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Reports on occurrence of tiger bells

Description of various types of tiger bells

Observations and tentative conclusions

Reactions and opinions

Table of distribution and use

List of illustrations

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What are tiger bells?

Tiger bells are bronze pellet bells. Pellet bells are globularly shaped, hollow and have a pellet inside which produces the sound when the bell is shaken. Tiger bells stand apart from other pellet bells because of the peculiar design on the surface: a stylized tiger's head. Very often the hoop is rectangular. On the top half of the bell's surface you often see one or two Chinese characters and some curls and curved lines, possibly floral motifs.

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Side view of a tiger bell from S.E. Mindanao (the Philippines)

Intriguing questions

Bells with this design occur all over Asia, from Pakistan to Siberia, to Indonesia. They come in different sizes and there are variations in the design. The face, the tiger's head, is however very consistent.

In the Musee de l'Homme in Paris (France) I found several bells on a shaman's costume from the Tungus, an ethnic group in southern Siberia. These were almost identical to tiger bells I had seen in the Philippines. I found this enormous distance between the two locations intriguing and decided to try to find out more about the history of these bells: how old they are, how they came to be where they are, where they were produced and where and how they are used. Not being an anthropologist, I had to start from scratch.

A shaman's belt from the Benuaq Dayak, Kalimantan, Indonesia

I started this informal research in 1975. Since then I have found out a number of things. The most important finding is that some groups, such as some of the animist groups in S.E. Mindanao and several Dayak groups in Kalimantan, have these bells by the hundreds while other groups within the same area, sometimes neighbours, do not have one single tiger bell. This occurs in several places in East Asia and has led to the assumption that trade could not have been an important distribution factor. Trade is too indiscriminate to explain this. It would be more likely that groups already possessed tiger bells before they reached their present location. This could link those groups with and those without the tiger bell to the various migration waves in East Asia through time. It would also mean that tiger bells found with these groups are very old.

A tiger bell on a child's ankle, Bahau Dayak, Kalimantan

Another striking fact is that the bells with the tiger's head design in its purest form occur at the extremes of the distribution area: Siberia, Outer Mongolia and insular S.E. Asia. In between we find tiger bells of varying age, the majority possibly younger than those in northern Asia and S.E. Asia, and with many variations in shape, size and design.

The function of these bells differs per group. One particular type of tiger bells is used as an amulet by shamans from Kalimantan and Siberia. Other uses are: a necklace or a dance attribute. Other types are used as animal bells.

A tiger bell in a wooden yak bell, from Burma

The link with certain ethnic groups could indicate that the tiger bells are old. On the other hand, some of these bells are evidently newer than others. This indicates that these bells must have been produced continuously, in large numbers over hundreds of years. In fact, they are still being produced. I have been told that there are at least two workshops that still produce tiger bells of different types: one in Peking and one in Dehra Dun (Northern India).

A new bell, made in Peking

Finding the answers

While my wife and I were collecting information in various museums and institutes, we found that although many people had seen all kinds of bronze bells, they had never recognized the tiger bells as being different. Those who had noticed this were satisfied with the observation that these bells were apparently of Chinese origin. Yet, the number of individual observations is vast and we now have reports of occurrence of tiger bells in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Inner Mongolia, Outer Mongolia, southern Siberia, Burma, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, India, and Western Pakistan. Also, we found that there were distinctly different types of tiger bells, and variations within these types.

A silver prayer mill, from Tibet

Help, from you

Since there is little literature on this subject and since I cannot visit all museum libraries and depots, I now have to rely for new facts on observations by others. Until now, travelling friends, colleagues and museum curators have helped. By presenting my search on the Internet I hope that I can reach more people and institutes. All relevant information on variations in shape, design, size, location, possible age, origin, ethnic groups, use, value, etc. is welcome. The more detailed, the better. Please mail your information, or your questions, to me. You can mail or send photographs or video recordings of bells in use, etc. If your contribution is not free of cost, please let me know in advance.

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