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Tiger bells, various types and variations

Various types

Tiger bells vary in shape, size and design. The majority of the bells belong to one of four type groups: type A, type B, type C and type D. Some variations exist but their number is too small to identify them as separate groups.

Type A

Tiger bell type A, from Mindanao, the Philippines

Tiger bells of type A have several characteristics:

On the 'forehead' there is a Chinese character (one vertical line crossed by three horizontal lines), the character 'Wang'. It means 'emperor, royal' and is usually found on Chinese representations of tiger's heads such as this toy tiger.

On both sides, in the center of the top half of the bell we find one or two Chinese characters. Very often these characters have been corrupted by the casting process or are just meaningless scribbles. Those that are legible are often explained differently by various experts. Around the characters and around the eyes and nose we find curls and curves.

Type A tiger bells occur over a wide area and are used in many different ways, as a dance attribute ( Pakistan, southern Philippines), as an amulet for adults, children and sometimes animals (cats with the Minangkabau in Sumatra, dogs in Tibet). There is a strong link between tiger bells and shamanism. Shamans in Kalimantan, Sarawak, Inner Mongolia, Outer Mongolia and South Siberia have type A tiger bells in their costumes and paraphernalia. Shamans from Tibet and Nepal use type B tiger bells. One shaman's costume of the Solon (Outer Mongolia) is decorated with over 60 type A tiger bells of various sizes.

Although tiger bells are of Chinese origin, there are very few records from China. The few examples known are from the 19th century. Newly produced type A tiger bells are used as a key ring (seen in Singapore) or as an amulet.

Size and dimensions
Type A tiger bells occur in many sizes, from about 2.5 cm. to about 5 cm. in width. Larger bells, up to more than 6 cm. are used by the Iban. Very often the hoop is square or rectangular but there are type A tiger bells with round hoops (see the shaman's belt from Kalimantan).

In side view the height of the bell is smaller than its width. This sets them apart from the bells of type B and type C of which the height is larger than the width.

Left: side view of type A
Right: side view of type B

Type B

Bells from this group occur in large numbers on the southeast Asian mainland. Until now there are reports from Thailand, Tibet, Nepal, Bangladesh and possibly Inner Mongolia, Laos and Assam (Nagaland). In Thailand (Bangkok) these bells are sometimes painted gold. They have the following characteristics:

Type B tiger bells are roughly the size of an egg. The 'Wang' character on the 'forehead', so typical for the A type tiger bells, is missing. On the top half we can distinguish Chinese characters, sometimes one, sometimes two. The surrounding curls and curves are not always there. The hoop is always round.

Tiger bells of type B bells occur by the hundreds. In Bangkok they can be bought in many handicraft and antique shops. They come 'from the north' but it is not clear what place or region that is. It is likely that these tiger bells are still produced.

Type B tiger bells are used in many ways. In the Tibetan market in New Delhi (India) belts for yaks and horses with 10 to 12 of these bells were sold. One shopkeeper in Bangkok told me these bells were used as doorknobs. Nepalese and Tibetan shamans wear these bells on a chain across the chest as part of their costume. Type B bells of a smaller size are used as dog bells in Tibet and northern Thailand.

Size and dimensions
These bells are large with diameters varying from about 3.5 cm. to 4.5 cm. and heights from 3.7 cm. to 5 cm. or more.

Type C

These bells occur mainly in Nepal and Tibet. They have the following characteristics:

Type C bells have the shape of B bells but are smaller. On most bells we see the 'Wang' character, although sometimes corrupted. In general the eyes are more bulging than with the other types. Also the lines of the design and the Chinese characters are thick and relatively high on the surface of the bell. The hoop is always rectangular with rounded corners. One handicraft shop owner in Kathmandu, Nepal, told me that bells of this type were being produced in a workshop in Dehra Dun (Uttar Pradesh, near the border with Himachal Pradesh).

Many of these bells are sold as souvenirs in handicraft and ethnography shops. They occur in larger numbers on belts for horses and yaks. On chest chains worn by shamans they are sometimes found together with other bells.

Size and dimensions
The size of the C type bells is rather consistent: a width of about 3.4 cm. and a height of about 3.8 cm.

Type D

These tiger bells are only reported in Vietnam, Burma and possibly Laos. They have the following characteristics:

Type D bells are more or less similar to smaller type A bells. The 'Wang' character is missing and the design is less detailed. The bronze of these bells has a dark, almost black patina.

The bells are used as horse bells (in Vietnam) and as a musical instrument (in Burma).

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