Dayak, or ‘people of the interior,’ is a catch-all term that loosely describes more than two hundred groups living along the hills and rivers of Kalimantan. After their ancestors migrated across the hundreds of tributaries that carve through Borneo, Dayak tribes settled into small communities and built distinctive longhouses that define the social organization of each group. With stilts lifting the house off the ground to protect from floods and provide underfloor ventilation, the longhouse is an appropriate solution to life in the forest and serves as the locus of traditional and ceremonial life.
In the past, the ritual meaning of Dayak textiles was inseparable from headhunting. Enemy heads were believed to contain hostile spirits that could wreak havoc if not properly contained. Only a textile with powerful protective motifs could contain that energy. With the right textile, it was believed that captured heads could make the rice fields fertile and bring prosperity to the village. Weaving such textiles was considered a spiritually dangerous act, with the same risks of injury or death as going to war. A woman who wove ceremonial cloths proved her strength and courage to the community.
A Dayak woman’s social status was once defined by her skills in weaving and dyeing. A woman who could produce traditional cloths earned the respect of her community, and the forms within the cloth were tightly bound to the folklore, ritual and social systems of that community. Today, urbanisation and the destruction of Borneo’s rainforests threaten the Dayak social order and way of life. Despite this Dayak people continue their traditions and culture with annual ceremonies (gawai) related to the harvest, bringing people back to their traditional house from all over the archipelago. During this time a range of life cycle ceremonies will be performed.
A pua kumbu is made from two panels of ikat cloth that are sewn together into a larger blanket called pua. It is used as a decorative hanging during harvest ceremonies among the Dayak of Kalimantan called Gawai, where it may be hung or used as the blanket upon which offerings are placed for the ancestor. Kumbu refers to the red color of the textile derived from the bark of the root of Morinda citrifolia tree. The mordant process used to achieve the red dye is complex as it requires many different plants from the forest and must be performed with a ritual.
A pua may also be used to cover a person who is ill during a healing with a traditional doctor. The Dayak textiles have always been highly regarded for their unique designs woven from dreams.
Bidang is an single panel ikat woven textile made by the Dayak Desa women in the Sintang area of West Kalimantan. A bidang is a single panel textile that is then opened and sewn into a tubular skirt it can also be left as an open single textile used for ceremonies upon which offerings are placed or it may wrap an offering.
Tating is the traditional tubular skirt but with embellishments of bells, beads and shells. It is worn by the Dayak Desa women of West Kalimantan for special ceremonies such as the ritual bathing of a newborn child in the river to introduce the child to the spirit of the river, a tooth filing ceremony, ritual rice pounding or a marriage ceremony. Tating refers to the sound of the decorative bells sewn onto the edge of the textile. The motifs are important ceremonial symbols relating to the ritual role that the women are expected to perform.
Cilai gantung is a breast wrap worn for ceremonies by the Dayak Desa women in West Kalimantan.
Biduk sungkit is made using a supplementary warp wrap patterning and is made by the Dayak Kantuk and worn as a skirt. This skirt is worn for ceremonies such as weddings, tooth filings and the first bathing of a child to introduce the spirit of the river to the newborn. In the past a woman had to be able to weave a textile such as to be considered marriageable.