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Indonesian Textile Arts
Java Island

Written in Cloth

From Java’s rich history and dense population has emerged a beautiful art form: the batik textiles for which the island is famous. From the court inspired motifs and subdued color palette of Imogiri in south-central Java, to the bright trade-inspired imagery of the north coast, and the handspun handmade character of Tuban batik, a rich textile experience awaits the visitor to Java.

130 million people, over half Indonesia’s population, are crowded into Java, one of the most densely populated places on earth. A spine of thirty-eight volcanoes runs the length of the island, including Mount Merapi, the country’s most active. People by the millions stream between Java’s verdant rice fields and cool tea plantations, and bustling port cities such as Surabaya and Jakarta, the sprawling, exhaust-choked capital of the nation.

A Javanese farmer, Tuban

Java’s exceptional fertility and its location on trade routes linking China and Europe to the spice islands in the east have brought wealth and importance to Java for millennia. The Hindu kingdom of Mataram (8th-10th centuries), the great Hindu-Buddist Majapahit Empire (13th-16th centuries), and the Islamic Mataram Sultanate (16th-18th centuries) sprung from central Java. The English and Dutch based their spice trading empires from ports on Java’s north coast.

Statue of Vishnu, from the National Museum in Jakarta

Roughly 90% of Java’s population is Muslim, ranging from strict orthodox to loose, syncretic versions of Islam that incorporate Hindu, Buddhist, and local animistic beliefs and practices. Kejawen, a traditional belief system that emphasizes balance and synthesis, governs much Javanese religious thought. In small villages across the breadth of the island, farmers attend mosques, meditate, perform agricultural rituals, and make offerings to local spirits with no sense of contradiction.

Hybrid style mosque

Centuries ago, according to legend, Majapahit nobles tried to preserve precious heirlooms by turning them to stone, and asked a bird to carry the stones to safety. As the bird flew over East Java, one stone slipped from his grasp and fell to the ground. The place where it fell is called Tuban, or Fallen Stone. Today, local textiles like this one retell the myths and chronicles of Tuban.

Bird pattern batik from East Java

Some of the earliest known batik was made in Tuban, on East Java’s northern coast. The people of Tuban say that rebels from the Majapahit court first taught the locals to create batik. Early batik motifs were drawn in rice-paste, and replicated the designs of woven palm-fiber mats. In the 17th century, an invention called the canting allowed artists to draw with molten wax, and batik developed into high art.

Applying wax with a canting

Weavers in the Tuban area call their spinning wheels jontro, a name unknown in other parts of Java. The word comes from Ki Jontro, a man who accompanied the rebellious Majapahit army in the late 13th century. Locals claim Ki Jontro invented the wheel in Tuban. They named the device in his honor, and it has borne his name for over seven hundred years.

A homemade spinning wheel

As a girl in Kerek, near Tuban, Uswatun Hasanah listened wide-eyed as her grandmother told her the fables, the histories, the secret language of batik motifs. As Uswatun grew up, traditional batik lost popularity, and began to disappear from local dress. She took it on herself to spearhead a revival, and founded Sekar Ayu, a cooperative that produces and promotes batik as the cultural inheritance of all Java.

Uswatun Hasanah

Batik is high fashion and big business today, and factories in Surabaya ship inexpensive batik cloth across the archipelago. But in Kerek, the focus is local. The group’s 125 members grow and spin their own cotton, weave on traditional backstrap looms, hand-draw their designs, and make their own indigo dye. Uswatun’s dream is to see traditional, locally-made batik worn with pride at weddings and ceremonies in her home town.

Batik in use, Tuban

Yogyakarta, Solo, and the other principalities of central Java each have distinct regional styles of batik, with motifs particular to each ruling house. But the village of Imogiri never belonged to one ruler exclusively; for four centuries, every royal family in the region has buried its dead at the grand cemetery in the village center. This allows Imogiri artists to draw on all of central Java’s rich and varied traditions.

Applying wax, Imogiri

On May 27th, 2006 a devastating earthquake struck central Java, leveling Imogiri. Survivors threw up shanties of broken bricks and bamboo, and quickly returned to batik. Charitable foundations, foreign governments, local donors, and traders such as Threads of Life extended aid, hoping that in the panic and pain of the earthquake, a cultural treasure did not slip away. Batik sales have helped the people of Imogiri to rebuild.

A temporary workshop, Imogiri