In Focus

Ceremonial banner cloth (palepai)

The use of long horizontal cloths (palepai) was the prerogative of the eldest rep­resentatives of the aristocratic penyimbang rank, the head of a marga, and leaders of a patrilineal clan (suku ). Among the people of southeastern Lampung, the ship is the primary symbol of ritual conveyance that connotes a participant’s passage from one state to another. To affirm and witness an important event, palepai were hung in the inner central portion of a house along its right side wall as the backdrop for an honoree during ceremonies. They were displayed at weddings and other life-cycle ceremonies, at formal meetings, and during the establishment of a new suku, or at feasts of merit, when titles and privileges were bestowed and dispensed.

Palepai containing a single blue ship have been described as an older conceptual form whose context is earthbound, whereas red ships, which are depicted singly or mirrored in pairs, are said to be more associated with the sacred realm. In the final phases of a marriage ceremony in Kalianda, a single-ship palepai is also said to replace a double-ship cloth “to signify the merger of family clans or the joining of male and female.”[1] Generally, palepai with lone blue ships are not as elaborate or as aesthetically complex as those with single or double red ships. However, a few very rare excep­tions to this broad model of classification are found that utilize elements occurring in both red-ship and blue-ship iconographies. Mattiebelle Gittinger writes that “these might be dismissed as aberrations, but their consistently superb craftsmanship suggests that they were important textiles.”[2] This cloth is one of those elite blue-ship palepai.

Between two converging flocks of birds and two schools of stylized sea creatures is a primeval ship with great oars and prows or wings that rise up as immense tendrils. Under its central pavil­ion, woven of continuous supplementary weft and gold-wrapped thread, are two creatures that resemble buffalo, each supporting a couple atop its back and haunches. To the right and left are addi­tional structures, woven in the same manner, containing a tiered audience of participatory figures.

Of particular note are the masterfully conceived trees that add a sense of symmetry and balance to the entire composition. Each is floating on a platform that may represent a boat, along with pairs of passengers standing underneath their boughs. The forms of these symbolic trees could possibly hark back to the sacred Hindu kalpataru , or wish-fulfilling tree, or the moun­tainlike tree of life (kayon) that is always placed at the center of an array of Javanese puppets before a performance. Their extended branches, the lowest supporting two childlike human figures, also recall another construction resembling a tree (kayu ara) that was festooned with gifts for the young attendees at major life-cycle ceremonies.

The trunk of the tree is anthropomorphically rendered; the lowest branches extend like arms supporting both a child and another more miniaturized tree. The upper branches also support diminu­tive trees. What appear to be curling legs and a rib cage are possibly stacked buffalo horns that are repeated again at the top of the tree. As prestige animals, buffalo play an important part in ritual sacrifice and the subsequent distribution of food parts. Together, these motifs, along with hovering upper-world birds and the pres­ence of the great ship, perpetuated notions of rank, continuity, and the consolidation through marriage of lineages among nobles and their descendants.

[1] Holmgren and Spertus 1989: 86.

[2] Gittinger 1979: 90.

Adapted from

Steven G. Alpert, "Ceremonial banner cloth (palepai)," 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), 104-105.

Web Resources

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