In Focus

Sacred textile (mawa'), 1983.117

This mawa' is executed in dark brown with a rose blush on handmade cotton fabric. Its central rondel depicts the goddess Indo' Samadenna (Mother All There Is) with her golden spinning wheel. Also known as the mythical lady of the moon, she is accompanied by a cockerel and surrounded by constellations. The artist has expressively captured her movements as she guides the wheel and pulls at the thread, while the companionable rooster takes up his position alertly beside her. Over her head are the seven stars of Bunga' (the Pleiades), whose place in the sky is traditionally observed in order to time the beginning of the agricultural cycle. A row of three stars beneath her spinning wheel represents Orion's Belt, known to the Toraja as Lemba, the Rice-bearer. Lemba is the term for a bamboo carrying-pole that is balanced across the shoulder and used to carry home the sheaves of newly cut rice from the fields at harvest.

According to myth, Indo' Samadenna and her sister, Indo' Pare'pare' (Mother Little Rice), were two of the eight children born of an original marriage between deities in the sky-world. They quarreled over which of them should inherit from their parents a golden spinning wheel. Indo' Samadenna chose water as her weapon, while Indo' Pare'pare' chose fire. Water quenches fire, so Indo' Samadenna won and took the spinning wheel with her up to the moon. Indo' Pare'pare' went into the sun; that is why the sun is hot and the moon is cold.

The presence of the cock in this scene has led previous commentators to identify the woman as Tulang Didi', another mythical figure. She was weaving one day when her father's dog soiled her work, and in anger she hit him with her wooden shuttle stick and killed him. Her father then determined to kill her in revenge and took her into the forest, where they wandered far upstream before she instructed her father to cut her in half. Her mother had given her a chicken egg for the journey, which hatched into a cock and crowed her bones back to life. Then, by his crowing, he brought into being a beautiful house and all kinds of wealth for her. She and her rooster eventually went up into the sky, where the rooster is said to have been transformed into the Pleiades. As the constellations proceed across the sky, the rooster (Bunga', the Pleiades) follows after the Rice-bearer (Lemba), so that he can peck at any grains that fall from Lemba's burden of rice.

The regenerative power of the cock's crowing, which features in a number of related Toraja myths, reflects the everyday experience of this association with the sunrise. The cock thus is closely associated with themes of vitality, friendship, wealth, the upper world, maleness, and rice cultivation, as well as standing in other contexts for bravery and high rank. How exactly these two well-known stories connect is not entirely clear, but in a version collected by Hetty Nooy-Palm, after going up to the moon, Tulang Didi' was known as Indo' Samadenna thereafter. Thus the two women sometimes become identified and conflated.

As in many other examples of Toraja textiles, the cloth's field is divided in two long halves by two parallel lines forming a narrow channel, or kalo', resembling the irrigation channels that bring water to the rice fields. The remainder of the cloth is covered with a pattern of crosses, called pa'doti langi', around a central circle. Each cross is expanded into lozenges by the addition of a stepped pattern of L- and T-shaped motifs around it and diagonal rows of squares with a central dot. This pattern is widely interpreted as deriving from Indian textiles in which similar motifs are said to be based on the plans of Buddhist stupas. The Toraja, however, have developed their own interpretation of the motif: doti means "spotted," "star," "blessing," or "auspicious" and can also refer to a spotted or piebald buffalo, the rare variety most highly prized for funeral sacrifices.

Pa'doti langi' (langi' means "sky") is described as looking like "stars in the sky," and this is sometimes used as a general term for mawa' that carry this design. It appears to be a motif of special importance, capable of bringing good fortune or blessing (passampa' doti), and is also particularly associated with women, which perhaps explains its presence here. House carvings, too, are said to be incomplete unless this design is included.

This particular cloth came from somewhere in the southern region of Toraja, the so-called Tallu Lembangna, or "Three Domains" of Ma'kale, Sanglla', and Mengkendek. The cotton has been handwoven with paired wefts, the warp threads grouped in sets of three or four.

Excerpt from

Roxana Waterson, "Sacred textile (mawa') (detail)," 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), 192-193.