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Tiger bells in Southeast Asia


There are numerous reports of tiger bells in Indonesia, the majority from East Kalimantan (Kalimantan is the Indonesian part of Borneo), but also in other parts of the country. Almost all tiger bells are of the A type, in sizes varying from about 2 to 4 cm. There is one B-bell, together with an A type bell, in the private collection of the Mangkunegara kraton in Solo, Java.


Group: various Dayak groups

In the Leyden Ethnological Museum (Leyden, Neth.): several baby carriers from East and Central Kalimantan, one of them with 12 tiger bells, another with 5 tiger bells, together with ordinary pellet bells.

Baby carrier with twelve tiger bells

Close up of one of the bells

Baby carrier, Kayan Dayak, Upper Mahakam river. Collected by A.W. Nieuwenhuis and donated to the museum in 1901. The Chinese characters are explained on the Various types page.

Baby carrier with five tiger bells

The five tiger bells in close up

Baby carrier, group unknown, Kutei region. Collected by S.W. Tromp, donated to the museum in 1883. The Chinese characters on the bells (not well visible) are translated by Prof. de Groot as 'happiness together'.
In the Tropen museum (Amsterdam, Neth.): A baby carrier with three tiger bells (originally there were seven to eight bells).
In the Nijmegen University museum (Nijmegen, Neth.): several bells on various objects such as a walking stick, a cloth covered with bead work and several bells in bundles combined with four to six ordinary bells.
Left and right: walking stick with one tiger bell

Group: Kayan

In 'Travels through Borneo' (1935) an drawing with the caption 'Hawk's bell on Kayan necklace (Peek Coll.)'

Tiger bell as an amulet together with several old beads and three ordinary bells. This tiger bell is roughly made and similar to tiger bells from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Group unknown

Dimensions: wide 3,4 cm. high 3,1 cm. side 2,6 cm. hoop 0,7 cm.
Author's collection

Tiger bell as an amulet and an ordinary bell, tied to package with magic medicine.

Group unknown

Dimensions: wide 2,6 cm. high 2,2 cm. side 1,5 cm. hoop 0,6 cm. (trapezium shaped).
Author's collection.

Group: Benuaq

Twenty tiger bells of varying size, with round hoops; on a belt worn by a shaman (belian).
Photographed in 1985.

Group: Kenyah

Several tiger bells in various sizes, tied to children's ankles as an amulet. Seen in one village (Long Bagun Ilir, Mahakam river). When asked about the age of the bells, the answer was that they were already in the possession of the orang keturunan ('the people that came down'): the ancestors who lived in the forests. A date or time could not be given.
Reported and photographed in 1985.

Group: Bahau

Two tiger bells in a bundle of ordinary bells. One (in front) is similar to a tiger bell from Sulawesi reported by Kaudern.
Photographed and collected in 1985 (bell in front).

Several illustrations with tiger bells in 'Hornbill and Dragon' by Bernardo Sellato (Elf Aquitaine Indonesia, 1989). Some examples:

Baby carrier, Upper Mahakam, decorated with shells, beads, panther fangs
and several tiger bells.
Photograph: Pierre Ivanoff, courtesy Elf Aquitaine Indonesia

Baby carrier, Upper Mahakam, with 16 tiger bells.
Photograph: Bernard Sellato, courtesy Elf Aquitaine Indonesia

Baby carrier, Upper Mahakam, with beadwork, shells and tiger bells
Photograph: Dicky Wp, courtesy Elf Aquitaine Indonesia

Group: unknown
On the website a short summary of this search is given in Bahasa Indonesia (the Indonesian language). The summary is illustrated with several pictures. The first is taken from our website (the picture above); the second is an unknown object, possibly two, with four balls(?) wrapped and decorated with beadwork. Attached are two tiger bells type A..

Unknown object with two A type tiger bells

The page ends with two pictures of a classic type A tiger bell that is probably for sale through the site.

Reported in June 2014, by Harald Lux, Germany

Group: Toraja

Courtesy: Tropen Museum, Amsterdam

Belt with seven tiger bells, in the Tropen museum, Amsterdam; exhibited during the exposition 'From shaman to cyber space', 1998

One tiger bell, described in Art in Celebes by Walter Kaudern (1944):

These bells are laterally flattened with a square hoop, perforated for a suspending string. Below there is a rather broad slot, possibly meant to represent the mouth of an animal, two knobs on either side, surrounded by rings looking like two eyes. (Volume III, page 78, picture 77)

The actual bell is in the Leyden Museum (left below):

Compare the Kaudern bell with the bell from the Bahau Dayak (right below and above).

The actual bell, collected by W. Kaudern
The bell was donated to the Leyden Ethnological Museum in 1927. The bell comes from Koelawi Lemo, Central Sulawesi. This type of bell was worn by women during festivals. The diameter is 3,2 cm. The hoop is trapezium shaped.
Author's collection, collected in 1989
wide 3,4 cm.
high 3 cm.
side 2,5 cm.
hoop 0,8 cm. (trapezium shaped)

An illustration in 'Art in Celebes' by Walter Kaudern of a collar of bead work and coins and bells.
'Common bells and globular bells which the North Toraja use for ornamental purposes have more or less a religious meaning with them.(....) Certain globular bells are covered with ornaments, such as the one seen in fig. 222E and E1 but these are of Chinese import.'
NB: The case of the sword with three tiger bells given in Schwerter von Celebes is moved to The Philippines. The Lanun do not live in Sulawesi (formerly called Celebes) but in Mindanao, the Philippines.

In the National Museum in Jakarta: one smaller tiger bell, tied to a dance stick (ro-ro). Collected in 1938, on display in 1983, later removed from the exhibition.

In Music in Flores by Jaap Kunst (1942, Brill Archives):

Brass PELLET - BELLS (uwé kotang), or what the French call grelots, are used in Flores for the accompaniment of the dance, (as is also common in Central Celebes) both in the extreme east of the island; in the mid-eastern part (ngorong-gorong, or when used by the main chachih players, wai wonta).

They are of Chinese origin, and are bought by the people from the inland districts in the Chinese toko;' in the capital. They are worn either tied round the ankles or calves or dangling somewhere behind or from the crutch.

Bundles of tiger bells, tied to the ankles of male dancers performing a line dance. Shown in an episode of the anthropological tv series Man on the rim.


One small tiger bell (width: appr. 2 cm.), originally tied to a stick, used by tribal elders for ceremonial purposes and dancing. The age of the bell was estimated by shop owner Eddy Lauren (Kuta, Bali) as 'older than Majapahit' (AD 1300).

Dimensions: wide 2,1 cm. high 2 cm. side 1,2 cm. hoop 0,4 cm.
Author's collection

In the Municipal museum of Figueira da Foz (Portugal): a horse belt with four tiger bells (nr. N7122, collected in or before 1894).

Photograph: Joãs Jardin

Group: unknown
One tiger bell, said to be used for horses.

Dimensions: wide 3,6 cm. high 3,2 cm. side 2,7 cm. hoop 1 cm.

Author's collection, bought in 1985

Group: unknown, but probably used in Bali. One tiger bell, said to have been used for horses.

Dimensions: wide 4 cm. high 3,5 cm. side 3,2 cm. hoop 1 cm.

Author's collection, bought in 1983.

One small tiger bell, in an antique shop in Klaten. The owner, Om Bram, said that the bell was Chinese and dated from the T'ang dynasty, appr. 500 AD. Reported in 1981.

Two tiger bells, one type B and one type A bell, in the private collection of the Mankunegara Kraton in Solo, together with several ordinary bells.


Group: Minangkabau

In the Leyden Ethnological Museum: two bells (giring-giring) tied together, collected in Sungai Puar (no year given).The bells were used for cats. Dimensions: 3 x 3 x 2 cm. No collection or donation date given.

A Minangkabau blacksmith told me that tiger bells could probably still be found with the 'people from Sijunjung and those living on the slopes of the Merapi (on Sumatra, ed.)'.

Group: Toba Batak

In the Medan Regional Museum: one smaller tiger bell, tied to a ceremonial collar/necklace ('semara'), used in ritual dances by religious leaders. In the museum catalogue the semara has item number 151. The tiger bell is described as follows: At the top(...) a bronze bell with a human face (makara) is fixed.

Group: Batak, possibly Toba
One tiger bell, roughly made.

Dimensions: wide 3,6 cm. high 3,2 cm. side 2,6 cm. hoop 0,8 cm.

Author's collection; bought in an antique shop in Prapat in 1986

Group: Unknown
Several tiger bells, found in the river Musi, purchased by mr.Thomas Roszel who lives in Jakarta (Indonesia) and visits Palembang regularly. He mailed the following:

I have purchased the tiger bells in Palembang (Sumatra) where traditional divers found them in the deep of the Musi river. They were scattered over the bottom of the river. No other objects such as ceramics were near...

Left: Three tiger bells; the key rings were added by Mr. Roszel.
The coin is a 200 rupiah coin.

Right: The largest bell of the three (centre).

Reported in February 2013. After the initial exchange of mails, contact with Mr. Roszel was lost.

Several months later Mr. Harald Lux reported that he had bought through E-bay one tiger bell that was found in the Musi-river in Sumatra. It was one of the tiger bells reported by Mr. Roszel. Mr. Lux made several photographs of the bell:

Both sides of the bell, the widest diameter is appr. 3 cm. Other views are from the same bell
courtesy Mr. Harald Lux,Germany

NB: This is one of six reports of an archeological find of the tiger bells. The other reports are a second report from Indonesia, Tver (Russia) where two tiger bells were found in a potato field, Vietnam,
Kazakhstan where a mixed type of tiger bell was found, and Wales (Great Britain) where one heavily worn tiger bell was found.

Group: Unknown
Six tiger bells, from a ship wreck in the Batang Hari river, near Jambi. I bought the bells from antique dealer Ms. Annisia Khoiriya, in Jambi. Our first contact was in August 2017. She reported that she had eight tiger bells which were salvaged from a ship wreck by local divers. A picture of the bells was included in the mail.

I asked Ms. Khoiriya if she knew anything about the history of the bells and told her that I would like to buy some of the bells. She told me that these bells were already sold to a party in Thailand. She sad she still had two other tiger bells left, but the divers had plans to make another dive soon. If any interesting objects would submerge Ms. Khoriyah would inform me. I decided to wait until the next dive. On the included photo three tiger bells appeared.

Three tiger bells together with several other objects salvaged during the dive.

Several weeks later the dive was done. The water in the river was merky. The divers had to work by feel but in the end six tiger bells together with several bronze coins dating back to the era of the Banten Sultanate were submerged. The Sultanate ruled from the city of Banten in West Java over West Java and South Sumatra and was at the height of its power in the 16th and 17th century

Two of the coins that were found near the tiger bells.

The fact that the coins and the bells were found not far from each other in the same wreck is a strong indication that both were on the ship at the time of the accident. This implies that the coins and the bells are appr. 300 to 400 years old; the bells possibly older. I decided to buy all six.

The six tiger bells salvaged during the second dive. The bell on the lower left seems to be the same bell in the picture of the three bells, on the upper left .

Very likely the tiger bells were brought there as merchandise, to be traded with the local population. Who were the people living between the Musi river and the Batang Hari river, during the 16th-17th century who were so interested in these tiger bells? Nowadays tiger bells are neither used nor known by any of the ethnic groups in South Sumatra. It seems that the group of people who were interested in tiger bells are not there anymore. Who were they? Possibly, the answer can be found on the island of Borneo.

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