Bali’s Ikat, considered a gift from the gods, has a craft connection with India.
It was a surreal moment, sitting in the ancient village of Tenganan deep in the mountain forests of Eastern Bali and watching Sutari weave a wondrous double ikat ‘protection shawl’. With its philosophy, a complex, almost magical weave and aesthetics, ikat has woven across time a global textile and heritage web stretching from Patan in Gujarat, Sambhalpur in Odisha and Putapakka in Andhra Pradesh to Sarawak in Malaysia and Tenganan, in a remote corner of Bali, and is considered by many textile historians as mankind’s oldest weave.
So here I was on my ikat trail, wrapped in an exquisite Patan Patola, to experience the making of Bali ikat and its place in Tenganan’s life.
Tenganan is one of the oldest pre-Hindu, Bali Aga villages of the island, which is like a living anthropological museum with its millennia-old structural and architectural patterns, unchanged social customs and rituals, temples in typical thatched dwellings, arts and crafts – all untouched by the ‘Hinduisation’ of Bali some 600 years ago.A special placeIt was fascinating to see Sutari bringing together the pre-dyed and tied warp and weft in the universal language of ikat, in mellow colours that brought the geometric mandala motifs to life. Meanwhile, Sutari’s brother Made, who does the tying and dyeing of the yarn, brushed up our sketchy knowledge of Balinese history along with a running commentary on the ikat piece being woven by her and the special place ikat has in pre-Hindu Balinese life.
“We are Indra people”, said Made, “and our culture represents original Balinese culture. Back in the 15th century, many Javanese Hindus fled Java to escape the Islamic onslaught and made Bali their home, establishing flourishing kingdoms in the island. Along with the fleeing Hindus came their artists, painters, carvers, Hindu priests, scholars, poets and music makers. And Javanese Hindu culture took firm root in Bali in an exuberance of temples, sculpture, paintings, woodcraft, dance and music. However, a few remote and inaccessible mountain villages such as Sembaram and Tenganan escaped the process of Hinduisation and continued to carry forward the traditions and way of life of their ancestors.
“We are proud Bali Agas and have our own temples, customs and crafts and only marry within the village. Strict taboos rule our lives. We grow our own rice on the mountain sides and everything in Tenganan is handcrafted by the villagers from constructing temples, dwellings, meeting halls to making cooking vessels, yarn and textiles.”
Made pointed out, “We consider ikat weaving an honour and a gift from the gods. Earlier ikat cloth was only used for ceremonies in temples. Today it is also part of ceremonial wear and forms part of the warp and woof of our lives. The piece that Sutari is weaving is a ‘no-sickness’ cloth for protection. Ladies here do the weaving and every home has a ‘patli kin’ loom. I do the dyeing. The villagers come here to take the double ikat that we weave and use it to cover the gods and temples in their homes. It is our heritage fabric and our spiritual wealth.”
Amazingly, the Patan Patola is considered auspicious as well and the Sarawak ikat, according to the locals, is invested with special powers. Made showed a small plastic tub in which a deep red dye made from bark was brewing, “Indigo too is grown here and I make the dye,” he said and added, “ A good dye takes 42 days to be perfected”.
Made explained the process of creating a double ikat, which is exactly the same in Gujarat, Odisha or Kuching (capital of Sarawak, Malaysia). “ We have already set the warp. Before we put the weft on the loom, we already have the pattern in our heads. We have 24 different traditional designs and we only use heritage patterns with motifs, which follow mandalas. The longer you keep our double ikat cloth the more intense is the colour.”
He showed us around his shop stocked with some of the most pristine and brilliant double ikats. Thinking of the lone Salvi family, now creating Patola ikats in Patan, I ask Made about the future of Tenganan’s double ikat. “We had a meeting some time ago on how to preserve this culture,” he said and added, “and we decided that every parent should teach the craft to at least one girl child in the family. We have a population of 640 people out of which 35 still practice this unique craft.”
We took a brief walk through the village, past the thatched council house built on a raised plinth, past the temple and arrived at a banyan tree under whose shade three artists were working on palm leaf craft. The process of etching and inscribing on strips of palm leaf stitched together was similar to that used in Odisha. Similar too were the geometric motifs on my Patola dupatta and the stole, which I bought from Made. We commented on the craft links between our cultures. Made agreed but averred that the uniqueness of each country’s craft should be nurtured and preserved as symbols of its culture, like the Tenganan ikat, which defines the culture and ethos of the Aga Balinese of Tenganan.