The mandau is the traditional weapon of the Dayak of Kalimantan, Indonesia. In the past, the majority of the native people living in the island of Kalimantan, the Dayak, were animists in belief. Perhaps the most striking is their ancient tradition of headhunting practices. And it is also precisely for this purpose that the Dayak used the mandau.
Sacred kinds of wood from specific forest trees are used for carving the hilt of the mandau. Usually the hilt is wrapped with hairs taken from the decapitated victims. Based on the design and additional features of the hilt, one can thus determine the origin of the mandau; for instance, there are several different characteristics of a mandau from various different groups of Dayak people, such as the Dayak Maanyan, Dayak Mbalan, Dayak Bahau, and the Dayak Ngaju.
Like the hilt, the sheath is made from wood of rare forest trees which are considered sacred, too. The sheath of an ancient mandau is often also attributed with beads and bird’s feathers.
The average length of the blade of a mandau is approximately 70 centimeters, and it has a sharp edge. Usually the width of a mandau is about 6.5 centimeters at the widest part of the blade, and 3.5 centimeters at the smallest part. The back of the blade is often decorated with metals other than iron, for instance or bronze, copper or brass. There can be found some variation in the shape of the blade; most mandau have a blade tilted backward/upward (mandau langgi tinggang), but there are also mandaus with a slightly curved blade (mandau ilang), yet even rarer are the ones which have a straight blade. Interestingly enough, some mandau blades feature something which looks very similar to the kembang kacang of a keris; this kind of mandau is called a ‘mandau naibor’, or ‘mandau naibur’.
A mandau of the highest quality, however, is called a mandau Batu. In this context, the word ‘batu’ refers to the stone meteorite used for forging this type of mandau. Back in the days in rural areas of Kalimantan, meteorite stones were believed to come from the ancestors of the Dayak people who reside in heaven, and were therefore regarded as a divine gift for their descendants on earth.
Although a mandau Batu is of a relatively light weight, it has a very solid and sharp blade. Due to its remarkable solidity and sharpness, it is possible to cut an iron nail in two pieces in a single cut, without leaving any marks on the blade. Obviously, the mandau Batu is a very sacred pusaka item handed down from one generation to the next, and thus cannot be sold or purchased.
But according to the Dayaks themselves, the most sacred and powerful mandaus are those which were made by Panglima Sempung and Panglima Bungai, who are considered to be the two highest skilled masters.