RATTAN is a dwindling natural resource in Sarawak.
The indigenous people have for centuries depended on the jungles for materials to help them make receptacles, ornaments, mats, and things they needed to make life easier.
Rattan is the name for roughly 600 species of climbing palms belonging to the sub-family Calamoideae, and to date, it is recognised Sarawak has more than 100 species of rattan.
Rattan is a liana, not a true wood nor an easy material to harvest in the thick jungles of Sarawak. There are many types – small as a wire to as big as a man’s arm or even bigger.
Rattan was a chief export of Sarawak in the past but this has been minimal in the last 30 years.
Mats making among Ibans
The Ibans who rely a lot on rattan for the making of baskets, trays, fish traps, fishing rods, floors, walls, and other things, have different names for different types of rattan.
The Penans, Kenyahs, and Kayans, who are also expert rattan craftspeople, know their rattan well. These groups have been collecting rattan in the jungles of Sarawak to make mats and baskets and sometimes to sell to other groups.
In the past, they were the main groups who harvested rattan for sale to Chinese middlemen.
The Ibans’ most famous mats called lampit are made from one of the best rattans of Sarawak called siga.
These mats are proudly displayed in Iban longhouses and usually rolled out when VIPs visit. In many stately homes in Sarawak, the lampit takes centre stage.
Robert Entalai remembers with gratitude how his mother Pantan Jiram made many lampit mats, intending to give one to each of her siblings and each child of hers.
She even made one especially for her late father, which is now in the possession of a sibling of hers.
“My mother was with my father in Ulu Belaga when she found there was this beautiful patch of siga in the nearby jungle.
“So before the bulldozers had their day, she quickly harvested the rattan. It must have taken her three months to harvest the difficult rattan vines which were full of thorns.
“At times, she could have met snakes and even dangerous animals. She only had her parang for protection. So single-handedly, she harvested and processed the vines, dried them, and split them to make lampit.
“My father was a bulldozer driver in Ulu Belaga and he was there with my mother for at least two years. When my mother returned to Ulu Limbang, she had a lot of siga left. She made at least 10 lampit mats while in Belaga.
“Now, she’s still making some in her spare time in the longhouse. Siga is a very rare commodity now. It’s tough, very lasting and a great legacy to pass on from one generation to another.
“I thank God I have one lampit from my mother. It’s an act of love and I’ll always treasure it,” Robert said.
Jenau (name has been changed) told thesundaypost he once went to the jungles with his grandfather and found rattan harvesting not easy at all. He was in his teens and like every Iban hunter, carried a parang. He was only able to slash some of the jungle plants along the way.
“We made a clearing to process the rattan vines my grandfather and uncle found. They were able to extract a lot in a few days once a patch of rattan was found.
“It took us about one and a half hours to walk from the riverbank. By noon my grandfather had already cut out quite a bundle – some 20kg of rattan.
“My uncle and I helped carry the rattan to the boat, then called it a day. This was the last time I went with him,” Jenau recalled.
According to him, looking for wild rattan in the jungle is not easy. As such, he appreciates all the rattan baskets and mats his relatives made.
He said people should not bargain when they wanted to buy a genuine lampit mat.
“Think of the number of days my grandfather had to take looking for siga in the jungle and extracting it later. The whole siga hunt can be dangerous too. Besides, he had to process and dry the rattan. And just splitting the vines would take days.
“I always enjoy watching the longhouse weavers at work. They are so patient. It takes a few days to complete just a metre of mat. They don’t weave every day because they have other chores.”
Today, one of the rattan’s most important uses is for making strong and lasting baskets to harvest oil palm fresh fruit bunches with. These baskets are usually made from lesser quality rattan.
Basket weaving is an art and a craft found in almost all cultures. It’s the process of weaving or sewing pliable materials into two or three dimensional artefacts such as mats or containers.
Craftspeople and artists specialised in making baskets are usually referred to as basket makers and basket weavers. Handwoven baskets have existed since the beginning of human civilisation. They have been essential objects in the growth of economies, playing important roles in transportation and exchange of goods.
Sarawak baskets are now trendy and have caught the imagination of world fashionistas. It’s good that traditional basket-weaving continues to be practised in the state and plays an important role in the cultures of the different ethnic groups. Remarkably, today, the baskets are made to be both fashionable and functional.
For everyday use, the indigenous women would make baskets to carry food, tools, fish, jungle produce, their harvest, and even their babies.
A basket weaver at the tamu Muhibbah told thesundaypost women were generally known to be the basket weavers of Sarawak as men did not normally weave baskets because good basket-weaving needs smaller and nimbler hands.
However, she said some men did make great baskets, adding, “Iban men have always been known to make good lampit. The softer mats are woven by women, using many different kinds of materials, not just rattan.”
From Ulu Trusan with love
Lawet of Pa Berunut has a great passion for basket weaving. She has been doing it all her life and is now passing her knowledge on to her sisters and relatives who want to learn.
According to her sister Dayang Lasong, Lawet has been earning a little by selling her rattan baskets almost all her life.
She didn’t go to school like the younger ones as she was a teenager during the Japanese Occupation. She missed her chance to go to primary school after the war and shortly after, she got married.
She and her husband depended on the land for a living.
Lawet’s ability to make baskets can be said to be legendary – one large basket a day. When younger and healthier, she could locate rattan patches in the jungles in Ulu Trusan.
She would harvest the rattan and process them, which could take days. She had to trim the leaves off and make sure all the thorns were properly taken out with a sharp parang.
Very often, these rattan vines were found many miles from Pa Berunut. Today, as she has grown too old to go foraging for rattan herself, she buys them from the Penans who come to sell to her.
Dayang Lasong said, “I’m glad she can still buy the small rattan from the Penans. This will keep her going. She is so passionate about making baskets for a living.
“Amazingly, she is still skilful at 80 plus. Our whole community acknowledges her legacy. Many people have bought her beautiful baskets and trays as gifts and souvenirs. I can say these baskets are symbolic of our cultural history. Nothing can beat what is made by loving hands.”
Penan women weavers
I had the chance to see rattan crafts made by Penan women during a recent visit to Murum. Their work is excellent and the display awesome.
According to one of the weavers, their products are selling very well.
At the Miri Handicraft centre, some Penan rattan baskets from Tutoh, Ulu Baram and Miri, can be purchased at market prices. These are very fine handicrafts.
Julan explained, “Some Penan women from Ulu Baram will come here to sell their handiworks because they have pay for their accommodation in Miri.
“Sometimes, they need money urgently because they have sick relatives in hospital. I admire them because they can still make baskets while staying with relatives. They can be said to be one of the best rattan craftswomen in Sarawak.”
Many good Penan weavers can now make tote bags, purses, lamp shades, food covers, and even briefcases.
P Wong is concerned that basketry is no longer taught in schools.
He said when he was a student in the 60s, he had lessons in basketry and he still remembers how to make rattan baskets.
He used to carry his books in a rattan basket during his secondary school days.
“It’s a pity schools don’t teach basketry nowadays. It’s a very useful skill to have. We don’t need to depend on rattan, we can use any materials. My wife uses old magazines, tears them up to make little rods, which she would weave into trays, containers, baskets, and even lampshades.
“By using dark brown shellac, she can fashion some beautiful crafty creations. Senior citizens should do some basketry so that their fingers will not become stiff.
“I do help my wife with this craft and I regain dexterity in my fingers. Basketry is even mentioned in the Bible. Moses was put in a basket and rescued by Pharaoh’s sister,” he said.