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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.

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... (1989)

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: Bidayu
May 2017; I received an e-mail from Mr. Marius Meulenberg (living in Lelystad, The Neth.). He reported: 'Yesterday I bought a bronze 'bell' of which I would like to know more.It is a tube-shaped handle of about 10 cm. ending in a funnel shaped rim, decorated with 18 small bronze jingle bells. In the centre a larger tiger bell type A is suspended.' Mr. Meulenberg added this picture:

Only once I had seen an object like this, in 1989 in the National Museum in Kuching, Sarawak. It was exposed in a large display of various objects in use by the Bidayu Dayaks, who live near Kuching. No description or name was given. As reminder I made a small sketch.

The object resembles the funnel shaped lower part of a candle holder. The hoop is soldered to the narrow rim of the open top-end of the funnel. In the rim of the base holes are bored through which a copper wire is tied. A number of small bronze bells and one larger tiger bell are attached to the wire. Seen in the National Museum of Sarawak in Kuching, in december 1989.

Mr. Meulenberg allowed me to buy the object and I could have a closer look at it. The shape and the positon of the smaller bells are the same, the only difference is place of the tiger bell which is suspended from the center of the hoop. The dimensions are:
total length from hoop to rim: appr. 11,5 cm.
witth of tyhe hoop 3,5 cm.
width top of the funnel: 3 cm.
width of the base 8,5 cm.
Two views on the object I bought from Mr. Meulenberg.

Some time later when I contacted Marco Hadjidakis, who reported tiger bells from Mongolia and Burma, to discuss another subject, he appeared to have two similar objects in his collection. One was made of bronze and the second made of wood. Both have the typical funnel shape and a ring of small bronze bells (on the brass funnel: 35 small bells) attached to the rim and a larger bell centrally suspend. He gave me the following information:

As far as I know the object is a shaman's rattle from a Dyak tribe in Borneo although I do now know which tribe. In both objects the funnel is hollow. The object is used by the shaman (or belian) of the tribe. During healing rituals the soul of the ill person could get lost (soul loss). With the funnel the soul is caught and blown back again into the body of the deseased.

Mr Hadjidakis' bronze shaman's funnel; the larger bell is not a tiger bell.

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: Iban

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.

Origin of the Iban of Sarawak
According to Iban tradition their ancestors migrated from Sumatra to Western Borneo (now Sarawak). Even a specific year is given: 1675. From where the Iban's ancestors in Sumatra descended is explained in the article 'Ancestry of the Iban' (2011). The article presents the results of recent DNA research. The authors state that...

...migrations from Southeast Asia made a large contribution to the Iban ancestry although evidence of potential gene flow from Taiwan is also seen in uniparentally inherited marker data.

A map of SE Asia shows the location of various ethnic goups according to their DNA groups (haplogroups). The location of one group, the Thai Yuan is indicated in South Sumatra (nr. 42 on the map), between the rivers Musi and Batang Hari, the area where 3 tiger bells were found in the Musi river and 16 tiger bells from the 16-17th century were salvaged from a ship wreck in the Batang Hari river. The Thai Yuan arrived in Sumatra from the SE Asian mainland. There the group still exists but is assimilated in the Lao. In that particular region, between Thailand and Laos, live several ethnic groups that used tiger bells, as amulets or ritual objects (a.o. Karen, Meo, Akha)


The article concludes:

...The most common non-recombining Y (NRY) and mitochondrial (mt) DNA haplogroups present in the Iban are associated with populations of Southeast

Were the tiger bells found in the Musi and Batang Hari destined for the Thai Yuan? If so it were the Thai Yuan who left Sumatra in 1675, possibly because upcoming Islam made their lives more and more difficult. Once arrived in Borneo they met other ethnic groups, mainly Dayak. The Kayan Dayak called them 'Hivan' (wanderers) which was adjusted to 'Iban'.
Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, The Gale Group; (2009?)

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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