In Focus

Sacred textile (mawa') depicting tadpoles and water buffalo

The simple and bold conception of this mawa', painted in indigo on homespun cotton, results in an inspired work of art from the humblest of motifs—the tadpole (bulintong). For all its apparent ordinariness, or even because of it, this is a classically Toraja motif—one that draws from the smallest details of nature and everyday life to create a powerful symbol of abundance and reproductive success. Like the trailing plants of the mawa' with fish pond and leafy plants (1983.114), tadpoles flourish in the flooded rice fields that lie fallow in the months between harvest and the planting season. A stylized tadpole design may also be found in house carvings, along with associated patterns representing trailing water weeds and "water boatmen," those gravity-defying long-legged insects that skim here and there across the surface of the water without sinking.

In the central panel of this cloth, the density of tadpoles, swimming from left to right, creates a vivid sense of movement, especially at the right-hand border, where they seem to bump against the edge of the rice field and swerve to the left as though unable to stop. The panel is bounded by a row of closely set, stamped concentric circles, here representing the end of a bamboo tube used for collecting buffalo milk (pa'pollo' songkang).

The central roundel in this cloth represents a buffalo corral, an image of fertility and wealth. Three stately buffalo are led in a line through the corral by their herdsmen. The leading animal is being milked, while the other two are suckling their calves. Two slightly smaller figures, perhaps boys, hold bamboo containers in which to collect the milk. In typical Toraja style, the buffalo are depicted with their heads tilted to the side, the better to display their long horns. Buffalo are greatly desired and are the ultimate measure of wealth in Toraja society. Even today, the value of a rice field or the cost of building a house or stone tomb is measured in buffalo. In traditional Toraja religion, the Rites of the East were intended to enhance a community's wealth, and also its fertility and reproductive success, not only for human beings but also for their buffalo, pigs, and chickens. So the images of buffalo on mawa' may be interpreted as a powerful wish or prayer for such results.

Where figures are depicted in Toraja cloths, as here, they are invariably shown moving from left to right. For the Toraja as well as for a number of other eastern Indonesian peoples, movement from left to right (or clockwise, in the case of things that must be turned in a circle) is a preferred direction and is called liling deata (movement of the deities). The opposite is called liling bombo (movement of the spirits of the dead) and is regarded as inauspicious. Such rules are even applied in everyday contexts—for instance, in the arrangement of the trunk and tip ends of beams in a house or the rotation of a cooking pot over the fire. Such a movement is in tune with the sun's passage from east to west, which is echoed by the individual's life course, rising to full strength before declining in old age, and the division of ritual life into spheres of the rising and the setting sun.

Adapted from

Roxana Waterson, "Sacred textile (mawa') depicting tadpoles and water buffalo)," 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), 188-189.