by Jaina Mishra
Weaving of ceremonial cloths ceased in Lampung, Sumatra at the end of the 19th century. The extinction of any textile art form is a tragedy irrespective of the textile group in question.
But once we see the astounding beauty of the ceremonial textiles of Lampung, this tragedy takes on very depressing proportions! That such a beautiful form of woven art died out is probably one of the biggest losses of textile art.
Legend has it that the tsunami following the Krakatau eruption led to widespread devastation in which majority of the weaving population perished. With that generation gone, no one remained to transmit the memes into the future and the art perished instantly along with the stories surrounding their creation.
These textiles now found only in museums and collections, once played a prominent role in every important family ceremony and were integrated into the customs of the all the people of Lampung across all social strata.
Today, the textiles that survive are few and the stories regarding their symbolism are even fewer.
Over the decades that followed the earthquake, the traditions surrounding these ceremonial textiles were handed down from one generation to the next only verbally. And as in the game of Chinese Whispers, much of the information was lost over multiple transmissions.
What we know today about this group of textiles are plausible reconstructions that have been put together by scholars and students and have been based on surviving fragments of cultural knowledge and the few surviving textiles.
Why have so few textiles survived if they were so prevalent in the lives of the people of Sumatra? The answer to this takes us back into the traditions and rituals of Sumatra. In this region, textiles were at the heart of rituals and used as integral elements of ceremonies during births, deaths, weddings etc. Their frequent usage subjected them to wear and tear. As these traditions lived on much after the weaving had stopped, families used ancestral pieces during rituals until the pieces could be used no more.
And so, very few pieces survived in market-worthy condition. Today we have a vacuum not only of information about these textiles but also of pre-20th century Sumatran textiles.
There are 3 sizes of ceremonial cloth, each size being reserved for specific uses. The smallest are the Tampans, the medium sized ones are Tatibins and the long ones are Palepais.
The smaller cloths – the Tampans were exchanged as gifts between the families of the bride and the groom. They were also used as seating mats for the important people at family gatherings or as central mats around which people gathered. During ritual celebrations certain Tampans were used as food covers. Palepais were hung up on the walls during rituals and important family events, while Tatibin were used as covers of longer seats or of larger trousseau boxes..
There were restrictions on the usage of the long cloths. Hanging the Palepai in the home during a ceremony was not allowed to all families in a clan. Only the eldest male descendent of the clan was allowed to hang up the Palepai during ceremonies. Fewer were made and these were passed on from generation to generation. They also saw very little wear and tear than the smaller.
On the other hand all families across horizontal levels of a generation were allowed to use Tampans and these were created, distributed or exchanged freely during family ceremonies. Among the rare survivors of this category of textiles, Tampans are therefore the most common and Palepais are the rarest.
Each of these weavings lived a full life, participated heartily in every important event in the family and witnessed the joys and sorrows of the family. If only these textiles, rich with art, history and meaning could speak!
It is hard to decide which of the three features of these ceremonial textile is most alluring – i.e. the aesthetic, the craft or the symbolism.
The woven motifs of boats, men, trees, spirits, dragons and birds are still trying to tell us stories but unfortunately we do not have the key to decipher their meaning.
The ship motif is very common in weavings along the coast. Further, these cloths are used during important life events such as birth, death, boyhood to manhood, singlehood to marriage etc.
Combining the data of the ship motif and the occasion of usage, the traditional explanation presented is as follows:
Every life event signifies a ‘transition’ to a new phase of life and will bring with it new challenges, new learnings and new adjustments. In such a time of stress and adaptation, the offering of a ‘ship’ symbolises the offering of a blessing or prayer for a safe and secure platform to sail through the transition.*
(*On a personal note – when our family was moving away from South East Asia for an assignment abroad, we were gifted a small wooden ship and were told that this will bring us good luck on our journey. Only now do I understand the deeper significance that the ship has for the culture of this region. Also note the word ‘Sampan’ that is commonly used boat in the region)
Created in an era when ancestors were worshipped, the humans in the cloths depict the ancestral family tree. Some figures show crowns that imply nobility or royalty or the first-born male descendent.
The animal forms seen appear to be from legends. But there are too many strange creatures in the textiles of too many old cultures to be written off as just some mythical creatures. Maybe there is some scientific explanation that we have to wait to find in the future.
Tree of life
Besides using actual motifs of trees, the layout often consisted of stacking of boats or devices that, when seen at a macro level represented the Tree of Life.
5. Regional variations
A casual study reveals that there were several weaving regions in Lampung, Sumatra, each of which had developed a unique style for these ceremonial cloths.
Today when a piece emerges in the market, several criteria are used to determine the origin – drawing, weave, color palette and material.
Some drawings are uniquely associated with a region. For example the large single ships are always from Kalianda.
Usage of silk threads is common in pieces from Liwa and Krui.
The use of three colors – red, blue and yellow – is most common in pieces from Kota Agung. Kalianda Tampans have elaborate motifs, while weavers from Jabung preferred to render human figures and those from Komring had a taste for animal figures. Branti weavings that are rare, have a far more detailed drawing than others.
And so we have a rough grouping of Tampans based on region. Some examples:
Subregion Kota Agung
NOTE: The horizontal mirror symmetry is created so that when the cloth is placed over an object – usually food plates as a cover, so that when it is folded over along the horizontal axis, the picture appears correctly oriented in the upward direction on both sides.
Tampans with 3 bands in alternating colors are usually from Komring.
At this point we must remind ourselves that while these variations exist, Lampung is a small region. Today, all the places mentioned above can be fitted into a relaxed 3-day itinerary. A century ago, travel may have been more difficult but it would not have been impossible for people and ideas to travel within the region.
6. End note
Recently there has been a revival and a few new pieces are seen in the market place. Considering the small number of these new pieces, it appears that there are just a handful of weavers reviving this art. Some new pieces are being passed off as old, but many are being sold as what they are – new revival pieces. In my obsessive hunt for these textiles in the past few months I have seen fewer than 6 such pieces.
I hope that the new weavers find the strength to continue so that this beautiful art does not die out.
All the pieces shown above are a part of the Wovensouls collection.
Written by Jaina Mishra with inputs from Irfan Maghribi and Sebastian Doni.