Cultures & Traditions

Blessings of the Bride in Traditional Indonesian Cultures

Fundamental to the thinking of Indonesian peoples was the con­viction that the family that provided the bride was ritually superior to that of the groom. In surrendering its daughter or sister, it had given the bridegroom and his family something that cannot be repaid, no matter how high the bride price: fertility and the pros­pect of future progeny. In several traditional societies in Indonesia, this idea led to the rule that the “flow of life” accompanying the bride could never be reversed. The subsequent generations of a group who acted as wife-givers could never receive a bride from the descendants of their former wife-takers but had to take wives from a third group—a rule which led to a circular network of alliances enhancing the internal cohesion of society. To be sure, this form of blessing was much less fre­quently expressed in art. One sees it in jewelry, the ceremonial wedding costume, and the textiles that furnish the wedding chamber.

Textiles are created by women, and it is in textiles—above all, in the splendid patterns produced in the ikat technique—that the power of the female blessing is reflected. Among the Dayak, for example, headhunting trophies were required to be wrapped in cloth made by women of the tribe if they were to provide the community with the desired benefits [1988.124.McD and 1983.131]. Fabrics were of greatest importance at weddings. For example, in eastern Indonesia, the bride price was made up not only of masculine, “hot” goods like gold and weapons but also of imported fabrics from India, associated with male booty owing to their foreign place of origin. In exchange, the bride brought to the marriage locally woven textiles, regarded as “cool” and associated with fertility.

Comparison with practices in the extreme west of the archipelago reflects a basic similarity among Indonesian cultures. On Mentawai, a dagger like the one in Dallas [2002.12.A-B] was an indispensable component of the bride price, and to this day the precious goods thought of as "male" and presented to the bride's family among the Batak in Sumatra are referred to as piso (dagger). There, too, the bride's "female" contribution consists mainly of locally woven fabrics called ulos, which are meant to bring fertility and permanence to the marriage.

Adapted from

Reimar Schefold, " Art and Its Themes in Indonesian Tribal Traditions," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, Reimar Schefold, ed. in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 17-27.