June 15, 2011

The Bemban

This is a beautiful white flower you often see in swamps undisturbed by development. It leads you to a wonder plant which is a necessity of Iban families. However today the bemban has also become part of local horticulture as the plant is sold in nurseries for landscaping. The bemban thus has made an inroad into modern urban life!!

It has been around for ages and has served local Sarawakians well....

Bemban (Mohtra Reed) grows in bunches around lake water and open lands and it is found naturally in the Limbang valley where many Iban ladies can collect freely this plant material for mat and basket making.

The leaf is cylindrical and wide depicting tiny strips of intertwined veins. Its scientific name is Donax grandis from the Marantaceae family.

The flowers emerge in bunches of pairs, white in colour, with secondary petals. Bemban has small round fruits, yellow in colour, each containing 1- 3 seeds.

This lady from Kuching makes bemban handbags for sale.
A winnowing tray ( chepang) made from bemban

Bemban mats which are very cooling - an ideal mat for hot nights.

Pretty and intricate "weave" from bemban.

The bemban is a local Sarawak reed and is often considered the poorer cousin of the more valueable rattan. The Chinese call it Water Bamboo and the mats made from it are called Water Bamboo Mats - highly valued for babies to sleep on.

According to Heidi Munan "the standard Iban mat is made of bemban, a white-flowering reed of the arrowroot family (Donax spp) that grows in swampy places. The village women tend the plants, and allocate appropriate harvesting rights to the mat-makers. Suitable lengths are cut, then the shiny outer skin is stripped off; this is the working material."

It is not an easy task to harvest the bemban because certain adat must be kept. " Unlike rattan, bemban is harvested by the women themselves. Bemban, like most mat-making materials, must be harvested during the new moon. There appears to be a scientific basis for this ’superstition’ – the plants contain less sap at this time, so they will dry better, and be less susceptible to fungus and insect attack when they are stored later. The bark strips are carefully trimmed to equal width; a well made mat is of a tight, even texture. Craftworkers distinguish between the ‘bemban ai’, which is generally used for making mats, and the somewhat more rigid ‘bemban batu’ which can also be used to make small baskets, and the characteristic patterned sun hat called ‘tangoi lelambak’. (Munan)

Pretty leaves make it a welcome plant in urban homes.....
The branch is long, segmental and shiny like that of bamboo but it branches out in mulitiplication.
It is also known for its benefits in alternative medicine.The roots are known to contain substance that cools our body. The roots are boiled and later drank to help reduce the heat in our body.

The sap from the leaves is also known to be an effective eye drop that helps rejuvenate the eyes.

I wonder what will be the real future of this ancient reed......would it be on the endangered list?


Ann said...

are these what we call grass mats?

Couple of years ago, West Malaysian and Singaporean like our Mats.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Ann....the Sarawakians make different kinds of mats using different kinds of materials. The best are lampit rattan...by the Ibans..they are selling for more than 600 ringgit per mat...some ladies are not selling any more. The Kayan make the soft rattan mats that can be folded. Also very fine and expensive. The lesser ones are bemban and keropok mats for rougher use e.g. floor mats in the kitchen. Some even make mats from plastic belting and packaging twines....will write about that in the near future.

Anonymous said...

is this bemban tht is made into strings (kiam chow)tht has multipurpose uses?It can be bend and twisted too but wont break...pity u dont get to see them around much more....been growing wildly around the pulau babi swamps.Dont get to see them around anymore.

Ah Ngao said...

i ever use a Bemban as a sleeping mat during my younger days - cooling . but may harbours small bugs.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Dear Anonymous...the Bemban is Chui Tiik or water bamboo. Kiam Chow is a water reed specifically from the Min River in Fuzhou. I would assume that the bemban is harder hence it is good for making of the chui tiik chiok. Mat can be quite small for baby's bed or cot.
Really? I cannot imagine now that Pulau Babi used to have bemban...there was a small cluster near the bridge near the Rumah Dayak before. I used to see many women collecting the bemban...in the 60's...

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Dear Ah Ngao...bugs and mites were the scourge in the olden days because of poor hygiene..but today with all the sprays etc...they can be exterminated...however they are making a comeback in many places in the world now...even in New York. We cannot be too careless...A bit of sun and lots of hot water..

sherlina said...

helo.. i would like to buy treted and ready bemban to make some fashion accessories, where can i get them?

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Sherlina...I think you could ask the Sarawak Craft Centres in Kuching and Sri Aman or any towns in Sarawak. Thanks for visiting my blog.

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