The ngepan indu traditionally worn by Iban women is more than just beautiful clothing – it embodies the culture of the largest ethnic group in Malaysia’s Sarawak state.
While the subtle differences among the various ngepan might be indiscernible to the untrained eye, to the Ibans they signify the distinct identity of each community.
This symbolism also extends to Ibans in neighbouring Brunei and Indonesia’s West Kalimantan, who each have their own version of the attire.
Whether it’s flaunted at the annual Gawai beauty pageants or other traditional events, the ngepan beautifully expresses Iban pride and heritage.
This ngepan originates in the districts of Betong, Paku and Krian along the Saribas River, about 200 kilometres east of the state capital of Kuching.
What makes ngepan Saribas special is its rawai tinggi, a bodice made of rattan coils fitted with tiny brass rings that wraps around the torso.
The outfit also includes kain kebat, which is worn around the waist, and a wraparound skirt made from pua kumbu, a traditional Iban handwoven textile.
Sugu tinggi pirak (silver filigree headgear) and tumpa (bangles) complete this classic look.
Ngepan Skrang, donned by the Ibans who live by the Skrang River, consists of a pua kumbu skirt and filigree headgear, similar to ngepan Saribas.
What distinguishes this outfit is its rawai ringgit (silver coin corset) with dangling coins that clink every time the wearer moves.
Depending on individual preference, the coins are either wound around both the bodice and skirt or cover only the skirt.
Ngepan Batang Ai
Ngepan Batang Ai, worn by the Ibans of Lubok Antu, Lemanak and Engkilili near the border with Indonesia, has similarities with ngepan Skrang.
The main difference is the rawai pandak pirak or short silver corset is worn together with sementing ringgit, a belt of dangling coins.
Ngepan Batang Ai is not considered complete without accessories like lampit (silver belt), geruncung (anklets) and buah pauh (silver purse).
As this outfit hails from Saratok district 60 kilometres southwest of Sarikei, it is also known as ngepan Saratok.
Here, the filigree headgear is decorated with ensuga tisir or paper flowers that add colour to the festive crown.
Aside from the customary bodice and wraparound skirt, the ngepan Ensuga also sports a beaded collar covering the shoulders.
Ngepan Batang Rajang
Ngepan Batang Rajang from Kapit, through which the Rajang River flows, uniquely does not feature the silver filigree headgear that most associate with Iban traditional wear.
Instead, this outfit features a headdress called dujung manik, which consists of a rattan skullcap decorated with colourful threads.
Another distinctive item is the baju marik, a dress made with glass beads and cowrie shells that covers the shoulders and stretches below the knees.