Bangie Embol: A master weaver chosen by the gods

Bangie Embol of Kapit was given the title of Master Weaver by Unesco in 2017. She is also known as Indu Ngar or Master Dyer, in her longhouse at Sungai Kain. Photo credit: Sarawak Energy

Bangie Embol, who was awarded the Master Weaver title by Unesco, was spiritually chosen to be the Master Dyer when she was 45 years old. Also known as ‘Indu Ngar’, whenever the spirits call on Bangie to perform a mordant ritual, she must follow.

Patterns guided by spirits

The Iban’s ritual cloth, pua kumbu, has a long history among its people. Present at every ceremony and festival held by the Iban community, the pua kumbu is believed to be an invitation for the gods and ancestors to be present as honoured guests. However, the traditional process of producing it is arduous and a ritual that can only be carried out by the chosen ones.

In the past, pua kumbu was a symbolic item to have at community rituals. As a result, the Iban believed that only pua kumbu made authentically through rituals was accepted by the gods. Today, the cloth is readily sold in markets, but once upon a time, the pua kumbu was only made to be used during births, weddings and funerals before it became a family’s heirloom.

As modernity and religion seep through these communities, the sacred practice gradually loses its place. But in a longhouse — Rumah Gare, in Sungai Kain, Kapit — the practice remains. With over 20 pua kumbu weavers, the group is headed by its very own Indu Ngar, who is responsible for the mordant ritual prior to weaving.

Bangie Embol was known as the Master Weaver and Master Dyer of the longhouse. Being an Indu Ngar is sacred as she is chosen by the gods. Speaking to her in an exclusive interview during her visit to Kuching for the recent Tenun fashion week, Bangie shared with the New Sarawak Tribune the life of an Indu Ngar.

The chosen one

Bangie was born to a descendant of Indu Ngar of Rumah Gare. However, when she received the dream of inheriting the responsibility from her grandmother, Bangie was hesitant. “It was tiring to be an Indu Ngar. The burden was too heavy, hence I didn’t want to inherit it.”

But the spirits were persistent that she must continue in the role. “They came into my dream three times, telling me I had to perform my duty. In my last dream, the spirits told me that if I continued to refuse, I would be cursed to lose in weaving competitions. And I did, for three years continuously.”

In the last dream before she took up the duty, Bangie said the spirits warned her that if she did not become the longhouse’s Indu Ngar, then a curse would befall the longhouse. Thus, she finally accepted and began her journey as Indu Ngar at the age of 45 years old.

According to Bangie, the job of an Indu Ngar is not just for anyone. “You would have to have a dream from the spirits to inherit the post. Without their spiritual consent, your mordant ritual will not be blessed, and thus will be a failure.”

Nonetheless, if any unforeseen circumstances were to happen, an Indu Ngar would be chosen from amongst Bangie’s descendants. “But it would be better if my successor received a dream from the spirits. So far, the next person in line is yet to be determined.” 

Pounding and grinding the ingredients for dye colours.

To ‘ngar’

The process of ‘ngar’ will not be perfect if not headed by an Indu Ngar. To ‘ngar’, is to produce threads of optimum quality. These threads will be used to weave the pua kumbu later on. Known as the “mordant ritual” in the English language, it takes two weeks to finish the whole process. 

The ingredients used to dye the threads are foraged from the forest. Bangie learned to use colours from plants such as tarum (Indigofera tinctoria), engkudu (Morinda citrifolia), engkerabai (Psychotria viridiflora) and janggau (Aporosa confusa) from generations before her. But when she became the Indu Ngar, Bangie discovered that the plant, “Akar Penawar Landak” could be used to produce a yellow dye.

All the ingredients are pounded using a pestle and mortar and then boiled over hot coals. The cleaned threads are placed in long belian troughs laid under a rough wooden structure hung with heavy hooks, one for each female weaver. The longhouse women would step on top of them at regular intervals to ensure the dye seeped into the threads.

And so it continues — for Bangie, during the mordant ritual, she has little to no rest. “I can’t sleep properly as I have to check on the threads from time to time. When it is time to dry them, we will hang them and be wary of rain. A slight mistake can cause the whole ‘ngar’ process to fail.” 

The 76-year-old said that she had to be on guard throughout. Without her guidance, the process will not be sacred and the coloured threads will fade. She once dreamt of a warning from the spirits that her ‘ngar’ was not done well, thus she was forced to repeat the whole process from the beginning.

The ‘ngar’process is not something that she will do regularly. “I usually do it only twice in a year. Before any mordant ritual, the spirit will visit me in my dreams to tell me it is time to ‘ngar’. It is unpredictable. But this year, I have ‘ngar’ three times! I have never done that many times before,” she said.

Her inspiration for weaving

Having learned to weave pua kumbu at the age of 10, Bangie said it was her absence from school that inspired her to start the art. “I was the only girl in the longhouse who did not go to school. So I decided to learn how to weave pua kumbu to earn an income.”

When she was 12, she married her husband and had five children together, with her youngest being her only daughter. Her husband passed away 11 years after that, and Bangie was forced to sustain a living through the skills she had learned throughout. During the day, she does odd jobs, while at night, she weaves pua kumbu. 

Though she previously followed designs done by her elders, Bangie, whose grandmother was an Indu Ngar, began dreaming of weaving patterns once she became an Indu Ngar herself.

“When I have these dreams to create patterns for my next pua kumbu, they appear as shadows tying threads on the loom, showing me signs of what I should do.” These are usually her exclusively designed pua kumbu. 

To date, she has won many awards and has showcased her pua kumbu at international exhibitions. She was also given the title ‘Master Weaver’ by Unesco in 2017. 

Asked when she would stop and rest from her duties, Bangie resoundingly answered, “asal aku agi idup, aku agi ngelaban” — “as long as I am still alive, I will continue to fight”. With that, she added that even if the next Indu Ngar had been chosen, she would continue to ‘ngar’ to the very end.