In Focus

Ceremonial cloth (tampan), 1983.72

As late as 1905, on the island of Nias off the coast of West Sumatra, the missionary H. Sundermann photographed a chief being carried atop a mythological creature during a feast of merit in his honor. F. M. Schnitger wrote that human heads were required for these feasts, and that carved underneath ceremonial conveyances was often an image of a sacrificed slave. In the past, Lampung aris­tocrats were also carried on large animal floats, or rode in wheeled boats that were pulled during ritual processions. While there are no published images of similarly purposed Lampung floats (only models remain), a few wooden finials in the form of hornbills, serpentine dragons, and composite creatures have sur­vived. These were placed on a float’s “prow,” or on a baldachin, a canopy covering a sacred structure or altar.

Among the aristocratic classes in Lampung and Nias and among the Batak in Sumatra—and in many other islands of the Indonesian archipelago—the dead were traditionally placed in wooden coffins and shrines. Like the ceremonial floats, these, too, were carved to resemble elaborate ships, mythological birds, and fantastic creatures. In this context, tampan were used to cushion the deceased’s head prior to burial and are said to have been tied or attached to a coffin’s grips. For the living, tampan helped to sanctify all life-cycle ceremonies. When the traditional marga system still flourished, these cloths were displayed and circulated at feasts of honor (papadon).

Many larger tampan are dominated by an image of a single fanci­ful creature. In the 1930s, A. Steinmann suggested: “It is possible that they [the varied creatures seen in profile on tampan] represent the seats of honor with the carved animals, which were formerly used in South Sumatra and in Nias.”[1] It would appear that the bot­tom section of this tampan as a ship form represents a “concrete symbol of conveyance used when the state of transition is most abstract.” [2] Looking closely, one sees an elite person or an ances­tor surrounded by an animal-like structure, or sitting on a seat of honor, centered on a shiplike conveyance. Emerging from the apex of the central creature’s spine, and flanked by two naga or serpents, is a triangular form on a pole. This resembles a uniquely shaped Lampung construction, a communal sacred house (rumah pojang) erected on a single stout central pillar. Ritual paraphernalia was stored under its umbrella-like roof. In lieu of gable ornaments, a profusion of forms appears to sprout from the rumah pojang. Like bent limbs, branches, or inverted V-shaped wings, these “arms” culminate in fingerlike digits, or buds that may indicate renewal and new growth. Nesting on the tree’s exalted crown is another fig­ure standing in a shrine (rumah dewa) or beneath a ceremonial gate (lawang kori).

The orientation of these stacked designs is forcefully vertical and strictly symmetrical. At the same time, viewed horizontally, the boats, beast, naga, birds, and the tree’s branches, juxtaposing symmetrical with asymmetrical elements, imbue this tampan with a vibrant sense of movement and aesthetic tension. This is the work of an imaginative master weaver, who was able to tell a story that equaled her weaving skills. Its bold designs and exquisite flour­ishes, the effective use of negative space, and above all the crisp execution—augmented and enriched by a deep maroon color—are attributes that would have been as much admired in their original context as they are today. These textiles have not been produced for more than 100 years, nor were great 19th-century Lampung weavers ever interviewed. However, one may assume that they valued similar technical and ritual expertise as in other indigenous Indonesian weaving traditions. Further adding to this textile’s unique­ness are its pristine condition and relatively large size.

[1] Steinmann 1946b: 1888.

[2] Gittinger 1972:1.

Adapted from

Steven G. Alpert, "Ceremonial cloth (tampan)," 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), 94-95.