Mandau (Borneo)

Code: IN16

This is a wonderful mandau, also sometimes called a “parang ihlang”.  It is the traditional sword of the Dayak tribes of Borneo and is associated with their headhunting traditions although it is more commonly used as a machete in everyday life.  The mandau is used by many people of Kalimantan and is widespread.  The mandau is believed to have supernatural power and it is passed as an heirloom from generation to generation. 

The mandau is one of the most romanticized, albeit macabre, weapons of Borneo.  The way of life of the Dayak aborigines, maintaining their ancient customs, habits and religious beliefs, has always involved the taking of heads.  They became feared as head-hunters and only in recent years has the practice been “largely” abandoned. (Officially, headhunting doesn’t exist in Borneo despite the occasional report of an isolated jungle beheading).  The swords are also “working” swords, capable of separating a branch from a jungle tree as much as a head from man.

This well-crafted blade is 50cm long, heavy and thick, and traditionally shaped with a convex obverse and concave reverse.  The reverse is also blackened has an almost sawtooth roughness to it.  The blade is chiseled details near the hilt. Five brass plugs are inset into the blade near the tip. Brass and copper are sometimes used as elements in blades where there is a desire to protect against magic.  The use here is purely speculative.  It is thought that the design of the mandau blade is such that a head can be easily taken by swinging the blade in an arc while running. The sword is 69cm in total length. 

The staghorn hilt and wooden scabbard are both deeply carved with both floral and representational figures such as the spider near the bottom of the scabbard.  The central part of the hilt is dressed with wicker . The scabbard is bound with thick plaited rattan.The handle has tufts of black and brown hair of unknown type. 

The mandau swords typically conform to the same pattern:  a blade narrow at the grip, widening gradually towards the point. It is single-edged, but not flat in section. Rather, it is slightly concave to ensure an effective cut.  Cutting is its purpose, so the tip is of little importance and may even be slightly rounded.  The blade is made of a softer iron, to prevent breakage, with a narrow strip of a harder iron wedged into a slot in the cutting edge for sharpness. The headhunting necessitated being able to draw the sword quickly. For this purpose, the Mandau is fairly short, which also better serves the purpose of trailcutting in dense forest. It is holstered with the cutting edge facing upwards and at that side there is an upward protrusion on the handle, so it can be drawn very quickly with the side of the hand without having to reach over and grasp the handle first. The hand can then grasp the handle while it is being drawn. The combination of these three factors (short, cutting edge up and protrusion) makes for an extremely fast drawing-action.

One explanation for the beautiful preservation of mandau blades is that is accomplished by the use of iron meteorite ore from inland river-beds.  Such ore includes titanium, which accounts for the very light weight of the blade, which is nevertheless stiff and quite strong.  The inclusion of meteoritic material in this particular blade is speculative, although it does feel lighter than expected from its general looks.

Read more about The Mandau


Edged Weapons of the Indonesian Archipelago