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Use of Sungkit Textiles in Headhunting Ceremonies / Borneo / 1800s

July 19, 2021 4 min read

***NOTE: This note is about extinct ceremonies & practices in the 1800s. The information has been taken from published material and presented here with great respect for a culture that has produced outstanding works of art. The focus of the note is the textiles used in headhunting ceremonies. Please proceed only if this topic appeals to you.***


The meaning of Sungkit as seen in a dictionary is to “raise”.

As we see in all the Sungkit weaves, the motif is created by raised threads.

It is easy to confuse the end-product of sungkit weaving for embroidery – for the results do look similar. But a close examination in many cases would reveal that this is not embroidery.

Embroidery is done after the cloth was woven. And usually (though not necessarily) also has a knot on one side.

The Sungkit process is executed at the time of weaving, wherein the supplementary weft threads are wrapped around the warp threads to create the motif.

Traude Gavin mentions that Pua Sungkit are some of the oldest known Iban textiles and the production of Pua Sungkit ceased almost entirely around 1900. The author also states that many of the Sungkit cloths that survive were made in the 19th century with many dating to the early part of the century and some even earlier.

All ethnic textile groups are interesting, with some so attractive that it could take days to recover from the beauty their art and the complexity of their craft.

But the single factor that elevates a textile group to a higher level is it’s cultural context. To me, the cultural aspect represents the soul of the textile. And few have a soul as enigmatic as the Pua Sungkit.

The Pua Sungkit is central to the Gawai Enchaboh Arong ceremony that is a mandatory requirement to mark the end of the ancestral (and now discontinued) practice of headhunting.

So no one alive today has actually experienced this ritual first-hand and no living persona today has heard first-hand accounts from someone who has.

So from books written in the 1800s & 1900s here is what we gather.

Now Borneo lies on the equator and the rainforest covers the land with a tree canopy that is upto 35m high. So the houses are built on stilts.

Together they lived as one community in a longhouse dealing with the challenges of life, longevity and lineage.

Together they fought the threats of wild animals and threats from other humans from other territories – which in the dense forest was just another longhouse.

Here are pictures from a longhouse taken in 2012.

Gender roles were defined and a system of prestige based on these gender-specific roles had evolved. The male prestige structure was defined by their skills as warriors, as battles with other longhouses were a part of their life model. And the female prestige structure was based on the weavings they created, for weavings were themselves believed to have supernatural powers.

In those battles, heads of the enemies were taken as trophies. When warriors came back home to the longhouse with the head of an enemy, this ceremony was necessary in order to keep the cosmological balance undisturbed.

Severed heads had to be welcomed appropriately so as not to turn them against their new owners and invoke catastrophe upon the entire longhouse.

Upon arrival, the trophy head was placed by the warrior in the special cloth held that was held by an elder woman who stooped on her knees while receiving the trophy. She would then wrap the trophy head completely in this textile. Carrying this, she would, along with other senior women walk in a procession through the entire longhouse singing and dancing.

Weavings were believed to have a variety of powers – the powers to soothe or the power to vanquish. Through the colors, layouts and motifs they came to be associated with one power or another. So, depending on the power required for the occasion, a specific textile was chosen to participate in the ceremony. A white textile with a mild character was used as a receptacle for an infant at birth.

And the textiles that was reserved for use in this critically-important ceremony was the Pua Sungkit. It was believed that the intense spiritual force of the blanket, coupled with the hypnotic, magical chanting, would transform the head from an object of potential malevolence to one of goodwill and potency.

The pua sungkit  was therefore regarded as the highest-ranked iban textile at the time.

By the 20th century, the activity of head-taking diminished considerably and the need for the Lebur Api reduced.

This may have led to the diminishing and eventual disappearance of sungkit weaving skills.

Antique Pua Sungkit Lebur Api Iban Textile Cloth used for headtaking ceremonies and head hunting rituals in the 1800s in Borneo

But it is noteworthy that not all examples of sungkit woven textiles were used only for that ceremony.

The cloth has been described as a shoulder cloth by Gittinger – which was probably the regular use for the cloth until it was employed for the special ritual.

The sungkit craft of weaving is seen in skirts and jackets as well which are but folded long cloths with some cuts and stitches.

Here are some examples that point to other uses:

Asset 210 A vintage sungkit skirt:

Note the variety of human motifs seen in this skirt including some of consummation.

Asset 1580 interpreted to have the Tree of Life design:

Seeing these Sungkit textiles that are younger by a few decades is an indicator that though the craft survived even though the original practices and rituals did not.

Are the pieces produced in the mid 1900s still considered powerful? Is there still meaning in the iconography?

The study of iban iconography, the designs, the materials can take a few years to comprehend so this is just a starting point….

Take a look at some gorgeous Sungkits from the WOVENSOULS collection here.




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