In Focus

Double tubular sacred textile (mawa'), 2007.47

This mawa' is curiously folded and stitched to form a double loop, shorter at the top and longer at the bottom, such that a central panel is displayed in the middle of the bottom portion. Sometimes mawa' were sewn like this in order to facilitate their being worn at Rites of the East, those concerned with the promotion of fertility and prosperity. The positioning of the figurative panel here suggests that this one may have been made expressly for this purpose. The upper loop, with the lozenge design, was worn across the top of the head as a headband, allowing the lower part to hang down the wearer's back. The lower portion bears the pa'doti langi' ("stars in the sky") motif, hand-painted in muted tones of red and brown, the maker having stretched the pattern to make it extend all the way up to the border on the left-hand side, in order not to leave any empty space in the field. A red dye was obtained from the bangkudu plant (noni), while browns were obtained from sandalwood sap or by boiling the leaves of bilante (homalanthus populneus) and dipping the cloths in mud to fix them.

The central panel depicts a lively little scene around a fishpond in the middle of a rice field. The pond is surrounded by ducks, buffalo, their human herders, and a dog. In the middle of the pond, two ducks fight over a worm, while another pair do likewise on the rim. To the right and left are two large buffalo cows, each with a suckling calf, its tail held happily aloft as it feeds. The herdsmen hold them by ropes attached to rings in their noses. The herder on the left has his betel-bag (sepu') dangling from his upper arm; a boy comes holding a bamboo flask (panganduran) in which to collect milk. Right of center, another herder squats, holding the animal's rope in one hand, and in the other a circular object, which one Toraja viewer suggested might represent a large pomelo fruit such as herd boys in the old days often used to play ball. On the far right, another man, perhaps the owner of the buffalo, holds aloft an umbrella or sunshade (ta'dung), an item formerly used only by the aristocracy.

In spite of the small scale, the painter has succeeded in evoking with spontaneity and tender expressiveness an everyday scene of farming life that at the same time is full of deeper significance. The flooded, fallow rice field holds the promise of future growth. This is the time of year when fish are reared in the rice field ponds and the ducks are allowed into the fields, where they aerate the soil as they forage with their beaks in the mud, at the same time contributing their droppings as fertilizer. The buffalo in milk, with their calves, are also a potent image of fertility and well-being—expressing the hopes, desires, and expectations embodied in the Rites of the East. The association explains why this type of cloth is sometimes referred to as mawa'deata or mawa' of the deities, whose immanent presence in nature is such a fundamental part of the traditional Toraja worldview, and who are the focus of attention in Rites of the East.

Excerpt from

Roxana Waterson, "Double tubular sacred textile (mawa')," 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), 194-195.