Cultures & Traditions
Extravagantly decorated ship cloths from Lampung have been of great interest to the outside world since the early twentieth century, but many of their motifs remain a mystery. The designs—often depicting numerous animals—sometimes resemble a veritable melting pot of Asian traditions. Along with indigenous Lampung patterns, for example, we see Javanese wayang-style motifs, Chinese-style dragons and birds, and also Hindu-Buddhist elements. The ship is present as a dominant motif on virtually all of the cloths; the textiles are indeed named after them.
Nonetheless, the character of these cloths—in spite of their similarities—is rather variable. They are habitually divided into two main categories, tampan and palepai , based on shape and use. Cloths belonging to the first category tend to be relatively small in size, and are square, with sides that rarely exceed three feet in length. A palepai has a more elongated shape. Usually they are about ten feet long, with an average width of around twenty inches. The tampan and palepai were woven by identical techniques: single-colored supplementary wefts were applied to a plain weave cotton foundation. The most labor-intensive and time-consuming job was to count out the threads needed for the intricate patterns before mounting them on the back tension loom. 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. With the passage of time, the complicated techniques used to create these textiles have also faded from memory.
Decorative and symbolic motifs also vary considerably. In contrast to tampan, which are usually adorned with very delicate and in some cases abstract patterns, palepai are decorated with rather robust, plainly recognizable subjects. The figural language of the ancient Dong Son culture can be recognized in the decoration of both types of cloths. The filling of the entire cloth with images and the tendency toward symmetry are both typical, as are the decorations of the edges: stylized double spirals, meanders, and hook and key patterns. At the same time, regional differences in style can be distinguished. Tampan that have been produced in the coastal regions often feature maritime themes.
Paminggir women were known to produce both tampan and palepai, whereas Pubian and Abung women made only tampan. All Lampung peoples used the latter type of textile, while palepai were used exclusively by the Paminggir. In the southern coastal regions, however, other types of ship cloths were present in addition to these two major categories. Rare textiles called tatibin, for example, appear to be scaled-down versions of palepai. Similar in size to these were very unique and valuable ship cloths called tampan maju that were beautifully decorated with beadwork and shells. Besides these fabrics, the Lampung created woven mats (lampit) and embroidered sarong (tapis) embellished with many decorative patterns akin to those on the ship cloths.
Since the early twentieth century, the iconography of tampan and palepai in particular has fascinated researchers and collectors, most of whose attention was, unsurprisingly, devoted to the meaning of the predominant ship motif. Because it was observed that the cloths were used during Lampung death rituals, the ships were initially viewed as ships for the soul. Later, when it was discovered that the textiles were related to all life-cycle rites, the motif was seen as symbolizing transition and movement. However, the rather general character of this interpretation has always been somewhat problematic. Furthermore, many other motifs—such as the numerous animals depicted aboard the ships—were left unexplained.
Several closely linked reasons appear to underlie these challenges in interpretation. Very significant, for example, is the fact that the animal representations have scarcely been investigated in terms of their indigenous cultural meanings. Hindu-Buddhist motifs, such as the garuda, have repeatedly been identified as traditional religious symbols (often with a Hindu-Javanese character). In other cases, particular images, and in some cases complete designs, were interpreted in terms of other Indonesian local cultures that were better documented. Other kinds of meaning, expressing concepts specific to Lampung, have apparently never been considered.
Moreover, little thought seems to have been given to the most relevant, deeply rooted pillar of Lampung culture: its boat symbolism. The major cause of this neglect seems to have been a lack of appropriate sources. Although it has been well understood for years that boat symbolism was an important concept in Lampung culture, detailed information concerning its meaning and significance appears not to have been available. In spite of these gaps, a partial reconstruction is possible. Aided by recent studies on boat symbolism in other parts of Indonesia, a clearer understanding has emerged of what is most probably a very ancient phenomenon. Although it manifests differently in each area, this symbolism expresses equivalent, recurring messages, which can also be found in traditional Lampung culture.
Correct interpretation of animal imagery, along with increased knowledge of boat symbolism, leads to a series of surprising discoveries. On tampan as well as on palepai , we discern subjects that we can immediately connect to the use of these textiles in nineteenth-century society. Though traditional Lampung animal and boat symbolism offers clues leading to new insights, this is probably not the last word on the symbolic significance of the ship cloths. Various layers of meaning may once have existed, expressed through cosmic symbols, about which we know little.
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.