Apai Janggut is the Only Iban Person in Sungai Utik whose Tattoos of "Bunga Terong"

Eggplant flower Tattoo on the shoulders of Apai Janggut. Photo credit: Mongabay.

If you ever find yourself traveling to Kapuas Hulu, West Kalimantan, don't forget to visit the longhouse of Sungai Utik. 

There, you'll meet an elder of the Iban tribe named Bandi Anak Ragai. Known for his long beard that reaches down his chest, a responsibility entrusted by Kumang, the Iban goddess, the 87-year-old longhouse chief is affectionately called "Apai Janggut" (the bearded elder). 

Apai is the only Iban person 

Apai Janggut is the only Iban individual in Sungai Utik with perfectly etched tattoos of eggplant flower (bunga terong) motifs on both his right and left shoulders.

The word "motif" in this context refers to the pattern or design found in art or decoration, such as in the eggplant flower tattoo that is part of cultural or traditional identity. On the other hand, "motive" refers to the reason or purpose behind an action or decision.

So, when we talk about the "motif of the eggplant flower tattoo," we emphasize more on the pattern or design of the tattoo and its meaning in the cultural or traditional context, rather than just the reason or purpose behind its application.

The writer (left) and Apai Janggut: delving into the philosophy behind the eggplant flower tattoo motif.

At this time, in Sungai Utik, Kapuas Hulu, there's only one person adorned with eggplant flower tattoos: Apai Janggut, or Bandi Anak Ragae.

This tattoo on Bandi Anak Ragai's shoulders signifies a certain social status, especially within the cultural realm of the Iban people. The Iban, like other Dayak tribes of Borneo, are creatures rich in symbols (homo symbolicus).

The tattoo signifies how far one has traveled

The eggplant flower tattoo isn't merely a physical decoration but a profound statement of identity. Within the Iban community, it's a tangible demonstration of respect for someone's knowledge, skills, and courage. 

This symbol illustrates that its bearer has undertaken a spiritual and life journey steeped in rich cultural and traditional values. 

In Lontaan (1975), it's succinctly described in one sentence: the tattoo signifies how far one has traveled. 

"Certainly, 'traveling' in both literal and symbolic terms. It shows someone seasoned, having tasted the bitter and the sweet of life, journeyed far and wide, faced various dangers, conquered enemies, escaped mortal perils, and explored islands and continents."

Why the eggplant?

If you're not an elder, a powerful shaman, or a respected figure, don't attempt to carve the eggplant flower tattoo onto your body. If you do choose to do so, be prepared for a test of your knowledge.

Once, I asked Apai, "Pai, why the eggplant?"

"There's a saying, 'As thin as eggplant skin. Life and death. Strength and weakness.' 

It's just a reminder. The flower symbolizes future fruit. It's something we must safeguard."

As wise people say, the answer is never direct. We must draw our own conclusions.

-- Masri Sareb Putra

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