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Tiger bells in South East Asia


Most bells are of the A type, in sizes varying from about 2,5 to 5 cm., the largest bells occurring with the Iban. In a bundle of 95 bells all bells are alternatives.

Group: Iban

In 'Life in a longhouse' and other publications by photographer Hedda Morrison, tiger bells appear in many photographs such as in this (detail of a) picture of a girl in ceremonial dress. She wears a collar made of beads, with six tiger bells.

Photograph courtesy: Hedda Morrison, 'Life in the longhouse', 1988,
published Summer Times Publishing, Singapore

An Iban ceremonial sword belt with a hornbill beak, beadwork and one tiger bell.

Photograph courtesy: Gilles Peret; in 'Hornbill and Dragon',
by Bernard Sellato, published by Elf Aquitaine Indonésie, 1989

Iban man holding a small tiger bell in his hand, Longhouse Rumah Jamping

Many reports from tiger bells on necklaces, skirts, religious objects, etc. In the longhouses up river tiger bells can still be seen in actual use. One antique dealer in Kuching explained that the bells originally come from China and are often worn by small children (see also: Kalimantan).

String with tiger bell, tied to carrier, Iban, Longhouse Rumah Jamping

Iban necklace with old beads and tiger bells, author's collection,
bought in 1989, in Kapit, Sarawak
Tiger bell
3 cm.
3 cm.
3,3 cm.
2,4 cm.
2,4 cm.
3 cm.
1,8 cm.
2 cm.
1,9 cm.
0,4 cm.
0,4 cm.
0,6 cm.
Note the trapezium shape of the hoops and compare this with the hoops of the tiger bells of the Bahau Dayak and the Toraja bell reported by Kaudern.

Tiger bell, Iban.
3,9 cm. wide,
3,1 cm height.
3,2 cm. side,
hoop: 1,1.,cm.

Donated by Irene Lim-Reid,
Bareo Gallery, Singapore in 1989

Large tiger bell, Iban, dimensions: wide 4,5 cm, high 4,2 cm., side 3,8 cm. hoop 1,2 cm. Compare this bell with another tigerbell from the Iban that is even larger.

Tiger bell with long hoop, Iban, dimensions: 4,1 cm., high 3,8 cm.,
side 3,6 cm. hoop 1,4 cm

Tiger bell with cowry shells, group: possibly Iban, dimensions: wide 3,5 cm.
high 3,2 cm., side 2,8 cm., hoop 0,8 cm.

These tiger bells were collected in Kuching and Kapit, Sarawak 1989.

Origin of the Iban of Sarawak
According to Iban history the Iban arrived in Borneo in around 1675. They came from Sumatra, Indonesia (Iban migration into Sarawak, J. J. Guang). Recent DNA research has shown that before the Iban arrived in Sumatra they, or their ancestors, lived on the SE Asian mainland, possibly in what is now northern Thailand, an area that is home to a number of ethnic groups that until today practice shamanism and used (and possibly still use) tiger bells (Karen, Akha, Hmong).


The article explaining the map concludes:
...The most common non-recombining Y (NRY) and mitochondrial (mt) DNA haplogroups present in the Iban are associated with populations of Southeast Asia. We conclude that migrations from Southeast Asia made a large contribution to Iban ancestry...
It is interesting to see the traces of Thai Yuan (nr. 42) in Central Sumatra. Possibly the Iban's ancestors came from the SE Asian mainland, first to their location on Sumatra, then to Borneo. The growing influence of Islam in Sumatra could have forced the Iban's ancestors to leave the island.

Group: Bidayu

Necklace with one tiger bell, several small bells, animal teeth, and beads.
Author's collection, bought in Kuching, 1989;
Dimensions: wide 4 cm., high 3,6 cm. side 3,5 cm. hoop 0,9 cm.

Many tiger bells, mainly on necklaces together with beads, animal claws and sometimes cowry shells. Tiger bells are still in use in the longhouses, including those near Kuching.

Several necklaces in a longhouse near Kuching. All bells are tiger bells.
Photographed in 1989

Various tiger bells found in one ethnic curio shop in Kuching. Bells are mainly from Bidayu amulets and necklaces, some from Iban (1989).

Two tiger bells, amulets; Bidayu Dayak. I bought the bell on the left in the souvenir shop at the airport. Immediately after my bell was put in the bag, another bell was put on display. When I bought that bell too, again another bell was put on the display counter. My impression was that there was an almost unlimited supply of these bells...

Dimensions of the bells:
Larger bell: wide 2,9 cm. high 2,6 cm. side 2,2 cm. hoop 0,7 cm. trapezium shaped
Smaller bell: wide 2,6 cm., high 2,1 cm., side 1,2 cm., hoop 0,6 cm. trapezium shaped

Two tiger bells, bought in Kuching, Sarawak by Annemarieke Koch.

Please, compare:

- the left bell with the tiger bell from Toraja and the Bahau Dayak (Ind.)
- the right bell with the tiger bell from Timor (Ind.).

Photograph: courtesy Annemarieke Koch.

Dimensions of the bells:
Larger bell: wide 3,2 cm. high 2,7 cm. side 2,5 cm. hoop 1,2 cm. trapezium shaped
Smaller bell: wide 2 cm., high 1,7 cm., side 1,5 cm., hoop 0,5 cm. square

Group: unknown, possibly newly made, possibly for commercial purposes.

For sale on Borneo Artifacts' website: a bundle of alternative bells; description:

Brass bells. Win these bells for Christmas!! They are made of brass material, will never rust, there are total of 95 bells suitable for Christmas tree display or simply a musical gift from Borneo and they make quite a noise. All bells are attached only by string, ready holes for all 95 bells are easily separated for easy decoration. Measurement: each bell 3 cm / 1,2 inch across. Item net weight is 2,3 kilograms / 5,1 lb.

Compare these alternative bells with Marco Hadjidakis' bell and the other
bells from the 3Worlds site on the Alternatives page.

Alternative tiger bell as pendant, bell from Sarawak. The design is reduced to several crisscrossed lines with only the eyes recognizable.

In 2010, in the National Museum in Kuching, the Borneo International Beads Conference was held. Tiger bells appear on several pictures. No details are given but it is evident that some of these bells are newly made.

The bells second and fourth from the left are either old bells or new bells based on the classic type A. The bell third from left has an engraved design and is similar to alternative bells as seen above and as shown on the Alternatives page.

One of the participants

Group: unknown

Wilmar Bliek from Ojén, urb. La Mairena, Spain, reports one unusual tiger bell type A.

This tiger bell is remarkable because of its size: the width is 4,702 cm. This makes it the largest tiger bell I have seen (compare this bell with the bell earlier on this page). Only the bell reported by Mr John Cornelius is larger. Mr Biek's bell is bought in Sarawak in the '80-s of the last century.

Reported by Wilmar Bliek in September 2015.
Mr Bliek also reported a tiger bell from Vietnam.

Group: unknown

A letter from Ms. Inger Wulff, Danish National Museum, Copenhagen in 1976:

I have tried to find such bells in our collection other than those on the Mongolian shaman costume, but only discovered one, which was attached to the wrist of a shadow puppet from Kelantan, Malaysia.
Kelantan is one of the states of Malaysia where Islam is the main religion. Its immediate neighbor to the north is (the Muslim part of) Thailand. The Wayang kulit shadow puppet show is well known in Islamic Indonesia (mainly Java and Sumatra) and in Kelantan. It also occurs in the southern, Islamic part of Thailand where it is called Nang Thalung. In Thailand many tiger bells of different types are still in use so it is possible that this tiger bell arrived in Kelantan from Thailand.

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