How ancient -or recent- traditions can be

Head dress and selimut
Tradtional attire for harvest ceremony, Mesara

Traditions are commonly associated with old age, ancient times and unchanged habits. Are traditions really stable, unchanged over time or do they evolve? When does a foreign addition become tradition and classified as indigenous? The patterns depicted on women sarongs and kept in heirloom baskets are considered traditional and indigenous; however two of them have a foreign, Indian origin: the patola and lèba motifs which were restricted to the ruling classes. The case of the head-cloth or lehu of Savunese men will be examined here in relation to tradition and foreign addition.

When Captain James Cook sailing on the ‘Endeavour’ visited Savu in September 1770 he noted the ‘turbans’ worn by Savu men. Thus, the tradition for men to wear a headdress might be very ancient. There are two types of head-cloths, known on the island as lehu (‘headdress’) or lehu kètu (kètu ‘head’). One is the batik head-cloth, worn nowadays by Savunese men, and the second belongs to a group of small-size weavings, known as wai, which means literary ‘belt’. In collective memory, the wai was also used as a head-cloth in the past. So far the earliest document found showing a man wearing a head-cloth dates from the first half of the 19th Century (see below). It is a coloured gravure of a warrior; it is not a batik cloth. Thus three questions are raised. First how old is the tradition for Savunese men for wearing head-cloths? Secondly what is the nature of the cloth? Third does the head-cloth have a local or a foreign origin?

The foreign origin of the Savunese head-cloth, according to collective memory

Savunese men consider the custom of wearing a head-cloth, moreover a batik head-cloth, to be a reminder of the story of two key ancestors who, according to the genealogical knowledge transmitted from generation to generation, lived some 35 generations ago. The first-born is Hawu Miha which means ‘Savu-on-his-Own’ or ‘Savu Alone’. His younger brother is a stepbrother, whose mother has a foreign origin; he is known as Jawa Miha.  Jawa (also j’awa) means foreigner and not necessarily a person from the island of Java. When their father, Miha Ngara, became old and blind he decided to pass on his wisdom, which  until then he had kept secret, to his elder son, Hawu Miha, but Jawa Miha’s mother favoured her own son. Through subterfuge and her help, Jawa Miha received the knowledge and thus the power from his old father. In order to avoid a confrontation and the anger of his brother, Jawa fled abroad. Years later, the brothers reconciled and when Jawa was about to die he requested that his hair and his head-cloth, lehu kètu, be returned to his land of origin, Savu.

This narrative explains two existing traditions on Savu: one is that Savu men wear a batik head-cloth as a reminder of the story of their ancestor; the second is that when someone passes away abroad or on another island, if his body cannot be brought back, his hair and head-cloth have to be returned to his place of origin. This custom is known as ru kètu. Both traditions are still vivid today.

Men and horses selimut headcloth
Riders on the beach of Seba

The batik head-cloth that men can tie in numerous ways is thus attributed to Jawa Miha, who did not have descendants in Savu.  When Savunese people recognise a foreign origin in one of their traditions, they add the word j’awa, for example ki’i j’awa (mutton) or terae j’awa (corn), the foreign origin being then attributed to the ancestor Jawa Miha. However, corn was introduced during Dutch colonial time (possibly ten to fifteen generations ago), much later than the time of the two brothers.  The same might be true for the batik head- cloth. If taking into account the genealogical knowledge, the story about the two brothers, Hawu and Jawa, took place in the 13th or 14th century, thus during the Mataram and Majapahit dynasties on Java.  The batik traditions might have existed there at that time, although material proof is still lacking.

Headdresses of traditinal priests covering entirely the hair
Priests Maukia (right), Latia (left) and the ‘boat-of-sickness’

Priests of the traditional religion, Jingi tiu, who have to cover their hair in public, wear as a head-cloth during rituals either a batik cloth or sometimes a plain woven cloth of three colours, black, red, and white (see right).  They also can wear a commercial, plain red cloth, thus one that is not produced on the island. The principle underlying their choice is that the head-cloth has to be foreign as a reminder of the ancestor Jawa Miha, although the cloth does not need to be batik. For instance, the traditional priest, Maukia (right), is not wearing a batik cloth while performing a ritual, but a commercial plain woven cloth with red, white and black colours.

The fact that men wear head-cloths can be traced in some narratives, yet the narratives do not inform about the nature of the cloth. For example, in one relating the dramatic story of a young girl named Bitu Luji, she was rescued and carried away in a head-cloth. According to the genealogies, this narrative took place during Portuguese times some 350 to 400 years ago.

The narrative about the two brothers and the prescriptive foreign provenance of the headdress is part of collective memory, and today’s practice of wearing a batik or foreign cloth to cover the head can be observed constantly. The most enjoyable present I can make to a member or to a priest of the traditional religion is, indeed, a batik head-cloth. However, this practice is in contradiction with other remarks I have recorded on the island.

 A locally woven head-cloth

A number of facts show that the weaving traditions on the island of Savu are very ancient and possibly date back to the first millennium when migrants brought with them a number of techniques, in particular weavings produced on a foot loom. This is the case for the most sacred Savunese cloth, the wai labe, the first cloth to wrap a deceased person. A certain type of wai is used as a belt (wai wake), for holding the knife, thus the generic name ‘belt’ used for translations can be misleading. The category of textiles called wai derives its name from size. They are plain-woven with tiny stripes and do not use the ikat technique. There are different types of wai, according to use, their length varying from 100 cm. to 130 cm, their width 30-40 cm. Although nowadays women use their normal backstrap loom for weaving a wai, in principle all cloths of the wai type could be woven on a foot-braced loom.

The first hip-cloth worn by a boy is known as hi’i lèko wue or hi’i wo pudi. Hi’i lèko wue means ‘the blanket-that-hinders-the-body’ as seen previously (see men’s selimut). According to several informants, when a boy after puberty was introduced to an adult-size ‘selimut’ with ikat motifs, he wore his first ‘selimut’ as a head-cloth. Nowadays, boys wear shorts and T-shirts and no longer locally woven hi’i lèko wue. It is almost impossible to find such a cloth on the island, except in tatters in heirloom baskets, the cloth having been worn out by the boy.

The hi’i lèko wue has an average length of 100-110 cm and a width of 35-40 cm, and can show blue and black indigo stripes. In other words, it has the same size as the ancient cloths of the wai category, and could just as well have been made at its origin on a foot loom. From this it can be derived that the tradition of wearing a headdress in Savu might be very ancient and was not a cloth of foreign origin at its beginning.

External sources

The naturalist Joseph Banks who accompanied Captain James Cook on the ‘Endeavour’ gave a complete description of the male and female attires on Savu. About their hairdo he wrote:

     “The Hair of Both sexes is universaly Black and lank; the men wear it long and fastened upon the top of their heads with a comb, the women have theirs also long and tied behind into a kind of club”.

 He noted further that the women never wear a headdress, but on the contrary:

 “Men always wear something wrap’d round theirs which tho small is generally of the finest material they can procure. Many we saw had them of silk handkerchiefs which seemed to be much in fashion”.

Banks’ report informs us in five ways. 1. Only men wear head-cloths. 2. Despite the fact that they wear a headdress, their hair stays visible and tied with a comb. 3. The headdress is of foreign origin, since silk has never been produced on the island. 4. It is small in size (‘handkerchief’), and 5. Men pay a lot of attention to their headdress.

Print of a warrior of Savu wearing an elaborate headdress

Warrior of Seba by P. van Oort mid. 19th C (priv. coll.)

The coloured gravure by van Oort of a Savunese warrior of the first half of the 19th century (see right) is, to my knowledge, the first visual source informing about the headdress of Savunese men.  The cloth is made of red and black stripes, with some strokes of white. The stripes remind us of the boy’s hi’i lèko wue, pointing to a local origin. However, it seems to be of a larger size than a handkerchief or a wai. There are, indeed, locally produced hip-cloths called hi’i mea or ‘red selimut’ which are imbued with special protective powers. Red is associated with heat and danger, thus it is appropriate for a warrior. The strokes of white could indicate tiny ikat motifs. The headdress is very elaborate, incorporating a white cloth on the top and a red plain cloth with yellow stripes on the warrior’s right side. The overall impression is that the headdress was locally made. Yet, it may have incorporated a foreign element, for example a piece of white silk which would not be as heavy on top of the head as locally produced cotton.

The gravure raises a number of questions. First, about the reliability of the source, since it is not photography. How authentic is such a source? Secondly, was it made on the island? Or were drawings or sketches made in situ and the work finished in Europe by a different person, using weavings purchased on the island and brought back as models?  Thirdly, was it, at the time, a typical headdress for a warrior or a ‘champion’ as the term ‘voorfechter’ as been translated? Photographs taken on the island at the beginning of the 20th century show noblemen always wearing a batik head-cloth, and nothing as elaborate as the headdress of the warrior a century earlier. In order to conclude about the headdress tradition on Savu it can be said that the information given by Cook and Banks (18th C) and the 19th century print corroborate common knowledge that Savunese men always wear headdresses, yet it is inconclusive regarding the tradition of local or foreign provenance for the head-cloth. Let’s try to reconcile various sources of information.The head-cloth of Savunese men was originally of a small size, thus of the wai type which has a similar size as the first selimut, lèko wue, and this might be a very ancient tradition, since it is possible to produce such a cloth on a foot loom. Due to foreign contacts and trade, men who paid a lot of attention to their headdress, the head being the most important part of the body, developed a taste for foreign cloths for their headdresses. Nevertheless, when a man was unable to have access to a foreign cloth for his headdress, he still could wear a locally produced cloth of the wai or lèko wue type. The new fashion becomes a prescriptive tradition, backed by the narrative of the two brothers, Hawu and Jawa. This does not request that the headdress be a batik cloth, as it is said to be and practiced today. The compulsory batik component could be relatively recent, since neither Cook nor Banks (1770) mentions a batik cloth, nor does the warrior on the 19th century print show a batik cloth. Moreover, the headdress of the warrior reminds us of a ‘turban’ as described by Cook.

Ritual cockfight, Liae

Ritual cockfight, Liae

The tradition of batik headdress was firmly established in the early 20th century.  Neither Captain Cook in the 18th century nor the warrior in the 19th century print mention or show a batik cloth, but it is clearly to be seen on Dutch photographs of the early 20th century. The use of batik cloths at the turn of the 20th century corresponds to the rapid development of the batik industry on Java. The change in traditions must have occurred within 50 to 70 years. When a new practice becomes a custom it is embedded in narratives where it finds its validation. The story about the two brothers and the compulsory use of a batik cloth serves the purpose of validating 20th century taste and practice.