This elaborate ceremonial sword is from the Kayan people of Borneo. With a population of roughly 27,000, the Kayan are one of approximately 200 indigenous groups that live in the island’s interior and are collectively referred to as Dayak. The Kayan are known for their blacksmithing and weaponry, which was once of vital importance during frequent conflicts with other Dayak groups.
The sword is known as a mandau or malat, and it is a more ornate version of a common practical cutting blade. The hilt made of bone or deer antler is the most striking element. The hilt’s decorative carvings most often depict mythical creatures, as they do here. The added embellishments, including dyed animal fur and other talismans, were intended to protect the wielder and work against his enemies. The mandau is characterized as a short sword or machete and has a distinctive concave blade to provide a better cutting edge. The blade is often decorated with inlaid brass or pierced designs. The sheath is made of wood adorned with rattan weaving.
While formerly used in combat and for headhunting, mandau swords are now largely ceremonial and are worn for festivals and ritual occasions. The swords are also given as gifts for special events such as weddings.