10 things you should know about Dayak traditional weapon, mandau

While the Japanese are known for the katana and the Korean for their geom, here in Borneo the Dayak are collectively known for their mandau.

While the Japanese are known for the katana and the Korean for their geom, here in Borneo the Dayak are collectively known for their mandau.

The katana, geom and mandau are all traditional weapons once used to slay enemies.

The mandau for instance, was highly associated with the headhunting custom which was officially abolished in Sarawak during the Brooke administration (but saw something of a revival during World War 2 and even the Communist insurgency).

Mandau rotated
A mandau from Kutai, Indonesia. Part from Tropenmuseum. Photo credit: Creative Commons.

Here are 10 things you might not know about the Dayak traditional weapon, the mandau:

1.It is known by many names.

While the Iban, Bidayuh and Penan people call it parang ilang, the Kayan call it the malat.

This traditional weapon is called baieng by the Kenyah people, bandau by Lun Bawang or Pelepet by Lundayeh.

2.A mandau usually comes with a whittling knife.

A whittling knife or a pisau raut is a popular accompanying knife placed in the same sheath with the mandau.

While the mandau is used as a weapon, a whittling knife is used as a common crafting tool.

3.A Dayak man without a mandau was considered a ‘naked’ man.

Author Charles C. Miller in his book Black Borneo (1946) described how important the mandau was to a Dayak man back in the olden days.

“A Dayak would no more be caught without that formidable weapon attached to his person than a white man would be caught without his trousers. It was so essential that a man deprived of it in battle has been known to slink around the outskirts of the kampong like a pariah for weeks, not daring to be seen in public until he has secured another one to conceal his nakedness. Proud as the Dayaks are of their carved verandahs and doorways, their real craftmanship is lavished upon their mandaus.”

4.The beauty of a mandau perhaps lies in its hilt not in the blade.

Miller in the same book described the mandau as a ‘thirty-inch combination of battle axe, sword, cutlass and machete’.

He wrote, “The blade is about two feet long by three inches wide, whetted to razor-edge sharpness on one side, and nearly a quarter-inch thick on the other to give it weight. When they swing, they want it to mean something. A slight curve to the edge makes it especially effective in a cutting stroke, such as a blow aimed at the base of the neck.

“Though the blade is intricately engraved, the real soul of the instrument is in its handle, usually of ivory, though sometimes of ebony or horn. Dragons, human heads, reptiles and every conceivable form of Oriental symbolism are delicately carved thereon with such loving attention to detail that if it be an open-jawed dragon represented there you can see every feature of the mouth to the tonsils.”

5.They used to add their victims’ hair to the handle.

Explorer Carl Bock in his book The Headhunters of Borneo in 1881 wrote, “A thick rim of gutta-percha marks the point where the handle is fitted to the blade. Here are hung tassels of horse-hair, dyed various colours, or more often of human hair taken from victims.”

Meanwhile, Miller in his account also described similar thing about the origin of human hair on a mandau.

“Instead of the weapon being notched for every human life it has taken, a tuft of the victim’s hair is added to the handlle. A bald-headed mandau, no matter how handsome its carving, is still regarded by its owner as an inferior weapon until the sorry condition can be remedied. The chief I noticed, had more hair on his mandau than on his head.”

6.In the olden days, a man was not allowed to carry a mandau regularly unless he was married or had been on a headhunting expedition.

According to Bock in his book The Headhunters of Borneo, a man with a mandau is a sign of manhood.

“It is a rule among all the tribes that no youth can regularly wear a mandau, or be married, or associate with the opposite sex, till he has been on one or more headhunting expeditions. A mandau is presented to him, probably, at his birth, or when he receive a name; but not till he has washed it in the blood of an enemy can he presume to carry it as part of his everyday equipment.”

7.A mandau is equally useful in both battle and farming fields.

The mandau was, and still is, a common farming tool. It is perfect for clearing creepers as well as cutting paddy.

Thanks to its sharp and efficient blade design, it is also useful in bringing down large timber when clearing land for farming.

8.A mandau was a common form of gift and payment.

In this modern days, the last thing you thought of gifting someone as a birthday, Christmas or farewell present gift is a sword, right? You might want to give someone who loves to cook a chef’s knife but you wouldn’t think of a weapon as a present.

However during the olden days, the mandau was a common form of present.

Norwegian explorer Carl Bock was given a mandau as a farewell gift by Sultan of Kutai when he visited the region in 1878.

In the olden days before conventional medicine, the Kayan people turned to dayong or a priestess to cure them of illnesses.

Apart from money, the fee to pay the dayong for her service usually included a gong, a valuable bead (lukut) and a fine mandau (malat bukan).

A malat was and still is a common betrothal gift among the Kayan people during a traditional engagement ceremony.

9.A mandau or parang ilang used to be a ‘sought after’ item among tomb raiders.

Frederick Boyle (1841-1914) was an English author, journalist and orchid fancier. In 1863, he visited Sarawak with his brother and the result of this trip was a book ‘Adventures Among the Dyaks of Borneo’ (1865).

According to his travel account, Boyle bought himself a parang as a souvenir.

He stated,“The finest parangs – or those esteemed so – are found in the graves of Kayan warriors, which are consequently rifled by Dayaks and Malays on every possible occasion. I have one, purchased at Kanowit, which I was told had been obtained from a sepulchre three hundred years old – a rather improbable assertion, though I believe the weapon was really found in a Kayan grave, for it was strangely stained and rusted when I bought it.”

10.It was used during World War II.

According to some reports, “hundreds of Japanese soldiers’ heads were cut from their bodies with traditional weapons called mandau.”

This happened mainly in West and Central Kalimantan, Indonesia where Dayak people took part in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese occupation during World War II.

One of the highlights of this conflict was the Dayak Desa War or Majang Desa War.

The Dayak tribes from Ketapang to Sekadau initiated the mangkuk merah (red bowl) ritual as a symbol of hostility to the Japanese. This resulted in the town of Meliau falling under Dayak control from June 24, 1945. Many Japanese were killed and their heads taken.

Weeks later, Japanese forces managed to retake the town on July 17.

Even after the war had ended, the Dayak in the area continued to resist but this time the return of Dutch colonial authority.

Decades later on July 30, 1981, the Dayaks returned five skulls of Japanese soldiers to their families in Japan.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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