Textiles and the Multi-Tiered Cosmos: Indonesian Sarita Cloths

Today I'm going to take a look at sarita cloths of the Toraja people from the upriver region of Sulawesi Island, Indonesia. I'm interested to see if I can show a connection between this textile and shamanism. Someone needs to write a dissertation on this. There's so much here!

The Toraja People

Today, the Toraja people are predominantly Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist, but many still adhere to ancient beliefs and practice ceremonies that are said to be thousands of years old. The deification of significant ancestors and veneration of nature spirits reportedly form the basis of these ancient beliefs. aluk to dolo - 'the Law of the Ancestors'

The incredibly rich spiritual tradition is reflected materially by (among many other things) woven and dyed textiles known as ikats. These are intended to please and protect the living, honor the ancestors, and in some cases, such as with the sarita, guide the recently deceased to the afterlife. These textiles are considered very valuable and are passed down through generations.

The Australian Museum has an excellent exhibition of Indonesian textiles that is very informative and well worth a visit. Amazing stuff.

Weaver as Shaman!

In order to prove that Textiles are associated with shamanism, my task is to show how they are related to the multi-tiered cosmos. So far, we've seen how weaving itself can be an induction method to altered states of consciousness (ASC) and how ASC and entoptic images are precursors to a belief in a multi-tiered cosmos (underworld/this world/world of spirits), which is the basis of shamanism and (arguably) all later spiritual practices. We've also seen that entoptic images are ubiquitous in textiles from all over the world. If we can see depictions of a multi-tiered cosmos (the result of ASC and entoptic experience), we come that much closer to making an association between textile production and shamanism. Please see my post here.

I've compiled a list of criteria that I think would prove a link between ASC and the textile:

These are discussed in more detail in previous posts):

  • A relationship between the creation of the artwork and an induction method to ASC ("proven" in another post: here).;
  • Depictions of imagery from the 3 stages of ASC on the artwork;
  • Depictions of various cosmic realms on the artwork, including
  • world of the living
  • world of the dead
  • passage or tunnel (In many (or most) cases, the tunnel should be accessible only to the shaman/celebrant and the decedent, as it may considered too risky for laypeople to make the journey; and
  • Cultural beliefs and practices SURROUNDING the production of textiles reflecting the different cosmic realms;
  • Cultural beliefs and practices surrounding the use of the textiles reflecting the different cosmic realms (an association with death, healing, etc.). 

Caveat: All this is open to debate. I'm just condensing it here and presenting my own beliefs (based on personal research and field work). 

The Textiles

Death and the traversal of the decedent to the Puya, the Island of Souls, is a gradual process. The funeral can take weeks, months, or years to complete, and is performed in order to help the spirit reach the afterlife. At first, the deceased is considered sick. A widow must sit with the corpse in the death house until the final funeral ceremony is performed. (Note: I find no reference to a corpse-sitter-wither if the decedent is NOT a husband with a living wife. I'm not sure who (if anyone) is required to sit with the corpse then.) Textiles are prominently used in all phases of this process. Many of these textiles were made locally according to established traditions, while others were imported and embellished by local artists.

Several types of ikat textiles are used by the Toraja during funeral rites: sekomandi; poté; sarita; and the pori lonjong. I believe that these textiles can be associated with a particular realm of the three-tiered cosmos and together form a shamanic kit. These textiles are too good to be true, really. In the interest of getting this post finished some time before the next millenium, I will present short descriptions of all four types of cloth, but will focus on the sarita.

Fabulous article about the funeral ceremony from the Persee Journal. Well worth a look.

Toraja Ceremonial Dress (Ikats)

Sekomandi cloths:

The person is not considered dead, but rather sick, during the initial period after death. The body is laid in a funeral or death house and is wrapped in several layers of cloth, which assist the soul during the sickness and as it prepares to depart for the afterlife. The large, square, sekomandi cloth is often used at this time. This cloth is said to symbolize the brotherhood of the villagers or the life journey of the decedent. The cloth is sometimes hung as a canopy over the corpse or used to create a sheltered area for funeral guests.

Pori Lonjong (long cloths):

The pori lonjong, or long cloth, is hung on the walls in the funeral house or used to create cloth pathways leading the decedent to puya, the afterworld.

Pote from The British Museum.

Pote cloths:

During the waiting period, the widow sits in the death house, beside the corpse, until the body is brought out for the funeral ceremony and burial. She wears a black cloth and a pote on her head for the entire funeral process until a few days after burial. The pote is a shawl that has been darkened with natural pigments and sometimes embellished at the ends with braided designs, fringe, beads, woven panels, and other decorations.

Sarita cloths:

The sarita is a very long rectangular cloth that is hung from poles in front of the death house. According to the Australian Museum, designs often include doti langi (small crosses said to represent spots from heaven, possibly symbolizing abundance and wealth), buffalo (often sacrificed at funeral feasts and possibly marking wealth of the family), and concentric circles or pa'barre allo (possible sunbursts, reflecting high rank and spiritual power).

The Australian Museum's interpretations of the motifs seem to suggest that the cloths are associated primarily with the communication of wealth and status. I believe that these symbols are more than markers of wealth and power, but instead communicate elements of the multi-tiered cosmos, and are associated with ASC and, by extension, shamanism.

Sarita cloth on sale on ebay. LOOK AT THIS THING!

Induction method

This one is slightly problematic because in many of the samples I've seen (by NO MEANS exhaustive), the motifs are printed... usually a batik method... I can't say that I see any means of induction to ASC in this dying technique. The cloths are locally woven which is discussed in previous posts as being inductive to ASC, but this is a more tenuous link. Some of the samples appear to be ikats, which definitely fit the criteria.

Although many of these cloths were created outside of an induction event, they may still be associated with ASC. Most scholars contend, at least in the realm of cave art, that the motifs were created AFTER the ASC event, rather than during it. The artists depicted motifs that they had seen during the "journey" for the benefit of the community. We need to look at the depictions themselves to ascertain whether they were endogenously derived (originating from a neurological event rather than an observation).

Depictions of Imagery from the 3 Stages of ASC

Please see this post here for a detailed discussion of images associated with the three stages of ASC. Here's a summary:

Images Associated with the Three Stages of ASC.
Stage 1 Entoptic images/Geometric images (grid/lattice/hexagon, parallel lines, bright dots/flecks, zigzags, nested curves with flickering zigzags on outer arc, filigrees/thin meandering lines, spirals)
Stage 2 Entoptic images of stage 1 are interpreted as objects from the natural world (a circle becomes a breast, a meandering line becomes a snake)
Vortex vortex or tunnel with bright light at the end. These can be represented by spirals, concentric circles, and other images.
Stage 3 This stage of ASC involves transformation. Images become more specific and are culturally based. (the breast becomes a particular goddess, the snake is interpreted as a specific species).

Stage 1 imagery: Clearly, the sarita cloths have plenty of entoptic images.

Here are the entoptics, according to Lewis-Williams.

Sample 1: Resist batik technique sarita from Tina Tabone's amazing Textile Art website

Sample 1 has the following entoptic motifs that I can see: radials, concentric circles, lozenges, repeated lines, chevrons, spirals, crosses, meanders, stacked meanders, triangles, repeated dots. Honestly, I think this sample has every entoptic image there is! If anyone sees anything else, please add it in the comments below! Sample 2 has spirals, repeated dots, repeated lines, meanders, triangles, lozenges, nested motifs.

Stage 2 imagery: This is a bit more difficult. We're looking for an image that appears to be transitional between entoptic and fully cultural. Here's what I do see: In Sample 1, the buffalo on the right side, third panel from the end, appear to have evolved from the stacked meanders above them. In the panels with human figures, the figures appear to be joined to animals or other humans by means of extended crosses, and the figures themselves appear to be derived from crosses. In the upper right hand corner, a figure appears to be emerging from a cloud of dots. In Sample 2, human figures emerge from nested circles, meanders, and other entoptic motifs.

Stage 3 imagery: human figures, animal figures, what appear to be anthropomorphic gods or goddesses On the right side of Sample 1, a bird figure on the second panel from the end, possible bird figures on the fifth panel from the end, a human figure sacrificing a buffalo on the fifth panel from the end. On Sample 2, skull-headed humanoid figures.

Vortex imagery: SPIRALS! RADIALS! Everywhere! In both samples, the square-ish motifs at the top of the illustration are considered to be spirals. The nested images that form the human figures in Sample 2 could also be considered vortices.

The hook and rhomb motif is common in both of these samples. The hook and rhomb (which I never heard of until 2 seconds ago) is the curled hook-like thingy the Toraja call sekon. They often surround other shapes.

According to H. Coleman's amazing treatise available here:

One of the author’s informants in South Central Timor, however, saw no association with lizards. Rather, he called the rhomb lotis, which in the Uab Meto language of Central Timor means ‘to appear’ or ‘to arise’, whilst the hooks he called kaif or, more formally, kaifmnutu’, meaning ‘to pull’ or ‘to tug’ [Gomer Liufeto, personal communication].

These words suggest (to me, at least) that motifs symbolize an assisted traversal to another place. This fits with the passage concept.

Sample with hook and rhomb motifs

Depictions of Various Cosmic Realms

Close-up of Sarita from Tina Tabone's Textile Art website

In the interest of time, I'm going to focus on one panel from Sample 1. THIS PANEL HAS IT ALL!

world of the living: human figure sacrificing the buffalo

world of the dead: the spirit-like creatures on the right side of the panel

passage or tunnel (In many (or most) cases, the tunnel should be accessible only to the shaman/celebrant and the decedent, as it may considered too risky for laypeople to make the journey): This really gets good here! The celebrant sacrifices the animal, which becomes the decedent. The celebrant essentially guides the decedent to the realm of the dead. 

Cultural beliefs and practices surrounding the production of textiles reflecting the different cosmic realms

Traditional colors of the ikats include reddish brown, ivory, apricot, red, black, and grayish dark blue. Black is traditionally associated with death. In a different arena of life, the houses, black soot is taken from cooking pots to color the walls with intricate designs. Red and yellow earth is used to paint these colors on the walls, and is associated with human life and purity, respectively. Death, human life, purity. This is writing itself.

Traditionally, the textiles are created from cotton that was grown in home gardens and was dyed with natural dyes in a process that took many months. Cotton is more than a local cultivar. The care and processing of cotton is time- and labor-intensive, and involves entire communities. It was very important to local economies, and facilitated the expression and florescence of a religion that unified many thousands of people. Cotton is central to this culture. One might say it's one of several elements that lie at the core of the culture.

According to Threads of Life, weaving has a divine origin.

The people of Karataun say that the gods sent dreams to the first Torajans, teaching them how to weave and revealing sacred motifs. Karataun textiles consecrate ceremonies all over Toraja. They shroud bodies at funerals, are given as gifts at family occasions, and are often used in creative and unconventional ways...
Weaving remains sacred knowledge, and the old masters will not teach it without showing proper respect to the ancestors. Each young Karataun weaver must perform a ceremony called mararai katadan before she weaves her first cloth. In one part of the ceremony, the weavers sacrifice a chicken and touch its blood to the ikat frame. The ritual asks the gods and ancestors to ensure that the tradition will survive. 
The loom and the technique are supernatural gifts, and are themselves symbols of a cosmic journey. They are a link between the realm of the living and the realm of the spirits. The first act of the weaver (the initiation) is to assist a soul (the chicken's) in its passage to the afterlife. A symbol (the chicken blood) of that traversal and safe return is then placed on the loom by the traveler. The blood of the decedent is used to mark the loom. The motif is placed on the part of the loom that is present in the realm of the living. It is both a symbol of the living, and (at least in my mind) a signpost conveying several messages: that this is the world of the living; that this is the doorway to the spirit world; that there is danger in entering the passageway unsassisted. If you are not a weaver, then you must gain entry with blood and be accompanied by someone who knows what they're doing. Perhaps the weaver is seen as being in a vulnerable location, being right at the pathway to the spiritworld. Interesting. I'd love to go on with this, but this piece is taking forever. You get the picture.

o, one more thing:
Sulawesi ikats are woven primarily in two places, Rongkong, and Kalumpang, both in isolated areas of the island.

This guy, from Todi Weaving says:
Kalumpang and Rongkong can be reached 3 to 5 days by walking through Batutumonga, crossing the row of mountains, jungle, and valleys before enter to this villages. 
That's pretty isolated. I wonder if the villages, as extensions of the weavers, were considered vulnerable places, perhaps even passageways in themselves, and therefore would have to be separated from the rest of the living culture. To minimize the risk, essentially.

Cultural beliefs and practices surrounding the use of the textiles reflecting the different cosmic realms (an association with death, healing, etc.).

Quickly, these cloths are used exclusively during funerals, at the time when the decedent leaves the funeral house. The decedent has completed the initial stages of its journey - it has completed its stay in the realm of the living and lain in a final resting place (the funeral house) with a life-companion (the wife) as it prepares to enter the passageway and finally enter the realm of the spirits. At this time, the women perform a "rice stomping ritual" in which they stomp the ground rhythmically with large bamboo posts of the same type used to stomp rice grains. (Rice is, like cotton, a very important cultivar in these communities and is central to life in this region.) Funerals are incredibly rich and active. Guests bring gifts of live animals. Their donations are read aloud to the community. A buffalo is sacrificed and the meat distributed to the community. The buffalo has a long, agonizing death. This may reflect (symbolize/emphasize) the passage from life to death. The funeral typically entails MANY sacrifices. A bloody affair, for sure. I'm not even going to post most of the pictures I've seen. (Clearly, a funeral is a traditional place of exchange, wealth dispersal, and status legitimizing. This could be discussed through the lens of agriculture and the advent of wealth inheritence.)

Rice stomping ritual

The sarita cloths are hung on poles outside the funeral house. This is the in-between space through which the corpse is taken to the burial place, or the realm of the spirits. The geometric motifs on the sarita are predominantly entoptic depictions of the passage as experienced during ASC. These include the hook and rhomb (to rise and to pull), the spiral, the radial, and large crosses. Naturalistic depictions include the person who assists the decedent through the in-between space (the vortex) into the land of the dead (the celebrant sacrificing an animal). Images of life (buffalo) and death (anthropomorphic spirits) are present.


Okay. To sum it all up!!!

The sarita is not necessarily created during an inductive event, but the motifs are entoptic and consistent with ASC. The cloth presents images from a neurological journey in a similar way as cave art. Images from all three stages of ASC are present on the sarita, including entoptic images from Stage 1, transitional images from Stage 2, vortex imagery, and fully naturalistic images from Stage 3. All three cosmic realms are depicted as well as images from the in-between space (the vortex). There is significant spiritual association with the techniques and materials used in textile production. Finally, the textiles are used in a highly charged spiritual and cultural event, the funeral. 

The sarita represents the vortex, in that it is used during the part of the funeral process that represents the transition of the deceased from the world of the living (the community, the funeral house) to the world of the dead (the burial ground). The ceremony during which it is used involves rhythmic drumming, an ASC inducer, and the sacrifice of many animals. The sacrifice emphasizes the journey from life to death, the passage. I could go on and on and on with the symbolism on and around these textiles.

For now, I think it's safe to say that these textiles are associated with shamanism.



  1. Really thoroughly researched, and interesting connection. I think it's great that you are so passionate about the inspiration behind the textiles you work with!

  2. Thank you, Kira! I AM passionate about this. I might even say I'm OBSESSED with it...

  3. I adore Traditional Textiles and Vintage Fabrics... I suppose I am quite obsessed with them all too! Loving that you have included so much of the History & Source of the pieces, each is indeed a Work of Art.

    Blessings from the Arizona Desert... Dawn... The Bohemian

    1. Dawn, there's a lot to be obsessed with, right? Each piece is a piece of someone's heart, a piece of their home. Blessings from the New Mexico Desert!

  4. This was all very informative and quite interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Much love,
    "lovely post <3