Ikat, Gender, and Ceremonial Exchange

In many Indonesian societies outside Indic Java (for instance, societies in Flores, Sumba, West Timor, and the Batak regions of North Sumatra), hand-woven ikat textiles are not simply cloths to clothe the body or encircle important ritual spaces: they are key items of ceremonial exchange between houses and kin groups as well.  Ikats bind whole family groups together. Moreover, ceremonial exchanges of textiles course between different regions of some islands, such as uplands and lowlands.

The highly patterned gift giving of ikat textiles is especially important in this range of societies at weddings.  Ikats often accompany the bride on her “marriage journey” to live with her new husband and his close family members, who sometimes reside in a village distant from the bride’s childhood home.  This textile exchange is sometimes anchored to a larger exchange of other ritual and practical goods, such as livestock.

textile market, Balige, Toba Batak area, North Sumatra
Traditional textile market in Balige, Toba Batak area, North Sumatra. Ulos textiles like these are purchased by Toba families for marriage alliance exchange gifts. S. Rodgers, 1986

These bridal textiles are sometimes thought to “carry fertility” along with them into the new union. Ikats help ensure that babies (an ultimate sign of good fortune and luck in much of village Southeast Asia) will be born soon to the young couple. In some case the young bride has woven some of her own wedding ikats, making them especially meaningful.

In these idealized systems of gift exchange (much extolled in village oratory), “masculine” metal objects course back in the opposite direction (from the bridegroom’s family to the bride’s natal kin) as exact counter-gifts to the presentations of ikat textiles coming from the bride’s side.

These metal objects can consist of swords, knives, heavy gold or silver neck chains, or a variety of precious metal ornaments (earrings, necklaces, bracelets, pendants). Hard, dense, weighty metal objects of all these types are often thought to be more masculine than textiles, within these village ideologies about “balanced” marriage exchanges.  The more lightweight, open weave, flexible ikat textiles are associated with the feminine, in some of these societies.  Not only do they accompany the bride, but they are also literally the products of women’s hands.  Ikat production is largely a female undertaking in many parts of Indonesia outside Java. Metalsmithing, by contrast, is associated with men in many Indonesian societies (see Charles Zerner 1981). When metal and cloth are combined, fertility and good fortune are said to result.

Two-in-One Unions

As shown in the articles in The Flow of Life: Essays on Eastern Indonesia (James Fox, ed. 1980) and in a wide range of excellent ethnographies on outer island Indonesian ethnic minority peoples of this same general type (see For Further Reading below), schemes of thought in these societies often posit a long series of paired binary oppositions.  Examples include Father Sky counterposed to his counterpart, Mother Earth; war and killing counterposed to life-giving processes such as pregnancy and birth; and – importantly for the appreciation of ikat—metalwork versus ikat textiles. Mamuli gold pendant from East Sumba Maleness contrasted to (yet bound to) femaleness is obviously another opposition in this series, in these same societies.
(Left: Mamuli gold pendant from East Sumba. These ornaments are used to balance textile gifts in marriage exchange.)

These Indonesian village philosophies often seek to join their binary oppositions together into mediated centers.  These mediators can be persons (cross-dressed shamans, for instance), things (an ikat wrapped around a basket of rice into which a sword is thrust), or spaces (a traditional house whose living floor mediates between attic spaces associated with the Upperworld and areas underneath the floorboards, connected to the Lowerworld).  The person, object, or place of union is sometimes thought to be charged with special supernatural powers.

In Toba Batak village architecture in Sumatra, for instance (at least, before the advent of so-called modern concrete block and metal roof homes), the underworld of the house (the space beneath the floorboards, for small livestock like pigs) met the home’s Upperworld (the swoop-backed roof) in the central area of the structure where the human family lives.  Toba houses were once said to be boats that sailed through generational time, producing new generations through the union of wife-giving lineages of one clan and their opposite numbers, wife-receiving lineages of other clans.

Sometimes representatives of both marriage alliance units would live together in such large compound houses.  Patrilineal clan descent is often found in this range of societies, although that is not always the case.

Sacredness and good fortune coming from ritual and social unions between paired opposites (these are often sexualized and gendered opposites) are also found in Indic Java, in Hindu Bali, and in some mainland Southeast Asian societies in the great Indian-influenced old temple and palace states of Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.  There, a lingga sculpture (a phallic stonework object, in temples) is often counterposed to a yoni (representative of the female vulva).  Divine kings and their attendant priests in the 700-1400 C.E. period of Indic polities were said to control the forces of the universe needed to join the lingga-yoni pairs together into sacred, fertile centers.  Kings could thus ensure (these ideologies asserted) good world order, dependable rice harvests, abundant livestock, and a peaceable kingdom.  These ideologies were obviously hierarchical in nature, favoring a privileged elite who could claim that they were to thank for good world order and rice field bounty.

Traditional Costume

Young girl in East Sumba wearing ceremonial sarong and turtle shell comb
Young girl in East Sumba wearing ceremonial sarong and turtle shell comb. The curlicue on her forehead denotes her exact stage of life.

The ceremonial use of ikat-based costumes (joined together with metal ornaments and weaponry) emblemizes the “lucky” and empowered bride, groom, or noble-born person in many Indonesian societies outside Java.  Ikat cloth is also lauded as a magically protective textile suitable for safely wrapping a baby into a tight carrying holder strapped to a relative’s body. 

    Newborns especially are thought to be vulnerable to health emergencies and also to soul-loss.  Wrapping an infant snugly in an ikat baby carrier cloth wards off sudden illness, the cold (much feared in this region), and a calamitous situation in which a youngster’s soul escapes the body (through the top of the head) and goes wandering.  Illness or even death can result, in these views.  The tight “packaging” of the vulnerable child with ikat can hold back such evil forces.  The ikat cloth baby carrier constitutes, in effect, an extension of the mother’s care started during pregnancy, when the child was “enwrapped” inside the womb. In fact, cloth enwrapment imageries are key to the ideologies of protection, good health, and parental caregiving found in much of village Southeast Asia.

Ikat cloth production and use is not always so benign and positive, however. Anthropologist Janet Hoskins points to West Sumbanese ikat’s connections to women’s hidden supernatural powers, and to certain women dyers’ closeness to the forces of death, in her article  cited above, “Why Do Ladies Sing the Blues? Indigo Dyeing, Cloth Production, and Gender Symbolism in Kodi” (1989).

The ceremonial use of ikat-based costumes (joined together with metal ornaments and weaponry) emblemizes the “lucky” and empowered bride, groom, or noble-born person in many Indonesian societies outside Java.  Ikat cloth is also lauded as a magically protective textile suitable for safely wrapping a baby into a tight carrying holder strapped to a relative’s body.

Newborns especially are thought to be vulnerable to health emergencies and also to soul-loss.  Wrapping an infant snugly in an ikat baby carrier cloth wards off sudden illness, the cold (much feared in this region), and a calamitous situation in which a youngster’s soul escapes the body (through the top of the head) and goes wandering.  Illness or even death can result, in these views.  The tight “packaging” of the vulnerable child with ikat can hold back such evil forces.  The ikat cloth baby carrier constitutes, in effect, an extension of the mother’s care started during pregnancy, when the child was “enwrapped” inside the womb. In fact, cloth enwrapment imageries are key to the ideologies of protection, good health, and parental caregiving found in much of village Southeast Asia.

Ikat, Witchcraft, and Danger

Ikat cloth production and use is not always so benign and positive, however. Anthropologist Janet Hoskins points to West Sumbanese ikat’s connections to women’s hidden supernatural powers, and to certain women dyers’ closeness to the forces of death, in her article  cited above, “Why Do Ladies Sing the Blues? Indigo Dyeing, Cloth Production, and Gender Symbolism in Kodi” (1989).

In Kodinese villages, Hoskins reports, the indigo dyepot is both feared and respected as a site  of power: positive power to help color great ikats but also negative power and danger since the stink of the fermenting and crushed indigo leaves in the vessel recalls the smell of a rotting corpse.  Only very resilient and powerful persons may safely come in contact with the indigo dyepot, or with corpses, to help prepare the body for burial.  The most powerful people in these regards?  Older women past menopause, who can control the forces of bodily corruption.  As noted, these women serve as both the expert dyers for the village and as the great midwives (who can help control the fraught development of the fetus in the womb).

Hoskins writes that death forces lie close to life-giving forces, in Kodi (1989).  If a fetus miscarries, villagers sometimes tell the mother that the ‘threads just did not soak up the dyes’ as they should have.  The rounded belly of a pregnant woman is allied metaphorically in Kodi to the rounded dyepot for preparing indigo.  An older woman dyer/midwife can manipulate the substances in either vessel.  For instance, she is powerful and knowledgeable enough to provide some women with special abortificaents, also made of leaves.

Older women’s “blue powers” are feared by men in Kodi.  These crones can plot behind men’s backs, to aid younger women in efforts to circumvent male control of their fertility.  For instance, Hoskins reports, if a young wife suffers a miscarriage very early in pregnancy her husband and his kin will urge her to quickly bury the miscarriage substances without much ceremony, without a formal funeral (which is only for “full humans”). But sometimes the mother mourns that fetus, whom she considers a true lost child. In such cases she can consult an older woman midwife/indigo dyer, to ask for special herbs that she can plant in the ground right atop the buried tissues.  After the small plants come up, the young wife can secretly eat them; she is taking in the essence of her baby who died in utero, her midwife assures her.  Some months later, when the young women gets pregnant again, her husband and his male kin consider this a new pregnancy. But, the young woman in league with her midwife say different (to themselves).  They have regenerated that earlier fetus, outside of male control

Kodinese men fear such powers of older dyer-women, who operate so close to the forces of both life and death. It is possible that several of the processes in producing ikat may have provided women in many parts of Southeast Asia with languages for asserting power in families, in larger clans, and in broader marriage alliance networks. 

Weaving an ikat on the loom, whatever the case, is often associated with ‘weaving a fetus’ in the womb throughout village Indonesia.  One indication of this: the knife that is used to cut the finished cloth off the loom is often likened to the knife that a midwife uses to cut a newborn’s umbilical cord. The two knives have the same name.  Ikat cultures have many symbolic redundancies like this.

Technological changes in cloth production and wider circuits for marketing ikat textiles can threaten these older, village-based ideologies of cloth.

References

Forth, Gregory
   1981   Rindi: An Ethnographic Study of a Traditional Domain in Eastern Sumba.   Leiden, the Netherlands: KITLV Press.
Fox, James J.
   1980   The Flow of Life: Essays on Eastern Indonesia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hicks, David
     2003  Tetum Ghosts and Kin: Fertility and Gender in East Timor. 2ND  edition. Waveland.
Hoskins, Janet
   1989   “Why Do Ladies Sing the Blues? Indigo Dyeing, Cloth Production, and Gender Symbolism in Kodi,” in A, Weiner and J. Schneider, eds., Cloth and Human Experience (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press), pp. 142-173).
McKinnon, Susan
   1991   From a Shattered Sun: Hierarchy, Gender, and Alliance in the Tanimbar Islands. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Zerner, Charles
   1981  “Signs of the Spirits, Signature of the Smith: Iron Forging in Tana Toraja.” Indonesia,volume 31, April 1981, pp. 89-112.

For Further Reading

Atkinson, Jane M. and Shelly Errington, eds.
   1990  Power and Difference: Gender in Island Southeast Asia. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
Boellstorff, Tom
    2005  The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Rodgers, Susan
       1985    Power and Gold: Jewelry from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Geneva: Musee Barbier-Mueller.