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Tiger bells in Southeast Asia

Burma Indonesia Laos Malaysia Philippines
Singapore Taiwan Thailand Vietnam

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Tiger bells are of the D type and smaller type A.

Group: Unknown, probably common
One bell type A, together with ordinary bells, in a wooden yak bell. Author's collection, bought in 1989

Eight tiger bells, type D, in a bundle, probably used as a rattle. The bells are more or less similar to the bells from Vietnam. Part of a musical ensemble.
In the National Museum of Thailand, Bangkok (display nr. 18, 1986).

One bell, of the smaller type A. From Rangoon, part of an ensemble of street musicians.
In the National Museum of Thailand, Bangkok (1984, not on display in 1986).


A report from K.Fritch (January '96):
The bells I have were acquired in Ban Houei Sai, a small Lao river town up near the "Golden Triangle". They were described as having been used as horse bells by Chinese Haw traders. There were bells of two types. One type was round and and seems to fit type B. The other does not seem to fit a described type. They were small and oblong, made of bronze, no character, but the opening in the bell was obviously a mouth and eyes appear on the bell. The string of bells I acquired was made up of both these types, but the strap to which they were attached was obviously of much more recent manufacture. The small bells appeared much more worn and considerably older than the type B.

Haw traders are a Chinese ethnic group [from Yunnan] who traded extensively throughout northern Southeast Asia. They used pack animals.

Note: The second type could be type D.


All bells are of the A type, in sizes varying from about 2 to 5.5 cm., the largest bells mainly occurring with the Iban.

Group: Iban
Many tiger bells, on necklaces, skirts, religious objects, etc. In the Sarawak Museum and in shops. In the longhouses upriver the bells can still be seen in actual use. One antique dealer in Kuching explained that the bells came from China and were worn by small children.
Reports from Annemiek Broersma, Cor van Haasteren, Wilmar Bliek.

In 'Life in a longhouse' (1962) and other publications by photographer Hedda Morrison, tiger bells appear in many photographs.

In 'Hornbill and Dragon' by Bernard Sellato (1989, photograph 235): a ceremonial sword belt with a hornbill beak, beadwork and one tiger bell.

Group: Bidayu
Many tiger bells, mainly on necklaces together with beads, animal claws and sometimes cowrey shells. See the bells in use in the longhouses, also those near Kuching.

Note: no tiger bells were found with the Melanau and Kelabit Dayak.

Group: unknown
A letter from Ms. Inger Wulff, Danish National Museum, Copenhagen in 1976:
'I have tried to find such bells in our collection other than those on the Mongolian shaman costume, but only discovered one, which was attached to the wrist of a shadow puppet from Kelantan, Malaysia.'


New tiger bells, more or less of the A type, were for sale in novelty shops (1990). One of these bells was suspended from a simple oil lamp which was hanging outside a shop. The author bought two of these tiger bells, supposed to be used as key rings. According to the shop owner, the bells are produced in one or two workshops near Peking.


Southeast coast
Group: Ami
Two dance costumes. One tiger bell type A, together with six ordinary bells on one costume; on the other costume: nine tiger bells type A. The bells are more or less similar to the bells from Kalimantan and Pakistan.
Photograph by Elisabeth den Otter, during a performance in the Tropen Museum, Amsterdam (1988).

A bundle of bells, probably tiger bells type A, held by a woman, accompanying a singer. Photograph in 'The savage and the innocent' by David Maybury-Lewis(1965)


The majority of the tiger bells is of the B type. In the Chang Mai region tiger bells of the A type are found, varying in size from 2 to 4 c.m. as well as smaller size type B bells.

Group: unknown
In handicraft-, home industry- and antique shops, very many large type B tiger bells are for sale. In one shop I came across a basket full of these bells that had been painted gold. The shop owners did not know anything about the origin, buying the bells in bulk from traders 'from the north'. When I asked about their use, people pointed at two large bells (diameter about 10 c.m.) with tiger heads, used as door knobs (1985).
Reported and donated by among others Hendrik Wittenberg, Arie Jurling.

Region unknown
Group: unknown
One tiger bell, probably type A , on a photograph (title of the publication unknown) of the facade of a house with four or five large phalluses made of wood, probably during a festival. The phalluses are decorated with garlands of flowers.

On the festival and the wooden phalluses, M. Fisher comments (January '96):
Could these phalluses possibly be from a 'boon bon fei' festival, or a rocket festival? These are held in the beginning of the rainy season, in hopes of ensuring good rains and therefore good rice crops. The festival is mostly an Isan cultural thing that was carried there from Laos. The particular one I was at occured about 10-20 miles from Mahasarakham.
Region: Chang Mai
Group: Karen
Two tiger bells type A, one roughly made, used as animal bells. The roughly made bell was said to come from Burma (1986).

Group: Akha
One smaller type B tiger bell, tied to a belt, probably used for a dog. The belt was said to come from Burma (1986).

Both A and B type bells were used as animal bells. The idea that human beings would wear these bells was unthinkable. Smaller type B bells from the Akha were sold in pairs.

A quote from 'Peoples of the Golden Triangle' (1984) in the chapter on domestic animals:
'Ponies, especially prized by groups with strong Chinese ties, are very useful for diffucilt mountain trails. Chinese style bells and harnesses are used...'


Tiger bells are of the D type.

Group: Fou
Seven tiger bells, in a bundle. Description on the catalogue card:
"Neck bells (Kai-nja-bang-tong) for horses, made of yellow brass with an unclear ornament (a stylized head?)... Used by the Fou (tribe) in the hinterlands of Tongkin."
Leyden Ethnological Museum, collected in 1901.

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