Various types


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What are tiger bells?

Tiger bells are bronze jingle bells. Jingle bells are globularly shaped, hollow and have a metal or stone pellet inside which produces a sound when the bell is shaken. Because of the round, closed shape these bells are also called crotal bells or, because of the pellet: pellet bells. Tiger bells stand apart from other bells because of the peculiar design on the surface: a stylized tiger's head. Very often the hoop is rectangular. On the top half of the bell's surface, one or two Chinese characters and some curls and curved lines are often seen. Detailed information is on the page Various types.

Side view of a tiger bell from SE Mindanao (the Philippines)

Intriguing questions

Bells with this design occur all over Asia, from Indonesia to Siberia, Turkey and the Middle East. They come in different sizes and shapes, and there are variations in the design. The face, a tiger's head, is however very consistent. That is why I have called these bells tiger bells.

I noticed these bells in actual use for the first time in 1974, in Mindanao, Southern Philippines. They were used by several ethnic groups, as dance bells and amulets.

In 1975, in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris (France, now Musée Quai Branly) I noticed four bells on a shaman's costume from the Tungus, an ethnic group in SE Siberia (now better known as Ewenk). These bells were almost identical to tiger bells I had seen in the Philippines. I found the enormous distance between the two locations, SE Mindanao and SE Siberia, intriguing. When discussing this with friends and experts the very first suggestion for this large distribution area was invariably: trade. From the very first moment I found this idea too easy. With the growing number of observations I became more and more convinced that trade was only one of the factors. I decided to try and find out more about the history of these bells, how old they are, how they came to be where they are, where they were produced and how they are used.

A tiger bell on a shaman's costume from SE Siberia
Collection Musée de l'Homme (now Musée Quai Branly), Paris

I started this informal research in 1975. Not being an anthropologist I had to start from scratch. Soon I found out a number of things. The most striking finding is that some groups have bells with this design by the dozens and sometimes even hundreds while other groups within the same area, sometimes neighbors, do not have one single tiger bell. Examples are several minority groups in SE Mindanao, several Dayak groups in Kalimantan, and ethnic groups in SE Siberia. This to me was an indication that trade could not have been the only distribution factor. Trade is too indiscriminate to explain this obvious preference by some groups. Could it be possible that some of these groups already possessed tiger bells before they reached their present location? If so, this could link those groups having tiger bells and those nòt having tiger bells to various migration waves in Asia. It could also mean that tiger bells found with these groups are very old.

A tiger bell on a child's ankle, Bahau Dayak, Kalimantan

Another striking fact is that the bells with the tiger's head design as we see it on the tiger bell from Mindanao (the Philippines), occur in large numbers at the extremes of the distribution area: Insular SE Asia, Siberia and Central Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan). In between we find tiger bells of varying age, the majority possibly younger than those in extremes of Asia, with many variations in shape, size and design, although all are clearly tiger bells. The tiger bells as we see them in the Philippines, Siberia and Afghanistan have the most consistent design; they are probably the oldest bells as well. Therefore I have called this type of tiger bell the classic type.

The function of these classic tiger bells differs per group. They are used as a part of the special dress for shamans such as those from Kalimantan and Siberia. Other groups use them as a necklace, as a dance attribute or as animal bells.

A 'classic' tiger bell in a wooden yak bell, from Burma

The link with certain ethnic groups could indicate that the tiger bells are old. On the other hand, some of these bells are evidently newer than others. This indicates that these bells must have been produced in large numbers and over a long period of time, possibly hundreds of years. In fact, they are still being produced. There are at least several workshops producing tiger bells of different types: in Peking, in Dehra Dun (Northern India), and in China.

New bells, made in Peking

Finding the answers

While collecting information in various museums and institutes, I found that, although many people had seen all kinds of bronze bells, very often they had not recognized the tiger bells as being different from other pellet bells. Even an expert on Siberian shamanism as the late S. M. Shirokogoroff, who had seen and described many shaman costumes often decorated with dozens of tiger bells, did not mention the face-like motif. Those who had noticed the particular design were satisfied with the observation that these bells were apparently of Chinese origin. Yet, the number of observations is vast and there are now reports of tiger bells in The Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, China, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Mongolia, former Inner Mongolia, SE Siberia, Tuva, Burma, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Bangladesh, India, Northwest Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Turkey, Russia and even in Malta, the Netherlands, Nigeria and Wales (Grt. Britain). Also, I found that there are distinctly different types of tiger bells, and variations within these types.

A silver prayer mill, from Tibet

Your help...

Since there is little literature on this subject and since I couldn't, and cannot, visit all museums and libraries I had, and still have, to rely on observations by others. All these years, traveling friends, colleagues and museum curators have helped. By presenting my search on the Internet I have reached more people and more institutes. With all this help I found more information to support the conclusion that the presence of the tiger bells makes it possible to link certain ethnic groups to their movements over the Asian continent. This would mean that the tiger bells could be a tracer. It would also set he age of the oldest tiger bells at around at least 1000 to 1100 years.

When the search progressed it became more and more clear that there is a close relation between tiger bells and shamanism in various forms all over Asia. This search tries to reconstruct the history of the tiger bells and their movements over the Asian continent. It is not a study on shamanism. If the reader is looking for information on shamanism, there is a wealth of information on the Internet. A good start is this link to the Wikipedia.
Many of the pictures and texts in this study were found on Internet. Whenever available I have given all credits I could find. When in doubt I have contacted the author, publisher or photographer to ask permission for use of their work. However much of the material on Internet is not properly credited so if you find any work, be it a photograph or a quote from your work, that should be credited please inform me through the Contact-us button at the top and the bottom of the page. Also if you object to the use of your work on my pages, please inform me through the Contact-us button and I wil remove the paragraph or picture.

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