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Tiger bells: various types

Tiger bell, from Mindanao, the Philippines

Design and name

Tiger bells are made of bronze. They differ from other bells, such as clapper bells, because of several characteristics:

  • Musicologically they belong to the group of jingle bells or crotal bells: they have a hollow, globularly shaped body in which a small pellet of metal or stone is held (hence the often used term pellet bell). When the bell is shaken, the pellet hits the inside surface and thus the bell sounds, producing a dispersed sound without a fixed pitch. The bells have an opening, usually a split in the lower side of the body which allows the hollow body to act as a resonator. The hoop for suspending the bell is very often square or rectangular, sometimes round, sometimes trapezium shaped.

  • The characteristic that makes the tiger bells stand out from other jingle bells, is the design. It is evidently a face with large eyes, a nose and a mouth or beak. Our first association was that of a frog's head. Later, on a catalogue card of the Ethnological Museum in Leyden (Neth.) describing the bells on a baby carrier from the Kayan in Kalimantan, I found a quote from Prof. J J. M. de Groot saying that the face is a snake's head. According to him the Chinese characters on the 'forehead' could mean The Hing Company. He had seen these characters on the bells of the Laun in The Philippines .

On another baby carrier with five tiger bells, in the collection of the Leyden Ethnological Museum, Prof. de Groot translated the Chinese characters on the bells as Happiness together.

On the 'forehead' there is a Chinese character , the character Wang.

It means 'prince, royal' and is usually found on Chinese representations of tiger's heads such as this toy tiger.

On the meaning of the tiger head motif, Peter Dekker of Mandarin Mansion explains:
To the Chinese the tiger and the tiger motif are linked to 'protection'. In Chinese both words, 'tiger' and 'protection', sound as 'hoo'. This led to the belief that the tiger motif gives protection. For the tiger head motif the 'wang' character is typical. In China tiger heads were painted on shields for special divisions of warriors using these tiger shields.The motif is also found on textile hats for children and on wooden shields on houses. Sometimes the motif is seen on the buffer plate of a sword.

Examples of the tiger head motif on a shield
Photographs courtesy: Peter Dekker, Mandarin Mansion

Because of the fact that in Manchu country tigers were indigenous and a real danger every now and then, the Manchu's had another relation with the tiger than the Chinese. To Manchu shamans and specially trained hunters the tiger had a high status and certain rituals were performed before a tiger hunt was started. Yet, because of the phonetic similarity between the words for 'tiger' and 'protection', the Manchu's too linked the tiger, and its motif as it occurs on tiger bells, to 'protection'.

On the 'forehead' of the bells other characters can be seen as well. These characters, or character-like shapes, are visible on both sides of the bells, in the center of the top half of the bell. Often these characters are corrupted by the casting process or just meaningless scribbles. Around those characters and around the eyes and nose one finds curls and curves.

Photograph: courtesy Musée Quai Branly

The four bells on the back of a shaman's costume in the Musée de l'Homme (now Musée Quay Branly) in Paris, France, are described as:

Grelot; tête de tigre en laiton (transl:. Crotal bells, tiger's head, made of brass.
In 1914 Russian ethnologist Sieroszewski quotes an explanation of the meaning of the ornamentation on a shaman's coat. The explanation was given by an old Yakut. About the bells on the costume he said:

'Hobo', copper bells without tongues, suspended below the collar; like a crow's egg in size and shape and having on the tipper part
a drawing of a fish's head. They are tied to the leather straps or to the metal loops.

Other names
In literature and in actual day-to-day language of ethnic groups that use or used these bells one finds more names. It is not always clear if these names refer to bells with this particular design (the tiger's face) or if they are generic names for pellet bells. There are undoubtedly many more local names but these are the ones I've found in literature and heard from the people themselves (in Indonesia and The Philippines).

In local languages:
In Southeast Asia different names are used by different groups:

  • The Manggyan from Mindoro (the Philippines) call the tiger bells gurung-gurung; it could also be the generic word for crotal bells.
  • Among the B'laan, the Tagakaolu and the Bagobo from SE Mindanao (the Philippines) we find the words paningkulun and tiolong. These are generic names for crotal bells, which are often made by local blacksmiths.
  • Among the B'laan and the Tagakaolu the term tongkaling refers to tiger bells. The names of the various parts of the design are derived from a human face. These bells are not locally made but said to 'come from the Muslims'.
  • In the epic song of the Manuvu (subgroup of the Bagobo) Tuwaang attends a wedding the term tukaling refers to small brass jingle bells attached to a shield. From other examples (such as swords) we know that these bells could very well be tiger bells.
  • Pum Piand are tiger bells used by the Muslim groups in West and South West Mindanao. Among these groups tiger bells also functioned as a currency for trade.
  • Among the Minangkabau (Sumatra, Indonesia) giring-giring refers to tiger bells that were used for cats.
  • In Flores (Indonesia) uwé kotang is probably a generic term for crotal bells; ngorong-gorong and wai wonta are names for tiger bells used with dances and fighting games.
  • Among the Fou in Vietnam the word Kai-nja-bang-tong is used for neck bells.

In literature on Siberian shamanism I found two names for tiger bells:

  • Hobo, the Yakut name for copper bells without a tongue, on the surface a drawing of a fish head (most likely the same design as the tiger's head). Ordinary crotal bells are called choran.
  • Kongokto, tiger bells, with the Nanay and the Gilyak.

In Nepalese:

  • Egg-shaped type C tiger bells from Nepal are called gangaru, possibly a generic name for jingle bells.

In English:

    • Hawk's bell is a name given in in the book Travels through Borneo, referring to a tiger bell from the Kayan Dayak.
    • In the description of the shaman costumes in the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen tiger bells are referred to as sleigh bells.
    • In Shamanism: an encyclopedia of world beliefs by Mariko Namba, the bells on the shaman costumes in Southeast Siberia are called old trade bells.
    • Russian ethnologist and Tungus expert Sergei Shirokogoroff who has seen and described many Siberian and Manchu shaman costumes, does not distinguish tiger bells from other crotal bells and calls them all ball-bells.

      None of these names refers to the animal, the tiger. In only two cases the name refers to tiger bells with a name that means 'tiger bell' in the local language:

    • The musicians in the Hanggai folk-popgroup from Inner Mongolia call the face-bells tiger bells. These bells are new copies and it is possible that the name came into use after this website was launched (1996).
    • The same could apply for the tiger bells from Korea. Here too all types of tiger bells are new copies. The local name:

      So, for now: tiger bells...
      Since the Wang character occurs since ancient times on bronze statues of tigers, such as the statue from the Chinese Zhou-period (appr. 500 BC), and because the description of the bells in the Musée de l'Homme clearly mentions the tiger's head, I decided to call these bells tiger bells to distinguish them from other bronze crotal bells. But for reasons just as good they could be called fish bells, frog bells or snake bells. However since I introduced the term tiger bell in the first version of this report in 1976, it is now widely used and occurs in many web pages (and even in a computer game although the bell in the game is not a tiger bell). Therefore I will continue to use the term tiger bell until it is more correct to use another name.

Bronze statue of a tiger, the Wang character on its forehead
Middle Zhou (946 - 600 BC); collection: Freer Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC
Courtesy: Orientations Magazine, April 1972

Various types

Tiger bells vary in shape, size and design. The majority of the bells belong to one of four type groups: type A, type B and type C. Some variations exist. Those variations that are inspired by the tiger bell but miss one or more of the typical characteristics are grouped into the Alternatives. Alternatives are inspired by, or resemble type A bells and type B bells.

Type A

Type A tiger bells occur over a wide area and are used in many different ways: as a dance attribute (Pakitan, southern Philippines), as an amulet for adults, children and sometimes animals (goats and sheep in Afghanistan, cats with the Minangkabau in Sumatra, horses in Sumba and Malta). There is an evident link between tiger bells and shamanism. Shamans in Kalimantan, Sarawak, Mongolia, former Inner Mongolia and South Siberia have type A tiger bells on their costumes and attributes (while shamans from Tibet and Nepal use type B and type C tiger bells). One shaman's costume of the Solon
is decorated with over 60 type A tiger bells of various sizes.

There are not very many records from mainland China. The examples known are tiger bells said to date from the 19th century, and a belt, most likely from one of the ethnic minorities in southern China.

In recent years new tiger bells have been produced, sometimes copies of old type A tiger bells, sometimes variations inspired by the type A tiger bell. These bells are produced for trade to be sold in local Chinese communities and to tourists. So far they are reported in shops in Singapore, New York, Amsterdam and in shops on the Internet. In China there is at least one industrial factory that produces several types of tiger bells, some based on the type A bell.

Set of four bells, collected in China, Steyl Mission Museum

Size and dimensions
Type A tiger bells occur in many sizes, from about 2.5 cm. to about 4,5 to 5 cm. in width. Most larger type A tiger bells have a square or rectangular hoop. Smaller type A tiger bells can have square or rectangular hoops but also trapezium shaped and even round hoops (see the shaman's belt from Kalimantan). There is one report of a tiger bell from the Iban, Sarawak, (see below) with a width of more than 6 cm.

Two bells, reported in China and in South Korea are larger; these are however exceptions.

Tiger bell with a width of 4,5 cm. Iban (Sarawak).

One tiger bell, possibly from China, has a width of more than 6 cm.
This is however an exception.

Several type A tiger bells are probably locally made with variations in the design (as in Nepal, Syria and China). These variations could occur because the producer did not recognize the Chinese characters and considered them as meaningless, or possibly as floral motifs. Because of the whiskers, the face on the Syrian bell and on one of the Chinese bells bell looks more like a cat. Other alternatives are inspired by demon-like faces or use different techniques for the design such as engraving.

Small tiger bell with whiskers, probably from China

Viewed from the side the height of the bell is smaller than its width. This sets them apart from the bells of type B and type C of which the height is larger than the width.
Left: side view of type A
Right: side view of type B

Type A bell from Turkey

Type B

Bells from this group occur in large numbers on the southeast Asian mainland. Until now there are reports from Thailand, Tibet, Nepal, Bangladesh and Mongolia. In Thailand (Bangkok) these bells are sometimes painted gold. They have the following characteristics:
Type B tiger bells are roughly the size of an chicken's egg. The 'Wang' character on the 'forehead', so typical for the A type tiger bells, is missing. On the top half we can distinguish Chinese characters, sometimes one, sometimes two. The round character here means 'long life'. The surrounding curls and curves are not always there. The hoop is always round.

    Tiger bells of type B bells occur by the hundreds. In Bangkok they can be bought in many handicraft and antique shops. They come 'from the north' but it is not clear what place or region that is. It is likely that these tiger bells are still produced.
    • Use
      Type B tiger bells are used in many ways. In the Tibetan market in New Delhi (India) belts for yaks and horses with 10 to 12 of these bells were sold. One shopkeeper in Bangkok told me these bells were used as doorknobs. Nepalese and Tibetan shamans wear these bells on a chain across the chest as part of their costume. Type B bells of a smaller size are used as dog bells in Tibet and northern Thailand.

      Size and dimensions
      These bells are large, with diameters varying from about 3.5 cm. to 4.5 cm. and heights from 3.7 cm. to 5 cm. or more.
Examples of decorations on the 'forehead' of type B bells

Two Chinese characters

A circle shaped Chinese character

Meaningless curls?

The Chinese character for 'long life'

The bells are all from the Tibet - Mongolia area

Type C

These bells occur mainly in Nepal and Tibet. They have the following characteristics:

Type C bells have the shape of B bells but are smaller. On most bells we see the Wang character, although sometimes corrupted. In general the eyes bulge more than the other types. Also the relief of the design and the Chinese characters is thick and relatively high on the surface of the bell. The hoop is always rectangular with rounded corners. One handicraft shop owner in Kathmandu, Nepal, told me that bells of this type were being produced in a workshop in Dehra Dun (Uttar Pradesh, near the border with Himachal Pradesh, India).

Many of these bells are sold as souvenirs in handicraft and ethnography shops. They occur in larger numbers on belts for horses and yaks. On chest chains worn by shamans from Nepal and Tibet, they are sometimes found together with other bells.

Size and dimensions
The size of the C type bells is rather consistent: a width of about 3.4 cm. and a height of about 3.8 cm.

Examples of decorations on the 'forehead' of type C bells
The lines could be inspired by two characters. The remains of a 'Wang' character are in the canter of the picture. These are clearly two Chinese characters.

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