The island of Sumatra lies along the western side of the Strait of Malacca, which historically has been an important trade route in Southeast Asia. Nestled around Lake Toba of Northen Sumatra are the Batak people who are known, amongst other things, for the highly skilled textile pieces which are produced in the area. The best-known tribe of this region in Indonesia are the Toba Batak.
The Batak are notably infamous for a cannibalistic history before the arrival of European missionaries in the early twentieth century. While it was not a very common practice, the Batak ate the bodies of those convicted of certain crimes such as robbery, murder and adultery. The family of the condemned were obliged to provide the ingredients for the seasoning, such as hot peppers and lime, as a way to demonstrate their agreement with the sentence and that they would not show grievances and engage in revenge for their fallen family member. These records were written according to eyewitness accounts, the first one of which was recorded by Marco Polo.
Ulos is the traditional textile of the Batak people. The ulos is intricate in not only in technique but in its importance in the ritual and social context of Batak culture. Each design has a meaning, determining social status, spiritual power and the specific use for which it was created, such as whether the piece is to be worn to a wedding or to a funeral. Colors are also symbolic: black and dark blue represent the underworld, red (which is used sparingly) the middle world and white for the highest realm of the world, ie mortality.
The Ulos Sibolang, pictured above, black or blue with white and blue, is often used in ceremonies to establish social bonds to attract good luck and protection. In a marriage, the bride and groom are wrapped in Ulos, believed to ensure the fertility of the marriage. Ulos are also given as a gift from the family of the bride to the groom's family. The Ulos Marompa, which features transversely colored brown triangular motifs, are presented by parents to their daughter at the birth of her first child. This cloth can then be used as a baby’s carrying cloth, or worn by men as a head cloth during special occasions.
The Ulos Ragidup, pictured left, which can be translated to ‘symbol’ or ‘pattern’ of life, is the most valued part of Batak textile culture, is dark in color and consisting of five sections.
Traditionally, it is only people who have grandchildren that can wear this cloth. It has great importance in marriage ceremonies where the groom's father gives a Ragidup to he mother of the
bride, symbolizing the superior status of the mother who is honored for her role as protector and ‘giver of life’. The power attributed to the Batak textile is enormous, and a shaman may
prescribe weaving or wearing one as protection against bad luck, illness or to care for a pregnancy. In ancient times the Ulos Ragidup even was used as a type of oracle.
Typical houses of the Batak are often decorated with sculptures of people, animals or plants. However, weaving designs are limited to geometric shapes, especially arrows. The traditional colors are dark blue and red, colors that can be extracted from natural indigo dyes and Morinda. Despite this apparent simplicity of technical textiles, a closer look reveals the attention to detail and intensity of dyeing.
In Northern Sumatra, the Bataks use the warp ikat technique to decorate textiles. Thousands of threads are arranged one by one on the loom and dyed using the ikat technique. It is important to maintain proper tension of the strings to make the cloth correctly and to prevent the loom from falling apart, requiring a skilled postural game to keep everything in place while working. To complete a two meter long cloth it is necessary to work for a month, stopping only to eat, sleep and relax the body from time to time.
Sandra Niessen, an anthropologist from the Netherlands, has been dedicated to learning and sharing knowledge of Batak culture since 1979, and has published a dozen books and written numerous articles on the subject. Her website is a great resource to find out more about the culture and textiles of the Batak people. Thanks to Dewi Cristina's wonderful blog too, for putting together the information!