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Malay Carved Wooden Garuda Head for Circumcision Ceremony

Malay people, southern Thailand or northern Malaysia
19th century

height: 41cm, width: 14.3cm, weight: 2176g



UK art market

This head of a Garuda-type bird has been carved from several pieces of solid wood and decorated in red, green, white, black and gold polychrome.

The head would have been attached to a larger structure either a charriot or a boat, usually in the shape of the mythical bird. In the Malay states of Pattani (now in southern Thailand) and Trengganu and Kelantan (Malaysia) there were representations made of the sacred Garuda bird, known as the buring petala indra or buring pertala indera maha sakti.

Massive versions of this bird were made from wood and they were used to transport young Malay princes to their circumcision ceremonies. Tall spears with wooden shafts with silver mounts, silver candlesticks, pedestal trays, bowls and betel boxes were all commissioned for the event.

The use of a Hindu-type symbol (Garuda) in conjunction with an Islamic event (circumcision) suggests the syncretic nature of the traditional Malay world.

The image above shows a massive buring petala indra that was made to transport royal princes of the Kelantan royal house to their circumcision in Kota Bharu in 1933.

Similar heads were used as prows on royal barges which most probably were used for the same purposes. Malay culture was very trade oriented and Malay sultanates tended to be along the estuaries of rivers of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula so barges played an important role historically.

The head here sits upright and unaided for display purposes. It has obvious age. There is some expected, old, age-related cracking but this is stable and relatively minor.

The final two images below show a magnificent example of an old Malay Garuda boat or barge in the foyer of the C.S. Pattani Hotel in Pattani, southern Thailand, which came from the northern Malay states.


Noor, F. & E. Khoo, Spirit of Wood: The Art of Malay Woodcarving, Periplus, 2003.

Sheppard, M., Taman Indera: Malay Decorative Arts and Pastimes, Oxford University Press, 1972.

Tan, H., Sumatra: Isle of Gold, Asian Civilisations Museum, 2010.

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