Jungle Swords …

The Mandau sword of the Dayak tribe of Kalimantan (Borneo)

The Mandau sword of the Dayak tribe of Kalimantan (Borneo)

Headhunters and powerful shamans. Those were the days when first European explorers ventured into the rainforest of Kalimantan and met with indigenous tribesmen skilled in the art of war and hunting. Even if those warring days are over, shamanism is still widely practiced among the Dayak people especially when it comes to healing. For those who are familiar with the tribes from Borneo, would know that the warriors tribe are mostly found among the Kenyah Dayak living along the great Mahakam river in the eastern part of the island. They are excellent blacksmiths producing some of the island’s most beautiful swords known as the Mandau. An exquisite craftsmanship the Mandau is closely linked to headhunting practices. And although the sword for everyday use is simply made, most of the ceremonial Mandau swords are always aesthetically made. The blade is often inlaid with brass and the hilt is carved out of animal bone as well as the wooden scabbard, sculptured with decorative motifs. Even if these Mandau are still made and some are still kept as family heirlooms, nothing is comparable to those produced in the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. And of course these Mandau are also popularly made for tourists, and unless you come across a Dayak wanting to sell his Mandau, you would probably have to content yourself with modern production. Dayak swords have been in the art market for decades, private collectors and galleries specializing in ethnographic objects have plenty to offer. They would probably be your next stop to get a glimpse of the warring world of the Dayak.

A dancing Kenyah Dayak holding his Mandau sword

A dancing Kenyah Dayak holding his Mandau sword

However many of these beautiful carved tribal swords can be seen in museums in mostly brought back by explorers and scientific expedition. Among those I have seen are the collections kept at the Dutch museums of ethnography in Leiden and Amsterdam. In France, some years ago while browsing through the Oceanic section of Musée de l’Homme the former ethnography museum. I came across a fabulous collection of Mandau swords, which a few of them went on display in the World Exhibition of 1878 as well as donations from explorers, collectors and those which had been brought back by the French Mission in Borneo (pictured above). These Mandau sword collection was not on public display and was then kept “hidden” on dusty shelves of the museum storage – getting there was quite an adventure, when you would have to go through a labyrinth of hallways and old storage rooms filled with ethnographic treasures. I was quite lucky then to have this opportunity to venture into these storage rooms, in one of Paris most revered ethnographic museum; this was because I was working on the Indonesian tribal collections for my own research. Today most of the ethnographic artifacts of the Musée de l’Homme, formerly known also as the Palais du Trocadero built for the World Exhibition of 1878, is moved to Musée du Quai Branly. It might not have that wonderful historic ambiance of the Musée de l’Homme, but for sure these precious tribal artifacts are now kept in a much better storage rooms ensuring their preservation …

An Benuaq Dayak holding his sword (mandau)(left) Kenyah Dayak (right)

A Benuaq Dayak holding his Mandau sword and a Kenyah Dayak with his Mandau sword

Categories: Borneo, Indonesia

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