Makara head early 20th century
wood with traces of pigment
Department of Museums and Antiquities, Kuala Lumpur
Muslim principalities established in the 16th century along the coast and rivers of west Borneo acted as intermediaries between seafaring Malays and inland non-Islamic communities. This imposing sculpture probably formed the prow for a boat. It depicts the legendary makara water monster, with its distinctive trunk, fangs and rows of sharp teeth. While the name and form indicate a creature of Indian origin, this makara head displays a curling crest and beard often found in the arts of the people of central Borneo. Makara imagery is popular in the arts of the Malay maritime kingdoms.
The decoration of boats with fantastic creatures was widespread in Southeast Asia and especially among the Islamic courts. According to Tomes Pires, a Portuguese official based in Melaka (Malacca) in the early 16th century, Malay boats were ‘carved in a thousand and one ways, with figures of serpents’.