A strong prominent aspect of the Iban community in Sarawak is the Pua Kumbu. The Iban Pua or Pua Kumbu poses a great deal of significance in all stages of the Iban community's way of life. Sarawak is known for its unique mix of tribal traditional beliefs, cultures and folklore, therefore its' not hard to accept that ancient legends are a vital enhancement behind the story of the Pua Kumbu and how it came to be.
Legend has it, that twenty-four generations ago, Singalang Burong, the God of War, taught his grandson; Surong Gunting the use of the most sacred of all the pua, the Lebur Api, after a era of warfare. It was said that the heads of those who were held captive during the war should be received ceremonially on this cloth, which has to be dyed a deep red colour, and was often woven using a special supplementary weft technique. This pua was woven at Batu Gelong, the longhouse abode of the goddesses of weaving, Kumang, Indai Abang, and Lullong. Indigo (tarum) and other plants used for dyeing were also planted around the longhouse.
The lifestyle and belief system of the Iban community is closely related to the Pua Kumbu. Young girls are taught the art of weaving by mothers and grandmothers alike to produce these pieces of cloth, which plays an integral part of their lives. Rituals and ceremonies will not be completed without the usage of the sacred cloth, the Pua Kumbu. Such rituals include births, marriages, death, fertility, the planting of paddy, and so forth.
The Pua Kumbu is also present during important celebrations such as the Gawai, and soul-searching ceremonies and is believed to be a means of communication between the worlds of the living and the world of the dead. To the Ibans', communication between these two worlds are vital especially for a tribe that reveres its ancestors and spirits of yesteryears to come to play when a serious decision is to be made. Their world is one where remnants of their past ancestors wonder about, where spirits linger and where ancient mythical Gods still rule.
Customarily, the weaver lays out a woven graphic design of the Iban animistic beliefs, the spiritual realm (petara or antu) and the "world view" of life around them such as the trees, animals, insects, jungle life, natural and supernatural life. It was said that the more powerful and intricate the design, the closer it brings the weaver to the spiritual world. Subsequently, the more powerful the portrayal of the design, the greater the danger is to the weaver.
Hence, prayers are recited before the start of every process to safeguard the weaver from harm or sickness they may sustain from the making of the Pua Kumbu. It is said that the weaver will have a mystical experience when it comes to designing the patterns for the Pua, where the design is said to 'transpire naturally' as the weaver begins the process. That is why the making of the Pua Kumbu is considered a religious and spiritual journey and why the sacredness of the process is highly regarded in the Iban community.
Weaving is a means of evaluating status for women in the Iban community. A woman, depending on the use of dye, design and skill, will fit into a certain rank within the community. In order to be a master weaver, a woman has to move up from rank to rank. A good Pua Kumbu is not only a demonstration of her relative success in terms of knowledge and expertise but also the state of her inner self.
Basically, the Pua Kumbu consists of two pieces of cloth joined down the centre, which represents the upper and lower webs from a loom. This is done usually by lacing a stitch. The web threads, which have been tied together in the dyeing process, possess the same but reversed patterns, so that if half a motif comes to the edge of the cloth, its other half completes it when the central joining is made. The Pua is usually fringed at both ends, and to make that possible, a gap must be left in the weaving between the upper and lower 1webs. There are generally one or two rows of coarse twining at the ends of a Pua. This is done so that it gives the pua certain firmness and a good wearing quality to those edges.
The Pua Kumbu has come a long way since its magical and mythical beginnings. Deeply nestled in the jungles of Sarawak, it is here where this beautiful textile started its journey to being showcased at major fashion shows regionally and internationally. A true taste of Sarawak, with deciphering of its legends, its people and its culture, beautifully entwined within its rich colourful threads, the Pua Kumbu has stood steadfastly in the face of modernization proudly holding on to patterns of the past.
Words By: Zushahron Dina Zulkernain (virtualmalaysia.com)