Melike Sema Alişan
“Batik actually is apart from reality, and it reflects the inward state by looking not at, but into and through aniconic symbols or symbols that are represented by something else. ”Forman (1988)
People do not ponder their daily practices, the food they eat every morning, the stories they listen to every day, and their clothes. Each of them has unique stories behind, which signifies cultural and social values coming from the past. There are significant points to learn by going beyond the material value of clothes and their patterns.
The first time I knew about Batik textile was when my Indonesian friends brought me from Indonesia as a gift by saying that ‘it is the most significant gift from Java Island for us’. It made me think of its value in their daily life.
I felt so charming to have this wearable art in my life, which makes me feel like I share their cultural identity at home.
Batik tells us a lot about an island’s people and their way of life by touching every aspect of Indonesians life. In this blog, I analyze its root and symbols behind. It is a definitively Javanese art form Indonesia as a method of decorating textiles through dye resistance, in which designs are created by preventing specific parts of textile from being exposed to the dye.
The tradition of Batik dated back to ancient Egypt. It is still a mystery when it comes to the Indonesian Island but there are many scholars who believe that it only could have begun with the first arrival of very high-quality textiles from India in the early 1800s. We are sure that batik quickly became an important part of Javanese life. Batik clothes were used for a variety of ceremonial occasions and still, are today.
In October 2009, UNESCO designated Indonesian batik as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This prestigious award made the general public in Indonesia more aware of the great value of batik they inherited from their ancestors.
There are many different voices when it comes to the meaning of batik. Although batik is known to have existed in China, Japan, India, Thailand, East Turkestan, Europe, and Africa, after taking place in Javanese island, it has started to take some nationalist features. Types of batik depend on the surface and ground color combination, the mode of manufacture, and the region. It is for sure that the batik artist brought to life symbols and patterns. For Kitley, the practice of repeating motifs in metrical distribution across space is tied to the invocation of power and spiritual potency (Kitley, 1992).
According to Haake, there are so many meanings behind the traditional Javanese Batik Patterns which is quite systematic (Haake, 1989). For instance, there are different patterns of nobility or special occasions like weddings, circumcisions, and cremations. Although Javanese batiks have been investigated referring to symbolism and plane symmetry groups, the mathematics knowledge was so low, according to him at those times. That is why the claim is that the symmetry elements reveal the principles of Javanese philosophy under three main subjects: translation, mirror-line, and dualism.
The meditation function named ‘translation’ is very common all over Asia since ancient times. That means the order of the pattern was transmitted to the spirit. It gives us man meaning especially when we think that Batik making is a female domain. While ‘mirror-line’ is associated with Hindu symbols, “semen” patterns here as one of the main Hindu symbols as means mythical bird, the symbol for the sun and it contains their own mirror line. Lastly, ‘dualism’ refers to the coexistence of opposites. There are many other examples of this principle can be found in a Semen batik: dark/light, eagle/snake symbolizing the upper and lower world, or heaven and sea. In fact, the steady periodic repetition of a unit is proved to have meditative effects on the creator of a batik.
When it comes to the cultural meaning in textiles through motifs, colors, batik shows us via its symbolism, which is developed by culture over time indicates that the cloth has ‘visual textile communication skills’ for many things. For instance, Parang is a motif arranged following a diagonal line in the shape of letter S as a symbol for continuity interpreted in various ways. It is believed that the word parang comes from the word pereng/ lereng or steep slope as found on the south coast of the island Java.
As another example, Sultan Agung the third king of the Mataram kingdom interprets the sharp rock formations on the coast as a symbol for a sharp mind. Another meaning of parang is machete or knife. Wearing this batik motif at a wedding is not allowed, as it is believed that it might destroy the newly-weds’ life. The philosophical meaning of parang is the continuous struggle for the truth and be a good example to other people.
Apart from that, ‘udan liris’ is a diagonal lereng pattern symbolizing fertility. Some say that udan liris symbolizes determination and gratitude after having faced many obstacles in life. The slanted rows may feature 5, 7, 9 or 11 rows each with a different pattern, which will be repeated filling the whole surface of the cloth. There are two types of this design, rujak sente featuring a dark background, while udan liris has a white background.
To fully grasp this issue, it is important to have some idea about the Hindu-Javanese way of thinking. According to Akkach (2019), the batik ceplok known today, with their immense diversity, derived their fundamental origins from basic geometric elements found in textile motifs dating to the Hindu-Buddhist period in Java. Taking into consideration early Buddhist and Hindu cultural traditions in Java, textile designs have been carefully regulated to indicate social status with various prohibitions have been placed on the design. For instance, each new sultan who came to reign over the kingdoms of Java made rules and forbade the inhabitants from wearing particular batik designs. They also issued decrees on who in the kingdom was to wear particular designs to denote their rank in society.
However, the spread of knowledge of Islam, from around the 16th century onwards, made some changing by the fact that the majority of the Islands in the region of Java had adopted Islamic faith.. As a result, it got started to shape within a new religious context in time, which influenced Javanese textile designs as Islam forbids the depiction of humans and animals. For example, it brought a variety of stylised and modified ornaments as symbols, such as flowers and geometric patterns, known as ceplok.
Batik is such a strong hereditary tradition that the family can recognize its pattern. That means, it can become a pattern or motif from a certain family or region. Secondly, motives can also show social status in the society, and by looking at the pattern one can understand if it is from the Hindu-Buddhist period in Java or Islamic period. As Forman states that batik actually is apart from reality, and it reflects the inward state by looking not at, but into and through aniconic symbols or symbols that are represented by something else (1988).
To conclude, Batik expresses their creativity and spirituality the symbolic meaning of its colors and designs (Ich.unesco.org, 2019). As an important world heritage, Batik is a witness for the times there were no written records by including a wide diversity of patterns and influences from Arabic calligraphy, European bouquets, and Chinese phonexes, to Japanese cherry blossoms, and Indian or Persian peacocks. It is surely a fact that Batik tells us a lot about island people and their way of life by touching every aspect of Indonesians life. The first time I knew about this textile was also when my Indonesian friends brought me from Indonesia as a gift by saying that it is the most significant gift from Java for us. It is nice to have this wearable art in my life, which makes me feel like I share their cultural identity at home.
Melike Sema Alişan is a postgraduate student currently specializing in Asian Studies at Middle East Technical University in Turkey. She focuses on the Asia-Pacific region and studies the effects of ethnic patterns on unity and peace through education and social life, including cultural diversity, social order, and heritage of art and aesthetics. She can be found on Instagram @melikesemaalisan
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Haake, A. (1989). The role of symmetry in Javanese batik patterns. Computers & Mathematics with Applications, 17(4-6), pp.815-826.
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