In Focus

Sacred textile (mawa') with fish pond and leafy plants

This exceptionally beautiful mawa’ is of local Toraja manufac­ture, stamped and painted on a long cotton cloth. It reflects the influence of Indian textiles from the Coromandel coast in its overall reddish hue (here actually more of a delicate pink, suffusing the cloth with a warm glow) and possibly also in the circular motif at the center, a typical feature of mawa’ textiles. This motif, while it echoes the central medallion of some Indian cloths, becomes transformed in the Toraja context into something entirely local, in this instance, a depiction of a fish pond or buffalo’s wallowing-hole (tombang) at the center of a rice field.

The long center panel is literally bursting with life, being filled with a design of trailing water plants (tangke lumu’), such as flour­ish in fallow flooded rice fields after the harvest. Cloths with this motif form a particular genre of mawa’, called mawa’ tangke lumu’. Other names for these trailing weeds are doke-doke and dongka-dongka. Their finely drawn stems create a serpentine rhythm from which the triangular leaves sprout in a closely set yet free-flowing pattern, surging densely around the central roundel and up to the very rim of the panel at the top. The overall impression is one of shimmering movement. Such images, associated with water and rapid growth, are characteristically Toraja.

All across the ground, in between the leaves, are tiny stamped cross-shaped motifs (pa’doti). The pa’doti motif, which appears in a number of variants, is a particularly salient one for the Toraja; some­times it is said to represent the stars or the white spots on the coats of highly valued piebald buffalo, and it always signifies the desire for blessings and prosperity. Pelambean (“expectation,” or desire for well-being) is a leitmotif of Toraja religion, which finds many forms of expression in rituals, as well as in these textiles. The filling of the entire ground with detail and ornament is itself described as a form of pelambean, intensifying the wish for well-being, and the unfold­ing of the cloth on ritual occasions carries a similar significance.

At the panel’s lower edge, where the roots of the plants can be seen, are a few stalks of rice left by the harvesters, among which ducks forage. In the middle of this border is a diminutive rice barn, alongside which a tiny figure of a harvester holds aloft a stalk of rice. More ducks parade around the rim of the central pond, which is full of fish, interspersed with more cross motifs. On the rim, among the ducks, stands a human figure holding aloft in one hand a fish that he has evidently just caught with his long fish-trap (tagalak), which is clutched in the other hand. These funnel-shaped traps of woven bamboo are used in the fallow season to catch the carp with which the pond is stocked at the beginning of the growing season; the trap is plunged down into the mud, then a hand is inserted from above to grasp any fish trapped inside.

On the long edges of the cloth, in the outer border, are rows of small stamped circles called pa’bua padang, or “fruits of the earth.” Passora (fence) is the Toraja name given to the row of triangles form­ing a border at either end. This is a ubiquitous border motif in textiles throughout Indonesia, and in different cultures it is given different names, ranging from "bamboo shoot" or "banana flower" to "scabbard" or "point of a lance." In the literature, it has often been referred to by the Javanese term tumpal, but this may simply mean "border." Though its origins haven been much disputed, it appears to be an indigenous preference with a long history, for rows of triangles were already a characteristic motif on objects of the Bronze Age Dong Son culture. Indian textiles made for the Southeast Asian market often incorporated this feature.

Adapted from

Roxana Waterson, "Sacred textile (mawa') with fish pond and leafy plants," 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), 190-191.