Balinese Dress and Balinese Textiles
Balinese temple dress, which is called adat dress, is not a matter of choice, nor is it a fashion statement. It is a symbolic gesture with a function. It is compulsory attire for everyone for the temple.
As with nearly everything in Bali, dress has a divine origin. According to manuscripts, Brahma created the world and then he created people. They were naked. Kala, the son of Siwa, the destroyer, ate them. This distressed Wisnu, the preserver. He, with Indra, sent some gods and goddesses to earth to civilize men. One of them was Ratih, goddess of the moon, and she taught men how to weave clothes from vegetable materials.
At first, humans would have used grass to cove the body. Then they would have used a loincloth made from tree bark. It was pounded into long strips and worn between the legs and around the hips. The Purnama Bali texts say that thread from the leaves of the bayu plant was spun and woven into fabric.
Chakras are energy centres in our bodies. It is believed that certain emotions and desires are associated with each chakra. The purpose of adat dress is to control some of these desires and to focus attention on a higher purpose. Adat dress therefore symbolically and functionally harnesses the lower instincts.
The Balinese wear their finest traditional clothes for the temple. They consist of lengths of cloth draped, wrapped or tied around the body. On ritual occasions only flat woven pieces of fabric are worn, never sarongs, which are strictly tube skirts that have been sewn together. Sarongs are only used for casual wear. Westerners often use the word “sarong” incorrectly.
Men and women wear a cloth, called a kamben, usually batik, wrapped around the waist, wrapped differently by men and women. Men wrap the cloth around their waist with a fold in the front, whereas women wear it tightly around their hips with no drapes. Women tie the kamben at the waist on the left-hand side, whereas men tie it in the centre.
On very important occasions, like a wedding or tooth-filing, women sometimes wear an underskirt or tapih, wrapped so that the left-hand, lower part shows when walking. They also may wear a black corset around the body, which is hot, and over it a coloured sash, known as a sabuk, adorned very often with gold leaf or bronze paint.
Women participants in a temple ceremony may wear an upper garment called an anteng, which is wrapped tightly around the upper body leaving the shoulders free, or a larger selendang, like a shawl, which is thrown over one shoulder. Until the 1930s Balinese women went to the temple with their upper bodies naked, but the Dutch persuaded them to cover up.
Slightly less formal is the long-sleeved, lacy blouse called a kebaya, which is originally Javanese, but the Balinese kebaya is different from the Javanese one. The Balinese have looser sleeves to allow for movement while working in the fields or the market.
Men also wear a short flat piece of cloth over the kamben, called a saput, which is bright yellow or white, with a decorative border, and both are tied on by the sabuk. If the ceremony is informal, an ordinary shirt is worn, but if the ceremony is an important one, a white shirt is worn with gold buttons.
Men also wear a headdress called an udeng. It is symbolic of the Ulu Candra, which is a symbolic Balinese letter. The front wing-like vertical appendage, called jambul, symbolises Siwa. It is also a symbol for the male lingga. The lingga is itself symbolic of Siwa. The part wrapped around the head is like a half-moon or sun, the symbol of Brahma. The whole thing may also be a symbolic yoni or female principle, since Brahma is the creator of life. All in all, complex and deeply symbolic, as well as hard to put on.
Relationship between chakras and formal dress
There are six chakras of the body that are controlled by Balinese formal dress. They are:
“The third eye” (ajna)
located in the pineal plexus, connected to pure energy or spirit, is associated with enlightenment. The purpose of a man’s udeng is to tie and focus his consciousness to this point of utter purity and distinguish it from all other personal desires, which hold a person down. Many women wear a white headband for a similar purpose.
The throat (vishuddha)
located in the crotid plexus, connected to the ether, is associated with knowledge, wisdom and understanding. This area remains open and flows freely.
The heart (anahata)
located in the cardiac plexus, connected to the air, is associated with sharing, love, devotion, selfless service and compassion. It is above the boundary created by the selendang and although it is covered by a shirt or kebaya is open and flows freely.
The navel (manipura)
located in the solar plexus, connected to fire, is associated with immortality, longevity, fame, power, authority and wealth. These desires are harnessed by the selendang.
The genitals (svadhisthana)
located in the hypogastric plexus, connected to water, is associated with family, procreation, sexual urges and fantasy. These instincts are harnessed by the saput and sabuk.
The perineum (mulhadhara)
located in the pelvis plexus, connected to earth, is associated with being grounded, security, physical comforts, basic biological needs and shelter. These instincts are harnessed by the kamben.
The Balinese have become enthusiastic wearers of uniforms. Usually it indicates membership of a group, such as a gamelan orchestra, a banjar work group or a political party. The Royal family in Ubud have their own uniform.
Often they are colour coded. Black tops, male and female, for burials and cremations, yellow and white for Saraswati Day and so on.
School uniforms are the same for all Government schools: red and white for primary school (the colour of the Indonesian flag), blue and white for junior high school and grey and white for senior high school.
You can’t miss textiles in Bali. People wear them all the time. Even statues wear them, wrapped by textiles on special occasions. Even buildings have textiles attached to them, because buildings are symbolically dressed during certain ceremonies. Textiles are presented to the gods as offerings. The deceased are covered in numerous textiles prior to cremation.
It is quite possible that originally people did not need clothes in Bali as the forest would have given enough shade. Probably merchants from abroad brought the first materials. Chinese records from 1,400 years ago mention a king in northern Sumatra wearing silk. Silk would have been imported and only the rich could have afforded it.
Textiles would probably also have been used as offerings to the gods. These sacred origins still resonate in Indonesia. Arabs and other traders would have used textiles as a primary medium of exchange. There is a report that in 1603 the price of imported cloth was worth 40 pounds of nutmeg on the island of Banda.
Silk was exported from China two thousand years ago and for a long time China was the only exporter. Silk worms, living for only 45 days, fed on mulberry trees. During its short life a worm produced a cocoon of thin strands, which, when unravelled, might run for more than 900 meters. The thin strands were woven into threads from which silk was manufactured by hand in many Chinese towns. It may have been traded for cotton.
Silk is light, capable of being stretched without breaking, easily dyed with bright colours, and soft. Silk is prized and expensive.
Eventually silkworms were smuggled into India, where silk fabric was produced, but not of the highest quality.
The most common traditional textile in Bali is endek. Endek is Balinese weft ikat. The ikat process describes the way the pattern is made. It is a very time consuming business. The undyed yarns are tied together in such a way that, when the frame containing all the yarns is put into the die, they remain uncoloured. It is called a resist-die technique. Repeated tyings and dyeings eventually produce a textile of dazzling multi-hued patterns.
The designs could be applied to the warp threads alone – that is called warp ikat – or, as is the custom in Bali, the weft threads alone, and that is called weft ikat. If the designs are applied to both warp and weft, it is called double ikat.
If you imagine a traditional backstrap loom, called cagcag, and the rectangular shape, with the weaver sitting on the floor at one end, shifting her weight backwards and forwards, the warp threads are the long ones facing her and the weft ones are the horizontal ones.
In Bali there is weft ikat, known as endek, and double ikat, known as geringsing. Geringsing is very difficult and takes a very long time to make. It is only made in three places in the world: Bali, Japan and Gujarat in India.
Now, because Geringsing is so expensive, textiles with the geringsing pattern are made.
Patola is the name given to silk double ikat from Gujarat. In Bali geringsing is produced in the Bali Aga village of Tenganan on the east coast.
Originally only the courts wove endeks and only the princely families were allowed to wear them. They did so on special occasions, using them as wraparounds or shawls, but now everyone wears them. The earliest pieces, dating from the late 19th to early 20th century, were cotton and came from Buleleng in north Bali, which was then an important textile producing area. Sometimes exotic imported material, like silk, was used.
The patterns started off being mostly geometric shapes, but later other motifs were employed, like animals, flowers, stars and wayang figures. Early endeks were red and then yellow and later green. Until the beginning of the 20th century traditional vegetable dyes were employed.
In the 1930s weavers in the villages, outside the courts, started making endeks. New designs, new materials, new colours and new customers appeared. Not only was cotton used, as before, but also silk and rayon.
Early endeks always had a border. Borders disappeared as endek came to be sold by the metre. After Independence, production soared and it is still rising. New uses are being discovered, like furnishings. New patterns are still being created. And, of course, there have been radical changes in respect of dying and weaving techniques. The Japanese introduced a new loom, the ATBM, during the War, which is much quicker and is still widely used today.
Endek cloths are still all handwoven. It is time-consuming work and so it is costly. A skilful weaver can produce up to two meters a day. If they are cheap, they will be imitation prints, from Java or Lombok.
Not only in Bali, but the whole of western Indonesia, uses the word songket to describe a technique in which additional patterns are woven into a material with supplementary weft threads. Gold and silver threads are used in these textiles, the earliest ones being made of silk. Originally they would have been brought by Indian traders.
Songkets were restricted until the last 20 or 30 years to use by the princely castes. Now, anyone can wear them, but they are expensive.
They originated in the courts and Brahman households and were used in grand theatrical performances and ceremonial displays. The display indicated status and wealth. Dance costumes were made of songket. Later cotton was used, and in the last 30 years, rayon. Today, silk mixed with artificial silk or viscose is also used to keep the cost down. Virtually all the materials, however, have to be imported.
Sidemen in east Bali developed into a songket centre in the 17th century and has remained the leading place ever since. Backstrap looms are used in Bali, Sumatra and Java. To produce a simple selendang (shoulder shawl) takes at least five days and a kamben hip cloth with a complicated pattern a month or more. The loom produces cloths of a limited size, so if a large cloth is required, two widths are sewn together.
As with endek, there are regional styles, but it is difficult to tell where a particular piece actually comes from, as the courts forged various linkages. The oldest surviving pieces are unlikely to be more than 100 years.
Very fine songkets come from Buleleng. Those dating from the beginning of the 20th century are deep brown, red and sometimes violet. The centre is covered with dense patterns and a clear border frames the whole. The borders are patterned by triangles of gold thread.
The court of Karangasem is noted for deep, warm reds and a background of checked patterns, fine lines, and tiny motifs. Checked materials are still typical of east Bali. Early depictions of gods, demons and mythological creatures are rare in songkets, except for those produced in Karangasem. Lombok, which was ruled by Karangasem in the 17th and 18th centuries, also produced songkets, in general, finely woven and a little stiff.
Tabanan became famous for large figurative patterns and flowering tendrils.
Nowadays what were once localized patterns are produced all over Bali and screen-printed textiles are appearing with imitation songket patterns
Like silk cultivation, red dyeing, and songket weaving, Indian and Chinese merchants and travellers brought perada and its patterns to Java and Bali. The origin of perada lies probably in China.
No weaving is involved. Perada is the technique by which cotton or silk is adorned with gold leaf or gold dust. The gold is glued to the pattern. Originally it was restricted to the courts and only practised by men. The base fabric consists of simple plain, striped or checked cloths in brilliant colours against which the gold stands out.
Perada materials are stiff and brittle where the gold has been applied and they cannot be washed. The gold easily rubs off. So, people only wear them for special occasions, such as tooth-filings or weddings. Legong and topeng dancers wear perada costumes.
Nowadays, gold is too expensive and bronze pigment paint is applied instead. It is, however, a poor imitation.
Various cloths are used in ceremonies, particularly during rites of passage. They form part of the offerings. These sacred textiles are given the generic name of bebali – like the dances, which can only be performed in the inner part of the temple. These cloths have their own patterns and names. Very often there is a striped pattern. The lines symbolize the human life cycle – birth, growth and death. The traditional bebali were made by hand, using cagcag, a traditional weaving tool, and plants as natural dyes.
Bebali textiles were produced for centuries by the Bali Mula (indigenous Balinese) in Pacung village in Tejakula, Buleleng, North Bali. The Bali Mula have their own traditions and language. In general, members of the three high castes have a monopoly over the production of the bebali cloths. Women weave them and supply the markets, but Bebali cloths are now rarely seen. Few weavers are willing to produce them. In the early 1970s the villagers planted oranges instead of cotton, and the skills were largely lost.
The palm leaf lontars give recommendations on which sacred textiles to use in tooth- filing and wedding ceremonies, but strangely they are silent on baby ceremonies.
Every visitor to Bali notices very quickly the black and white checked cloths, wrapped around guardian statues, pavilions, people, kulkul drums in temples and even trees and stones wherein a spirit dwells. It is dazzling and powerful and has a special meaning for the Balinese: it represents the cosmic duality.
The article entitled Balinese Religion explained that the Balinese see the world in terms of opposites, good and bad, day and night, mountain and sea. This duality forms the whole: one cannot exist without the other. Poleng is the perfect representation of this view. The squares of equal size are perfect black and perfect white; they intersect and are not parallel. Grey squares contain strands of both and show that you cannot have one without the other. White represents good, the gods and health; black represents evil, the underworld and disease. Poleng comprises them both and so the whole.
Poleng material can be woven or printed on white cloth. Woven materials have a grey squares as well as black and white, created when the white and black yarns of weft and warp intersect. The black and white squares may be of different sizes depending on the cloth. When worn, the side of the material with bigger squares is worn on the inside, smaller squares on the outside.
The origin, in terms of locality, is unknown. Origin, in terms of inspiration, may be the plaited lamak offerings, in which light and dark green palm leaves are interwoven.
Poleng is rarely used on shrines, except shrines dedicated to Durga, the goddess of death. It is also rarely visible in the inner, holiest part of the temple. On those rare occasions it appears on the southern, impure direction. It is never displayed on the pagoda-like meru shrines or the high Padmasana empty seats, which are for the Trinity.
Masks representing gods are sometimes brought into temples as part of a ceremony. This is common in the case of Rangda masks in temples associated with graveyards. In South Bali, if the deity is a male, it will be wrapped in poleng cloth, and if it is a female, in white cloth. Otherwise there is no way to distinguish them.
In Barong-Rangda dances, Rangda’s warriors wear protective poleng cloths. In processions of gods associated with the netherworld, one of the drums in the accompanying gamelan will be wrapped in poleng cloth, sometimes with a red border. If a poleng has a red edge around it, it represents the Trinity, Brahma, Wisnu and Siwa.
It is clear therefore that poleng is closely associated with the gods of the netherworld in the case of inanimate objects. For humans, men and women, poleng cloth offers protection. It is sometimes used in temple ceremonies to cover the ground, so that people walking on it will be free of all possible evil spirits.
These beautiful, but rare, sacred textiles have a uniform design. There is always a red background, although varying shades of red appear, a patterned frame of fine black, white, blue and yellow lines, a centre field and border, both of which contain endek patterns. Every cepuk has a longitudinal border of white arrowheads, called barong teeth or gigi barong. Cepuks are made of coarse handspun cotton or silk. The Balinese believe the older types, made of coarse cotton, are the most powerful. They are treated as valuable family heirlooms and rarely seen.
It is a long, time-consuming process. Developments in the last 60 years have tried to speed all parts of it up – using factory-made yarns, synthetic tying materials, quick-acting synthetic dyestuffs and longer warps. Unfortunately this has resulted in a loss of quality, which is why the Balinese believe the older cepuk cloths are more powerful.
Cepuk textiles are not used much in ceremonies anymore. They are too rare. They are associated with Rangda and are nowadays pretty much restricted to use in cremation ceremonies. Rangda dancers often wear a protective cepuk.
The origin of cepuk is almost certainly the patola cloths imported from India. The similarity in structure, colour and pattern is striking.
They are still woven in Nusa Penida, the island off south Bali, to the east. Nusa Penida was a place of banishment and evil forces and that no doubt adds to their powerful reputation.
The most spectacular textiles ever produced in Southeast Asia are the geringsings made only in the small attractive village of Tenganan in east Bali. The only other places in the world where similar textiles are weaved are Japan and India. The people of Tenganan are Bali Aga people, who believe that the god Indra created humans and then taught them the art of double ikat. Their rituals have to be carried out by persons, who are pure in body and spirit, and that purity is protected by the magical power of the textiles. The textiles protect the village and are only worn during major religious events.
The most striking feature is the muted colours – red, reddish-brown, dark blue or black violet. They are woven from cotton yarns. The patterns bear a similarity to Indian patola textiles. The designs are built up from little triangles. The central panel’s patterns flow horizontally and vertically in some cloths and horizontally, vertically and diagonally in others. Another pattern is the wayang style, where semicircular patterns within patterns cover the panel. The segments contain stars, emblems, animals and architectural elements.
It is interesting that wayang kulit performances are unknown in Tenganan. This suggests that the courts of East Java and the Javanese-Balinese courts commissioned the wayang patterns.
Numerous villages in east Bali use geringsing textiles during ceremonies. They are used throughout Bali in rites of passage to protect the participants against danger. Those that can afford them wrap a geringsing around the pillow on which a person’s head rests during the tooth-filing ceremony. They are also used to cover various ceremonial utensils in village temples and as a shroud to cover the body before a cremation. In some regions they are used as an underlay for offerings. For these purposes the wayang style is preferred.
Geringsing is very old and is mentioned in a literary work of 1365. It can take between five and eight years to weave a sacred cloth. Only a small number of Tenganan residents are still capable of making geringsing textiles and the technique is passed down from generation to generation.
An intriguing piece of genetic research carried out in 1978 by Indonesian and Swiss scientists in Tenganan suggests that the people of Tenganan came from India, perhaps via Java. 18 of the inhabitants had an enzyme that is characteristic of Indians and otherwise exceptionally rare. Genetics even has uses when it comes to the history of textiles.