s chamber, curing the sick, and sheltering the body of a passed loved one during a funeral.
Pua kumbu comes in a variety of styles.
These days, pua kumbu come in modernised presentations such as shawls and household items like placemats, sofa throws and table runners. However, only non-sacred designs are used as household products; more potent designs are still considered sacred and kept as heirlooms or decorative wall art.
What makes the pua kumbu special is its continuous female genealogy.
“Weaving skills and knowledge have been passed down from grandmother, to mother and eventually, to daughter. In a way, this tradition has served to sustain and preserve Iban cultural heritage,” explains Dr Welyne Jeffrey Jehom, who originates from Kuching, Sarawak. As a social anthropologist, Dr Welyne’s area of expertise lies in the cultural heritage of the Iban people. She also serves as the founder of the Rumah Gareh Pua Kumbu Community Project, which looks at preserving the art of pua kumbu by creating employment for the rural Iban community.
“In the past, the ability to weave was seen as an essential skill to learn before a woman could marry. Young Iban women were taught by their mothers to weave and thus spent painstaking attention to detail, taking months at a time, to complete a single piece. These weavings were later kept on as sacred family heirlooms.”
Dr Welyne is a social anthropologist and the founder of Rumah Gareh Pua Kumbu Community Project.
According to Dr Welyne, there are many influences that go into the design of pua kumbu, such as Iban religion and cosmology. “It is believed that spirits co-habit on earth with us and that the gods live in the upper cosmos. That said, inspirations can come from perceptions of gods, deities and spirits. Motifs can similarly be inspired by nature or non-living things in this world.”
The time-consuming weaving process is what makes every pua kumbu piece irreplaceable. Each piece varies in its time of completion due to different levels of intricacy. For example, an 8x2 foot sheet normally woven in four pieces at a time takes up to five to six months to complete.
An interesting part of the making of pua kumbu is its pre-treatment process before dyeing, which involves a ritual known as nakar. Nakar is seen as a rite of passage for weavers to ensure the mordants (dye fixatives) are measured properly with the help of divine assistance, which is essential to maintain the quality of weaving. Only the most proficient of weavers can carry out the ritual, as the weaver must adhere to the proper rites and taboos to be able to mix the exact quantities for the desired colour effect. Nakar is performed ceremonially through a ritual called the Gawai Ngar, which is known as a dyeing festival.
“Designs are created by tying groups of yarn using a resist material followed by dyeing of the warp using a red-brown colour from natural dye,” explains Dr Welyne on the pua kumbu’s tie-dye resist technique. Next, some of the dyed areas are covered accordingly, while the rest are left untied to be dyed a second colour – such as blue, from the leaves of the indigo plant. When absorbed by the areas dyed red-brown, the blue turns the area black.
Authentic pua kumbu and other Iban crafts are available for purchase at Rh Gareh’s retail store in Amcorp Mall.
Despite its ubiquity in Iban culture, the journey to sustain pua kumbu in today’s day and age isn’t easy. Due to weavers’ poor access to threads, scarcity of materials from deforestation, and a lack of interest amongst the younger generation in weaving, the production of authentic pua kumbu could very well fizzle out. This lack of resources has also lead most longhouses to opt for synthetic dyes instead of natural ones. Dr. Welyne notes that only a select few weavers, especially from Rumah Gareh, Kapit, keep to the traditional ways of using natural dyes.
Outside of Sarawak, where can Malaysians purchase authentic pua kumbu for their own homes? Fortunately, the Rumah Gareh Pua Kumbu Community Project has just opened its own shop at Amcorp Mall, Petaling Jaya. Empowering Iban women from or living in Rumah Gareh, the project intends to create employment opportunities for the community, on top of funding processes such as weaving, planting of dye plants, product distribution and more.
Essentially, its main hope is to sustain the art of pua kumbu weaving traditions and production for years to come.
For more info, visit rhgareh.org.
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi. Pua kumbu photos courtesy of Dr Welyne Jeffrey Jehom.
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