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A World of Intrique

THE DIFFERENT CHARMS AND AMULETS – generically named jimat, ajimat, zimat in Malay-Indonesian language – made by the Dayak and Melanau (A-Liko) peoples in Borneo, including East Malaysia (Sarawak, Sabah), Brunei and Kalimantan (Indonesia), have remained little known until now. Some of these are refined small figures carved from hardwoods (ironwood, tapang), bone and lighter wood species which themselves have ritual or spiritual properties for the people. Some natural items (pig’s tusks, animal gall stones, shells) are conceived as possessing special qualities. Generally, charms and amulets are credited with the power to ward off evil and unlucky circumstances, to prevent illnesses or even to obtain invulnerability.

They can be classified in several, broad, categories. Most of these charms have high aesthetic qualities, especially the carved Ngaju Dayak (wood), penyang or karohei and Melanau (bone) fishing charms (suk). They show either zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures represented in different positions (standing, seated, squatting or overlapping). Fertility and love magic figures belong to this category. They often display a touch of fantasy and a mastery of carving in minute detail. I am not considering here the Malay charms and amulets which have specific features relating them to the Islamic world, such as talismanic Arabic writings or geometric figures.

Usually the use of Dayak charms is meant to limit hazards and uncertainty in human activities such as travel, trade, adat hearings, i.e. customary law suits and war and headhunting. While “charms of love and hate”, to quote a Sarawak scholar, Georges Jamuh, in connection to particular cases, ‘charms of love and hate’ have various functions, while others are more specialised; for example they serve to increase luck in hunting and fishing. The most iconic item belongs to this latter category: the tuntun peti’ of the Ibanic peoples of Sarawak and West Kalimantan border areas. They are casually named “pig’s trap charms”, but some larger examples are used as well in snaring deer and stags. They consist generally of a stylized squatting anthropomorphic figure on top of a stick, reminiscent of the “thinker” type. These miniature sculptures are usually described as hockenfigur according to art history terminology. Atypical examples show animals or hybrid spirit figures instead of the squatting human figure. Similar spirit charms were also placed on Ibanic shamans’ boxes (lupung) in the same region, usually in pairs, on one side, while pengaroh war charms, often combining various items (stones, teeth, small magic oil bottles), were credited with conferring invulnerability on their owners.

Charms and amulets were usually kept on the body of the owner or in pouches and baskets for transportation. In the house, they were kept in bamboo and other containers. Charms have been recorded among all the main culture areas on the island. However, most of the charms known to us come from the Barito area, made by the Ngaju, Ut Danum and Luangan peoples, stretching broadly from Central Kalimantan, the Barito River valley, to the Mahakam Basin of East Kalimantan. Often these portable carved wooden charms, i.e. the jurok, reproduce the iconography of the large hampatung, sapundu’, and blontang funerary posts. The shamans’ protective necklaces of the Luangan, Tunjung and Benua’-Bentian make use of a large number of these jurok or jurong as spiritual helpers (thirty-three or ninety pieces).

The wooden stoppers for bamboo or wooden containers made by the Dayak to store the charms in the house can also be considered as protective amulets, especially those which are connected with shamanistic rituals, magic and traditional curing activities. The Pasir region of East Kalimantan, where both Dayak and Islamized Orang Pasir are living, is one of the richest in wooden charm carvings in Borneo. Those made of tree roots combining anthropomorphic and other shapes are peculiar to this region. Special figures which are made for curing rituals, often in light wood species figure as “replacement images”, patung silih or ganti-diri, to which the diseases are transferred. Finally, a category of natural items, such as stones, crystals, rattan vines and twigs presenting peculiar or curious shapes are also used as charms by Dayaks and Malays. These magical objects are linked to spirits by dreams or unusual encounters in the forest. In this sense the charms belong to a realm of “secret knowledge” (ilmu).

Then it can be remarked that in Kalimantan (West, Southeast, East), Hindu-Buddhist influences, dating back to the time of the Indianised Srivijaya and mostly Majapahit sea empires are more noticeable in the rituals involving charms, magic and curing. In Sarawak, these practices have been mostly limited to the coastal areas now inhabited by Malay and Melanau peoples. Possibly this might explains why the papan ketika or bilang kangan boards and similar divination implements are found only in Kalimantan. While the use of charms among inland peoples in Sabah does not seem to show distinctive features compared to the other regions of the island, however, no mention of carved anthropomorphic charms is made in the ethnographic literature. Although wooden skulls hooks made by the “Murut” in the uplands of central Borneo display a central squatting spirit figure associated to pig tusks. These rare hooks – called aud labong in Lun Bawang – possibly come from the Apad Duad range situated on the Sarawak-Sabah-Kalimantan border area. A Kenyah hook from the upper Kayan River, or perhaps Bahau River, showing an impressive ityphallic figure can be compared to the former. Among Dayak peoples, almost all activities would have required the use of charms and amulets (love, curing, giving birth, war, trade, travel, customary law, padi agriculture, hunting, fishing). That accounts for the diversity of the Bornean charms and amulets.

Among different ethnic groups in Borneo, small human figures expressing fertility and birth are common. They generally show pregnant women in various “positions” or exaggerated sexual organs, male and female, more rarely figures engaged in sexual intercourse. Some of the female pregnant figures may have been used in the connection to prophylactic rites staged before giving birth. The fear of a stillbirth and the mother’s death in partu was very strong. Rare “anthropomorphized” phallus wooden charms from the Barito-Mahakam area are known.

Another category of charms is formed by the combination of particular objects, with a magic substance, e.g. a bead necklace that is adorned by two crocodile teeth. In the cavity of the teeth a magic substance is inserted. It can be a wood splinter, or a fragment of a stone or earth. This charm is supposed to protect the owner of the necklace against crocodile assaults. A bamboo node is also used in the same way, a substance being inserted in it. These charms are wrapped in folded paper or in a black cloth and kept while travelling. Usually a taboo is put on the charm: it should not be crossed or stepped upon by the owner, otherwise the power (sakti) of the substance inserted would fail to work. In this case, the efficacy of the charm is directly related to the spell (mantra) activating it. By using the charm in combination with the spell, the person who owns it increases his own power and luck (rezeki) in the activities pursued.

With time some peculiar charms and amulets have been credited with special powers do reach a pesaka status – such as the traditional weapons in Borneo and the Malay world (swords, krises, spears) – they do become heirlooms that are passed from one generation to the next. They are the material, visible expression of a bond existing between the spirits and men. Often the discovery of natural items used as charms, e.g. rattan vine, special stones or animal teeth, is connected to a dream or an unusual event that takes place out of the village space in the forest, in the river or the mountains. Stones shaped as hooks are credited with a particular power, especially among the Orang Ulu and related groups. Some are mounted as pendants in a sheath of fibers. Animal teeth are also procured by hunting and trapping in the dangerous outside space. In short, these charms retain their power against evil influences and anxieties, while others are just thrown out because the people have become Christians and Muslims, or they are sold in local markets and shops in time of need. Now, it is fascinating to collect these curious objects, because of their small dimensions and the diversity of shapes they exhibit. Further studies of charms/amulets shall will uncover unknown aspects of these unique ritual objects.

Dr. Antonio J. Guerreiro initially trained in architecture and social and cultural anthropology and later moved on to museography. Since the 1980s he has published extensively on Malay/Indonesian ethnic cultures, specializing on Borneo. He is currently senior researcher at the Institut de Recherches sur l’Asie (IrASIA, CNRS/Aix-Marseille Université). He is also the Secretary-General Society of Euroasiatic Studies at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris.

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