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the coming of christianity

I am from Sarawak, Malaysia on the island of Borneo. My dad's ethnic group is known as the Kelabit from the Bario highlands. Like most ethnic tribes the kelabit people have practiced body modification for ages but sadly the practice has died out. In the old days the womenfolk had their legs tattooed from ankle to thigh. It was considered beautiful and indeed i still think my grandmother's legs are quite beautiful. Apparently the tattoos were a mark of distinction and a woman was considered unmarriageable if she did not have her legs tattooed. I asked my grandmother about her tattoos or 'betik' as they are called in Kelabit and she told me that the tattooing process was extreemly painful. The tattoo was done with two sticks, one had a row of 'needles' and the other was used to tap the first stick to drive the needle points into the flesh. After that a mixture of soot and water (i am not sure of the exact 'ink' recipie) was rubbed into the wound. It took months to finish both legs and the wounds were prone to infection. The pattern was of fine lines in a zig zag pattern all the way up the back of the leg, behind the knee and the thighs, and also on the shin and knee.

They also had their ear lobes pierced and stretched gradually until the lobes grazed their shoulders. The ear was first pierced with a sharp piece of bamboo and the piercing slowly stretched using heavier jewelry. This too was a sign of beauty, some unfortunate people suffered the misfortune of their ear lobes tearing due to the weight of the jewelry. I still remember playing with my grandaunties earlobes as a child.. They were so soft. When a whole group of relatives came to visit and we had a party to go to, all the grand aunties would get out the brasso and cloths to polish their brass earrings. The earrings had a shape like an amphora, some were blunt others had a pointed end. By the time they were done their earrings would be gleaming.

The stretching of ear lobes was also practiced on the menfolk. In addition to stretching their lobes, the men also pierced the upper part of their ear and wore a leopards tooth in the hole i'd imagine this to be about 00 gauge maybe...My grandfather had a pair of gorgeous carved hornbill tusk earrings and leopard teeth that he wore on special occasions. Even my father had his lobes stretched at one time. My father told me about his ear lobes once. He was playing with his friends, climbing trees and such when he jumped and felt sticky stuff on his shoulder, it was blood. His earlobe had caught on a branch and torn. I'd imagine i would be quite traumatized by that.

Anyways by this time the Kelabits had mostly been converted to Christianity by English Missionaries who encouraged the people to abandon the custom of tattooing and stretching their lobes so my dad had his snipped off and stitched up at a hospital. My grandmother had hers snipped off too, but i'm not sure when, it was before i was born.

Anyways, I guess the point i'm trying to make is that the coming of Christianity (or any other religion) to these ethnic tribes has resulted in the decline of their culture, How many practices have been forgotten because of outside influence. Even now the old people in the longhouse laugh at me and tell me to listen to my father when i tell them my dad won't let me get inked, they agree with him and they tell me that they regret getting thier tattoos. Can you believe that, to live your entire lives regretting a tattoo just because some holy roller came and told them that it was ungodly to be tattooed. I am a christian myself but I do not see why these practices can not be continued. And there are christian pastors out there who are beautifully modded.

The same has happened to other ethnic groups in Sarawak, All have given up the practice of tattooing and other various bodily mods, one group used to practice pallangs (ampallangs). This modification has been completely abandoned. The Iban warriors of the past had gorgeous neck tattoos and rosettes on their shoulders and for every head they took they would tattoo a line just below a knuckle on their hands. Sarawak is a land of many ethnic groups, each with their own destinct body modifications all of which are either lost or in danger of dying out.

Headhunting is another story altogether :) I tried to write the article as accurately as possible. All of the information came from freequent talks with my grandmother and other relatives of her generation as well as books written about the kelabits.


submitted by: Anonymous
on: 11 March 2001
in Ritual

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