In Focus

Sacred textile (sarita), 1983.120

Sarita are very long, narrow cloths, sometimes as much as twenty feet in length, in which multiple paired rectangluar panels are filled with motifs executed in either deep indigo blue or brown. These are typically interspersed with small stylized scenes of everyday life and human activities. They were indigenous Toraja products, sometimes painted as in this example, and sometimes worked in a local batik technique in which wax was applied with a bamboo stick to areas that were not to take the dye. Some of the designs closely resemble motifs used in house carvings, though on textiles they are often given different names. Sarita are used most especially in Rites of the East, which the Toraja call "Smoke of the Rising [Sun]" (Aluk Rambu Tuka'). This group of rituals emphasizes the enhancement of life and fertility.

Sarita may be worn, hung from poles as banners, included in the tall triangular structure called _bate (_a symbolic world tree), or used to tie together two points in a ritual.

This remarkable sarita is rather freely painted in gray-brown on natural-colored cotton. The brown was obtained from boiling the leaves of bilante (Homolanthus populneus) and fixing the dye by immersion in mineralized mud. It is bisected along its length by parallel lines indicating a stream or irrigation channel (kalo'). Across this channel, figures can be seen helping each other to cross by means of stepping-stones from one side to the other. This specific textile design is known as sarita to lamban, "sarita with people crossing a stream." Not only is water essential to life, but the idea of blessings as being like flowing water that can be channeled by ritual activity and verbal performance is a fundamental one for the Toraja and lends this image a deeper resonance. The figures holding hands as they cross evoke profound cooperation and harmony.

Decorative sections of the cloth are filled with variations on spiral motifs, signifying bowed ears of rice (pa'tukku pare) and fern fronds (pa'lulun paku). The latter are another emblem of fertility, since ferns grow quickly. These are interspersed with panels containing rows of birds drawn in a lively and individual manner. Some of these resemble herons and egrets, the species often seen in rice fields, especially when they are flooded or being plowed in preparation for planting. In ritual verse, these birds have a special association with the plowing season. Others are hens and roosters, pecking at stalks of grain. In another panel, two men, one of them leading a buffalo, hold hands as they each rest one foot on the stepping-stone in the middle of the stream.

A similar arrangement features again in a larger figurative panel in which a man bears bunches of harvested rice on a pole (ma' lemba), roosters peck at stalks of rice of the roof of a house, a buffalo is led across the stream, and a woman pounds rice in a mortar next to a pen in whch a pig is eating from its trough. On top of the pig pen are two winnowing trays used to sift the chaff from the grain after the rice is pounded. The smaller one may represent a tray of woven bamboo (bingka') used for making offerings to the deities in agricultural rites.

Excerpt from

Roxana Waterson, "Sacred textile (sarita) (detail)," 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), 196-197.