Cultures & Traditions

Palepai

Lampung shipcloths are habitually divided into two main categories, tampan and palepai , based on shape and use. A p__alepai has an elongated shape, usually they are about ten feet long, with an average width of around twenty inches. As is the case with many traditional Lampung forms of art, the production of ship cloths came to a standstill at the end of the nineteenth century, after which the fabrics gradually disappeared from society.

In many cases, the designs of other types of ship cloths similarly reflected the use of these fabrics in society. We shall demonstrate this by focusing on ancient Lampung rites of passage. An analysis of tampan and palepai by category—a popular approach—has its limitations. A significant group of tampan was used in a manner that was comparable to the function of palepai, which could usually be deduced, at least by insiders, from the depictions on the cloths.

The palepai played a role in practically all rites of passage. They were usually hung on a wall of the house where the ritual was performed. The textiles were con­nected in a more intrinsic way to the papadon ascension. The papa­don ascension revolved around prestige, a social value expressed in the designs of many of the fabrics that were used during the ritual.

The palepai of the coastal Paminggir, up to ten feet in length, did not circulate through the community, but were the exclusive property of the traditional Lampung aristocracy: the penyimbang families who had inheritable rights to the papadon ascension (papadon adat). For them, these cloths were like regalia; owning a palepai played a major part in legitimizing the distin­guished position of an aristocratic suku (patrilineal clan) in Lampung society. This was expressed in the motifs on the fabrics: above all else, they had to communicate status.

There are strong indications that a palepai was made especially for a papadon ascension. A highlight of the ritual sur­rounding the papadon ascension was the ride in the rata (stately carriage) to the sesat, where the thrones of the suku were kept. Here, and in the following discussion, we refer to the ascension of the papadon marga, the highest Lampung rank. The float was part of a larger procession that featured a vari­ety of things: dancing muli (marriageable girls) wearing siger (shiplike head decorations) on their heads, musicians, masked clowns, people waving streamers, carrying umbrellas and other insignia, and so on. At the head of the parade were often several women arrayed in the shape of a crescent moon and carry­ing a narrow band of cloth between them. The cloth was usually a piece of white textile, but according to a credible source, this could just as well be a palepai. Both types of textiles advertised the main purpose of the procession: the papadon ascension. White was the color of the highest Lampung rank, and a palepai was also closely tied to the throne. The three highest papadon ranks each had its own color: white belonged to the papadon marga, yellow to the papadon tiyuh, and reddish brown to the papadon suku.

Traditionally, the white cloth and palepai seem to have been used for decorating the papadon seat during the ascension ceremony. The textiles were draped around the bottom of the seat, which might well explain their unusual extended shape. With subsequent use in society, a palepai would represent the papadon seat to which the fabric had been ritually connected; as such, the cloth would, as it were, be the literal proof of the papadon ascension.

As noted, palepai were hung from a wall of the house during rites of passage, and sometimes during meetings and festivities as well. They acted as the “visiting cards” of the various aristocratic suku who were present at the ceremony, and this simultaneously reflected the internal balance of power between individuals and groups. Within a marga, “weak” and “strong” suku were tradition­ally distinguished, a classification in which many criteria (such as age, wealth, and number of members) were taken into account, and one that was visible to all in the traditional placement of papa­don in the sesat. In this community center, the most eminent suku had their thrones in the middle, flanked to the right and left—and extending to the sides of the communal space—by the seats of the lower-ranked clans. This papadon pattern was mirrored during rites of passage in the arrangement (at a man’s height) of the palepai on the wall of the house. According to Forbes (1885: 145) and van der Hoop (1940: 61) the traditional arrangement of the seats of honor in the sesat was in fact a source of constant debate and strife). The representation of the thrones by means of textiles occurred in another nineteenth-century context as well. Funke (1958: 253) describes how the weavings, which would formerly have decorated the papadon seats, replaced these seats of honor halfway through the nineteenth century when the Dutch colonial administration discouraged the very expensive papadon ascensions. Instead of sitting on the wooden thrones, participants would sit on the cloths, and in this way the ancient papadon tradi­tion continued, if less conspicuously.

Status was also the dominant theme in the designs of many palepai. The first to note this was the archaeologist and founder and curator of the het Palembang Museum of Archeology, Friedrich Martin Schnitger (1939: 201–2). The majority of the cloths seem to portray a ship’s deck with realistic, festive scenes, and at its center two mounted animals facing each other, a symbolic representa­tion of the papadon ascension. Here, elephants and water buffalo appear most frequently. As we have observed, these animals were strongly associated with prestige in traditional Lampung society; this also explains their appearance in the form of decorations on the ancient thrones. However, other symbols unrelated to ritual festivities are often visible on palepai as well, such as stacked buf­falo horns attached to a stake. These were obviously included to advertise the prestige of a suku through the display of valuable trophies.

How then do we interpret the boat motif, associated with fertil­ity, displayed on these cloths? If the palepai are associated primarily with status, then what do the depicted boats imply? Surprisingly, we are probably dealing with the rata. It is portrayed frontally, with a specific focus on prestige symbolism. To the left and right, rather than the boat’s stern and prow, are the wings of the animal making up the “boat on wheels” (a garuda or hornbill). And between these wings of the rata—on the ship’s deck—the papadon ascension is taking place. Interestingly, the composition and style with which the papadon ascensions are depicted on these types of palepai are possibly derived from West Javanese forms of art. Especially the similari­ties with the gunungan, used in wayang presenta­tions, are striking: here, too, center stage is often reserved for two opposing animals, and wings (as temple decoration) can be found on the sides.

Informing this interpretation are several details, each of which concerns the spot on the symbolic boat of matrimony where the bridal couple was seated. This was usually a kind of throne, which was covered by a canopy, or baldachin. Rata models in museums show that this chair was adorned as though it were a papadon seat and included animal decorations. Thus, the float clearly suggested how the entire event, including the festive wedding ceremony, had to be viewed. Indeed, the rata was also denoted by the term perahu papadon in some regions.

A portrayal of the papadon seat of the stately carriage seems to be found in the middle of many palepai. A typical feature of various baldachins was their specific shape (slightly bulky and flattened out, with sloping sides), which can be readily recognized in many cloths. Beneath the baldachin, we often notice two ani­mals, each carrying a human figure. These probably represent the bridal couple, who were the central focus. Both would later, after their arrival in the sesat, also mount the actual papadon together. The representations on various palepai , carried at the head of the procession, would thus reveal to onlookers the essence of what was ceremonially yet to come.

However, we would like to take a broader per­spective on this. In some cases the depictions on the palepai appear to be a mixture of the rata proces­sion and the papadon ascension in the sesat (often readily recognizable by a roof decoration with water buffalo horns, while temporary party tents, erected beside the sesat might also be represented). In some southwestern Abung marga, the bride was not allowed to ascend the papadon seat with her husband (see Funke 1961: 254).

This design did not appear only on palepai. A large group of tampan—also made by coastal Paminggir women—was decorated with highly similar designs. The slightly larger examples (with sides sometimes reaching up to three feet in length) are of particular interest; many of them originated from the area surrounding Lampung Bay (particularly Kalianda). Here, these tampan functioned in a similar manner as palepai did: owning them was associated with the papadon ascension, and local suku consid­ered these cloths to be part of their regalia.

Research suggests that the democratization of the papadon complex, initiated by the sultans of Bantam, most likely played a role in this. The sultans introduced a series of ranks (papadon pangkat) that were purchasable by anyone. This system operated alongside the old aristocratic papadon institution (papa­don adat ). Precise regulations existed regarding which type of cloth belonged to which rank and title, and the palepai -like tampan (along with tatibin, the scaled-down version of the palepai) most likely belonged to the common papadon pangkat complex.

The design of the palepai that were made in Kalianda (the so-called red ship style) was copied onto these tampan in a basic way.

On the basis of the color range and the style, palepai are habitually categorized as either blue-ship-style or red-ship-style, in which the color of the ship is the distinguishing criterion. Rare palepai, with separate compositions (such as stakes with water buffalo horns for example) or with nothing but rows of human figures, make up third and fourth categories. For images, see, for example, Taylor and Aragon 1991: 126–27 and 130–31, R. Maxwell 2003: 113, and Gittinger 1976. Here, however, the image was projected onto a square instead of a rectangular area: this limitation of space often caused the papa­don ascension (sometimes displayed multiple times on a cloth) to be surrounded by rather stocky rata wings extending high into the composition. In the western part of the Lampung Bay region, the papadon ascension could also be depicted on the somewhat larger tampan. In these examples, the subject can often be recognized in the depiction of two opposing, mounted animals, surrounded by many festive details. In some cases, a single mount is depicted, for example, an elephant mounted by a bride and groom. It is doubtful, though, that the textiles—formerly known in the Lampung Bay area as tampan jung galuh , “great junk cloths”—would also be displayed in processions with a rata.

Over the course of the nineteenth and twenti­eth centuries, the papadon system was abolished everywhere as a result of increasing pressure from the Dutch colonial administra­tion; simultaneously Islam expanded tremendously. As far as we know, the last papadon ascension took place in the early 1950s (with the Abung). Today, all Lampung are Muslim, and there are few reminders of the old sym­bolic system.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Lampung Ship Cloths: Ancient Symbolism and Cultural Adaptation in South Sumatran Art," 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), 85-91.