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Pua Kumbu: Sarawak, Malaysia

Stories fascinate me. I heard this amazing story and wanted to share it with you. Pua Kumbu is a traditional patterned multicolored ceremonial cotton cloth used by the Iban, made and used in Sarawak, Malaysia. Pua kumbu are woven by Dayak women and are considered to be sacred objects. They are used for lifecycle rituals and special events including the birth of a child, coming of age celebrations, receipt of an important item to a longhouse, and to screen a corpse that is being laid out in a longhouse prior to burial.

The secrets of making a pua kumbu are passed on from mother to daughter. In adolescence a young girl will begin to accumulate the knowledge and expertise in a process that will continue throughout her life. She will be guided through each stage from the preparation of the cotton yarn, the tying of threads, the dyeing process and the selection of a design. Each stage is circumscribed by ritual to appease the spirits. Her progress and ultimate success is dependent on an acceptance from the world of the sprits. As she develops her skills, she learns a larger lesson, that of establishing a relationship with the spirits through her art. If she fails in this relationship, by attempting a skill which she is not ready for, she will fall into a state of lifelessness (layu). This is because she has transgressed the boundaries of a naturally sequenced order sanctioned by the spirit world. Every woman fears and dreads such a fate as in such a condition she may fall physically or mentally ill, the only release being death.

The Origin of Pua Kumbu

24 Generations ago, there was an Iban Hunter (A small community in Sarawak, Malaysia) named, Menggin. One day, while hunting Menggin shot a bird with his blowgun. As he ran to retrieve his game, the bird turned into a woven skirt (bidang). He had never seen such fabric, and took it home with him. The same day, Dara Tinchin Tembaga, daughter of god of war came to Menggin’s home, and claimed her skirt.

Menggin and Dara got married, she then taught all the women in Menggin’s longhouse how to weave so that the craftsmanship is passed on to people of this world.  Dara wove a pair of jackets (baju burung) for her husband and her son. She told the two men that if they wore these, they would be able to follow her to the sky. When she decided to return to her father’s home, Menggin and Sera Gunting donned their jackets and accompanied her to the longhouse of Lang Singalang Burung. The god of war did not believe that Sera Gunting was his grandson, and so he posed a series of trials for the young man. Sera Gunting passed every test with ease. Acknowleging that the youth was indeed his grandson, Lang Singalang Burung then taught his grandson the rules of customary law (adat), bird augury relating to farming and warfare, the ritual treatment of trophy heads, rituals for the dead, and all the rest of the vast corpus of Iban law. Sera Gunting later returned to earth and taught his people the law.

Pua Kumbu

1. “Buah” Pua:    the main design body insired by the spirits through dreams known as powerful design.

2. “Selakoh”:       repetitive design symbols that frame the top and bottom of the “Buah” to contain the powerful design so that the spirit of the design resides in the cloth.

3. “Kemebai” :    Horizontal ‘fences’ separating the ‘buah’ pua from selakoh; it is also a yardstick or measurement for the ‘kayu’ or size of the weaving.

4. “Semalau”:  the vertical tie-dyed repetitive stripe borders of the weaving; patternsusually of birds, lizards, centipedes or snakes motif depending on the ‘power’ of the main ‘buah’ pua.

5. “Ara”:  The outer colourful vertical borders of the weaving, usually of commercial      ready-dyed yarn. In some communities (ie Saribas), the status of the weaver determines the colour borders used. An outer stripe designates the highest master-weaver “indu naker indu ngar”.

Traditional Iban Family

Traditional Iban Family

A pua kumbu depicting the love story of the god Keling and the beautiful maiden called Kumang.

A pua kumbu depicting the love story of the god Keling and the beautiful maiden called Kumang.

Pua Kumbu

thought is a thread, and the raconteur is a spinner of yarns — but the true storyteller, the poet, is a weaver.


The Evolution of Pua Kumbu


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