Cultures & Traditions

Ascending the papadon in Lampung Culture

In the 19th century, Lampung life mainly revolved around attaining as high a social status as possible. All other matters were set aside in favor of the struggle for prestige, which culminated in the ascension to the papadon for the most successful men. Each rung of the social ladder had its own titles and privileges. These could vary depending on the area, but the similarities were plentiful. For example, as the status of a man became elevated, so did the bride price he could ask for the hand of his daughter: a "value" that would be amply visible in the amount of jewelry she would wear.

The papadon itself, the throne that represented ultimate prestige, had a lengthy and remarkable history. Its appearance changed frequently, owing to external influences; at the same time, the essence of the object, as a seat of dignity, never varied. The adaptations were wide-ranging; in part they concerned the design and partly the symbolism expressed through decorative motifs.

Most conspicuous of all were the modifications that could be observed in the Lampung lowlands. In contrast to the mountain regions—where the traditional papadon batus (the original stone version of the chair with its prehistoric roots) endured—the Pubian and Paminggir had a wooden throne type that was more amenable to adornment and stylistic modification. This type was commonly used in the early years of contact with Islam. Many of the papadon from the coastal regions were modeled on the state thrones at the court of Bantam. For instance, backrests (sesako) appeared with meticulously copied floral patterns that were done in Javanese court style. In the course of the 19th century, comparable Western influences manifested themselves in that same region. Various honorary seats were adorned with legs culminating in feet with dramatic claws, which were almost certainly based on 17th and 18th-century European chairs. Time and again, a design that was associated with power and prestige would be adopted this way such that the resulting dignity the papadon emanated was associated with these external or foreign symbols of glory. However, older papadon frequently had chair legs shaped like an animal’s foot (an elephant’s, for example), and the backrests of the traditional honorary seats regularly had carved animal figures on them. These carvings had symbolic meanings and almost certainly expressed the original function of the piece of furniture: the elevation in status of the papadon ascender.

Among the animals depicted in 19th-century Lampung were the ubiquitous water buffalo, hornbill, and elephant, which are seen most frequently, together with the mythical bird garuda and a Chinese-style, dragonlike serpent, typically called a naga, which as a rule had a crowned head. These animals can likewise be found (occasionally even together) on the honorary chairs preserved in museum collections and also on the state carriages used by the papadon owners as a means of transport to the village community center where the thrones were kept. These animals, particularly indigenous species, represented a type of animal symbolism that was deeply rooted in Lampung society and probably had its origins in the tradition of headhunting. At the end of the 17th century, headhunting had already fallen into disuse in the coastal areas, but among some it continued well into the 19th century.

Several researchers have proved the ascension of the papadon was traditionally a rite of passage for young men. Before a man was allowed to sit on the papadon batus, an honorary stone seat, he had to sever one or more heads; sometimes slaves would be beheaded for this purpose. A young man acquired social prestige through killing and consequently obtained the enhanced status necessary for paying a bride price and taking a wife. This was an essential social transition that would be demonstrated by ascending the papadon.

The animal symbolism displayed on the honorary seats served to emanate the prestige that had been acquired through violence. Each of the three indigenous animal species can be connected to it. In South Sumatra (as in other parts of Indonesia), the elephant was known as the mount of a great warrior. Many of the megalithic monuments of the area dating from the prehistoric era confirm this. The hornbill was widely associated with headhunting as well. Finally, water buffalo horns functioned as traditional trophies in Lampung culture.

As time went on, the mythical garuda and naga were added to this ubiquitous trio. The adaptation most probably dates to the era of Hindu-Buddhist influences. As early as the 7th century, Sumatra (and especially the kingdom of Srivijaya) was already a key player in the trade between India and China. The Indian garuda, mount of the Hindu deity Vishnu, originates in India, and the dragon (naga) is a revered creature in China, with complex symbolic associations, among them fertility.

Exactly why these foreign mythical animals became important in Sumatra is difficult to determine. An important reason may very well have been their frequent presence as decorative patterns on trade items exported to Sumatra. Moreover, the garuda, a bird, could naturally be associated with the hornbill, already an extremely popular symbol; the same phenomenon seems to have occurred with the peacock. As they were incorporated into Lampung symbolism, however, both creatures lost their original meanings and gained new ones.

Adapted from

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), 83-91.