Borneo: Shaman Medicine

I was going to tell you about Malaysian Borneo when I got sidetracked by their neighbor Brunei. Moving on quickly (which is what we did as we flew over the sultanate on our way to the state of Sarawak), we landed in Kuching. What a lovely, lovely city. Kuching should get its own post, and likely will. We roamed along the riverfront walk and slurped down laksa noodle dishes with gusto. Kuching is a great spot to head out to various national parks to see wildlife.

Borneo is home of the native Dayak tribes. Remember childhood tales of the wild headhunters of Borneo? The Dayak call this ritual Ngayau. We visited Dayak long houses. Smoked skulls still hang at the hearth in the central long house.

The most important tribal figure is the head chief, closely followed by the shaman. This medicine man, also known as a balian [1] is responsible for the health of the tribe as well as interceding between the worlds.

During our time in Kuching I’d been glancing in shops without actually entering any of them. Among the streets of tourist trinkets, one store fascinated me. On the last day I made a beeline for that shop. [2]

And then I made a beeline for a shelf lined with containers topped by human figures.

Jerry Ang, the soft-spoken shop owner, kindly answered all my questions. He told me these were Dayak shaman medicine containers. The figures are hand carved from polished buffalo or cow bone. A shaman had hand-etched the jar with scrimshaw patterns. Dayak shamans used the containers to store herbs, magic powders and betal lime to make medical potions. Some still contained resins – Jerry and I opened each jar and sniffed.

The carved figure indicates the illness the potion was intended to treat. Some of the figures held their heads (aches and pains of the head) or their stomachs. Some figures even depicted a person crouched over… the traveler’s curse of diarrhea for sure.

My piece has a prawn carved on the back: Jerry thought maybe prawns were one of the main ingredients in the medicine. Or perhaps the prawn indicated the woman who made the potion (he said the figure was female), or an ancestor. An on-line source tells me the scrimshaw work represents animals that bring good luck. If anyone can give me more information, I’d be most grateful!

NOTES: [1] Balian is the term used for traditional healers on Bali, too. Healing arts are passed down through generations. Twenty years ago I did a massage exchange with the son of a balian there; he had been taught by his father. To learn more about the Dayak shamans go to http://factsanddetails.com. The article gives the following information: “Shamanic curing, or balian, is one of the core features of these ritual practices. Because illness is thought to result in a loss of the soul, the ritual healing practices are devoted to its spiritual and ceremonial retrieval. In general, religious practices focus on the body, and on the health of the body politic more broadly. Sickness results from giving offense to one of the many spirits inhabiting the earth and fields, usually from a failure to sacrifice to them. The goal of the balian is to call back the wayward soul and restore the health of the community through trance, dance, and possession.” [Source: Library of Congress, 2006] Or see Wikipedia: The Dayak People [2] See also Unika Borneo, the shop where I found my figure. I receive no commission for mentioning the store. I just think they deserve to be mentioned.  More figures can be admired at https://borneoartifact.com and https://www.esotericstuff.com

© Jadi Campbell 2019. All photos © Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s pics from our trips go to viewpics.de.

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A Burmese Spirit Guide

I just made my second trip to Myanmar. Or Burma, as the country was once known. My sister Pam and I spent a grand weekend exploring just a few of the thousands of temples at Bagan. [1, 2] Most date back to the 11th – 13th Century.

Sunrise with hot air balloons over Bagan’s Mon temples
Carved and gilded wooden temple roof in Bagan, Myanmar

Along with the temples that seem to grow out of the ground everywhere you look, Bagan is a major center for traditional art forms including lacquerware, sand paintings and wood carving.

Carved temple door
Temple door detail

On previous trips Pam has purchased hand carved figures from a local artist. We went in search of his shop, and a figure known as a spirit guide accompanied me back to Germany.

Khim Maung Zaw creates and sells from a small shop. He graciously signed the sandalwood figure I wanted, and allowed me to photograph his art.

Master Wood Carver Khim Maung Zaw

I am delighted to  recommend Mr. Zaw and his beautiful carvings. [3] His shop’s address is:

Diamond Crown Wood Carving: Ko  Khim Maung Zaw + Ma Thida Aye. Thiripyitsaya (4) Qr., Nyaung OO (Bagan), Myanmar. Telephone: 09-47221551. Email: diamondcrown.bagan@gmail.com

I hand-carried lacquer ware and my spirit guide for the long 24 hour journey back home. When I removed all the bubble wrapping he seemed surprisingly alive. I gently unwound the cloth strips, feeling anxious.

I was delighted that he’d survived the trip intact. A spirit guide now stands in my home, pointing the way towards the path to enlightenment. [4]

NOTES: [1] I’ll write more about Bagan arts and Myanmar soon. [2] Bagan is one of the three most important Buddhist sites in SE Asia. The other two are Borobodur on Java, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. [3] I receive no discount or special deal for this endorsement. I simply believe that beautiful work deserves a wider audience. [4] We can never have too many such guides in our lives © Jadi Campbell 2017. All photos © Jadi Campbell. To see Uwe’s photos from our earlier trip to Myanmar go to viewpics.de.