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Cloths of Great Power and Artistry

Indonesia enjoys an enviable reputation as a veritable paradise for textile connoisseurs. On Bali, as elsewhere in the archipelago, traditional textiles are much more than simply decorative pieces of cloth. To the Balinese they represent a mark of cultural identity and religious exclusivity, while the use of certain cloths also convey subtle differences of birth, age, sex, title and caste. Traditional fabrics also serve many sacred and ritual functions, distinguishing the holy from the profane and the good from the evil.

Humans are not the only ones who wear clothes - the Balinese clothe almost everything, which possesses a head, a body and feet. Buildings, shrines, altars, ancestor stones and statues are all wrapped in costly or magically permeated apparel during rituals. The cotton yarns are said to bring strength to both men and objects, protecting them and warding off harmful influences.

The ritual wardrobe

The ritual or adat wardrobe of the Balinese consists of several lengths of cloth of various sizes. These are not tailored, but are used in the form in which they are woven, and then draped artfully around the body. Boys and men wrap a large skirt (kamben or wastra) around themselves and tie it in such a way that a long fold hangs down in front between the legs, nearly touching the ground. Girls and women wrap their bodies below the waist clockwise as tightly as possible.

In some rituals, an inner cloth is wound around the body as an undergarment (tapih or sinjang). A kamben or wastra, which can extend down to the ankles, is then wrapped over the undergarment. 'Me end is tucked in at the waist near the left hip, and the kamben is generally secured by a narrow sash wound around the body several times.

Tube skirts (sarung) do not belong to the traditional wardrobe, though imported Javanese cloths with batik patterns are commonly used as kamben. During the past few years, Balinese weft ikat cloths (endek) from Gianyar, Sidemen, Bubunan or Cakranegara, (Lombok) have increasingly come into use.

A smaller sash, known as saput or kampuh, is wound round the hips or the chest by boys and men, falling approximately to the knees. The belt (umpal) attached to the end of this cloth is wrapped around the body and knotted below the upper edge of the saput. Another type of sash, known as sabuk or pekekek, is generally so long that it is wrapped once round the body and then knotted. Men also wear a graceful head cloth, sometimes in the form of a little boat-shaped hat (destar lidang).

Women's' outer garments consist of a long and similar to a belt (sabuk, setagen) holding the skirt together, and a breast-cloth (anteng) wrapped tightly around the upper part of the body. Sometimes a part of the anteng will be draped over one shoulder. In former times, women also wore loose shoulder sashes (selendang).

Until the 1930s, Balinese women were usually naked above the waist in everyday situations, but always covered the upper parts of their bodies when bringing offerings to the temple or taking part in festive court events. Even though one can still see the traditional I)are-shouldered dress at temple feasts and family rituals, this has now been replaced in many parts of Bali by the long-sleeved, lacey kebayas that come from Java and are now considered part of the national dress.

Traditional textile forms

The art of Balinese textile decoration is best expressed in men's skirt, chest and head cloths, and women's chest and skirt cloths. Three categories may be distinguished. The first comprises cloths decorated with gold leaf, called prada. These were traditionally produced for royalty and are still used by girls and boys during tooth-filing and marriage ceremonies. The outlines of the design are first drawn on the cloth and coated with glue; the gold-leaf is then applied. Stylized blossoms, plants and birds are the most common motifs; the edges of the cloth are frequently decorated with intertwined swastikas - the symbol of Balinese Hinduism. Other pieces show a distinct Chinese influence.

A second group, just as brilliant and expensive as the prada cloths, are the Balinese songket brocades. Decorative gold and silver colored weft threads are added when these cloths are on the loom. The range of patterns extends from simple crosses and stars to elaborate compositions with trees, creepers, flowers and snakes.

From a historical point of view the production of brocaded fabrics with ornamental wefts of gold and silver was for centuries the exclusive preserve of the higher castes. Today, brahmana women, along with wives and daughters in the princely satriya dalem and satriya jaba families, continue to show considerable skill in this art. Centers of songket production are still to be found in the aristocratic and brahmanical neighborhoods of Karangasem (Amlapura, Sidemen), Buleleng (Bubunan, Bratan), Klungkung and Gelgel, Mengwi (Blayu) and Negara Uembrana).

In 1980, the then governor of Bali, Prof Ida Bagus Mantra, appealed to his fellow citizens to employ Balinese textiles in their ceremonial dress. Apart from promoting village crafts and encouraging the development of the Balinese economy, this has had the effect of reducing the role of these textiles as aristocratic symbols. Anyone of a certain position or wealth is now in a position to flaunt their songket publicly at religious and social events. As a result, the demand for songket cloth has increased dramatically in the past few years.

The third major type of Balinese textile is weft ikat or endek, the weft threads of which are dyed prior to weaving. Areas to be remain uncolored are bound tightly together. Different color combinations may be achieved by repeating the binding and dyeing process several times. Dye is also sometimes applied by hand to the unwoven weft.

Endek is by far the most popular Balinese textile form, and its designs are consequently more reliant on fashion and current trends. The demon heads and wayang figures of the older cloths have nearly all been replaced now by finer geometric motifs. The popularity of endek is spreading beyond Bali to the rest of Indonesia and abroad as enticing new designs are created.

Magical textiles from Tenganan

The famous double ikat cloths from Tenganan Pegeringsingan rank among the masterworks of Southeast Asian textile art. In double ikat, the weft and the warp threads are both patterned using the ikat method. This is an immensely difficult process, requiring great precision not only in dyeing but also in maintaining the proper tension in the threads on the loom, so that the patterns will align properly.

The showpieces of Tenganan are the so called geringsing cloths, instantly recognizable by their muted colors - red and reddish brown, eggshell and blue-black - achieved by dyeing or over-dyeing with red sunti root bark (Morinda citrifolia) and taum or indigo. It is often claimed that the traditional production of the fabric required blood from human sacrifices. These wild rumors have been refuted many times over, but persist in the tourist literature despite the protests of scholars and the people of Tenganan.

All geringsing are made of cotton yarn, decorated with geometrical or floral motifs, lozenges, stars or small crosses. The so called geringsing wayang is best known large four-pointed stars surrounded by four scorpions divide the main field into semi-circular segments, while inside are buildings, animals and wayang figures in the style of ancient east Javanese bas-reliefs, ranging across the cloth in groups of twos and threes.

Geringsing cloths are said to possess the power to protect against malevolent earthly and supernatural enemies. The fame of the cloths' power has spread throughout Bali, and one wonders whether the independence and wealth of the Tenganan community is not in large part due to a monopoly in the manufacture of these magically potent fabrics.

Geringsing are of importance to all Balinese, irrespective of whether they are used ~Is protective or destructive agents. It is still the custom in quite a few villages to wind the geringsing cloths around the seats and sedan chairs in which the gods are carried to the sea or the river to be bathed. Outside of Tenganan, geringsing are also used in tooth filing ceremonies, to wrap around the head, and for cremation purposes.

Narrow cloths called geringsing sanan empeg ("broken yoke") are worn by men when a brother has died. During their ritually impure period of bereavement and its associated rites, the cloths are thought to be instrumental in protecting the wearer. It is noteworthy that the people of Tenganan do not use geringsing to heal disease in men and animals as is done on other parts of the island. Instead, they use fragments of Indian double ikat which are reputedly just as magical as geringsing. These cloths, called pitola (also pato1a) sutra are woven of silk and were traded to Indonesia for many centuries.

Holy stripes and squares

When the costly and precious geringsing and pitola weaves are unavailable, luminous red cotton cepuk cloths may be substituted. Cepuk is used in sacrifices, at cremations, and above all as the protective cloth worn by Rangda dancers. The centers of weaving were formerly Kerambitan and Nusa Penida Island. Today, Tanglad on Nusa Penida is the main production center for cepuk cloths, which can be found in the bigger markets all over Bali, sold together with other sacral textiles.

Sacred hip and breast cloths with simple checkered patterns (polengan) or small, circular fabrics (wangsul, gedogan) are usually worn during rites of passage (especially the three-month birthday, the 210 day birthday and for tooth-filing ceremonies). They define the boundary between the holy and the profane, often acting to shield human beings from the impure, especially when appearing before a priest or priestess to be blessed or to be cleansed. The checkered poleng in particular is a symbol of the underworld and is associated with demons and death.

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