Cultures & Traditions

Toraja Textiles

For at least 600 years, the Toraja highlands were an end destina­tion in the long networks of trade that stretched from India and China across Island Southeast Asia. Indian textiles were very highly sought after all over the archipelago and were used as a currency in the spice trade. Their superior workmanship and bright, fast colors were as much admired here as they were in Europe and the Middle East. Toraja was not itself a spice-growing area, but cloths must have reached here originally through the Buginese king­dom of Luwu’, which rose to prominence in the 14th and 15th centuries and was engaged in long-distance trade. Later, large quantities of textiles passed through Makassar, which became a major port of the spice trade starting in the 16th century. Remarkably, Toraja is the area where the greatest numbers of very old Indian cloths have survived, testament to the enormous care with which they have been preserved as sacred heirlooms over the centuries. Some are now in museum collections, where since the 1990s they have been tested with newly refined radiocarbon dating techniques, revealing that they are of much greater antiquity than previously thought. The oldest examples have been dated to the 14th century, and a few even to the late 13th century.

These rare and exotic textiles were incorporated into a category of sacred cloths called mawa’ (also pronounced maa’ in some dia­lects). Mawa’ include both imported and locally made cloths, and are used for display especially in the life-enhancing Rites of the East. These rites encompass all those connected with the enhancement of life and fertility, including celebrations for the building or rebuilding of ancestral origin houses (tongkonan), agricultural rites, and rituals to ward of sickness. Gujarat was the source of most of the earliest Indian examples, while from the 17th century onward, painted and printed cottons from the southeastern Coromandel coast predominated. Especially highly prized throughout the archipelago were the famed double- ikat silk patola cloths from Gujarat that were widely traded from at least the 14th century, and whose designs were incorporated into indigenous ikat weaving in many places. Palampore are large block-printed and painted cotton hangings from Coromandel (also known to Europeans as chintz), which typi­cally bear the image of a flowering tree and were produced mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are also large and long hand-painted cotton cloths depicting a climactic battle scene from the Hindu epic the Ramayana, in which Rama, aided by Hanuman and his monkey warriors, does battle with the demon king Ravana of Lanka. Ramayana cloths have been found not only in Toraja but also in several other islands including Bali, Sumbawa, and Sumba. Narrative textiles of this sort were traditionally made by groups of chitrakattis, a caste of singers, musicians, and painters who toured the villages of Andhra Pradesh making a living as storytellers. They used the cloths as backdrops in their recounting of the epics. However, the Ramayana textiles that have been found in Island Southeast Asia, while related to this tradition, have no close parallels in south India and may have been made especially for the Indonesian market. This is especially intriguing since some of the areas where they ended up are outside the zone of familiarity for the Ramayana story; the narrative is well known in Java and Bali, but not in Toraja or the more eastern islands. We know little about how the peoples of the latter places may have reinterpreted these cloths.

The aristocracy of the southern districts of Toraja claim genea­logical connections with Luwu’ royalty, and it is possible that some textiles might have been gifts presented to Toraja chiefs by the rul­ers of Luwu’ in an effort to establish tributary relationships with them. However, this political use of textiles for cementing alliances does not seem to have existed here on a large scale. Most cloths were probably brought into the Toraja highlands by Bugis traders. The Toraja aristocracy may have paid for them in horses, buffalo, or valued forest products such as camphor and dammar resin. From the late 19th century, when coffee began to be more inten­sively cultivated, local headmen had a valuable new product to exchange for luxury goods. Only the nobility could afford such items; mawa’ could be worth as many as ten or twenty buffalo. Textiles thus lent an aura of sacred power and prestige to the houses that owned them, and served as impressive markers of status on the rare occasions when they were brought out for public display.

Throughout history, elites have sought out luxury objects from distant places as a means of expressing their superior status. The more remote the origins of such goods, the more likely that they will come to be viewed as having supernatural power. Thus it is not surprising that Indian textiles are often attributed mythical or divine origins by the Toraja. The same claims are made, however, about their own indigenous cloths. Who exactly produced the latter, whether men or women, and from what precise areas, is difficult to establish, for their creators have remained anonymous, and by now they are generally declared to be of divine origin. These pieces, while occasionally finding inspiration in motifs borrowed from the Indian repertoire, have a strongly indigenous flavor, giving ebullient and poetic expression to homely images of everyday life and subsistence activities. These scenes overflow with signs of nature’s fertility and abundance, depicting both the actual bounty of the Toraja landscape and the desired outcome of rituals. Every inch of the field is deliberately filled, an intensification of design that in the ritual context is part of what gives these cloths their power. Their unfolding is in itself a kind of prayer, or in Toraja terms, pelambean : a term of great importance in indigenous ritual, meaning “hope” or “expectation,” which is the driving force behind all Rites of the East.

Another type of indigenously made cloth consists of the long narrow banners called sarita, sometimes reaching up to twenty feet in length. They were often dyed using a unique, locally evolved batik (wax-resist) technique, in which beeswax was applied with a bamboo stick. The patterns were hand-drawn in either indigo blue or a brown made from sandal­wood sap. Sometimes ferrous mud was also used as a dyestuff.

Of those sarita that are indigo blue in color, not all are indigenous productions. In the 1880s, more than two decades before Dutch colonization of South and Central Sulawesi, a simpler, mostly nonfigurative, block-printed version was mass produced in Holland to cater to the Toraja market. Some sarita were also traded in the highlands of Central Sulawesi, where old photographs show the cloth being worn on festive occasions by individuals of both sexes, sometimes fashioned by the women into voluminous skirts. These mass-produced items were a late and crude imitation of the originals, however. The authentic tradition is demonstrated by the DMA’s sarita and mawa’.

Sarita are used especially in the life-enhancing ceremonies of the East. They may be worn, displayed as banners, or included in the tall triangular structure called bate, made for certain Rites of the East. The bate symbolizes the cosmic tree, decked with valuable heirloom textiles, beaded ornaments, and ancestral swords. It resembles the mythic tree that joins the layers of the cosmos with its roots in the underworld and its branches in the heavens, its leaves being formed of different kinds of textiles and other valu­ables. At the merok ritual, too, sarita cloths are twisted together with rattans to form a long rope, which is tied at one end to the interior central post of the house and stretched through an upper window to a sandalwood trunk that is planted in the courtyard, to which the sacrificial buffalo is tethered. It thus serves as a ritual conduit linking together house and tree, both of which represent the the kinship grouping of the house descendants. A tra­ditional priest then sanctifies the buffalo and requests its consent to be sacrificed by performing an all-night chant in which the myth of the creation of the world is recounted. At the ma’bua’ pare, greatest of all the Rites of the East, the priest chants the praises of the nobility while they sit on a platform, linked to him by ropes of cloth. It is as though the sarita serves to channel the energies of the ritual, ensuring that the blessings desired from the deities reach the right recipients.

It was within this extraordinarily rich and imaginative context of myth, ritual, and poetry that Toraja textiles performed their sacred functions. Ikat weavings from areas farther north in Seko, Rongkong, and Kalumpang were also drawn into the world of ritual. Altered and reduced though it may be, Toraja ceremonial life today in many respects still maintains a surprising vigor. Treasured textiles are still displayed and worn on ritual occasions. In the ikat weaving areas of Rongkong and Kalumpang to the north, tradi­tions are being revived, albeit with commercial dyes and threads, to cater to an international market of tourists and collectors. But the worldview that informed the creation of these masterpieces has largely lost its plausibility for a younger generation.

Adapted from

Roxana Waterson, "The Art of Sulawesi," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 173-178.