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PostPosted: Tue Oct 13, 2009 9:51 pm 
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Location: Kuching, Malaysia
See this cup? It's older than me. It's older than my mother. It's even older than my grandmother. In fact, it is older than my great-great grandmother. That's because her mother, Mindu, gave it to her. And at that time, it was already considered old. It's probably about two hundred years old. That's two centuries' old and anything that old should really belong in a museum!

The Iban call this a tachu takar. It would fit quite easily inside a tennis ball. So you can pretty much imagine how tiny it is. It's made by chiselling a baby coconut shell into its current shape and then polishing the outer shell with resin.

It's the master measuring cup used by Iban dye specialists to measure out pounded and burnt salt, and concentrated oil of the kepayang (pangium edule) fruit that are the essential ingredients of the takar, or 'measuring'. The takar is an integral part of a larger ritual called the gaar, a ceremony of treating raw threads to make them absorbent to fast dyes. This ritualised ceremony is very important to weavers because it must be executed perfectly. A single mistake or oversight and the entire process is deemed unsuccessful. Worse still, the raw threads would remain raw (ubong mata) and not bite the dye.

Every Iban woman knows the ingredients of the takar; the seven types of gingers, various salts, wood ash, lime and kepayang oil. And every Iban woman knows the formula of salt to oil. And the normal sized tachu (three-quarters of a full grown coconut shell) would be the main measuring unit.

Once all the ingredients are mixed in the dulang (trough) with boiling water, a bulu landak (porcupine quill) is floated in the mixture. And it is at this point that only one woman from the throng of women assembled would handle the tachu takar or master measuring cup. She is called the tuai takar or lead ritualist. The manner in which the bulu landak floats in the liquid mixture is the indicator of the 'balance' of the liquid mixture. The tuai takar then uses the tachu takar to carefully nakar or 'measure out' either more salt or more oil, until the bulu landak floats perpendicularly on the surface level of the liquid mixture. And getting the quill to float on a perfect level with the surface of the liquid is one of the hardest part of the ritual. Offerings, chants and sacrifices are made to the goddesses and patronesses of weaving during this crucial stage to ensure success. It may take hours. Sometimes, it may not happen at all despite repeated attempts.

How does the tuai takar accomplish this feat of aligning the quill perfectly with the surface level of the liquid mixture? By using a combination of science and the supernatural. It is her secret. The secret that was taught to her by Indai Abang and Meni, the great patronesses of weaving through dreams. She tells no one the secrets she received from these patronesses. Except her daughters, and only when they are ready to receive the ancient knowledge. She has powerful charms which aid her, also given by the goddesses.

A woman who is tau nakar tau gaar or 'one who knows how to measure and how to treat' is one who has reached the pinnacle of her 'career'. She has assumed the highest status in her community. She would know how to weave every type of baskets, the most intricate patterned mats, powerful blankets and ceremonial attire of silver and gold. She would also know the chants and oral history of her people. She would be sought by other women of her community as mid-wife, and sometimes healer. Her spiritual strength and knowledge would help her divine the auguries. At festivals she would be given the honour of weaving the garong, the ceremonial container for the ritual wine cup that warriors would drink out of. She would live lantang senang, a comfortable life, being richly paid for her services as tuai takar. In short, she would be the First Lady of her community and respected by all. At her death, she would take with her sigi alas ngerang, the highest honour bestowed on a woman, equivalent to that of a war-leader.

About two hundred years ago, a woman named Mengan Tuai from Rapong married a man named Dana Bayang. She was known to have been the First Lady of her community. It was said this tachu takar (pictured below) belonged to her. Who knows, maybe it was lovingly carved by her husband. She gave it to her granddaughter Mindu, who learned the secret of the takar and gaar from her. (Mindu's mother Dimah died after her father Aji Apai Limpa was killed by the men of Charles Brooke. So Mindu learned from her grandmother Mengan Tuai instead.) It is also said that the goddess Dara Insin Temaga also taught Mindu how to weave, and revealed to her many secrets.

Mindu then gave the tachu takar to her eldest daughter Mengan, who was named after her own grandmother Mengan Tuai. Mengan, being the eldest daughter of a wealthy leader named Budin Gerasi, grew up as an anak umbong or secluded child. She lived in the meligai or attic of her longhouse until the day of her marriage to her first cousin Ketit. Her feet never touched the ground, and she was attended by female slaves. Her mother Mindu and other accomplished women of her community would come to her and teach her all that she needed to know as a young 'princess'.

Mengan grew up to be tau nakar tau gaar like her mother Mindu and her great-grandmother Mengan Tuai. She inherited all their powerful charms. She also inherited this tachu takar, and the secret that came with it. Her fame as a successful tuai takar spread throughout the entire Saribas, and even reached the Batang Ai. Her gaar (ritual treatment of the raw threads) and leading of the women on the kayau indu (women's war) was always celap (cool and successful). Until today, women in the Saribas remember the names of Indai Esah (Mengan) from Stambak Ulu, Layar, and Indai Sigat from Tanjong, Paku, as the two principal tuai takar whose ubong gaar (treated threads) were always mansau (ripe). Mengan was always assisted by three ladies during the takar and gaar; her younger sisters Selaka and Merta and her eldest daughter Sendi, all of whom were also tau nakar tau gaar.

When Mengan passed away, her eldest daughter Sendi took on the mantle of tuai takar and inherited the very same charms and tachu takar that used to be owned by their foremother Mengan Tuai. Together with her aunts Selaka and Merta, Sendi would be invited by other ladies of the Saribas to lead them in the takar and gaar. Soon, Sendi's fame as tuai takar whose ubong gaar was mansau and whose kayau was celap spread far and wide, earning her much wealth and prestige. The tengkebang designs on her blankets were copied by other women who were willing to pay large sums as ritual fees. She was also paid handsomely to help other women muntang (fold) their threads. We call her Mama Tuai or Old Grandmother. Her kebat technique was said to be unrivalled and the finest of her day.

When Mama Tuai passed away in 1974, her weaving instruments made of belian ironwood were safely kept by her granddaughter Magdalene Bucking who had lived with her. In 1992, Mama Tuai's weaving instruments were given to me by Aunty Magdalene, and discreetly tucked away in one of the bamboo containers wrapped in yellow threads was this tachu takar; the master measuring cup that has given birth to countless pua mansau ubong gaar all over the Saribas. This cup has passed through the hands of an unbroken line of four master weavers spanning two centuries; Mengan Tuai, Mindu, Mengan, and Sendi.

From a tiny nondescript coconut cup sprang such beautiful and famed blankets.

(For complete illustrations, go to http://vernonkeditjolly.blogspot.com/2009/10/tachu-takar.html)


Attachments:
tachu takar.JPG
tachu takar.JPG [ 32.51 KiB | Viewed 3550 times ]
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PostPosted: Fri Oct 16, 2009 6:09 pm 
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Location: Canterbury, UK
Vernon

Very many thanks for sharing with us the history behind this little measuring vessel. How fascinating to think of its usage through the last couple of centuries by your ancestors. At one level I can imagine seeing such a cup in a gallery, perhaps along the waterfront in Kuching, and wondering what it might be, not knowing but attracted by its roundness and the patina of use on its exterior. In some ways an insignificant object (yet it sits there glowing gently and has, as one might say, 'attitude' - or perhaps, more respectfully, an aura. Such an important and very practical tool in the hands of a weaving/dyeing expert. By itself nothing - just a small coconut shell - but in the hands of the master a crucial implement to create those rich dyes which we see showing behind the measuring cup in your photo.

The tachu takar also links together this line of very special women who seem to have dedicated their lives to the creation of remarkable textiles so core to the culture of which they were part.

For me all the practical aspects of a textile's creation are of great interest. However, what I particularly appreciate is the way your words paint pictures which take us back in time and draw us into a previous era, drawing back a curtain for us to glimpse a tradition which, for most of us, is very far from our personal experience. Thank you.

_________________
Pamela

http://www.tribaltextiles.info
on-line tribal textiles resource


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PostPosted: Sat Oct 17, 2009 6:49 am 
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Joined: Fri Apr 14, 2006 7:18 am
Posts: 93
Dear Vernon,

I also wanted to thank you for this piece. I always like it when a story brings one in deeper and deeper contact with an object. Something as simple as this little cup becomes terribly important and precious. "To see the world in a grain of sand..."

What really struck me as the anthropologist is that, yet again, something to do with weaving goes through the female line. Time and again in SEAsia, even in patrilineal societies (like the Batak) or a society that traces its lineage through both lines, textiles and weaving instruments are passed down the female line.

That is why there is one big question that hangs in my mind when I read your piece: how, why, when did you get the little cup? You are not in the female line. A story of great heritage thus ends with a question mark and a worry for me. Has the great tradition of mother to daughter come to an end? Can you talk about that?


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PostPosted: Wed Oct 21, 2009 7:47 am 
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Joined: Mon Jul 27, 2009 6:05 pm
Posts: 132
Location: Kuching, Malaysia
Pamela wrote:
Vernon

Very many thanks for sharing with us the history behind this little measuring vessel. How fascinating to think of its usage through the last couple of centuries by your ancestors. At one level I can imagine seeing such a cup in a gallery, perhaps along the waterfront in Kuching, and wondering what it might be, not knowing but attracted by its roundness and the patina of use on its exterior. In some ways an insignificant object (yet it sits there glowing gently and has, as one might say, 'attitude' - or perhaps, more respectfully, an aura. Such an important and very practical tool in the hands of a weaving/dyeing expert. By itself nothing - just a small coconut shell - but in the hands of the master a crucial implement to create those rich dyes which we see showing behind the measuring cup in your photo.

The tachu takar also links together this line of very special women who seem to have dedicated their lives to the creation of remarkable textiles so core to the culture of which they were part.

For me all the practical aspects of a textile's creation are of great interest. However, what I particularly appreciate is the way your words paint pictures which take us back in time and draw us into a previous era, drawing back a curtain for us to glimpse a tradition which, for most of us, is very far from our personal experience. Thank you.



Hi Pamela

If by my stories I am able to bring the reader closer to understanding the pua kumbu, then I am glad that I am achieving that which I had set out to do.

I've attached a photo of the tachu takar next to that instantly recognisable and universal icon of pop culture that is the same size anywhere in the world, the Coca-Cola can, so that the reader gets to realise how tiny it actually is :-)


Attachments:
DSC04104.JPG
DSC04104.JPG [ 41.23 KiB | Viewed 3467 times ]


Last edited by vernonkeditjolly on Wed Oct 21, 2009 5:17 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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PostPosted: Wed Oct 21, 2009 8:38 am 
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Joined: Mon Jul 27, 2009 6:05 pm
Posts: 132
Location: Kuching, Malaysia
Sandra Niessen wrote:
Dear Vernon,

I also wanted to thank you for this piece. I always like it when a story brings one in deeper and deeper contact with an object. Something as simple as this little cup becomes terribly important and precious. "To see the world in a grain of sand..."

What really struck me as the anthropologist is that, yet again, something to do with weaving goes through the female line. Time and again in SEAsia, even in patrilineal societies (like the Batak) or a society that traces its lineage through both lines, textiles and weaving instruments are passed down the female line.

That is why there is one big question that hangs in my mind when I read your piece: how, why, when did you get the little cup? You are not in the female line. A story of great heritage thus ends with a question mark and a worry for me. Has the great tradition of mother to daughter come to an end? Can you talk about that?


Dear Sandra

In Iban society, weaving is principally seen as a female activity; a domain where men have no say whatsoever, and women are absolute masters. The men will only be expected to carve weaving tools out of hardwood for their womenfolk, and that is their sole contribution. Everything to do with weaving is thus female oriented, and therefore the artform passes through the female line, from the esoteric knowledge right through to the weaving equipments. But the pua kumbu does not. Once woven, it becomes the property of the bilik (family unit), and remains in the bilik until and unless generational property division is exercised.

The last person to use this cup was my great-grandmother Sendi. None of her sisters or daughters continued the tradition. Her eldest daughter (my grandmother) had moved away from the longhouse to live in Singapore with her husband (my grandfather) who was in the British Civil Service there. Grandma got married at the age of fourteen, which was common back in the day. This meant she did not learn to weave the pua kumbu. Grandma's third daughter, Aunty Magdalene, was sent back to live with Sendi in the longhouse from a young age. She took care of great-grandma and the ancestral longhouse, but did not learn to weave either. However, the esoteric knowledge was still passed down; the theoretical knowledge, at least, to grandma and Aunt Magdalene.

Don't worry, the tradition of mother to daughter is still very much alive in Iban society, except in my family. None of my aunts weave. One aunt spends half her time between London and Milan, another between Singapore and Melbourne and two others live in Kuching. As for my generation, none of my female cousins have taken any interest in weaving except for one. But she is technically of Julia Indai Nan's line (adopted out of the family bilik unit) and therefore does not inherit Sendi's weaving equipments as she has her own weaving instruments from Julia Indai Nan. She has since stopped weaving, devotingh her time to her grandchildren.

Through a series of dream experiences during my teens, I began to study the artform and eventually came to inherit Sendi's weaving equipments. I was fortunate that the two relatives who had learned from Sendi were still alive, and they taught me as much as they could, passing on Sendi's secrets. It was strange for my family at first that I had decided to take up the artform, a female activity. Iban textile weaving, as you know, is not merely a physical, mundane activity. It is a highly spiritual journey of the soul into dangerous realms involving supernatural experiences. In time, my family began to understand and accept, and through further dream experiences of their own and some pretty 'strange coincidences and incidents', they understood that more was happening than met the eye. Perhaps the western mind might not comprehend that which I speak of, but this is what Iban weaving really is all about: a journey into the spiritual realm.

Who will inherit this cup from me and be the next custodian of this great legacy? I do not know. And that is why I am writing about this now, in the hope that one day perhaps someone from the next generation of my family will be inspired to dream dreams and tread the "warpath of the women".


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