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Curious Dayak Tribal Objects

June 14, 2012 2 min read

I had never articulated the thought in my head until Kuching but had always known this even during my days of scrounging through Chor Bazaar in Bombay and flea markets in Singapore: that going through antique shops is like taking a lesson in culture.

A lesson in which “interest” leads you into deeper exploration, not the teacher and not a structure. It is the most delightful way of learning – one that Maria Montessori has instituted.

So in Kuching on a free afternoon I began strolling along the waterfront shops – expecting to see many souvenirs and buy nothing. Window shopping is always fun as there are so many stimuli that delight the visual senses. But this walk in Kuching was much more so because the culture was unknown and even simple articles created by locals were completely new and interesting for me – clothing made out of tree bark, bamboo articles, beads that each had some significance and so on.

After minutes of casual strolling a curious object caught me eye …. watch the video here where a clueless ignoramus (me) finds out about how crocodile’s “jewels” can help to make a man ‘strong’

After getting over my amusement, I walked on and entered some shop-houses – long and narrow with rooms deep within that only serious clients would be invited to visit – rooms that held their treasures in wood and textiles.

And as I looked, my eye began getting trained on categories that I had never seen before. Through Q&A my mind was forming models of the features of old vs new, this tribe vs that – a structure with which to assess the articles my eyes were feasting on.

Most shops were fancy, with soft lighting and soft music, sparsely populated with things. These were for the sophisticated clients – who would have enjoyed some wine to go along with the shopping experience. Obviously overpriced – and unaffordable to me.

And then there were some others.

Chaotic, messy, no ordered arrangement of articles, dusty, untidy and crowded with things. To reach most things, you’d have to shift some other things, and probably get down on your knees and get your hands dusty. But here is where the little stories lay hidden in the little forgotten objects in uncleaned glass cabinets.

Hidden amongst the commonplace things were curious objects that conveyed the glimpse of a mysterious world – a world whose secrets  would never be revealed to me in all their completeness. These interesting objects lay interspered with other commonly found ones – and it would have been a pity to miss them – who know how many I did miss!

Here are some that I did notice:

Beaded penile piercings made of bone.

Carved penile covers

Ritual Fertility charms

Umbilical cord holding ritual baskets (No picture)

Bone Calenders from another world

And the beauty of the culture was that there was no Victorian attitude towards sexual articles. The male dealers and their female assistants were straightforward in explaining their uses. I cannot imagine that in other places where this entire category is hidden away into the closet!

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